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. colluvial

    "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"

    Hey, I just freed up some time this weekend! It's the nature of my garden to grow weeds, my house to get messy, my clothes to get dirty. Why fight it?

    May 14, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  2. Roger

    When we're children, we instinctively look up to our parents no matter who they are or what they do. We have a blind devotion to our mother and father to the extent that we idealize everthing they do. We follow their mannerisms. We inherit their views. As we progress through life, that instinctive need for a role model/caregiver doesn't suddenly disappear. This is why religion appeals to so many people all over the world. God and his "love" for His children fills that void.

    May 14, 2011 at 4:44 am |
  3. Reality

    Why the supposedly belief in the various gods of today and of the past?

    It is called the Three B Sydrome i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in your parent's brand of religion/supersti-tions:

    To wit:

    "John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

    The Situation Today

    Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed."

    Easy cures for said Three B Sydrome are free and available upon request.

    May 14, 2011 at 12:37 am |
  4. Oliver Haddo

    Somebody said a bunch of pages ago that it its human nature to worship "one god". Crap. As far as I am aware, the Pharoh Akenaten was the first recorded person who tried to instiute the worship of a single god. The priesthoods did not thank him for it.
    What I believe is a part of human nature is a sense of wonder, a sense of awe....and you don't have to worship anyone or anything to feel that. Particularly not the Ultimate Narcissist – the Judeo-Christian god.

    May 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  5. Carol Smith

    So long as there exist peoples who do not exhibit religious sentiment, it can't be claimed to be a human universal. Read Dan Everett's Don't Sleep there are Snakies. The Pirahã is an example of a culture which is without religious sentiment or spiritual beliefs.

    May 13, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  6. Truth not Delusion

    Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
    – Albert Einstein

    May 13, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  7. Muneef

    We say "The Logic is the Master of Minds"... Minds with out Logic are no Minds. :THINK:

    May 13, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  8. Omar S

    Man, is this really news?

    Why do people invent religions or gods? Because we as humans can't accept the solemn fact that we're no more divine or purposeful from the perspective of the universe than the chicken that became our KFC dinner. We have bones and spines and flesh and we poop. But we can't exist as a civilization and accept just how not-special we are. To go on, we need to believe we're unique, that we have a purpose and that something out there gives a damn about us while we go on exerting effort to live and build for ourselves. We call that thing "God" (or them gods, or whatever), we assign attributes and personality, including some mental disorders, and then we seek its attention and guidance. It's sad really. The great tragedy of humanity, that we can't accept reality for what it truly is.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • Muneef

      Omar S.

      Brother few verses as example for your say;

      Blaspheming Against God
      [5:64] The Jews even said, "GOD's hand is tied down!" It is their hands that are tied down. They are condemned for uttering such a blasphemy. Instead, His hands are wide open, spending as He wills. For certain, your Lord's revelations to you will cause many of them to plunge deeper into transgression and disbelief. Consequently, we have committed them to animosity and hatred among themselves until the Day of Resurrection. Whenever they ignite the flames of war, GOD puts them out. They roam the earth wickedly, and GOD dislikes the evildoers.

      Salvation For Jews and Christians
      [5:65] If only the people of the scripture believe and lead a righteous life, we will then remit their sins, and admit them into gardens of bliss.

      They Must Believe in This Quran
      [5:66] If only they would uphold the Torah and the Gospel, and what is sent down to them herein from their Lord, they would be showered with blessings from above them and from beneath their feet. Some of them are righteous, but many of them are evildoers.
      [12:87] "O my sons, go fetch Joseph and his brother, and never despair of GOD's grace. None despairs of GOD's grace except the disbelieving people."
      Hope you realize where you could have went wrong?

      May 13, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
  9. Muneef

    Weren't the Germs,Bacteria any many many things were unseen for generations that only became to be seen in recent history after the invention of the Microscope which most recently has been developed further to see even more of the unseen...same apply for the Telescope that has brought us the unseen from universe to become seen and every day it develops we see even more..?!?
    Another thing that now as well man developed equipment's that sees the unseen as unexplained energy..!?

    May 13, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  10. Chester McFurley

    of course children are more inclined to be open minded, we are all born that way and thanks to "certain religions", and our "christian society" we are trained to not look inside for our own religion, but to look to others for teaching. i can tell you this, i have learned more from meditating under trees about god then i ever did sitting in a judgemental baptist church. none of it is "super"natural. just natural. natural magic, natural ways of thinking. all this electricity and garbage we eat is there to block out our inner selves. turn the tv off and go talk with a tree. you'd be amazed.

    May 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  11. Keith

    Wow, was tax-payer money spent on this? God hardwired people to seek Him. This is not news.

