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. sasquatch

    I believe in God. They are called extraterrestrials.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  2. Rick

    Yep, it's instinctive alright, born of fear and ignorance.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Jaylen

      Wait, I cannot fathom it being so stragihtfrowrad.

      October 6, 2011 at 6:05 am |
    • ivxczdv

      F8T24O nqgckrrvggsq

      October 6, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • oefrud

      5juW71 yuhdsgyqjsjy

      October 10, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  3. Jon

    I have no problem with the concept of a greater being that existed for a long time and suddenly decided to create everything else. That is no more farfetched than a universe that suddenly created itself. I have a big problem with the concept of a greater being that created everthing for us.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  4. gerald

    No surprise in this study.

    Rom 2

    14] When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
    [15] They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them

    May 12, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  5. Dave

    I am antheist.
    I don't believe in an all powerful sky daddy, the FSM, or a goddess.
    I don't buy that believing in a dead guy, who was probably a nice man, will mean that one day I will rise from the dead, nor do I believe that doing bad things will result in me being placed in a permanent time-out room complete with fire and pitchforks.

    Neverthess, the thought that one day I will no longer exists is disconcerting and I perfectly understand why people find the beliefe in an afterlife is comforting.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • FifthApe

      I hear you Dave. I fall right into line with your way of thinking. I even at one time wished I could believe, but rational thinking keeps getting in the way. I guess others can turn that off as they really need an adult security blanket to get through the day and make sense of what we see when natural events affect our lives and good people get hurt etc etc.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  6. Muneef

    Logically do you believe in the Unseen....? Do you believe that there are unseen unfelt creations that could be of different time dimensions ? Do you believe in UFO's although not seen? Do you believe that since we are mankind or apes were created from the element of Water, that then there are possibilities other creations were created from the other Elments that we know or do not know, see or not see ...?
    Do we here on the blog have that logic to think deep whether we are Religious or Non Religious? After all we all believe that Life only had become to be created taking course of evolution from the date of the Big Bang took place, out of this huge universe we are and creatures of the physical earth are from water (Water &earth Animal)....? Can you prove that there are no other creations on Earth,In Universe other than this (Water&Earth) Creature and there are no other that are seen or not seen??! Let us just chose elements that were mentioned in the Quran about creations in Universe;
    -Angels are from Light&Spirit.
    -Jinns are from Fire&Gases.
    -Humans are from Water&Earth.
    All they unbelievers do is disbelieve but can not explain the phenomenons that are found and attribute it to mind while both Mind and the Existance of such creations can play one role..to make of any one look as a metal case to other normal ones.!?

    just to add to that the only time where the vail that cover our eyes from seeing is unveiled upon the death of the physical body....!
    How many were physically declared dead but suddenly returned to life with so many things to tell having seen and some even returned with certain powers or capabilities that they had not before...!!?
    Can they explain such phenomenas that they reject to acknowledge as spiritual unseen powers or just ending them up to X files..
    50:22] You used to be oblivious to this. We now remove your veil; today, your vision is (as strong as) steel.
    Islam no Killer...Islam is not the Work of the devil or evil.

    Islam will not die by the death of any body, Islam did not die by the death of Muhammed (S.A.W)...(Submission) will Domin Earth by time to come.... Islam starts with (Taking refuge of God from the work of devil & evil);
    [7:196] "GOD is my only Lord and Master; the One who revealed this scripture. He protects the righteous.

    [7:197] "As for the idols you set up beside Him, they cannot help you, nor can they help themselves."

    [7:198] When you invite them to the guidance, they do not hear. And you see them looking at you, but they do not see.

    [7:199] You shall resort to pardon, advocate tolerance, and disregard the ignorant.

    [7:200] When the devil whispers to you any whisper, seek refuge in GOD; He is Hearer, Omniscient.

    [7:201] Those who are righteous, whenever the devil approaches them with an idea, they remember, whereupon they become seers.

