Religious belief is human nature, huge new study claims
May 12th, 2011
12:46 PM ET

Religious belief is human nature, huge new study claims

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

London (CNN) - Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings, a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests.

"We tend to see purpose in the world," Oxford University professor Roger Trigg said Thursday. "We see agency. We think that something is there even if you can't see it. ... All this tends to build up to a religious way of thinking."

Trigg is co-director of the three-year Oxford-based project, which incorporated more than 40 different studies by dozens of researchers looking at countries from China to Poland and the United States to Micronesia.

Studies around the world came up with similar findings, including widespread belief in some kind of afterlife and an instinctive tendency to suggest that natural phenomena happen for a purpose.

"Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways," such as believing in God's omniscience, said Trigg. But adults also jumped first for explanations that implied an unseen agent at work in the world, the study found.

The study doesn't say anything about whether God, gods or an afterlife exist, said Justin Barrett, the project's other co-director.

"This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist. Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact," he said.

Both atheists and religious people could use the study to argue their sides, Trigg told CNN.

Famed secularist Richard "Dawkins would accept our findings and say we've got to grow out of it," Trigg argued.

But people of faith could argue that the universality of religious sentiment serves God's purpose, the philosophy professor said.

"Religious people would say, 'If there is a God, then ... he would have given us inclinations to look for him,'" Trigg said.

The blockbuster study may not take a stance on the existence of God, but it has profound implications for religious freedom, Trigg contends.

"If you've got something so deep-rooted in human nature, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests," Trigg said.

"There is quite a drive to think that religion is private," he said, arguing that such a belief is wrong. "It isn't just a quirky interest of a few, it's basic human nature."

"This shows that it's much more universal, prevalent, and deep-rooted. It's got to be reckoned with. You can't just pretend it isn't there," he said.

And the Oxford study, known as the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, strongly implies that religion will not wither away, he said.

"The secularization thesis of the 1960s - I think that was hopeless," Trigg concluded.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Culture & Science • United Kingdom

soundoff (2,338 Responses)
  1. Ryan

    The natural urge to understand things and seek rational causes for them does not mean religion is "human nature"

    Religion consists of logical fallacies that cannot be verified with evidence. It is a giant placebo.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  2. Mark from BAMA

    Romans 14:11 – 12
    For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.

    All you that don't believe in God will be begging for his mercy one day, but it will be too late!!

    Proverbs 1:24-28
    Because I have called and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded;
    But ye have set at nought all my counsel and would none of my reproof:
    I also will LAUGH at your calamity; I will MOCK when your fear cometh;
    When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you.
    Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me.
    For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord.

    It's so said to see so many people on the broad road that will lead to destruction. I hope you wake-up and accept Jesus before it's too late. You have to believe with an eye of faith, not sight!

    May 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • seraphim0

      Yes... a god who mocks his people and laughs at their pain. Quite something to worship.

      “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” -Epicurus

      May 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  3. brad

    Ah, Constantine look what you have done!!!

    All to unite an empire. He sold the future for a trivial thing!

    May 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Platypus

      Christianity and the Roman Empire.
      After the conversion of Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century CE, Christianity became the only legal and official religion of the Roman Empire toward the end of the same century in year 380 under Emperor Theodosius.
      When the mighty Roman Empire collapsed a century later, the Christian Roman Church was twinkling all over Europe.
      Had it not been for the persistent lobbying of the Christian monks of the time and their gradual infiltration in the high spheres of the Empire, baby-god-Jesus-turned-man-then-Christ would probably be unknown today.
      Yet this Jesus from Palestine never set foot in Italy, so how come the head office of his outfit is located in Rome?

      Rome! The center of the supreme powers my dear brother!
      Rome! The head office of the political and military might my dear sister!

      The legend of baby-god-Jesus-born-of-a-virgin-in-a-frigid-manger may have been fabricated in Bethlehem, but the place of birth of Christianity is Rome!

      Thus was born the greatest religious fraud in the human history West of the Orient thanks to the Roman Empire!

      May 15, 2011 at 4:18 am |
  4. Hans Gruber

    Dan Fogleberg's "Part of The Plan" spells it out. Right now, we are in Erasure "Drama" Soon, we will be in REM "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" Depeche Mode is particularly painful considering how painful the truth is. Try listening to Genesis, Sting and The Police.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  5. Alvaro

    This article is an example of a technique in media called: Manufactured consent. You just claim that a huge study claims something that everybody must believe in. In fact, religion is actually IMPOSED ON SOCIETY by people who sit at the top and benefit by the tremendous amount of political and economical power it gives them. Humanity needs to go past the invisible man that tells us to go and murder some other group of people because they don't believe the same fairy tales as us.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  6. Thinker

    No way! So it's instinctive for humans to wonder where they came from and what their purpose is or if there is even a purpose. Do you really need a big study to come to that conclusion?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  7. Agnim

    "Belief in god instinctive"??
    Ha ha ha!
    That has got to be the biggest bunch of christian krap ever promoted by religious LIARS, DECEIVERS & ignoramuses! lol

    That which is "instinctive" is of Nature.

