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. frootyme

    One who argues that his and her religion is superior to others is an idiot.
    And all religions refer to God as male – the 'He' God. That is what has emerged from religions – a male dominated society.
    Believe in any religion or not, it is an individual call. Do not bring it to work place.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  2. sousoux

    Of course. Consciousness begs the question of propose and that is a difficult thing for most people to grasp at least a few times in their lives. Ascribing it along with any uncomfortable unknowns (like what happens after death) to a unquestionable supernatural being is an easy way out if you don't mind the very obvious contradictions. I would hope that that majority of humanity manages to grow up enough to stop doing it in a few centuries. I think the result would be beneficial.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  3. Dave

    The flaw here is that we humans have interpreted our universe in a very narrow way until just recently. Human perceputal abilities span a very small spectrum. Science and mathematics both extend our perceptual abilities and, therefore, broaden our ability to truly understand. Religion is, ultimately, an incomplete and simplistic attempt at understanding.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Mark9988

      But your reasoning lacks both scientific and mathematical basis, so it too is flawed by limited perception.
      What science has declared as absolute truth is often washed away with subsequent theories. Science is pretty good at answering "what" and sometimes "how", but not "why". Short of dismissing everything as meaningless (which some do), science is left wanting to explain why matter or energy exist. These are philosophical issues, not observable phenomena subject to hypothesis testing or experimental method.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  4. RobertRaulerson

    Humans are hard wired for religion – so I guess I'm a robot. Right?

    May 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  5. Rob

    People just naturally don't want to accept that we are here for NO REASON AT ALL and our existence means nothing in the grand scheme of things. If you don't create a legacy for yourself, you are truly gone.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  6. Dr. Paul J. Watson

    I teach a course for biology as well as religious studies majors at the University of New Mexico. After studying religion simultaneously from a variety of introspective / experiential and scientific perspectives over the last several decades, the results of this study do not surprize me at all. As I see it now, we all have a variety of strong, largely unconsciously operating instincts that interact to produce a strong tendancy toward religiosity, and thus the aquisition of culture and sub-culture appropriate (and so, sociobioogically / evolutionarily adaptive) religious belief and behavior systems. Don't expect to understand how this could be without studying it. As most spiritual traditions teach, "Know Thyself" is a nontrivial endeavor. There are now a number of worthwhile books on the subject, and I am not referring to those, which unfortunately get the most attention, written by evangelical atheists. An example of a really good one to get started with is by Matt Rosanno: "Supernatural Selection" (2010, Oxford University Press). Another older but still very relevant book is by Scott Atran: In Gods We Trust" (2002, Oxford University Press). You can find many more resources at my course web site: http://biology.unm.edu/Biology/pwatson/public_html/RS%202011.html. - PJW

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

      Hey "Doc"

      surprize is spelled, "surprise" you wizard.

      This is why you teach in NM.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Dr. Paul J. Watson

      Yes. I always have had trouble with the word surprise... I apologize (apologise?) in advance for any other incorrect spellings. - PJW

      May 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  7. Ben Franklin

    I have long thought that this was true – it is of course, a statement about human nature, not about the universe at large.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  8. Mark Yelka

    It's so fun to talk about religion. Anything magical goes. Not as much fun as Harry Potter, but fun.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  9. Veritas

    I guess CNN posts these types of inflammatory articles to attract us suckers to debate this nonsense here, and see the website ads...

    May 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  10. Ian

    I believe in God. What does it matter to you?

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

      It doesn't matter at all – until you burn me at the stake for not believing.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • bitnar

      Well said, Robert.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • CounterPointedStick

      When someone else's idea of a Supreme Being causes them to take arms against another group's idea of a Supreme being, it matters to me bumpkin.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  11. Rasmadin

    Religion is the worst thing for all of us. we are inclined to belive in after life because we are scare of death and can not accept the fact that life just end. Evolution made us smarter than other species but it carries the burden of never ending life.
    To our ignorance we try to put any kind of god in order to belive in after life. We always try to put behind us the fact that we have been killing each other since the beginning of human life in one's god name or the other. So to put it short let me tell you this, you will die and that will be the end. Also the last moment prayer for all the wrong doing and sins you did will not help.
    Bottom line: enjoy what you get

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

      "So to put it short let me tell you this, you will die and that will be the end..."

      I don't believe in organized religion at all, so I don't come from that angle. But, realize that statements of definitiveness like you've offered never come off well in these discussions, because NO ONE knows the answers! It's all speculation, no matter which perspective you favor.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  12. Neal Sheppard

    People who think that those of us who believe in God somehow believe in "magic" or a "magical being in the sky" need to open their mind to the fact that the human race doesn't know everything and that we are not the most "powerful" beings in the universe. What you or I consider "magic" is easy for God. I once had a calculus teach in college (at a public university) who wrote a complex integral problem on the board, then stepped back from it and said "as easy as you or I could count three dots on the board, the angel Gabriel would know the answer to this integral problem". Heavenly beings (and who's to say that Heaven isn't one of the 11 dimensions that scientists now know to exist) who have been around for billions or years, or longer, certainly know more "stuff" than we do. Even our ancestors of 500 years ago would probably consider our wireless technologies or our space flight capability as "magic".

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

      Exactly which is why the Gods of religions were actually aliens but because they had powers we couldn't explain we thought they were Gods. Think about it if my dog could talk she probably thinks I am a god too. LOL!

