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. Brian Zwart

    yeah, like this guy with long-hair and a beard wearing a flowing-white-gown helped me change my tire on the freeway one day.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
  2. Carmel

    Kevin I agree with you. There is nothing ridiculous in following Christ. People who deny Christ have that right, just as Christians have the right to believe. Show some respect people instead of acting childish

    May 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  3. Dave R.

    People tend to see purpose and intent in the world, even where there is none. It's an artifact of our evolutionary heritage. If you're a hominid on a savanna and you interpret every rustling of a bush as having been caused by a lion, you're gonna get a lot of false positives, but you're also probably gonna live longer than a hominid that ignores rustling bushes. This is natural selection at work. When you're pre-disposed to believing all events have purpose of course you'd believe things like the seasons, weather, natural disasters...basically anything you don't understand, would have a purpose. But that doesn't mean they do. Humans having a natural inclination for religion doesn't mean gods exist.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  4. Nick B

    "Religious people would say, 'If there is a God, then ... he would have given us inclinations to look for him,'" Trigg said.

    ugh... why would't the supposed God just tell people he existed and have that be that? "inclination to look" is just stupid.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  5. Justin

    I dunno, real or not, the thought of there being a light at the end of the tunnel is comforting. It's at least more comforting that nothingness and non-existence.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:55 pm |

    dido nina

    May 12, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  7. rkdres

    The irony is that mainstream religion has managed to actually separate man from this thing referred to as "god". I don't like to use the word god because it doesn't mean anything, it is diluted. People immersed in religion are too far gone to see it. Most of them are not at peace, they're not happy.....

    Furthermore, some of the ideas that are frequently pigeon-holed into the "new age" camp are actually the ones people should be paying attention to. The illusion of self and duality is the single biggest impediment to awakening.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • Platypus

      The word GOD is so common since time immemorial. Just in India people worship millions of gods, and there are millions more in the pantheons of Rome, Greece and elsewhere. I sense there is intelligence in the air but what is it and where does it come from? I dunno but I certainly don’t call it god. My dog thinks there’s a doggy-god. Must be a Shih Tzu-dog.

      May 17, 2011 at 7:06 am |
  8. NationEarth

    I'm not religious myself. I do, however, understand that religious beliefs (e.g. afterlife) help a great many people live their lives with a greater sense of purpose. I feel that organized religion isn't necessary in most of these peoples lives, but that the spiritual aspects are very helpful. The truth is inconsequential, in my opinion. All that matters is that people, individuals, can live their lives without constantly being reminded of their own permanent mortality. I could be wrong, though.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  9. Brian Zwart

    Ummmm.... not looking for an argument, but this is quite amusing.... 🙂

    May 12, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  10. Religious sects

    In short, what this article says to me is, as Greek philosopher Xenophanes put it, "If Horses had Gods, their Gods would be horses". It's only natural to anthropomorphize the parts of the natural world we don't yet understand.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  11. Paul

    Read Ecclesiastes 3:11. The book of Ecclesiastes is thousands of years old. Even if you don't believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, you can at least agree that the writer of Ecclesiastes was aware man's desire for an eternal life. Something in our very being draws us to think on these things.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  12. nina

    our brains seek patterns and we think symbolically to give meaning – so it's not a stretch to say that we see patterns and meaning whereever we look – that doesn't support religion, it just supports consciousness.

    seriously, children beleive in Santa and the Easter bunny – about time god was put on the shelf with it's imaginary peers.


    May 12, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  13. Jeff

    "Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways," Not a ringing endorsement really; it just gives strength to the argument "if you don't think about it, it makes sense." Children accept things at face value and lack critical thinking skills. I have also noticed that even deviote non-religious people tend to slip into the acceptance of an afterlife when faced with the death of a loved one. I think it's a basic psychological defence mechanism that just happens to be the cornerstone of most, if not all spiritual practices.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  14. RyanHes

    Every one of our specific sciences has superceded and surpassed the wisdom of Scripture. From cosmology, to psychology, to economics, we know more about ourselves than anyone writing the Bible or the Koran did. And that is a distinctly inconvenient fact for anyone wanting to believe that this book was dictated by the creator of the universe.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  15. vonric

    There is a lot of hate towards religion out here it seems, but religion did not bring itself into being nor is it inherently hateful. Humanity is social, so naturally people are going to agree at points and disagree about others, ultimately yielding collective belief. People post comments as if you can target religion, as a thing on its own, but if you actually take a step back and see the good that these positive collective beliefs have had and continue to have for people around the world you will find humanity. We harp on only the bad we see {in the media} to the exclusion of what is right, charity and goodwill – that shapes the decision-making process of every individual, everyday. Imagine a world without the golden rule – Now you see why there will always be religion.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • RyanHes

      Maybe some day it will be understood that we can derive our moals and values from science. Biological complexity and peaks of happiness and suffering can tell us what is right and wrong...

      May 12, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      :There is a lot of hate towards religion out here it seems, but religion did not bring itself into being nor is it inherently hateful.:

      Study more religion. I'm sure if you were a Baalite sacficice you might think otherwise.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • LP

      Yes, it is only fair to recognize that much good has been done in the name of religion. But many of us do good without religion and some even feel that good done without religion is more "pure" (for lack of a better word) because it truly comes from within and is not ordered by the tenets of a particular belief system.
      Also, just because the golden rule is found in religious texts (and many of them, by the way) does not make it a religious construct. The golden rule is simple, common sense: treating your fellow humans well increases the chances that they will treat you well.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
  16. stejo

    we are meaning-making machines

    May 12, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  17. princemwh

    blah blah, i wish all you people could see the importance of this study and put aside your feelings on religion. This study helps prove that humans need religious freedom. That means the US and other countries should not base law off one religion or another such as gay marriage etc.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Bob

      Well said!

