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. Canuck1979

    Bologne! When I was a child I asked questions regarding religion, as young as 5 years old. I thought organized religion was ridiculous back then, and still is. Is there something out there? Maybe. Is there an afterlife. Maybe. Nobody knows, and nobody should claim to know. Do I hope there's an afterlife? Of course! It would suck if it's lights out. But if it is, ah well.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @Canuck1979: You said, "It would suck if it's lights out. But if it is, ah well."

      It only makes sense that it would be as you said. I certainly don't think, given what we know of the effects of things like Alzheimer's disease, that it's reasonable to expect to carry your memories or personality past the lifetime of your physical body. If that's the case, then what about us is "eternal" exactly; and, if we can't remember anything of our physical lives, what context would we have to know that we were better off dead than alive?

      I think you're on the right track, and you'll get there eventually.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  2. Mark

    @Stephen; Thank you for pointing out the fact of the ancient brains. It is amazing to me how we as educated humans fail to recall of amazing our brains are. We can create and design anything we want and more. So it is difficult to realize we are the best story tellers to ever exist. Stories have a way of manifesting into more and more of what we want to hear and tend to forget about everything we don't to hear. This study is only good for the people who don't have a thinking brain and allow themselves to be lead blindly into something that has no evidence!!! When the article made this statement "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."

    I almost lost it because kids no nothing about faith and "GOD" until adults decide to impress upon them how they believe and of course kids are going to do what adults tell them to do because of fear of retribution. Please allow children to remain innocent and allowed to make their own decisions when they have a more developed sense of themselves and the world around us.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Paul Sullivan

      Ya Mark...I agree...At least give the children all the facts. Tell them about other religions, and tell them about atheists, and the fact that their is no evidence to back any religion up. They all just want you to believe...to have faith. Well I say to the close minded brainwashed lambs being lead to the slaughter...Send me (Kevin) all of your money now... I will make your life wonderful, and fulfill all of your dreams...just believe...have faith in me. Wow...I wonder if getting rich could be this simple. LOL.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  3. Paul Sullivan

    Unfortunately, you bible and Quran thumpers have all been duped! Centuries ago, and Millennia ago, ancient rulers had a big problem...They did not have the means to constantly patrol and inspect their lands, to make sure their subjects were taking care of their lands, and paying their taxes properly. So, they created a god. This god, could see everywhere, and was invisible. How convenient! Then they came out with the general laws passed down ...apparantly, right from God...things like Dont steal...Dont commit adultry...Dont worship any other Gods. All of this was created to promote a more orderly society. Citizens of a more orderly society pay their taxes. People who steal, kind of mess up the whole tax paying idea. People who commit adultry then wind up getting killed in by a jealous husband or wife...are not good tax payers...AFTER THEY"RE DEAD. So there you have it. So plain and simple as the nose on your face. I do believe their could be an afterlife...but nothing like anyone might have imagined probably. Maybe we create our own afterlife with the way we live this life...maybe we evolve...adapt...Like the way some ancient animals eventually grew lungs to live outside of the water, and breath the air.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • seraphim0

      The problem here is- if this were feasible, why was Christianity forced to worship undergound in Roma before their religion was finally accepted (go constantine, you dolt)? It was such a thing to be feared because these people were fanatics. It THREATENED the government at that time, it didn't make it more powerful.

      While I agree that a superstious populace is more easily controlled, especially when the tenants of the religion are so amiable to the State, this idea you suggest regarding the origins of Christianity and Islam is a farce. I'm not up on my Islamic history, but martyr religions have a habit of being more trouble for a government than good for it- until the government is run by the religion.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  4. Rick Norris

    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 |
    • Platypus

      "Pat Robertson" again? Now you've ruined my morning!

      May 15, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  5. twiddly

    Ask a theist if they see "purpose" in the world, and oh my, they say yes, they certainly do.
    Wow, what a surprise. This entire study is just worthless.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  6. NCGuest

    "Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways," – children don't tend to think in religious ways – they get sanitized by their religionous upbringing to think religiously. More accurately, children are naturally spiritual. There's a big difference....