    May 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  12. Pastortype

    It is not possible, logically, to prove or disprove the existence of God. The problem with proofs of God is that proofs are based on logic, and logical proofs are built on starting assumptions. Change the assumptions and you change the conclusions. I suppose you could say that our choice of assumptions is based on faith (although not necessarily faith in a deity). Even the belief in the validity of our own perceptions is an assumption based on faith!

    I believe in God because I have experienced God, but my experiences are, naturally, subjective. Although they are convincing to me, they don't objectively prove anything to anyone else. They have changed my life - and in my opinion changed it for the good - making me less judgmental, more kind, and more generous. But I do not claim that tolerance, kindness, and generosity are virtues limited to those who share my experience of God, nor that all who have experienced God demonstrate these virtues. I can only speak to my own experience in my own life.

    That said, it seems to me that the study demonstrates a truth that should have been obvious, given that every culture has its deities and religious beliefs. Wonder when we'll see a study that proves that it's human nature to need community, or want offspring, or engage in conflict, or lie? Maybe I could get government funding for that.....

    May 13, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  13. San Diego State University

    After reading pages and pages of these comments, I have a reading suggestion for those who claim there is no empirical, scientific, historical or logical evidence for the gospel of Christ:

    The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh Mcdowell. Or anything by Lee Strobel, Tim Keller or Ravi Zacharias. These are all academics who answer this objection well 🙂

    May 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Nonimus

      I'm no expert, but I have read some Keller and have seen some of Strobel's videos and I don't recall any empirical evidence supporting the theological claims made in the gospels. They may misuse archeological evidence in a way that appears to support their position, but evidence of an historical event occurring does not support any supernatural aspect of that event. Most of their "evidence" seems to be non-empirical arguments, like ontological, cosmological, etc. or hearsay based on the gospels, like 500 witnesses to a risen Christ or women being the first witnesses, neither of which is empirical evidence.

      May 13, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  14. brad

    I remember a conversation years ago. Someone was asked "Do you believe in life after death?" The person responded, "Well, I got THIS life, didn't I?"

    After being non-existent, I came into being. If life-after-nothing is thinkable, life after life is easy.

    May 13, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Nonimus

      There was nothing before your body lived. Why would you think there'd be something after your body dies?

      May 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • brad

      Because things that don't exist tend to stay non-existent. Yet, to my great amazement, I do exist.

      May 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "Because things that don't exist tend to stay non-existent."
      What do you base this on? Show me something that didn't exist that still doesn't exist. (Yes, that is ridiculous, which is my point.)

      May 13, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Chris K


      When I think of Descartes' "Cogito Ergo Sum" (For those who thought Latin was a waste of time it is "I think therefore I Am"),
      this is what I think of. All of our theories on how or why we are here stem from the obvious fact that we ARE here. Based on that I would say Permanent death isn't necessary a logical conclusion. Even from an Atheistic viewpoint ... energy is neither created nor destroyed just transferred.... Where does your energy go?

      I may be able to rationalize the existence of Life as a Natural process with a Natural origin. But when I consider "Me" with all of my thoughts and emotion as explainable as just Electro Chemical reactions. Brain – Natural ...sure. Mind/Self-Awareness... that's a tough one.

      Not saying I'm right. Just saying...

      May 13, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • JohnR

      First of all, this whole "energy is neither created nor destroyed" is way out of date Newtonian stuff. Second, even in classical systems where it approximates the truth, energy may not be destroyed, but it dissipates and the systems that this or that form of energy helps create eventually go kerplunk. I wouldn't hang my hopes for eternal life (to the extent I even have them) on the fact that my body heat wasn't strictly speaking destroyed when it dissipated.

      May 13, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • brad


      I can look at everything else in the universe through a telescope or microscope or an equation. But not myself. I am too close to ME. I cannot be both under the microscope and looking through it at the same time. So it does get tough.

      I am not an atheist. I spent many years, as we all do, wondering "what is the purpose for my existence." Now it seems to me that I AM the purpose of my own existence. God wanted me to exist for my own sake. But maybe this just muddy's the water?

      May 13, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Nonimus

      In addition to what John R said, which I agree with, there is also the aspect of how the energy is organized. Basically, as with the 2nd law of thermodynamics, even in a closed system, the energy can become not useful for doing work. So even though the energy in your body may not have gone anywhere yet, it won't be in a configuration that makes you you, i.e. brain activity.

      May 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • alsodrawn

      I am confused. At what point do you think you just "popped" into existence? The "stuff" that you are made of, existed before it was you, it was just something else. Probably a part of a plant or an animal. After you die, it will become part of something else again.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  15. Nonimus

    Best response to this article ever:

    May 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  16. stormsun

    People are afraid of the unknown. They are afraid of death, the ultimate unknown. It appears clear that since the dawn of the human species, some have tried to alleviate these fears with explanations of various kinds, with stories and creative visions of what might be. It is not strange that people want some sort of belief system to explain the unknown and guide them through the sometimes inexplicable twists and turns of life.

