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. Muneef

    Islam, God and the Shining Light of Love
    God is love," the New Testament teaches, and Muslim theologians would respond, "But of course." The problem is that we are not God. As Jesus said, "Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God " (Mark 10:18). There is no authentic love but one, that is, God. This is tawhid, the assertion of divine unity that is the foundation of Islamic thought.


    May 18, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  2. Muneef

    Worshiping is good but acquiring knowledge is better 
    Superiority of Knowledge Over Devotions  
    The following is excerpted from the book "Reliance of the Traveler." The Classic Manual of Islamic Law 'Umdat al-Salik by Ahmed ibn Naqib al-Misri (d769/1368) English translation by Nuh Ha Mim Keller.
    a2.1 (Nawawi:) Allah Most High says: 

    (1) "Say, 'Are those who know and those who do not know equal?' " (Koran 39:9). 

    (2)  "Only the knowledgeable of His slaves fear Allah" (Koran 35:28). 

    (3) "Allah raises those of you who believe and those who have been given knowledge whole degrees" (Koran 58:11). 


    May 18, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
  3. Pyrrho

    This study is completely inane. The only way to correctly study if religion is human nature is to compare religious people with people who live in an environment not contaminated with religious teachings and dogmas.

    May 17, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  4. PoopEggsBenedictTheTurd

    This is way off topic but I have to say something. If the pope is so full of faith why does he ride around in a bulletproof pope mobile? Does he have some major doubts going on? Just seems a little strange to me. I love the hat though, Im going to make my hat taller then his. Sorry for the first one, not the best at typing

    May 17, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  5. PoopEggsBenedictTheTurd

    This is way off topic but I have to say something. I the pope is so full of faith why does he ride around in a bulletproof pope mobile? Does he have some major doubts going on? Just seems a little strange to me. I love the hat though, Im going to make my hat taller then his.

    May 17, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  6. sarah

    to say 'Religious belief is human nature' is balony because it's biased, it shows a lack of honesty, of integrity, and of intelligence. Just because you want something to be so does not make it so, religous folk (all religious folk) do this to some extent, tell half truths, only tell the parts of a story they agree with, rather than the whole.

    There have been study's since the 70's in many different conutries which have shown the higher the iq of an individual the less likely they are to be religous. Also we should take into account that most religous folk are religous because they were conditioned from birth into whatever religion their parents had been conditioned into – this is how religion proporgates. We know nothing of gods or religion at birth, we have to be instructed.

    I fear no gods or devils, they cannot touch me because they don't exist. This why religous folk have their petty hatreds and go to war, because their gods never do anything. If gods existed there would be no need for religous war, and no need to preach as gods would make themselves known, there would be no doubt, there would be hard provable evidence, but there is no evidence for any religions, thats why it relies totally on blind faith and conditioning from birth.

    I should make two proviso's here,
    1 – not all religous folk a self-rightous sanctimonious types, some of them are actually cool because they take religion for what it is, a belief ! and they respect their fellow human beings regardless. Others are petty, condescending to anyone with a different belief, and desperate to change their minds.
    2 – I'm not telling you what my belief is because it's irrelevent, i don't preach because i'm not self-righteous, my 5 neighbours are all different religions, we get on perfectly because we respect each other, like any intelligent human beings

    May 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Demiurge

      I don't think it is dishonest to say that humans are naturally inclined to be religious; I say this mainly due to how the human brain tends to operate. We ascribe motives to nearly everything unless we train ourselves very heavily not to (while it is valid to ascribe motives to animals, not so much for tides, planets, or atoms, which some people do, and which was much, much more prevalent in the past when we did not have the explanations we do today), while also having our brains acting as powerful pattern-detectors that easily get false-positives, as well as an inherent want to suscribe to the correlation implying causation fallacy. Those three traits mixed together make it very easy for humans to be religious about just about anything.

      Does that mean there is or is not a deity/deities? Well, that's a non sequitor for this argument.

      May 18, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  7. Platypus

    @CNN: Any chance of having a search engine on this data base one day?

    May 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  8. T-party

    Many horrible things are human nature not just religious fanatasim

    May 15, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  9. Muneef

    [2:0] In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

    [2:1] A.L.M.

