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. Einstein

    If belief in religion and the afterlife is instinctive among all mankind as this study claims to prove, why is it that neither I, my family or my friends believe in either God or an afterlife? I would like to believe that we are part of mankind...

    May 12, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  2. RightturnClyde

    1000 years from now people will look back on the 21st century and chuckle pretty much like we do about the middle ages. Men and women of the 11th century lived their lives not unlike us .. were kids, grew up, married, worked .. aged, passed. Oh sure Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine made some good stories. Don't waste your time thinking you know something they didn't (because you don't). Spend your time being a good man or woman, love your family, avoid hatred if you can .. avoid regrets. Try to get what's open to you and do not worry too much about who caused what.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  3. Scott

    We also use to all think the world was flat instinctively until science proved otherwise.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  4. Charlene Throntveit

    Humans are so egocentric they believe the world revolves around them and "religous" beliefs, a life of purpose or the life hereafter is an extension of that egocentricity. It's innate and god-willing serves makes man a better species. Peace on earth in our time.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • Platypus

      The egocentric earth: Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the millions of species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. -Carl Sagan, "Pale Blue Dot".

      May 17, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  5. Artist


    @Artist: Sooooo, that's it? Anyone who believes in God (which happens to be the VAST majority of the world population, by the way) is a deluded schizophrenic? Really??? That's the best you've got??? Go paint a pretty picture, because your ability to understand a complex subject is what doesn't exist
    Because the vast majority of the population might be mentally ill does not justify it. Don't take it personal, just get help.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  6. Joe Schmoe

    This is my take on why religion is so prevalent in the world:


    May 12, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  7. sobSaab

    Most religions believe in an afterlife and people are raised in societies where people share similar beliefs. Therefore, it is not intuitive because at very early ages children are told about God, Heaven etc. They only way you could say it is intuitive is to raise children in a world where no one talks about God and an afterlife and see if they, on their own, they come up with these concepts.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  8. BL

    Religious and afterlife belief is instinctive because the human ego, always in survival mode, can't bear the thought of, "the end of ME." There must always be some other life in some mythical future that doesn't exist to avoid dealing with the present, which is all there ever is.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  9. ObjectiveGuy

    I'm logging off because I'm sick of seeing all of the God-haters, atheists and religion bashers here clamoring to tell everyone how right they are in not believing in God, and trying to convince the believers among us that we are fools, idiots, or schizophrenic. Really disturbing to see people go out of their way to put down the God who created us, loves us, and forgives us of our shortcomings, if only we ask Him to. The fact that God, the unending source of love in all of creation, has to take this kind of abuse sickens me, and I'm tired of reading all of the ignorant, hateful comments. Just remember this: If you live your life like there is no God, you'd better be right. Peace.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Brian Zwart


      May 12, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • nmarlow


      May 12, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • Artist

      I am sure you scored brownie points for stick up to the big bad god haters. Psssssssst your god can take care of itself I am sure. No need to get b u t hurt.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • Seenen

      Show me where there is any correlation between how moral people are in their every day lives and how often they go to church. In this Christian nation, most people seem to think that everyone lies and cheats so that makes it okay.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  10. Brian Zwart

    I'm with Artist... my head is spinning.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  11. Ray

    I think people have spent a lot of time, money and education on trying to prove that their is legitimate reason for our behavior regarding theism. I am glad I can say I am a believer and I think it is sad that so many people are fooled by what the world has to offer... it is nothing but shadows and dust. this is not all there is!

    May 12, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  12. OneTrueThing

    This sounds like a Meta-analysis of data, which is among the least valid and least respected type of data in the scientific community. Real front-page news.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  13. OneTrueThing

    Religion is like fashion, people just do it because others are doing it and they want to fit in and don't want to be excluded. It is about as smart as wearing your pants so your underwear and jesus-crack are visible to the world. It's the opiate of the asses.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  14. Leucadia101

    When my brother died in a fire, I found myself wanting to believe that he was ok and in a better place, but he was an atheist and just didn't believe it was what happens. I honored his beliefs and although you, me, and everyone else wishes there was an afterlife, we honestly have NO idea until we die. Trying to hold onto a belief like this is crazy, and it will drive you crazy. Just appreciate the life that you have and enjoy it while you are living it.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  15. Brian Zwart

    Must we really find an origin or an all-encompassing creator? I have disputed the analogies. I was brought-up drawing doodles and falling sleep during sermons. Is there anything more fail than faith itself? I need not explain it. how dare me.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  16. ISITME?

    I can prove this guy WRONG....seriously, but he would have to pay me to do it!!!

    May 12, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  17. Sid Airfoil

    As the article says, this means NOTHING about the existence of a god(s). Only the BELIEF in gods.

    Humans have an instinct to see patterns where there are none. We see pictures in the arrangement of stars, we see conspiracies where there are none, we see correlations between the alignment of planets and the events in our lives and we conclude there is causality. And we see god's hand where there is no god.

