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. MSfromCA

    There are much more compelling reasons to think that spirituality is inherent. Certain kinds of seizures or brain damage can induce a "religious experience" (feeling of connectedness, etc.). Evolved or created there is brain machinery in there. Religion is a human construct that takes advantage of this machinery, but I don' have nearly as negative views on religion as most of the people on here. I that there are ways of living that are frankly better than others – not stealing, taking care of your children, etc. If religion helps guide people that way, great.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
  2. Marcus Kahl

    > existance >
    > a physical mericale
    > I am a successful scientist and I am not on drug.
    Yes, we can clearly see that you're not on "drug".

    May 12, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  3. Ridiculous

    I am offended that this study seems to attempt to use the beliefs of children to prove something about belief for everyone else. Children will believe anything that sounds good to them including Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and heaven. Furthermore, if their parents are religious, the children will be nurtured into a belief system reflecting that of adults. It's called indoctrination, and the vast majority of children in the world are exposed to it in some way.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  4. Apple

    Well said Kevin

    May 12, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
  5. presume nothing

    I've read the study this article is about. It in no way, shape, or form proves that religious thought is instinctive. It simply proves that the vast majority of the human population is religious, the human brain has the power for abstract thought, and that people who want to believe something can be extremely presumptuous. It, also, does not tackle the question of nature vs. nurture.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  6. shamgar50

    "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.<

    We have many deep rooted desires, not all of them good for society. This is one of them.

    I just love how Trigg knows what Dawkins will think (at least Dawkins can think). Perhaps Trigg is omniscient.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  7. Edward

    It's interesting they say that being religious is human nature but feeling bad for wanting to have intercourse or lusting after beautiful women seems like anything but human nature to me. It's natural to want to have intercourse with beautiful women yet religion teaches people that it's wrong, for example muslim women covering themselves so that men cannot see them, so how do you reconcile the two? Or do we just disregard what we don't like and consider any imaginative thought or questions one may have regarding the universe "religious".

    May 12, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  8. enaud

    These study results are not at all suprising in light of what the Bible says about God, "He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God had done from the beginning to the end." Ecc 3:11

    May 12, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  9. captnavenger

    Isn't this identical to some other CNN story from some months back? I mean, this reads word-for-word like something else they already threw up here. Come on, seriously. CNN, you are not in the business of trying to make everybody believe in the Spaghetti Monster. Please.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  10. ISITME?

    Okay, step aside folks, what do we have here. Oh I see...another one has gotten loose. I try to keep them caged. Nothing to see here..it is just another narcicist who wants you to believe more in him than in the great God that has created before you. Go ahead, everyone take a look at the complexities of this great universe. Magnificent. Now, lets look at him and everyone ask HIM...."what do you have?" , "What can you boast about?" "What have you created lately" (oh and without Gods help?). Show up what you got Mr. Know it All. (crowd booing here). Okay folks step aside, move on, as I said, nothing to see , hear or listen to.

    SIMPLY PUT – either you live in a circus with a bunch of clowns to believe in or believe in a spirit that boasts on what HE has, can and will continue to do. God Bless His Enemies One By One and may He have mercy on you.
    Ok...I can prove this guy wrong, but he would have to make it worth my time.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      If you want to run your life in accordance with an ancient fairy tale, it's fine by me.

      Just don't force me to accept your delusions by entrenching them into every facet of modern life!!!

      In DOG we trust.

      May 12, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
  11. kaune

    Our craving for salt, fat, and simple carbohydrates is instinctive too. An unnecessary artifact of our distant past when the next meal was always uncertain. Now McBurgers capitalizes on these instincts, contributing to the overwhelming obesity in our culture. Megachurches, Jerry Falwell, et al., capitalize on those other instincts. We don't need Falwell or McBurgers. We do need to stop looking for ways to avoid taking responsibility for how we live our lives, however.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • Biden

      You dontwant to take responsibilityfor your life because you cant handle guilt the guilt only christ can take away

      May 12, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Platypus

      Jerry Falwell is dead. Long live Larry Flint!

      May 17, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  12. vic

    Jesus said "Unless you become like a children you can not inherit the kingdom of God" and he said " Bless the simple people because they will see the kingdom of God". I am a successful scientist in biochemistry and genetic. I been raised up as a very traditional christian way of Christianity for 2000 years. When I went deeper and deeper in science I start search for the physical existance of God. To make the story short I came back to my believe because the last step God did for me is to show me what I wanted; a physical mericale with me first and then with my son and then he show himself to me physically. Remember I am a successful scientist and I am not on drug.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • WW

      Is a "physical mericale" a new particle or something? I hope your science is better than your spelling...

      May 12, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • Derek

      Isn't lying a sin? Because that's what you're doing if you're claiming you're a "successful scientist." No scientist I know writes as simplistically as you do. Yeah, I smell B.S....