    [2:2] This scripture is infallible; a beacon for the righteous;

    Three Categories of People 
    (1) The Righteous
    [2:3] who believe in the unseen, observe the Contact Prayers (Salat), and from our provisions to them, they give to charity.

    [2:4] And they believe in what was revealed to you, and in what was revealed before you, and with regard to the Hereafter, they are absolutely certain.

    [2:5] These are guided by their Lord; these are the winners.

    (2) The Disbelievers
    [2:6] As for those who disbelieve, it is the same for them; whether you warn them, or not warn them, they cannot believe.

    [2:7] GOD seals their minds and their hearing, and their eyes are veiled. They have incurred severe retribution.

    (3) The Hypocrites
    [2:8] Then there are those who say, "We believe in GOD and the Last Day," while they are not believers.

    [2:9] In trying to deceive GOD and those who believe, they only deceive themselves without perceiving.

    [2:10] In their minds there is a disease. Consequently, GOD augments their disease. They have incurred a painful retribution for their lying.

    [2:11] When they are told, "Do not commit evil," they say, "But we are righteous."

    [2:12] In fact, they are evildoers, but they do not perceive.

    [2:13] When they are told, "Believe like the people who believed," they say, "Shall we believe like the fools who believed?" In fact, it is they who are fools, but they do not know.

    [2:14] When they meet the believers, they say, "We believe," but when alone with their devils, they say, "We are with you; we were only mocking."

    [2:15] GOD mocks them, and leads them on in their transgressions, blundering.

    [2:16] It is they who bought the straying, at the expense of guidance. Such trade never prospers, nor do they receive any guidance.

    May 15, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  10. Platypus

    That was the Jesuit motto, alleged to be attributed to Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuit Order. The implication is that the best opportunity to indoctrinate a person in a lifetime of belief and devotion to religious dogma is when they are young

    May 15, 2011 at 3:31 am |
    • Platypus

      Environment is a sculptor! -Ingersoll

      May 18, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  11. galatians220

    Romans 1:18-23 "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, beeing understood through what has been created, so that all are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professin got be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four footed animals and crawling creatures. "

    May 14, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  12. chaz1

    How frustrating to see good people so tenaciously cling to fanciful ideas simply because those ideas are more comforting and 'meaningful' than the actual facts. Then again, if it makes you happy (and doesn't hurt anyone else), I guess it can't be that bad. Still, a separate article posted on CNN does offer some explanation as to why some minds may be so difficult to open. Interesting... http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney?page=1

    May 14, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • es58

      you refer to "good people"; where does the definition of "good" come from? If the universe is nothing but atoms, are there good and bad atoms? how many atoms do you need to stack together, and in which structure, until you create "good"? In a world that is only material, good (and every other non-material value term) is essentially meaningless, at least in an absolute sense; we can all create our own subjective good/right/wrong etc, but there it has no objective basis:

      I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it. Bertrand Russell
      question is, what is the origin of this dislike? is it evolutionary psychology, or is it somehow "real" stemming from some metaphysical place

      are we really so sure we know everything, to say that this metaphysical sphere doesn't exist? Until that can be demonstrated, I leave that door wide open.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  13. christ

    You are right. It is sort of like braonwashing, but I see it as creating a better place or even maintaining a balance. There are those who find there way and are not so easily persuaded. Reality, you seem like you know it all, yet you have seen nothing.

    May 14, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  14. wasting pearls and my time to respond

    To clarify, my objection is that it not easier to learn and believe in religion if one is not offered an alternitive idea to embrace.

    May 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
  15. wasting pearls and my time to respond

    wasting pearls and my time to respond

    People are religous because they learn everything they know through induction. Hume (a real phillosopher) would have thought of this study as an example of social "habits and customs". There is no such thing as an A priori belief. This article and study are little more than Kantian nonsense which can be atributed to a profound and irrational fear of dying. This study should not be considered Philosophy or science it should instead be viewed as a sermon that appeals "slave morality".

    May 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  16. wasting pearls and my time to respond

    People are religous because they learn everything they know through induction. Hume (a real phillosopher) would have thought of this study as an example of social "habits and customs". There is no such thing as an A priori belief. This article and study are little more than Kantian nonsense which can be atributed to a profound and irrational fear of dying. This study should not be considered Philosophy or science it should instead be viewed as a sermon that appeals "slave morality".