    What IS strange is that most people put more effort into investigating the purchase of a used car, an insurance policy, or a company's stock than they put into choosing their religion. When it comes to religion, we require no background checks, no warranties, no proof of the claims by those selling the product. The only FACTS we can demonstrate about any of them is that they all make similar claims, they are all based on events other humans have told us about, they all describe the role of the priest/shaman/mystic/preacher as the communication link to the creator – in whom we should place wholly unwarranted trust, and they all want to control your actions in the here and now (and in many cases they would like some of your money, please). Now, why would any reasonable person have doubts about religion?

    May 13, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Mike

      You know what they say about "assume". I am not afraid of death, I have walked the battle field, I have loved my Lord with all my heart and I know that when I die, I will live forever.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Chris K

      "The only FACTS we can demonstrate about any of them is that they all make similar claims, they are all based on events other humans have told us about, they all describe the role of the priest/shaman/mystic/preacher as the communication link to the creator – in whom we should place wholly unwarranted trust"

      I will admit that many people will "call" themselves members of a certain belief system without investigating it first. But you assume too much when you suggest that ALL religion and ALL believers fit what you described above.

      I have my own experiences to base my belief. The Bible does not ask that we place our trust in any person. In fact it offers numerous examples of its "heroes" failing: Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul are NOT presented as perfect. The only perfection in the Bible is that of Jesus. And therefore from a Christian perspective (the only one I am qualified to speak about other than my time as an Agnostic), your assessment does not fit. Perhaps other faiths can offer examples as well, I'm fairly certain Buddhism also would not fit into the box you tried to lump religion into.

      But the unquestioning thing... I'll give you that.

      May 13, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • JohnR

      Mike, Just you wait! Shiva the destroyer of worlds will soon be knocking you off your co-cky pedestal.

      May 13, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Platypus

      Mike: You know what they say about “assume”: It makes an ASS of U and ME!

      May 17, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  17. straitjacket58

    how quickly people forget that the definition of faith is belief in something for which there is no proof

    May 13, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Mike

      But oh how wicked of your hatred without cause. We have more than enough "proof" in the living word of God. Repent and be baptized my friend and join me in the Love that is Jesus Christ.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Qwert Qwerty

      Like in Atheism? Where is there "proof" that is the "True" way to believe? Where other than your BELIEF is the evidence there is no God? where is your proof that A universe CAN NOT be created? If Scientists tomorrow Created a Universe teeming with life & in that universe chose one galaxy then one Solar system to alter TWO Planets to hold human life. Would you stand there denying they did it? Yes you would.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Chris K

      Faith is NOT the belieif in things without proof. It is the beleif in things unseen. It does NOT mean that those things are NEVER seen, just that we do not see them now.

      In my life I have had the pleasure of seeing my faith bear fruit.

      Faith is not the belief in something despite evidence to the contrary. It is just belief first, and seeing it later.

      Your definition of faith is one of the lies that makes people think of believers as crazy. You can call us names, just don't try to twist what we stand for to justify your dislike or misunderstanding of people of faith.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  18. Gene Woodford

    Perhaps what this article simply means is: If you want to believe in a religion, that's just fine. If you don't want to believe in a religion, that's okay too. As long as we are all good American citizens, who pay our taxes, obey the laws, and do no harm to others, there is no difference between us with respect to our daily lives.

    May 13, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Free

      Gene Woodford-
      You could also take from the article that you really aren't crazy to feel that there are gods, ghosts, and devils 'hidden' because our minds are hard-wired to be alert to hidden dangers. Being wary of dark spaces would have been an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. Still is, in many cases, when you consider how dangerous dark alleys can be, but that doesn't mean that supernatural things are real threats.

      "As long as we are all good American citizens, who pay our taxes, obey the laws, and do no harm to others, there is no difference between us with respect to our daily lives."

      Ah, but do the folks associated with religions actually pay their fair share of taxes, obey all of the laws and, most importantly, not actually harm others?

      May 13, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • VishaNu

      Free - Why would a person associated with religion pay less in taxes than a person not associated with religion? Just because churches and other religious organizations are tax exempt, that doesn't mean the people who make up the following aren't paying their taxes.

      I go to church, but I pay just as many taxes as my atheist neighbor down the street. And yes, I may make a donation to my church or other Christian organization and claim it as a tax write off, but an atheist can just as easily make a donation to a non-profit charity unaffiliated with any religion and use claim it as a write off, too.