    Some people have become so thoroughly brainwashed that they think, FALSELY, (OR LIE) that a man-made religious ideology could ever be "instinctive".

    Religious rubbish IS OF MAN!
    Is of LYING & DECEIVING man to be exact!

    May 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Ambumblatt


      May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  8. standingwave

    The conclusions of this study make perfect sense.As far as I know there has never been a civilization or culture in all of human history and possibly beyond that didn't practice some sort of religion.To me that says man has a built-in spiritual component.Whether or not that component points to the actual existence of a god or not is anyone's guess.It could simply be,as the article says,a way to make sense of the world.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  9. Mike

    Is it really news to anyone that attempting to find rational explanations for the seemingly irrational is an intrinsic part of human nature? This study could just as easily have been demonstrating the human need to explain the unexplained, and thus the development and advancement of scientific inquiry, while having nothing whatsoever to do with religious belief. Religion starts out as science, as the best explanation we have for the unexplained until a better explanation comes along. Then there's something new that we don't know, and "god" or "gods" just keep on filling the little gaps in our knowledge. God is simply the ultimate placeholder for rational explanation until we find better explanations. Simple as that. I'm not sure why this study is in any way revolutionary or even interesting. My simple response would be: No Kidding.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  10. bdgfn

    No, it doesn't. It is ingrained in children from toddlers on up by parents, family, teachers, friends, TV and society.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Platypus

      Like our great American agnostic Ingersoll said: "Environment is a sculptor, a painter...

      May 28, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  11. hy

    There are no unbelievers there are deniers. If you are honest to yourself you will believe in GOD. But don't expect GOD is there to fulfill your silly requests.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Artist


      There are no unbelievers there are deniers. If you are honest to yourself you will believe in GOD. But don't expect GOD is there to fulfill your silly requests.
      wow that was so deep. Don't worry I expect Santa to fulfill my requests. Do you talk to god? Do you hear god's voice? If so, please note
      Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, to think logically, to have normal emotional responses, and to behave normally in social situations.
      As the illness continues, psychotic symptoms develop:
      • False beliefs or thoughts that are not based in reality (delusions)
      • Hearing, seeing, or feeling things that are not there (hallucinations)

      May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  12. mike harr

    1. we seem to exist & blah blah blah
    2. there is no "net" to catch us when we die and go over the foggy clif
    3. ergo "religion" AHA! a way to 'make it' into eternity
    4. we don't know any absolutes so we MUST be agnostic
    5. anything else is dodo poopoo (my genius has theorized that)

    -so have fun, actualize (really) & have some more fun.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  13. n

    Such judgmental and cynical comments so many have about religion, faith and God! The fact is, there are things that no one on earth will ever be able to explain – who are we to know for sure what's behind all of it? If you ask me, it's the die-hard atheist who is the true closed-minded one. Truly arrogant and proud to claim to know all the answers. And how dare you put down the hopeful, prayerful and optimistic people who chose to believe there's more to life than what we have on this planet. Our ability to reason and see beyond what can be proven is what makes us human. I don’t know about you, but I’m incredibly grateful for that – I hope that's a quality humans never lose!

    May 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • seraphim0

      "Truly arrogant and proud to claim to know all the answers"

      Pot, this is kettle. Glad you met.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • Ambumblatt

      Well said!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  14. Delusional

    Why are we still fooling ourselves and our children with this nonsense?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • Woohahaha

      What an interesting study; I must not be a normal human being, seeing how it's NOT instinctual for me to want to believe in an unseen, mythical, puppet-master.

      BDGFN summed it up nicely.

      It's not so much "instinctual" but more "ingrained".

      Are people paying these clowns to do these inane studies? Makes me wonder what other nonsense is being researched out there.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  15. don't hide truth

    if there is no creator that means we just happened, I can't buy that.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • adam

      Just becasue you/we don't understand how we were created doesn't mean there is a Creator.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  16. kawayan

    A long time ago there were a few good people, highly spiritual, told enlightening stories. Some people created dogmas and rules on how to be like those good people. The rest followed the rules like these rules were absolute. Spirituality, religion and the mob are not the same.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  17. BrewtownPsych

    This is absurd becasue there are so many things that are "instinctual" that we, as human beings, are intelligent enough to move past with rational thought. Examples are too many to list but just are few are 1) our innate love of and tatse for fatty foods, 2) promiscuousness (when not handled by societal or other prohibitions) and 3) about a million proven, psychological biases that we know are unreliable (e.g. the tendency to see faces in inanimate objects). So saying that something is innate says nothing, except for the fact that we should give serious thought whether it's a childish, erroneous instinct we need to grow out of.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • adam