      May 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Neal Sheppard

      Fred: I did not say that God or angels are space aliens who simply landed on Earth. My point is simply that the word "magic" is relative, and to me when atheists use it debunk the existence of God and Heaven then they sound a little closed minded. I believe science as much as the next guy. I'm sure that none of the miracles performed by Jesus were "magic", but were accomplished because he knew how to do them, knew how to make it happen.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • Steve Thomas

      Oops, I meant to state Arthur C. Clarke, not Isaac Asimov

      May 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  13. Alex

    I don't practice any religion but I recognize that there are parts of the universe that I can't possibly comprehend. Perhaps we can sense "more" somehow without really knowing it and that explains the tendency to become religious.

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


      I cannot comprehend why it is the phone rings just as I get into the shower, but I am not going to deem the bathroom a shrine.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  14. RichardSRussell

    This, of course, is exactly what Daniel C. Dennett wrote about in his 2006 book Breaking the Spell: Religion As a Natural Phenomenon. Science is perfectly capable of explaining why religious belief is widespread, and it has nothing to do with supernaturalism having any basis in fact.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  15. Veritas

    Hmm, why do I not have these religious delusions?

    May 12, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
    • Mark9988

      Because you have different kind of religious delusion: the one where you are the center of a universe where its okay to pompously name yourself "truth", but in Latin, so that everyone will marvel at your 'intellect'.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • CounterPointedStick

      Because you are insightful and pragmatic, yet logical.

      Why are you even here on CNN?

      May 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • STeve Thomas


      Well stated, I couldn't agree more. Simply because there appears to be an instinct toward religion doesn't prove a single thing.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • blue sky

      You have other delusions.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  16. Eric

    What is the definition of "religion" in this study? I'm sure that "seeing purpose of the world" is human nature. But believing in an organized religion is not necessarily human nature. Please don't mix them up.

    I have no doubt that atheists and agnostics are capable of living with purpose through the end of their lives.

    By the way, "seeking truth and knowledge to understand the nature" might also be another human nature (at least to some humans). There should be a study on that as well.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  17. Tom

    It goes back to the old saying, "Never Explain yourself. Your friends don't need it and your enemies won't beleive you anyway."

    May 12, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  18. Neil Peart

    A priest and a rabbi went to a prizefight at Madison Square Garden. One of the fighters crossed himself before the opening gong sounded.
    "What does that mean?" asked the rabbi.
    "Not a damn thing if he can't fight," answered the priest.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • @"Neil"

      I am a better drummer than you are "Neil".

      May 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • bitnar


      May 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Tim B

      I have a new favourite joke. Thanks for that one.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
  19. gravis

    The same reason people call climate change a hoax, believe in UFO's, and love Sarah Palin. They believe only what they want to believe, not what their ears, eyes, and brain tell them.

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

    wayne: the whole idea of faith is believing in the unseen....so fix your eyes not on what is seen but what is unseen for is seen is temporary and will pass away but what is unseen is eternal

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

      "unseen is eternal"

      Well of course it is because it's not there. LOL!

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

      And this perfectly explains why you can use faith to justify ANYTHING, which is what makes it worthless.

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

      "Fix your eyes on what is unseen". Yeah, that'll work real well. For sure.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Mark9988

      Diane doesn't believe in radio waves either...

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

      I agree with Diane. As always, the burden of proof is not on the one that does not believe, but on the one who does.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • @Jenna

      Kinda like those, "Magic Eye" pictures?

      Either that or you are another stoned hippie type.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • RobertRaulerson

      How can I fix my eyes on something unseen? I'd have to see it to fix on it.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Dweezil

      Nice try, but even a child can create radio waves with a cell phone. As far as 'the unseen', well, pray to the unseen in one hand, and sh|t in the other, and see which fills up first.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • David

      And religions propagate hatred between one another.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Susan


      You do realize that radio waves have a visible spectrum in the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to (can be detected by) the human eye.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Drew

      Wait a second...who is delusional here? You guys who think there is no God b/c if YOU can't see it or YOU can't explain it then it must not be? Having faith in a higher power shows humility and intelligence. You liberals over complicate things to the point that they come full circle and suddenly there is no room left for common sense. How is a baby made?....oh you geniuses can answer that but to explain how a human being is created from nothing inside another human being's body?....no one can explain that. God bless those of you who realize that there is no way there couldn't be a higher power and God bless those of you who are so "smart" you are stupid.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • sheila

      To me, faith is a choice to believe in the unprovable...a conscious decision to accept as possible or even probable what cannot be proved or disproved as fact. I accept that I can'tt know everything!

      May 12, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Mark9988

      Susan, I think you mean electro-magnetic radiation (part of the spectrum includes visible light), but not radio waves.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • Mark9988

      radio waves are not directly visible, although they are in the EM spectrum

      May 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Susan

      Mark really....

      "Radio waves, visible light, X-rays, and all the other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are fundamentally the same thing. They are all electromagnetic radiation."

      May 12, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Mark9988

      Susan, really. What part of radio waves (defined by their specific wave lengths) are in the visible spectrum ?

      May 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Susan

      Oh fun... more play time....

      Many astronomical objects emit radio waves, but that fact wasn't discovered until 1932. Since then, astronomers have developed sophisticated systems that allow them to make pictures from the radio waves emitted by astronomical objects.

      Oh my they can even take pictures of them... how quaint....

      May 12, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Muneef

      Microbes were unseen until we managed to invent to proper equipments to magnify it to become seen? So how could you not believe in the unseen when we had not yet reached limits of knowledge?

      May 12, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • Mark9988

      Susan, the images they make are visible, dear. But the radio waves aren't. They are 'invisible' which takes us back to the original statement. But, you you get an A for effort. And a B- for sarcasm and pseudo-intellectualism.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • Tracy

      Mark whether they are invisible or not it can be proven they are there, you can't do that with the Christian God.

      May 13, 2011 at 10:39 am |
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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.