    Humans see patterns where there are none because, evolutionarily, it's better to see patterns where there aren't any than to fail to see patterns where there are. Patterns allow us to predict whether a predator is about to attack us, they allow us to predict where food might be, etc. And it's better to follow a pattern that doesn't exist than to miss one that does. In "survival of the fittest" it's better to see false positives than to miss false negatives...and die. Better safe than sorry.

    Religion is just a more complex version of what our species has done for millions of years. And it's still a false positive.


    May 12, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  18. Paul

    All the Jesus defenders here lack one major point in their favor. There is absolutely no evidence outside of the Bible of Jesus' existence. None. If you think otherwise look into your sources. I'm not saying this to incite anger, just to establish fact. There has been far too much fantasy history tossed around concerning Jesus, and people who do not research themselves think this evidence exists.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • abby

      Is there evidence of everything real? I think that to hold reality to the standard of scientific "evidence" may be a little bit short-sighted. Especially since science and what I think you're referring to as "evidence" are social, cultural artifacts – just like religion.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • allan

      Jesus was mentioned by a historian named Josephus; he called Jesus the leader or focus of a new sect that called themselves Christians. I think he (Jesus) was a social activist who called his Jewish leaders on the corruption in Temples. The Religious leaders had too much power since they united 12 tribes under the umbrella of God. So they killed him without evidence as I recall. Refuse more research about BS.


      May 12, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Carl

      Obviously from a historian informed on the subject...get real dude. Even if you don't belive that Jesus was the Son of God, there isn't any REAL historian that will argue his existence as a man. I also love that you say "outside of the bible" because OF COURSE that can't be true, right? Multiple accounts from corroborating eye witnesses, cohesion and story-lines that don't fit a hoax...try again.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      People have been tried and executed with LESS evidence. There's evidence. But it is a matter of faith (not proof). about 98% of life is a matter of faith and not proof. Actually the most important part of life is on faith and not on proof. You actually cannot prove very much. Science has very little actual proof (so you cannot take their word for it). So what it boils down to is this: to err is human AND you have got to believe something. Try to err on the better side of things. Don't wait for proof .. you haven't got very long. When you time is up you will not walk ten feet. Give it your best shot and go out in mid stride.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • PeaceOut

      He was also mentioned by a Roman senator named Tacticus.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Allan: The Josephus' statement was proven to be a falsification. It sounds like it was written by a Christian. Josephus was a Jew.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Brian

      @Thnker23. Your claim is only half true. It is true that Josephus's writing certainly includes some statements that seemed to be inserted by Christians. However, that does not change the fact that Josephus was referring to Jesus who once walked on the earth.

      May 12, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  19. NotSoFast

    If there's a god, let him strike me down with a lightning bolt right now as I'm typing this. No waiting for an earthquake or a tsunami. Do it right now.

    Religion: What people do a couple of hours one day a week, to "make up" for the rest of the week.

    Religion: The absence of logic.

    Intelligent debate about god can only last a short while before the believer gets a sort of glassy eyed look and must resort to incoherent babble.

    The basis of religion is greed and power.

    Religion is a mold that grows on the ignorant.

    My gods better than your god, my god's better than yours! My gods better cause he's got bigger nukes, my gods better than yours.

    How many humans are murdered every year in the name of god?

    The bible sprang from what is arguably the most insane part of this planet.

    Religion: Take a few good pieces of logic like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and then build a cult around it.

    And after a while, those good pieces of logic are only remembered or even considered during that "couple of hours" I mentioned earlier.

    There's more evidence proving the existence of bigfoot than there is of any god.

    I believe in Santa. There's not proof but I believe.

    Hey god....... I'm still here.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Um

      Right with ya!

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

      Hater: You.

      I don't believe in Santa, but am I going to get in the face of a little kid that does? No. I don't believe in Shiva, Vishnu, or Ganesh, but am I going to get in a fight with a Hindu and tell him just how wrong I think he is? Am I going to get in your face for being an atheist? No. Your beliefs are your business, and others' beliefs are not. Peace.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • Pj

      I think that A religion arose from what is the INarguably most insane spot of the world.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • Judah

      Ditto. Logic dictates that all life evolves. Intelligence and science dictates that what is here is here. We don't need a crutch to lean on, to get us through life, to have something to look forward to. THIS, the now, is all there is, is what we should look forward to. LIVE for today, not a day of reckoning that has not come in 2000 years and which is not coming!

      May 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Brian

      So b/c God doesn't strike you down he therefore doesn't exist? If he does exist, I doubt he cares about some loser blogger on cnn.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • NotSoFast

      Brian – Thanks for proving my point... several times.

      May 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  20. 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 7:05 pm |
    • Mobius007

      If people from around the world "instinctively" believed in a single, coherent religion, then the study would be on to something. As it currently stands, the multiplicity of religions strongly conflicts against the concept of a single god.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:28 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.