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. JAdams1776

    Religious belief is instinctive. So is mating with as many fertile women as possible. Fortunately, we've managed to out-grow the latter.. Now to get rid of the former.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • baatman74

      Whom has 'out-grown the later?' I can attest to having mated with 6,000 to 8,000 women, how about you? I find it recreational and fun, like you say, it's instinct, religion is not, that's learned beavior..

      May 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  2. Hydra

    the reason people need an afterlife is that we are 100% incapable of imaging non-existence

    May 12, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  3. baatman74

    This from the article: " Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways," such as believing in God's omniscience, said Trigg"
    As a former counselor for children I know that children reflect the parents in everything right down to putting bottle caps on crooked if the parents do it. No body believes in god if it isn't brought up. This study is by a person with an agenda, to 'prove' this instinct it mentions. Humans can think, they think as they see fit, be it rational or not. This study is irrational and self-serving. I can prove there is no god and instincts only go toward survival, not weired beliefs.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  4. Reality

    The problem is most people simply do not study the history of Christian theology. If they did, they would come to the conclusions noted in the updated Apostles' Creed shown below:

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    I might believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven.

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


    May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • seraphim0

      So, the similarities in christianity and other religions doesn't bother you in the slightest? Or the fact that every single one of your holy days was originally a day or worship for other religions and 'appropriated' to make conversion easier?

      Must be a nice world you live in.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  5. toxictown

    Humans want to feel important and that their life has "purpose" and some "greater meaning" when we may in fact just be very smart monkeys mesmerized by our own reflections and listening to the insides of our heads.

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

      That is actually a VERY good point. However religion is about faith. There isn't any proof because it was all burned away back in ancient Rome. Yet historians believe there was a man named Jesus who died from crucification, which is a good enough lead for me, because I believe in him anyway.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  6. The Jackdaw

    Religion halts progress and rewards ignorance.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  7. scrollman

    Growing up in a Protestant home, led to a lot of questions that had no answers. After questing for "truth", I found that religion is analogous to masturbation...feels good, but doesn't acomplish much. Wrote a book, The Fallujah Scrolls, to give an alternative perspective on "truth" and had fun with the concept of ...what if?

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

    They wasted money on this??? This is common sense information.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  9. Top Dead Center

    It feels like 80% of the posts on here are from ranting liberals. The irony in all of this is... wait for it...wait for it... The same people voted for 'Change you can believe in' in 2008. How did that great 'logical' decision turn out?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • seraphim0

      Pretty good, actually. The economy is recovering, jobless claims are down, jobs added are up, we pulled a vast number of troops from iraq, are drawing up a more aggressive timetable for afganistan withdrawal, killed Osama bin Laden, have more deportations and border patrol agents on the ground than the previous administration, passed healthcare reform, credit card reform, wallstreet reform...

      Oh, wait... that wasn't the answer you were looking for... was it?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • BP

      ...shut up. What are you even talking about?

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

      I'd say it turned out fantastically.

      Also, why do you attribute lack of respect for/belief in god with liberalism? And what the hell does your idiotic comment have to do with this study?

      Why don't you go mug a poor child for their school breakfast money and give it to an oil exec why the rest of the reasonable adults in this forum call into question the lack of information regarding this study discussed in the article.

      See, I can troll to...tard

      May 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  10. 0100111001

    God doesn't need our comments. God exists, the deniers are looking for a shortcut.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  11. Brad

    As far as I can recall I always thought religion was made up. I never felt this "religious" feeling inside. Methodology of this study please? I bet this "study" was done by theists of some flavor... bias in this no doubt.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  12. George

    What a waste of money! Religions are ultimately based on attempting to explain what hasn't yet been explained via the supernatural. However, there is zero verified evidence of the supernatural. Humans trying to explain their existence and their lots in life find it must easier to believe in magic than the high probability that life is just what it is, no magical sky beings required.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  13. gabbi

    In the old testiment the only book scholors attribute to the true auther is the Book of Moses. When summoned up the mountain by a voice and he came upon a burning bush and he asked "who are you" the answer he received was "I AM". When Jesus walked teaching on the dusty roads, he was approached by the learned Jews in charged and they said "who are you?" and he replied I AM".

    May 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  14. Shannon

    If being religious is "human nature" why is the number of people who describe themselves as agnostic or atheist increasing with each generation?

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

      maybe because there are more people in the world with every generation? lol i dont know.