      May 12, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • caram2

      Perhaps "vic" is not proficient in English as a first language. Give him a break. Miracles exist. Believe or not, it doesn't matter. Everyone has to go his own path. My God.. well, he exists, and has made himself known to me. Want to know how? You would not believe, and it really doesn't matter. When you want to search and learn, you will find your own path. If not, drop it and stop harping on those that know.

      May 12, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  13. allan

    I think Thomas Kuhn had some thoughts on Scientists that let their pre-conceived notions should not cloud the experimental process. So a scientist should consider all things written or original in his/her mind and carefully craft a hypothesis and/or theory to prove or disprove current thinking. Proof is great.....you have been found correct by a jury of peers. Of course an unexpected result is often called a Nobel prize....a paradigm is broken...everything changes with fire, the wheel, stem cells, nano tech.......


    May 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  14. tony

    Humans have consciences and survival instincts and fuzzy logic to prevent deadly embrace thinking. So that comes across as an internal "god" for guidance in unexplained and apparently uncontrollable random events. But that doesn't cross the line into us having a common "real" god which can communicate to others than ourselves. The god feeling we experience as individuals probably arose through evolution coping with our increased intelligence and reasoning and obvious subservience to powerful effects of nature, as no simpler animals seem to have it.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  15. Lucy

    This study could have been done through pure reasoning: religion is leftover from ancient times...if it wasn't "inherent", where did it come from? It came from people, thus it MUST be instinctive. However, claiming that just because it is instinctive makes it correct or the "right" way to live is nonsense. Didn't everyone "instinctively" believe the world was flat and the Earth was the center of the Universe until science proved everyone wrong? That being said, people with strong moral belief are actually found to be more resilient and happier than those who don't....so maybe lying to ourselves evolved for a reason.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  16. SearchingForAnAtheistExtremist

    I'm okay not knowing everything. Replacing the unknown with the fabricated is disingenuous and plain ignorant. Simply admit you don't know and then say 'but wouldn't it be great if 'insert story here'...there is an enormous difference between saying, "I don't know maybe this" and saying of course I know and it _is_ this. The reality is nobody knows. Why must people pretend they do and insult, kill, imprison, and discriminate against people who are capable of admitting the truth? Its a belief in something. Not real nor fact. Passing legislation and electing officials based on your shared view shouldn't be part of the equation.
    I could care less what stories people relace the not knowing with...what I do have a problem with is the fact that they all claim that they _do know_ and that what they want to be true therefore must be. It is shocking to me that our world is so full of people convinced they know when the reality is nobody ever has, does or will.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • Joao

      Posted on I couldn't agree more with you.It relaly raises a question at the upbringing of the INDIAN male.But it relaly is the problem of upbringing and its the same for both the classes of the society you mentioned.Upbringing is not just limited to teaching good behavior but also teaching against bad. And that's what the rich kids you mentioned, lacked. And this lack is obvious with the poor kids.That's how men like these are born!!

      September 7, 2012 at 3:21 am |
  17. Ruspanic

    Not at all surprising.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • Alisa

      rockandroll700 Posted on put your hand over your mouth1.make a wish2.close your hand (fist)3.put your hand (fist) over your heart for 5 seconds4.put this on three voedis5.tomorrow will be the best day ever

      September 7, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  18. chaz1

    Agreed. Religion will be with us for some time to come. That, however, does not attest to its credibility; only that humans, some far more than others, are predisposed to look for easy answers and to fill in gaps in knowledge with the fantastic when they aren't aware of other answers, don't understand the other answers, or just don't like those answers. As religion is also a very effective tool for maintaining authority and organizing masses to act in one way or another, I'm sure those who covet such power will help to see that it stays a dominant force, for better or for worse.

    May 12, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • Platypus

      Religion is a fixture; don't even think of getting rid of it. Get over it! -R. Dawkins
      But I believe in Robert G. Ingersoll who foresaw a secular humanist system to the human race in a distant future.

      June 5, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  19. Brian Zwart

    Promise me eternal life, and I promise to be a good person. Its an agreement between a deity and his followers. Afterlife is such bs.

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

      You cant be a good person no one can but I try to be good because i want to please God

      May 12, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • Kevin

      No. We are bad people, who are honest with themselves. Were all liars, theives, blasphemers, idoliters, etc... we can't do anything to please God, because our works are filthy rags, Jesus is the one who gives us grace. We allow Him to work in us and through us, and we get His rightiousness acredited to our account. We can not be good people, just bad people who have been forgiven by a good God. We get to heaven because we've been bad, but been forgiven.

      May 12, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  20. I'm Awesome

    Obama's Fault.

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

      We did it together.

      May 12, 2011 at 8:20 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.