      Parochial schools actually help keep taxes low in some communities. If it weren't for the parochial high schools in the town where I live, there would be an additional 360 students in our public high school to find room for, to find teachers for, to find books for. The tuition those students' parents pay is not tax deductible, and yet, their parents pay taxes to keep the public school operating. The community also gets the benefit of state education aid because those extra students live within the district.

      May 13, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Mike

      We are God's creation, why would anyone doubt that we are "religious". The problem is that same God is a jealous God and man does not understand that. It is for freedom that Christ set us free. He who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of the Light. Repent, be baptized and love and serve others, live a Christ like life and you will not stumple.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Free

      Churches are businesses. They compete with one another for congregants who support the churches through offerings and free service. They are not just charities.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Qwert Qwerty

      No wrong assumption. What this means is we all believe in something. Be it there IS a God or there is NOT a God. surround ourselves s humans we MUST believe in something as True & surround ourselves with those who share that belief. It's like Joining a high school activity. Some Join the chess club, others Glee, others Sports & others the 420 club. If you look at Atheism rationally & logically there is no difference between it and any other belief despite the lie. You have your Prophets like Randi, & Dawkins, Your belief in NO God, & the many books to support that belief.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Free

      Qwert Qwerty-
      "You have your Prophets like Randi, & Dawkins, Your belief in NO God, & the many books to support that belief."

      When people utilize the scientific principle and are able to predict when something is a trick, or when a new fossil fills yet another so-called 'gap' in the record that's just knowing your business, just as an economist can 'predict' when the market will fall and rise. This is not at all like being some Old Testament character spinning a failure or tragedy into a positive, the record of which comes from a book written after the events it supposedly 'predicts'. The books we believe in are based on evidence and fact, whereas believers say that you can only accept what their books claim if you have faith in them first. The difference is completely polar.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • VishaNu


      Wrong again. The definition of a business is a company or other organization that buys and sells goods, makes products, or provides services. Churches are merely a gathering place for praise, worship and fellowship with other individuals whose beliefs are akin to their own.

      One could even argue that a forcing a church, synogogue or mosque to pay taxes would be a violation of the separation between church and state. Right now, there are rules in place that prevent churches from endorsing candidates in elections and telling their followers who they have to vote for. Those rules are enforced through the threat of non-profits losing their tax-exempt status. Could you imagine the political corruption that would occur if you removed that?

      You might as well put the Pope in the Oval Office if you remove that threat and allow the free flow of money between government and religious organizations.

      May 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Free

      When missionaries give spiritual instruction to people freely, then that's charity, but a church cannot operate without the support of the paying congregation, right? All around America churches close when too few attend to give enough to maintain the upkeep and pay the minister, just as restaurants close when too few patrons eat there. So, in effect, those sitting in the pews are 'paying' for the service they get of being spiritually instructed and that is as much a business as a psychologist getting payment for his services, yes? Why would we not expect the church that employs the minister to pay the same taxes as the clinic that employs the psychologist?

      May 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • VishaNu


      I just told you why!

      I'm a spiritual person, and I believe in God. But I also wholeheartedly believe that religion and politics don't belong in bed together in this country.

      If you think the Christian conservatives have influence in the White House now, then what do you think would happen if you removed the tax-exempt status and allowed the Southern Baptist Congregation, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Synod or the Catholic Church to officially endorse candidates?

      May 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • JohnR

      Woodford – The article says nothing even remotely of the sort. The person who wrote it and the people that did the study may well agree with what you said. But the study is clear in stating that people have a natural tendency to believe in supernatural things. It is, so to speak, neutral on the question of the sort of philosophical neutrality you describe.

      Qwerty – The article would tend to undermine your claim. Atheism is obviously a belief system, but it is not the sort of supernatural belief system that the article references.

      May 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Gene Woodford

      Thanks everyone, your opinions were very interesting and we all certainly have a right to make them.

      May 13, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Free

      Do you honestly think that candidates aren't being openly endorsed at pulpits now?

      Regardless, my point was that the churches are de facto businesses. They pay salaries, they build capital holdings, they invest in land and other commodities, they expand, they standardize their 'products' and they are in direct competi.tion with rival churches just like businesses. Some churches are richer than others, and they tend to survive where the others do not. Churches depend on their members to be customers and they couldn't afford to stay open without financial and other support from these people. It's hardly your local canasta club. A bible study group maybe, but not a profit-generating enterprise like a church.

      My comparative example was that of a psychologist. If they, or the marriage councillor, a motivational speaker or what have you provides the same, or similar service as the minister then why shouldn't the businesses that employ both pay the same taxes?

      May 13, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  19. sam

    Funny how many different directions we can go observing the same interaction when starting from a different mind set (gods are real vs god our not real)

    May 13, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  20. zagwee

    Sounds to me like he might jsut be onto something dude.


    May 13, 2011 at 8:55 am |
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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.