    May 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  7. Brian

    I see a problem with this "study." They are confusing religion with spirituality. Religion is a human contrivance to side-step things we don't understand. Religion started when cave men were terrified by lightning and tried to explain it as work of the gods. Religion is successful because it panders to the weakness of "human nature" Human nature is part of the problem. Religion is a business. That's why business promotes religion.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Spirituality is nothing more than religion for people that don't like rules. It's no less of a crock than any organized church.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  8. cheber922

    "God is dead" – Nietzsche, 1882
    "Nietzsche is dead" – God, 1900

    May 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  9. Patrish

    When humans don't understand something, they attribute these happenings to some all powerful being. Centuries ago we worshiped various Gods, or the Sun and Moon, now we simply whittle it down to one God that no one can prove it exists. Stories (The Bible) written by humans hundreds of years ago prove nothing, but gives comfort to those who need it. If a intelligence created this beautiful universe, stars and planet, it would not be a petty, narrow minded power and would not care if anyone believed. Jealous God, my ass! Faith and believe in a GOD is a crutch to help people accept events they can not explain or understand. It 's comforting to believe that things happen for a reason and someone else has control of your life. If your believe makes you a better, kinder person then it is not a bad believe, but often religion is an excuse to push a personal agenda. Of course, I'm a border-line Atheist so what do I know?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  10. toxictown

    Humans crave order and we love patterns. It's what kept us alive when we were monkeys: if I can see the pattern of eyes, nose & mouth of the leopard in amongst the leaves 3 micro-seconds before you do – I (and my genes) live, you are dinner. What we can measure, box, quantify and count, we do – that which we cannot we just go "uuuummmm...it's magic!" Religions will live on in some form as long as there are humans. The ones that exist today will be written over and dis-credited and new stories and myths will emerge to explain that which is still not explained in the future.

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

      So true!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  11. CP

    The hate of Christianity isn't actually 'hate', it's fear. A deep felt panic that we are all answerable for our actions. That what we do and how we live our lives has consequences. That notion scares people to death. Atheism has no answer for that, other than to condemn the belief as dumb minded individuals who believe in an imaginary friend.

    I always like to ask people who will only believe if they can see it..how do you factor love? Can you touch love? Put your hands on it? You can certainly feel it and you know when it's gone because we all want something we can't touch.

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

      Yes, I can see emotions, I can feel and see my wife and family. That might be the worst argument yet, but good try! Religion is the one that puts people in FEAR. If you do this you will go here, if you do that you will go there. I will be dead so I do not care. I am worm food and a recyclable carbon outer shell when I die. You religious people all live in fear, and once your fears are gone, and until that, you will be free and open minded.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • jason suggs

      The hatred of Christianity by atheists is not hatred but fear of their empty and very often immoral lives. It is a projection of their hatred of all that is good, true and beautiful. Atheism destroy art, claims there is nothing objectively true and no meaning to goodness.

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

      """The hatred of Christianity by atheists is not hatred but fear of their empty and very often immoral lives."""

      Jason, your ignorance of atheism is deplorable. If you believe in the concept of hell, then it is YOU who fears, son.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • marsmotel

      Where did you get that information. I live a great life and a very moral life. I do not need a book or a anyone to tell me right from wrong. That's where your weak-minded thoughts are untrue. I am an artist, I volunteer, I am a faithful husband and I am an atheist. You sir, are a moron.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  12. Aset

    This study does not surprise me at all. I read some where that much of human behavior is genetic. Humans have had religion for a very long time and; if a lot of human behaviors are genetic, then none of this is really new or should surprising.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  13. JustJosh

    Seeing as how civilizations have been bowing down to imaginary deities since the dawn of antiquity, I hardly see how this is considered "news".

    May 12, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  14. Russ

    I'm proud to be an atheist. I only believe in what I can touch, taste, see and feel. All else is just an illusion. If that's what these people need to cope with every day life so be it. Just keep your beliefs out of my Government and quit coming to my door to sell your theology. If it was so good you wouldn't have to sell it. You don't see us going around pounding on your door pushing atheism on you. We don't have to. You either are or you aren't. Same with "believing", you either do or you don't. There's no such thing as a born again Christian. It's just an excuse to say you're sorry for being an idiot. I ain't buying it.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Patrish

      "There's no such thing as a born again Christian. It's just an excuse to say you're sorry for being an idiot." Now that is funny as I never thought if it that way..

      May 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • neoritter

      So you don't believe I exist?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Thaddaeus

      Don't knock on my website with your b.s. if you truly believe it. Look up at the night sky is all that organization of matter and energy a meaningless, purposeless accident. like you insist? Get an afterlife!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • jason suggs

      I am proud to be a believer. The universe did not create itself. I just want to keep atheism out of government and atheists from trying to sell me their empty world view.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  15. Dustin Carr

    Even an atheist hopes for life after death, why is this so hard to understand? lol, herpaderp, I r CNN I run a paper and watch retards argue about it, herp, herp.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Brian Zwart

      Ummmm..... I think they are intelligent enough to understand that when you die, you just die.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Platypus

      When we die, we die, gone, kaput, finito, and if buried whole – i.e. without incineration our body rots and stinks and the maggots enjoy a free meal on our venerable carrion. The ego is gone too, so no problem there. That's life!

