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. Kenney

    I find it interesting that 90% of the comments posted here are hateful, and demeaningcooments made by all of these "live and let live" free thinkers that continously profess that everyone should believe in what they want to believe in unless they believe in something you don't which makes them of course an idiot who needs a crutch and you have decided accurately of course there is no supporting proof.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Brian Zwart

      amen butter

      May 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  2. Christopher

    Excuse me, but no...... most people's 'belief' in the afterlife is brainwashed into them by parents when they are VERY young. It is NOT instinctual in the slightest.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  3. Beam Me Up Scotty

    Since humans are just real smart animals.. if there's an afterlife for us, then there's an afterlife for all the other life we share this planet with.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  4. James Veverka

    Years ago, scientists even discovered the region of the brain responsible for religious wiring. The question is, if this area is damaged does one's religiosity disappear. Of course it does. The is nothing spiritual here, just evolution and what worked. The same thing happens to the part of the brain dealing with deep romantic love. If destroyed, that impulse goes with it.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  5. Tim

    Sucking your thumb is instinctive as well but most grow out of it.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  6. BD70

    I was raised on religion. But over the years I decided there has to be more than just heaven and hell. I believe now our spirits never die but hang out until they are reused. Reincarnation so to speak. Although there is a passage in the bible that says once your dead you know nothing but darkness. Can't point to the passage but I can say that the essence of who we are is energy that can come back into the next life. Seen same personalities over and over again.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  7. you

    Dude....I just ate a donut and it was AWESOME.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  8. Jason

    This article is sad, but common sense. People simply want to believe in magic, want a silver bullet to explain the tough questions in life. If it's not religion, it's nationalism or feminism or some other all encompassing ethos.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  9. Melissa

    What a total utter load of crap. Children also believe in fairies and unicorns. That doesn't make them real. A bunch of religious people must have done this so called study.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Jason

      Melissa, no where in the article does it say that God is real, only that some evidence suggests that spiritual believe may be a natural part of human beings. Take more time to read and understand, and you'll not only be smarter, but less angry as a result.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  10. paxman2

    There's been a lot of evidence that Jesus exist and is who He said He was in Medjugorje. What is your theory to explain what’s going on for the past 30 years in Medjugore? 6 kids, ages 10 to 15 dropping to their knees at the same time, focusing on the same spot (even though they have side –blinders on), bright flashing lights and hot skin probes not showing up on their EEGs, all raising their heads simultaneously when she leaves. Being arrested by the communist police and threatened with jail and torture and refusing to change their testimony. And now 30 years later, still going to church daily, praying many hours every day, all sticking to their ‘story’ while raising families. Six pathological liars? I guess the proof will be if they die without the signs happening that they say will happen in their lifetimes. Search vimeo for Mirjana or Medjugorje. Watch the u-tube videos of Mirjana. She says in one of her videos that Our Blessed Mother doesn't refers to atheist as non-believers but as ‘those who do not yet know the love of God’, so at least there’s hope in the way she puts it, sounds like you'll eventually come around. I’ll keep praying for you.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  11. Jamie

    I guess I'm not human then. Even as a small child I thought church was for pretend.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  12. bigsnow81

    Anything is that is faith based is irrational. My gut tells me there's a god. Religion was created by man because we can't except the fact that our existence ends upon death. Do any of you remember anything before you were born? What makes you think you will remember anything after you die?

    May 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  13. Candid One

    What in the world is "human nature" if it's not merely a euphemism for the quirk of the day? Lots of arbitrary traits, characteristics, and weirdness that suits the moment? Flat earth perspective as well.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  14. AZRUSure

    the study noted that children seemed easier to accpet the concept of God... Could it be that as chilldren everybody is in charge of them... why not one more.... As people mature into adults that start to look at it from logical and emotional poitns of view... those that don't just accept religion based on faith and teaching they most likly received at home during their youth. Just a thought.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  15. Tom

    Just because someone performs a "scientific" style study on a ludicrous topic doesn't authenticate the premise.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  16. Bob Kurtz

    Nonsense. this is what Christians want you to believe.

    I believe in Ray Charles (and many others), 'When your dead your done, so let the good times roll.'

    May 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Jim Prince

      Bob Kurtz.........have you calculated wat the odds are that you can walk outside and breath air? You are without excuse if you cannot see God in this creation. You will spend eternity somewhere, and you will be there alot longer than you are alive on this planet. Its your choice where you spend it my friend. God loves you and sent Jesus that through Him your sins are forgiven. Jesus came that you should have life more abundently.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  17. himzz

    The idea of Religion and God is definitely inbuilt in our head. watch the following video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIiIsDIkDtg..This is a study by a scientist and has some objective, measurable findings. Unlike science, religion has open ended statements, which cannot be proven or quantified. Plus to make a religious statement you dont need a minimum GPA ..lol...Heres an interesting watch. Enjoy 🙂

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

    Spiritual is believing in something other than a physical life. We are more than this. Religion is a collection of manmade rituals and stories trying to relate to the spiritual realm. The key there being "manmade", which opens it up to manipulation. Religion defines the spiritual world for you. The old saying "the truth lies within" is just that. Inside yourself. Listen and learn to trust that voice. You are your own guide through this learning experience called life. Don't let other people define who you are, or should be. Religion is great at doing that.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • JT

      And religious people need to understand the difference between theism and a religion.

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

      Don't let people guide what we are? Ummm... how about if someone wants to be a cannibal? Surely you'd discourage that.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  19. Observer

    Let's look at it from a scientific point:
    "Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways," such as believing in God's omniscience".
    Children adopt usually the belief systems of their parents until they are old enough to develop their own. No surprise here. It's nothing miraculous. So let's drop the awe.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  20. John

    People want to believe because they cannot accept the bitter fact that the things that happen in their lives happen because of Goldman Sachs and they don't have the credentials to work there.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Bob

      Religion is an instinct, and religious leaders have been using this fact to their advantage for 10,000 years.

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

      dude...I just ate a donut and it was AWESOME!

      May 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • Ryan J

      I really like your answer.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
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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.