    [7:202] Their brethren ceaselessly entice them to go astray.

    [7:203] If you do not produce a miracle that they demand, they say, "Why not ask for it?" Say, "I simply follow what is revealed to me from my Lord." These are enlightenments from your Lord, and guidance, and mercy for people who believe.

    [7:204] When the Quran is recited, you shall listen to it and take heed, that you may attain mercy.

    [7:205] You shall remember your Lord within yourself, publicly, privately, and quietly, day and night; do not be unaware.

    [7:206] Those at your Lord are never too proud to worship Him; they glorify Him and fall prostrate before Him.

    God the Creator is One and the Only One but men of Faiths & Doctrines have each made their God the way they want it to be and they want to believe even if was against logic they will manufacture a logic for it to suit it....just as does the scientists do to beautify a concept that they are not firm with yet... 

    May 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • JohnR

      Every time I've mixed water and earth, I've gotten mud, not humans. It's just insane how the faithful who recoil at the thought of humans being related to apes think it's perfectly sensible to cite these ridiculous lists of ingredients like earth and water or earth and the "breath of life" as though something deep and insightful is being said. This earth, air, fire and water musing make medieval alchemy seem supersophisticated.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • FifthApe

      Behold – the religious mind at work. Is it any wonder the term 'delusional' comes to mind.....

      May 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  7. Zorua dude

    a lot of comments on here are greatly disappointing. The comments by apparent atheists here seem to prove nothing but hypocritical by showing their own hatred, bigotry, and ignorance on this matter. So many comments, but in the end, no one really seems to understand the main and most important point. I'm a heavy logician, and yet, I am also a religious person as well. this is due in part to an understanding that I will describe to you people here. I'll keep it simple and concise so everyone understands.
    Faith (or religion, take your pick) exists largely in part because of some very important questions that concern everything, not just our race.
    1. What caused the universe to exist?
    2.What is the purpose of this universe we live in? why does it exist?
    3.Why do we exist, and what is our purpose for our existence?
    4.What happens after our time of living in this universe is past? what is our ultimate destiny? do we still exist? or do our hearts and minds simply disappear forever?
    5. What is the ultimate destiny of life and the universe we live in?
    These questions are pretty much why faith/religion exist. They endeavors by various people to find the answer to these questions. And most of these people aren't *crazy* either. They are normal people with bright minds who only live to serve their fellow species to ensure that they have hope and that they have managed to find the truth of all things. People try to clash science against faith but this is simply a wrong philosophy of the matter. Science and faith serve different purposes. Science exists to improve the livelihoods of people here on earth . Faith exists so that people can live with a purpose, knowing the reason why they exist as well as knowing reassuringly that they will always exist and will not simply disappear into nothing when they eventually pass away. I agree with this article that faith is naturally born into us humans because people think on an elevated level compared to animals, and they seek to understand all things. Humans seek to know the truth of all things so that they can understand their place in the universe, and once they understand their place, they then seek to ensure and secure a better future for their families and other loved ones.
    Anyways, this understanding came about through revelation, though I hardly doubt that means anything to most people around here unfortunately. I will still retain the hope though that people will understand so that people can still express this natural freedom without fear of oppression for it. That's my testimony on the matter and I hope it serves people well. I only wish just to enlighten people of philosophy that will benefit them.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • FifthApe

      I have news for you Zorua. Atheists typically more knowledgeable on matters of religion. And, when we say we think your gods are imaginary, and were invented my man its typically called hate by people like you.

      You call your self logical. You pose tough questions and then pencil in a god. Thats not logical. Its far more logical to conclude we don't yet have the knowledge yet that to say 'God Dun It'. Saying 'I don't know' is much more honest as well.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Rick

      Sorry, it is impossible to be "a heavy logician" and then believe in something for which there is not and never will be any proof. Sorry, but claiming it and then disproving it with your own words is pretty silly don't you think?