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

      And thus explains the success and power of America declining by the day.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  15. Alex

    This article doesn't say anything new and provides no details about this study. I don't see how this study could be conducted at all. In order to test if religious beliefs are part of human nature, one would have to conduct a controlled experiment. For example, have a group of newborns grow up in some secluded community that has no such beliefs of their own and see if those kids would develop them. If you just survey current population around the world, it is no wonder that you would get such results as in this "study" – that's they way most people have been brought up for thousands of years!

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

      What this study shows is that religion is not part of human nature, but of human nurture.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Jon

      As I understand it, people in North Korea worship Kim Jung Il as a god. Is that instinctive?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  16. Rick Norris

    All non-believers and Atheists will burn in hell and their quest will haunt them even after their passing.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • seraphim0

      It's nice to see that tolerance that the son of god preached being so prevalent in christian mindsets. Tell me... the clothes you wear when you go out- are they bland and unremarkable? Or do you try to "look nice" when you go out for a special occasion? Whoops. Vanity. How unfortunate. Truth is, Christians break their own rules more than they live by them.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Byron Jones

      And just who appointed you judge, jury and executioner? Humbug!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Doug

      Judge much?

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

    People believe in religion because it's something greater than themselves...it gives reason to beliefs of afterlifeism, if nothing else...the article is true....Bobinator, go spout elsewhere...

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

      Your opinion, sir, nothing more. I don't find belief in an afterlife instinctive, just a reaction to fear of the ultimate unknown. I don't believe in an afterlife, and neither do many people I'm acquainted with.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Dustin Carr

      @Jim fear is the afterlife? I don't condone the actions of religion to play on peoples' trials over it. There is a reason for everything, I hope...sometimes when I step outside and feel the cold hard breeze on my face, I feel....is that God? Can you tell me it isn't?

      People make decisions, and they make them with conviction, because, what else is there? To live without conviction, or religion, is to live a life of squalor and wandering around, searching for something, that never comes.....

      ....some people need religion, and need to feel that there is something beyond this world to keep them going, if you take that away, you have nothing but psychos....

      May 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  18. Katie

    "Instinctive"? People are born believing in an afterlife? I was raised Catholic and an afterlife never made any sense to me, and I felt vindicated with my blasphemy when Catholics decided in the early sixties that there was no such thing as Purgatory. Jewish people don't believe in Hell. Is that instinctive too?

    When you're dead, you're dead. People remember you in whatever way comforts them, but you're gone. The energy that came together to make you you – that's still around. Energy never dies. But you – you're gone. No afterlife. No heaven. No hell, Just living and dead. Everything else is fantasy.

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

      I think what this study proves, is that people are made aware of God, afterlife, religion, from a very early age...and thats not instinct, thats simply – how one was raised.
      Or knowledge of early humans, blaming droughts on the "sky god"...and neverending rains on "the rain god" prove only that humans want explainations for whats happening, and absence of a real explaination...we call it "GOD". The idea of an afterlife, I believe, is so that people dont have to work hard to make life HERE AND NOW, better...there's a perfect life waiting after death, why would anyone do any seriously hard work on this planet, to make things better? unless, they thought this was all there was. which is probably why, I feel so passionate about making THIS WORLD a better place. its all we've got, in my opinion.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  19. Steve6167

    I do not believe but if others do whatever. Let live and let live. From my point if you cannot prove it then it is not real.

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

      I agree with you, live and let live. But, if you cant prove it its not real? That goes for almost every theory in science because its almost all theories, nothing definitive and if you ask a scientist they will tell you that when they write their conclusion to any experiment they would never put down 100% sure of anything.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  20. M

    This article is really insulting becuase when I was a child I never believed in god, what's even more insulting is that it tries to pander to both sides. As if there is something in it for everyone, and Richard Dawkins would reject this study because A. its bull, becuase there are societies that don't have any concept of god or an afterlife. 2. Its his job to scrutinize studies and test them until he can come upon a conclusion. All scientist are trained to do this, your not a good scientst if you can't do that. He would never accept a study like this right off the bat.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Dustin Carr

      Most religions require an "age of come uppance", for the reasons you stated. Apparently you hated God before you understood, you have to earn it, go figure?

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

      Since when do you represent all cultures?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Edge229

      Sorry but your idea about religion not being prevalent all human societies is just dead wrong. Even if a culture does not believe in a specific, named god, every single society in human history has had a supernatural element. Choose what you want to believe, but this is something anthropologists have established as a proven fact.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
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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.