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. RobL


    May 12, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  2. RyanHester

    Religion is delusional.

    We will be closer to world peace when belief shifts away from iron age philosophy towards modern day rationality.

    Science > Religion
    Science erodes religious claims more and more as time proceeds. Religious books themselves contradict each other. What is wrong with people...really...::sigh::

    How terrible it would be to be brainwashed about the nature of the universe based on a a geographical accident of birth.

    Heave and Hell have no place in the cosmos, and have no merit.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  3. dave

    Waste of time reading this. No substance. If this study isolated hundreds of children from any religious or mystical idea's and they came to still think of an after life it would hold weight. But going around the world and asking religiously brain washed people "Is there an after life?" of course you know what they will answer.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • YBP

      Correct. This study is quite flawed. Take it with a grain of salt. Shame on CNN for publishing this and wasting our time.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  4. Jesus of Nazareth

    I believe that if second hand smoke is just as bad as smoking yourself. When I smoke next to you, you should pay me for half a pack. Fair is fair. Cough it up.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • YBP

      Excellent play on words! Cough it up! HAHAHAHA!

      May 12, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Platypus

      Jesus! Love your metaphor! Just LMAO!

      June 4, 2011 at 12:41 am |
  5. Dana

    The above article harbors a lurking assumption that our persistent tendency to ascribe "cause" to things we don't fully understand means we are all disposed to believe in the God of the Abrahamic religions. A false assumption, indeed.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  6. YBP

    I think what is innate is:

    a. a fear of dying/an instinct to survive
    b. a feeling of self-importance/significance in the world/universe
    c. an imagination/fantasy life
    d. the ability and willingness to lie to one's self and others
    e. the tribal need to set ourselves apart and above others

    not some kind of natural beleif in the god(s) of the ancient middle east, or strange religions that defy what we know so far of the real world. Belief is an illness that is acquired and learned. It's diffciult to overcome, particularly when learned as a child, an unknowing, unworldly innocent. Luckily we have many cures and resources to help us recover. Education is key. But curiosity is essential.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  7. Steve in Michigan

    So... basically... humans are just naturally stupid.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Platypus

      Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the universe. -Einstein

      June 4, 2011 at 12:46 am |
  8. Flex

    And we need a "study" to confirm this.....another wasted way to spend taxpayers money down the drain. How can I become a politician.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • tommas

      1,500 comments and growing... apparently

      May 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  9. Jerry hernandez jr.

    Im not taking sides. When i was young i went to church and participated. Later on in my years i became an Athiest. Then i heard your brain stays active for a moment when you die. This gave me the idea, maybe when we die we have our last dream. And whatever people think heaven is they dream it. They should do a study on the brain functions on someone dead and some one alive and dreaming. Just to see if there is anything alike. Now i dont know im just confused. Lol.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • tommas

      The pineal gland may dump its DMT reserves, you may be tripping ballz

      May 12, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  10. TotalBs

    We are always trying to figure it out.........God vs. eternal blackness........... I'm of a different cloth than most it seems. I'm not affraid to say I don't know. This works well for me because I really like surprises

    May 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • tommas

      The real question is what is better for mankind: faith and complacency or doubt and planning for the future of our species (because it seems for most humans it is one or the other)

      May 12, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • P

      It's not the complacent faithful I'm worried about – it's the ones that are planning to kill everyone that don't believe the same thing they do.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • YBP

      tommas and p: I like your responses. Bravo.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Platypus

      @P: Killing people because they don’t believe in the same god that one believes? Insane, psychotic, deranged. That is how Christianity came about, and they have slowed humanity’s scientific knowledge and progress by 1200 years during the Dark Ages following the fall of Rome. And Islam is trying the same scheme today. How retarded these religions. -Platypus

      May 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  11. 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. Look how young Jakov is in this 1984 video, how they all raise their eyes at the same time. They've done this in front of crowds of hundreds of people. http://vimeo.com/10286499 Watch the u-tube videos of Mirjana. Please reply with your explanation. 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. But she also says you'll regret waiting until the great sign, don't let your hearts become too hardened. Keep an open mind and look into it. Also, how do you explain similarities and out of body experiences in people who have had NDEs? I almost drowned as a teenager and I know what I experience wasn't just my brain failing from lack of oxygen. I’ll keep praying for you.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • keylargo

      ever hear the term "scam", smoke & mirrors, illusionists?