      May 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  8. recreative

    Not only does everyone have something to believe in it seems, but everyone wants to make those beliefs heard. Sometimes it gets a little confusing. Read more at http://ubuntuspirit.wordpress.com

    May 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  9. Really

    We have religion because we have brains that seek answers at a young age, that is it....no study needed. Real cool CNN, spend 30 minutes writing a statement and it doesn't get posted, F you.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  10. gerald

    Again we have a bunch of atheists flailing around with hand waving trying to explain something away with no scientific proof of their "theories" of why this is, then asking for scientific proof of a God.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • FifthApe

      Gerald shows us he has NO clue as to how science works. Is it any wonder we are falling behind.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Rick

      Ummm, it's the other way around. Religions ask people to believe in them without proof and now YOU are asking unbelievers (aka logical people) to disprove something for which you never had any proof in the first place. Is that the best logic the brainwash you with in church? No wonder it always bored me.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Fred

      "then asking for scientific proof of a God."

      No scientific proof – just any proof at all. Prove it now that you brought it up.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  11. Mark Yelka

    Also instinctual: overeating, indolence, vanity, self-centeredness, oppressing others, .... Just because somethin is instinctual, doesn't mean it needs to be encouraged. Sometimes, it needs to be overcome.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  12. koga

    I hope that this study was not paid for using public funds.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  13. Really

    Studies like this are pretty useless. Anyone human with a brain could use our brain to explain this without a study. We as humans have brains that allow us to solve complex problems, think critically (well some of us), and look for answers to things we don't understand. This is all natural and instinctive, which ultimately created religion.

    For example; a human 10,000 years ago before any oranized religion had captured an individuals thoughts woke up one morning walked outside and noticed the tree in from of his cave has grown much since he first remembered. Then he thought, I burried my father there....hmmm maybe my father grew into that tree. Unable to do scientific research and find the real reason the tree is growing, he decides a higher power is doing this, probably the same higher power that causes the loud booms of thunder and cracks of lighting and so on and so on. WE HAVE RELIGION BECAUSE WE SEEK ANSWERS, not because we are instinctivley born with a belief in god.

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

      Posts by unReality are pretty useless. I don't bother to read more than the first 5 words.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Really

      Well I guess you don't even read the first word because I'm "Really" not "Un-Reality".

      May 12, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      yeah, you didn't even read the name of the poster, eh geronimo

      May 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Really is a really fast poster. My msg was for geronimo I mean geraldine.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • bowens

      I agree with what you have said but wonder if you think science will someday be able to answer all of the unanswerable questions? I think science leads to more questions and a mored detailed understanding. However, I don't ever see an end to it. This search for the end of all knowledge or reason leads me to a greater search for spiritual or religious ideas.

      What do you think?

      May 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • gerald

      Always thought it was unreality. Could be about anything. Even fool would work.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  14. gerald

    And are we surprize?

    Rom 2
    14] When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
    [15] They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them

    May 12, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Pho Non

      You surprize? I no surprize. You should no forget the nasty bits in buybull also. Really shytty.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  15. Militant Athiesm

    Too many athiests flood these comment sections with intolerant comments. The first response to this message will be a list of historical instances of intolerance and atrocities by the religious groups but 2 wrongs do not make a right. People should be allowed to practice what ever religion they see fit as long as it does not infringe on the right of others.

    I believe humans are innately spiritual and different people need to touch in on that spiritual side through different avenues.

    I don't practice any religion and consider my self agnostic but I'll be damned(ironic i know) to let any one try to oppress religious groups because they feel they are justified.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Pho Non

      After centuries of crusades and other religion-driven horrors and stupidity , it's no surprise that atheists get angry when the idiocy of religion is continued. Quite justified, really.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Rick

      I am a very tolerant person, certainly far more tolerant than most religious people. But I can not be tolerant of a scam like organized religion which on top of all that entails is a business which is NOT taxed! When churches start paying taxes I'll find a little more tolerance for their boloney.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Militant Athiesm

      Angry.... Sure why not? But any further is wrong. It is very obvious that some of these posters would like to wipe off religion from society and that is very saddening for as far as we have come.