      May 15, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  16. Tim

    How come so many billions of people believe in DIFFERENT gods??? Which ones are wrong??? Or are they all??

    May 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  17. delano j sheffield

    I find it interestesting that attempting to disprove absolutes is most often done using absolutes. To "raise a group of babies without religion" as F.E.S. Jr. said is interesting in itself because it presupposes that those children would not ascribe to anything religiously. Would they not love their guardian, ascribe some ultimate value to something in their lives regularly? The essence of the issue is not Sunday morning, which is quite often what we tend to associate 'religion' with. It is that innate nature within us to understand that there are absolutes. Some react to those absolutes and conclude there must be an origin to them. Some are fearful of them and attempt to deny there are absolutes (and ironically do so absolutely.) Ultimately it would seem more reasonable to ascribe absolutes to a being (person perhaps?) intelligent and with enough ability to control all things. But likewise if a person is determined to conclude that there is no infinite absolute being capable of doing that at least recognize that you believed that religiously. You have ascribed ultimate value in your own conclusion.


    May 12, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • חֲנוֹךְ

      "To "raise a group of babies without religion" as F.E.S. Jr. said is interesting in itself because it presupposes that those children would not ascribe to anything religiously."

      So at the beginning of human history, who founded religion? You could say that the first neolithic man was raised without religion... and yet religion evolved anyway. I would dare say, that in that experiment, those babies would grow with their own religion. What would be interesting, would be if it resembled anything in our current religions?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Brian Zwart

      *sigh*..... which came first, the chicken or the egg?

      May 12, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • חֲנוֹךְ

      Brian Zwart:

      The Rooster came first. Then the hen... if she was lucky.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
  18. Malaka

    George Carlin on RELIGION!


    May 12, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • chaz Romano (not real name. take that CNN)

      YAY! thanks for this!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • marsmotel

      That is one of the best skits ever written. George gets it!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Patrish

      This is soooooooooo funny! Thanks for sharing, and should be required viewing for every clergyman and priest!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Nancy

      Love it. Sure miss him (George that is!). There is no god and there never was!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  19. Grown-up Adult

    As a social worker, clients who cost the most to tax payers are all emotionally immature. My clients who come from stable, functional families who are open minded, and WORK for a living- cope very well with whatever mental illness they have and TAKE their medication.
    The clients with personality disorders, (mostly women who are Borderline), are the most emotionally immature and NOTHING helps them. Cleints who DO NOT take medication are always personality disordered. They have narcissistic ideas like – "You don't tell me what to do". The eliment that is important here is emotional maturity-even highly moral people can be extremly immature, and hiding their bad behaviors.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  20. crackface

    Some people are the devils children and others are gods. If you're a demon seed, why would you believe in god.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • twiddly

      If you have all the toys you need, why would you believe in santa claus?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • someone

      Do you think Satan believes in God?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Skallerup

      The fact that children are more willing to accept god's omniscience is not an inclination to think in a "religious way." Children are a blank slate and will believe ANYTHING you tell them, they believe in santa clause and I would definitely not describe that belief as religious.
      The conclusion that because religion is present in most, if not all societies, then "it's basic human nature" is flawed. There is no denying that religion is present in almost all societies but this is because societies have "evolved" to be religious. Societies with a central religion to rally behind were more cohesive and perform better over time, especially in war. Look at the ability of religion to create suicide bombers and it is easy to imagine the military advantage a religious society would have over a non-religious or less religious society.
      This also explains the rise of monotheistic religions over polytheistic. It is too easy for a polytheistic society to become fractured in the preference of one god over another. The peloponnesian war is a perfect example of this.
      Religion has evolved over time and has given many advantages to a society which practiced them, besides in war. But the time has come to evolve again. Religion is too good in allowing conquest and destruction of the infidels. It is anachronistic when we are now intelligent enough to know right from wrong without having to be told and scared by the threat of hell. If we don't evolve again it will destroy our species surely.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Platypus

      Religions can influence the progress or decline of civilization. -Edward Gibbon, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

      May 15, 2011 at 8:28 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.