      May 12, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • RyanHester

      Miracle stories are a dime-a-dozen.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  12. abhi

    hello. are the posts to this article going through?

    May 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • .


      May 12, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  13. Q

    Non Sequitur 101 – "...your existance (sic) is a sub reality of the truer reality... namely the spiritual realm." Multiple dimensions! Ergo, God!

    May 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  14. Donna Jean

    Yep! Ever read Romans 1? It says the innate knowledge of God has been put inside every human. It also says this is the reason each one will be "without excuse" when they stand before God. Can't say, "I didn't know", because you knew.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • .

      Odd. Then why does the Bible also say to 'spread the word' if it is innate in every person?

      May 12, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      I don't think any of us "know" exactly what God is – and God will not fault us for using our own minds, even if we get it wrong, as long as we do our best to live honest, positive, ethical lives.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • P

      Well, someone had to write that in there correct? Probably someone who was being questioned about why people were doing just fine ethically before this bible came along, so they had a 'revelation' and just made up something to fix that little problem. Ever heard of the Codex Sinaiticus? It's the earliest Greek version of the bible. Oh, and it's quite different from the one you bought at Barnes and Noble too. I guess there have been a lot of 'revelations' along the way eh?

      May 12, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • RyanHester

      Books written by people who didn't understand how the weather worked, how medicine or the germ theory of disease work, whose biggest engineering feat was a wheel-barrow....have NO CREDIBILITY regarding how the universe works.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  15. beelzebubba

    Why didn't the study just state: when people don't understand something, they'll make up explanations. If nobody can disprove it, religions accept it a fact. How conveniently shrewd.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • YBP

      That would have been good.

      But studies like these are often very tendentious. The only results they yield are the within the range of answers that were given. To some degree the results are therefore predetermined. So take this nonsense with a grain of salt. The fact is that more and more people are beginning to eschew the religions and beliefs of the ancient world and accept reality. There are no gods, no sons of gods, no vicarious redemption, no chosen people, no promised real estate, no prophets, no holy writings.

      "Imagine all the people living for today." John Lennon

      Lennon was way ahead of his time. It's shocking that this lyric wasn't censored. Where's the outcry? Where's the Focus on the Family wingnuts? It just goes to show that most people don't even understand song lyrics.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  16. detsea

    so if i don't believe in religion or an afterlife, i guess that means i'm more highly evolved than the general population.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • tommas

      hopefully that is where our species is evolving to

      May 12, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • P

      Technically, evolution is not a continuum where something can be more highly evolved or less highly evolved. All creatures are appropriately evolved for their environment.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • YBP


      May 12, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  17. cboy619

    That's why they call it "FAITH" because we believe in something that hasn't been proven. "You believe because you have seen, blessed are those who believe but haven't seen." John 20:29

    May 12, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • .

      ...unlike the apostles; I guess, having seen the miracles, they weren't blessed.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • YBP

      cboy, you cannot prove nonsense by quoting additional nonsense. I hope you recover.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  18. Daniel

    It's not religion. It's an innate seeking of the creator. Religion is a bad word. God doesn't even recognize religion. God despises religion. It's about a relationship.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Gumby

      It's funny how you Christerbots always try to say that your religion has nothing to do with religion. Keep flailing!

      May 12, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Daniel wrote: "God despises religion. It's about a relationship."

      And you know this... how? By the way, which one of the thousands of "gods" contrived by mankind did you have in mind?

      May 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • YBP

      I think your response is an excellent example of the religious imagination at work. Clearly your god exists in your imagination, and you seem to know what he likes and dislikes. Perhaps you've given it more thought than I give you credit for, but that doesn't change the fact that you imagine this god one way, and someone else imagine's it another. It's not real.

      Grasp onto reality and enjoy this fragile life for as long as you can. This life on this planet is the only thing that we can be certain of at this moment in human history.

      "Imagine all the people living for today." John Lennon

      May 12, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Platypus

      How do you know what “God” thinks, despises, loves, likes, dislikes, hates, pretends, believes...?