      Well said.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • mick

      That's the worst analogy I've ever read. Most cultures do not love the taste fatty foods (I can tell you're American). That's a very American and European craving. The human body needs fatty foods to survive and even develop, but the thriving existence of vegans and aetheists proves that we don't need fatty foods or theology to survive.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • BrewtownPsych

      A taste for fatty foods have been proven to be innate, instinctive – whether or not you actually eat fatty foods. It's just a fact, primates eat meat and fatty foods provide the easiest mechanism to maintain body fat. Talking about modern Americans or other cultures is irrelevant to man in general, which hasn't changed in 50 thousand years when it comes to things like innate drives. The fact that we have vegans and atheists proves that we are intelligent beings that can overcome our natures. I don't think you are quite getting it.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  18. OdysseusV

    First of all Christianity isn't just 2000 years old!! It is the fulfillment of the messianic Judaism that fates back over 6000 years involving the 1st prophecy uttered by God at genesis 3: 15. That prophecy uttered shortly after Adam's sin involved a redeemer that would right the wrongs and bring back balance in to man and God. And ultimately eliminating evil! People that make knee-jerk reactions and statements sure seem to know little about the topics they are dissing!!

    May 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • bdgfn

      Wrong. Christianity is the faith/religion based on the life of Jesus as the savior/messiah. Beyond that you have the older religions including Judaism. Don't confuse them.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • adam

      OdysseusV: CHRISTianity is ~2000 years old. The dead giveaway is the word CHRIST in CHRISTianity. As an atheist, why do I have an easier time seeing this than you?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • adam


      May 12, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • bowens

      Christianity evolved from the Jewish tradition and to say that Christianity is 2,000 years old is to place an emphasis on Christ while ignoring the development of Christianity from other previous religious groups. I love those that play semantic games with chastizing condesencion. All the while ignoring the historical facts.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Rick Norris

      The problem with the people is that they argue with limited knowledge. Why majority of people think that God and afterlife are sole property of Bible and Judaism. Hinduism and sacred texts 'vedas' predate many religions. The depth and knowledge in these texts argue (not a directive by God) that faith and rebirth are quintessential ingredients of human life. Why don't the ingredients of these texts can be studied in conjunction with Bible and Torah. Why cant Buddhism also be considered a good suggestive reference.
      Oh ! I see Pat Robertson considers it is blasphemy to combine essence of Bible and Hindu+Buddhist texts. Because Hinduism is demonic.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • adam

      Apparently there is someone else with my namesake who finds humor in this.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • adam

      Bowens: condescension is being used because there is a difference between Judaism and Christianity. Just because one came from the other doesn't mean they are the same thing. You can't possibly be that blind.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • bowens

      Adam- You are the one saying that they are one and the same. The original commenter on this post nor I ever postulated that this was the case. Historically speaking, Christianity and the concepts inolved were around for more than 2,000 years. Again, you were being the king of semantic condescencsion.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Platypus

      Rick Norris: You mentioned Pat Robertson and you have ruined my evening. lol

      May 15, 2011 at 3:57 am |
  19. Bob

    Gee, so a study made by some Theology professors finds Theology is ingrained in human nature. Guess they get to keep their jobs after all!

    May 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Platypus

      As to the theology that is now studied in its place (philosophy), it is the study of human opinions and of human fancies concerning God. -The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine.

      May 15, 2011 at 3:48 am |
  20. F.E.S. Jr.

    This study is tainted. The only real way to test this theory would be to take a large group of babies and raise them without religion. Let's see the results then. Most people are indoctrinated into their Parents' religion while growing up, so these results are inaccurate.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • mick

      That study already exists. It's called Native People. They didn't have 'organized' religion. They created Gods of the solar system, and the Earth, and Water and Fire. Which goes to support the deeper more profound results and meanings of this study: That really, the human mind just needs to create a story to help make sense of their own existence.
      This study actually goes further to show God does not exist because different cultures in different parts of the world have created their own distinct 'stories' or religions or Gods. Each one serves a purpose for each culture. And, most cultures even 'revise' their stories as time passes, and technology disproves many of the elements from the original story. Such as The Bible saying the Earth was flat and was the center of the solar system. We now know this is not true yet we continue to believe everything else around those blatantly false statements. The human mind is a very complicated thing. Capable of deceiving itself for the purpose of emotional and psychological self-preservation.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Chris

      Actually, I'm a private tutor for a family that has no religious beliefs, and the parents have been telling me about all the spiritual questions the kids have been asking lately. They don't understand where it comes from.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
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