      May 12, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  18. GARYDE

    by the way, which religion is the correct one? I choose to believe none are. They just cause differences in society to the point people have to kill to proove they are correct. Death sucks, but is real, so deal with it.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Kevin

      John 14:6
      I am the way, truth and the life, no man comes to the Father, but by me.

      You may not agree, but your only fighting with God.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Meg

      "I am the way, truth and the life, no man comes to the Father, but by me."

      So the fact other religions make a similar claim proves this statement to be false.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Mike

      @Kevin: Were not fighting with God, he doesn't exist. You, Kevin, are fighting us.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  19. GG

    Einstein himself stated quite clearly that he did not believe in a personal God:

    "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly."

    Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman (eds) (1981). Albert Einstein, The Human Side. Princeton University Press. p. 43.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Kevin

      Why are you so willing to trust in Einsteins words, why not Christs?

      May 12, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Dan

      Because Albert Einstein was a brilliant scientist. JC was a carpenter. If he even really existed, that is.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Free

      Jesus probably existed, and he had some progressive ideas in his teaching, but 'The Christ' is a character that bears very little resemblance to him.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  20. Name*Tom

    Duh! Human nature being what it is, nobody wants life to end. Religion gives people hope to exist (in some form) after death. The Bible story doesn't hold up under scrutiny, so the escape mechanism is "intrinsic".

    May 12, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • Kevin

      how shall we escape of we neglect so great a salvation? Sure, I'm an escape mantality, what's wrong with that, if you don't want to escape Gods wrath, id say you were the epitome of foolish.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • Kevin

      Oh yeah, what part of the Bible did you say doesn't hold up under scrutiny? Let's talk about that.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      correct. its comforting to believe in heavenly afterlife, although I prefer the pagan versions to the traditional christian one. Valhalla and the the happy hunting grounds seem at least to have a lot more activities.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
    • Fullbag

      Name*Tom – If you are going to make an assertion that the Bible does not hold up under scrutiny, then you need to cite where that is the case. I have been studying the Bible closely for nearly 20 years, and I have to argue your belief. What I think you might mean is that most religions that use the Bible due not properly adhere to what the Bible states.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Dan

      Kevin – There you go. Fear. I need to escape god's wrath? Really? I thought god was loving and forgiving. You're a sheep. Wake up and believe in yourself.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Dan

      Fullbag – Are you serious? You're saying everything you've read in the bible has been proven to be true to you?? Come on now. I could really go on all day. Are you saying when you pray, god answers your prayers? What about people on planes that are crashing? Did they pray? Well, who knows, but they're dead now so they're not here to peddle their moronic beliefs. But you still are.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Fullbag

      Dan – Read the book of Revelation. God's wrath will be expressed upon unrepentant mankind by way of his son, Jesus. This is because there are two sorts of people on this earth: those who are trying to serve God's purposes, and those who are not. The time will come when He will remove from all of those who serve Him those that don't. If you were God, would you want some of your children harming your other children? Would you want children who did not believe in you? Even if you do not care to believe in the Bible or God, feel free to read the book to understand why some of have the belief we do. You simply having your opinion is otherwise no different than us having ours.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Fullbag

      Dan – First off, there is no need to call any one's beliefs moronic. Being insulting not only won't win you an argument, or respect. As for pray, there is nothing in the Bible that says God answers all prayers. He is not at our disposal...we are at His. He created us, we did not create Him (though I might guess you believe the opposite). Our prayers may be answers, but that is for God to decide.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Dan

      Fullbag – Well, I can't argue with you that you have your opinion and I have mine. But your opinion is based on fiction and brainwashing. Mine is based on common sense. And science. You really think some omnipotent person is going to float down from the sky and REMOVE all the people who don't believe in him?? Really now? That sounds like a pretty jealous, selfish, mean god. Doesn't sound like the guy you talk about.

      These are stories of FEAR. Passed down from generation to generation....and you're sucked up into the vortex of fear and control. It hasn't sucked me in and won't. I'm a free thinker and a rational one. I know there are things in life we can't see....Electricity, gravity, radio waves, etc....but they're things we can detect and prove. All these other things are unprovable. Can't you find more productive things to do with your time?? I believe in MYSELF and the power of ACTIONS...not words spoken to nobody. (prayers)

      May 12, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • Dan

      Fullbag...well, sorry about calling beliefs moronic, but it's difficult. Religious people threaten with death or an eternity in hell...You said people like me would be REMOVED from the earth.....So, while I can't threaten that, I can call your beliefs moronic. It's just how I feel.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Dan

      Also, Fullbag....just wondering. What exactly are "god's purposes?" What if I'm a good, kind person who just doesn't believe in all this religious stuff.....but what I do in life happens to be what you call "god's purposes".....will he still remove me from the earth??

      May 12, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Platypus

      Hey Fullbag: I too read the Bible but it didn’t take me 20 years to reckon it’s a “farrago of palpable nonsense” to borrow the words of Joseph Wheless. Yuck! Such a stupid book! Too many people believe literally what’s in there.

      May 17, 2011 at 4:16 am |
    • Platypus

      Dear Fullbag: Most people pray for their health and the health of loved ones. More than a billion pray five times a day. It’s a wonder people still get sick.

      May 17, 2011 at 4:25 am |
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