      June 4, 2011 at 1:24 am |
  19. Newyorker

    Why is every comment I write 'awaiting moderation'? What is wrong with you people?

    May 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Helpful

      Your post will never appear. You need to go back and check it for words that are flagged by the moronic auto-filter.
      Once a week WARNING for new commentators:
      The moderators of this blog have set up a secret forbidden word filter which unfortunately not only will delete or put your comment in the dreaded "waiting for moderation" category but also will do the same to words having fragments of these words. For example, "t-it" is in the set but the filter will also pick up words like Hitt-ite, t-itle, beati-tude, practi-tioner and const-tution. Then there are words like "an-al" thereby flagging words like an-alysis and "c-um" flagging acc-umulate or doc-ument. And there is also "r-a-pe", “a-pe” and “gra-pe”, "s-ex", and "hom-ose-xual". You would think that the moderators would have corrected this by now considering the number of times this has been commented on but they have not. To be safe, I typically add hyphens in any word that said filter might judge "of-fensive".
      • More than one web address will also activate “waiting for moderation”. Make sure the web address does not have any forbidden word or fragment.
      Two of the most filtered words are those containing the fragments "t-it" and "c-um". To quickly check your comments for these fragments, click on "Edit" on the Tool Bar and then "Find" on the menu. Add a fragment (without hyphens) one at a time in the "Find" slot and the offending fragment will be highlighted in your comments before you hit the Post button. Hyphenate the fragment(s) and then hit Post. And remember more than one full web address will also gain a "Waiting for Moderation".
      And said moderators still have not solved the chronological placement of comments once the number of comments gets above about 100. They recently have taken to dividing the comments in batches of 50 or so, for some strange reason. Maybe they did this to solve the chronology problem only to make comment reviews beyond the tedious.
      “Raison's Filter Fiber© (joking about the copyright)
      1. Here's my latest list – this seems like a good spot to set this down, as nobody's posting much on this thread.....
      bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to post that wonderful argument:
      Many, if not most are buried within other words, but I am not shooting for the perfect list, so use your imagination and add any words I have missed as a comment (no one has done this yet)
      – I found some but forgot to write them down. (shrugs).
      c-um.........as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, etc.
      sp-ic........as in disp-icable (look out Sylvester the cat!)
      ho-mo...whether ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, etc.
      t-it.........const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, (an unexpected one)
      va-g....as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant
      ar-se....yet "ass" is not filtered!
      jacka-ss...but ass is fine lol
      p-is.....as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, etc.
      o ficti-tious, repeti-tion, competi-tion.
      There are more, so do not assume that this is complete.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • Suz

      Helpful, George Carlin would be proud.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
  20. Bob Page

    Religious belief occurs because of only one reason: from the moment where we, as toddlers, learn to say and understand our first words, we are completely brainwashed by our parents, grandparents and society at large; we're taught to believe all the ignorance without questioning it.

    May 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • YBP

      Absolutely. Once you begin to ask questions, you've opened the door. And once you've gone over that threshold, there is no turning back, even if for some strange reason you might want to.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • tommas

      Dont forget a fear of our mortality.. That is what drives everything home, most can not except that they are worm food in at most 80-100 yrs

      May 12, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • ThinkAgain

      I was taken to church starting at 3, but have never been into organized religion (seemed too hung up on the details of how to worship and the hypocrisy of the people in charge was nauseating). However, I've always felt a very strong connection and belief in a higher power, which I call "God" for short. Went through a religious crisis at an early age and tested my belief to boot.

      Long story short, what I wish more people understood and lived is that the connection is what is important and a desire to live as honest, good, ethical and positive life as you can. The "afterlife" will take care of itself. So many get hung up on the specifics of their faith, to the point of harming/killing others in the name of their religion. Whatever created this universe is much, much bigger than that. If you want to be part of it, then live your life accordingly.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Jill

      Actually, YOU have been brainwashed by materialism and the emphasis on the materialism in our society. Don't be too self-righteous...you'll begin sounding like an atheistic FANATIC.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Megan

      Ironic that you post that as a comment to an article that says completely differently...

      May 12, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
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.