      I think calling yourself an athiest and putting to rest any possibility of a higherpower/god is as stupid as the people who do not question and blindly follow their faith.

      So in conclusion, Agnosticism for the win. The golden rule is king.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  16. Dan

    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.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  17. SearchingForAnAtheistExtremist

    Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways,” such as god, santa, flying reindeer, giant bunnies that lay eggs, the tooth fairy, cooties, etc.... The point is that parents fill their kids heads with nonsense and then admit they lied about all of it _except_ for the god lie the most absurd and globally harmful lie of all.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • suzanne

      i love this comment. thank you for posting it.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Joe

      but it's not a lie. it makes sense for a universe to have a precise origin that we might call god. that's why even the smartest people on earth believe in a god. i think what you mean to say is that organized religion is a lie. not the single concept of a god.

      of course there also exist very smart people who do NOT believe in the concept of god apart from religion.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  18. Anthony

    Didn't everybody already know this? All cultures have developed religious beliefs. The idea that we, as humans, look for answers to problems is very well-known. That doesn't mean the answers we come up with are correct, but if we have questions as to which science cannot provide any answer, at least not yet, we make up answers based upon inferences from our experience. If my experience is that most things happen when I cause them, then I might infer that things that I did not cause were caused by someone else, perhaps a God. That's how people explained lightning, the sun, the moon, and mountains in past days. Now we know why those things happen and exist. Belief in an afterlife is the result of an inability of the human mind to conceive of nothing. What would nothing be like? It's not something we can answer. We can understand that nothing could be a state of being, but we cannot know what it feels like.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • wimsy

      A hundred million children believe in Santa Claus. That doesn't make him real.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Anthony

      wimsy, if you had actually read what I wrote, you would see that I am not saying that just because people believe in something, that makes it real, only that it is completely understandable why people would infer the existence of God, which is a historical fact. I actually do not believe in a God and do not belong to any religion, but I do recognize that this study only confirms what was already plainly obvious. The study is only incorrect inasmuch as it claims that these beliefs are innate rather than inferred from experience. What we are born with is not knowledge of God or religion, but with the evolutionarily advantageous use of logic and experiential inference to create answers and to try to figure out how things work. We're often not right with our first inference. Euclid's geometry was superseded by Newton's, which was then superseded by Einstein's.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  19. JohnRJ08

    Actually, I think this instinct is driven by the fact that the human brain is incapable of imagining its own non-existence. We are compelled to reconcile our innate sense of immortality with the fact that in daily life we all experience the inevitable loss of loved ones. We are wired to find an explanation that bridges the two things. The various religions and philosophies of the world are the predictable and logical result of this search.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • jpeay

      Or....scripture is entirely consistent and God's word is true. Sounds about right to me.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • wimsy

      I agree. Human self-centeredness and arrogance disregards the possibility that existence ends at death, and our bodies rot in the earth just as animals' bodies do. I think socialization - more than "human nature" - is the truth behind this Oxford "study."

      May 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Sid

      DING DING DING!!!! Good Answer

      May 12, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  20. Dan

    It comes instinctively if you are a brain washed little kid. It's amazing how much time is wasted on this stuff.

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

      This is supposed to be new news? I thought everyone knew this already?

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

      YES!! The reason religion is instinctive among the 98% of the worlds population is because its the one thing every human being has in common........FEAR OF DEATH!!

      May 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • Dude

      Guys, read the article. And also consider the fact that we are talking about "instinct" here. That's something that isn't learned. The article didn't say that more people grow up to believe in God. It said that people have a tendency to accept the supernatural explanation to life. That tendency is not a result of "brain-washing" although a firm belief in God may be. Nothing about this article proves that God exists, or even tries to prove it, so taking offense at it would be just as silly as taking offense at a study claiming girls are more likely to play with dolls than boys.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:22 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.