    May 14, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Margaret Murphy

      What is the purpose in refuting the significance of religion or why so many hold on to it.Why does this make many of the above angry? There is no definite proof that there is or isn't a God. Having belief in a God has helped many across the centuries
      IHow does this negate anyone's atheism?. By the way, I studied Hobbes, Locke and Hume.Their approach has been refuted and criticized by many philosophers since .Philosophy is a logical approach to studying what is believed to be truth. It is not the study of religion. Philosophers vary in method used. So far, none of them have been labelled finders of ultimate truth

      May 14, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • Eric

      You claim it has helped a lot of people but a lot of people have also died because of religion

      May 16, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Muneef

      Many people died because of the many reasons for death....but just wonder if more deaths are caused by Religions/Wars/Natural disasters/Terrorists acts compared to those deaths caused buy Drugs/Spirits/Smoking/Wrong Medication's/Over dose??
      Wonder if any deaths are caused by being supporters of Football teams and games on local and international level???
      We say many reasons but death is one, the date you were supposed to die you will die by one reason or another....but also said you should not throw your self to death or danger, unless you intend to die as a martyr for a cause.

      May 19, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  17. oldebabe

    There is an assumption here that all humans have this need for `religion' in their `human nature'. That's an erroneous assumption, of several in this study, IMO. Converting (perverting?) purpose to persona is due to a lack of knowledge, reluctance to accept personal responsibility, as well as, perhaps, traditional fear pressure from an early age.

    May 14, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • TAN

      You said it, "human nature".

      May 17, 2011 at 7:15 am |
    • Muneef

      Every Child look upon his father for protection and security. Every Man or Woman looked upon a higher authority for same, some have enslaved them salves to Higher Rank People of Authority for same feeling of protection and feeling.....some have not cared much about having such protectors and only trusted on a higher authority above all authorities (God the Only)... People protectors die but God never die and more just than people or parties or cults...

      May 19, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  18. Michael Drake

    "'We tend to see purpose in the world,' Oxford University professor Roger Trigg said."

    For instance, one might see purpose in CNN's failing to mention anywhere in an article given over to Trigg's "research" on our supposedly theogenic instincts just what it is that he is a professor of.

    May 14, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  19. Dennis

    Why does noone mention that the 'scientists' doing this study were funded to the tuneof 1.9 million pounds by the Templeton Foundation...? It's like scientists funded by BP or Exxon claiming to have proven that crude oil is actually GOOD for marine ecosystems... Sigh. When will we grow up as a species. Alas 🙂

    May 14, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Margaret Murphy

      This is not news. All cultures have held what we call religious beliefs going back as far as the tribal civilizations. There has to be a reason for this.Huston Smith and Bill Moyers have done a very thorough PBS series on world religions. Now you may choose to be atheistic. However it would be a serious oversite to deny that religion has been important for many centuries to many people and cultures. None of us really knows for sure that there is or isn't a God. Why should it bother anybody that somje choose to believe?

      May 14, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
    • Travis

      Margaret, there are many reasons many people take issue with those that choose to believe. One is that often believing in the religion means believing in things that obviously aren't true. For example that the Earth is less than 6000 years old. Another is that belief often causes people to do horrible things. History shows a long record of religious intolerance and religious war. Some (not me) may call the war on terror a war on Islam. The most classic example though are the Crusades. One last example I can think of. Believing means you don't have to use critical thinking. Believing as a lifestyle choice can often lead to exploitation. Take a cult like the Branch Davidians for example or the guy who just spent his life savings in NYC to let everyone know about the world ending next week. I have no intention to go into all of the different reasons but these are a couple reasons why non-religious people take issue with believers.

      May 17, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  20. Reality

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

    It is called the Three B Syndrome 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." – J. Somerville

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

    May 14, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Jemima

      Mutatis mutandis, this means of course that scepticism are atheism are also accidents of birth, 95% of the time. Something the sociological data very happily supports.

      May 14, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Platypus

      I'll buy 3 cures please...

      May 15, 2011 at 3:36 am |
    • Reality


      The cures are free:


      Saving Christians from the Global Resurrection Con/Disease:

      From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

      Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

      To wit;

      From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

      "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
      Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

      Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

      Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

      The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

      Only Luke's Gospel records it. The Assumption ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

      "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."

      The Vatican quickly embellished this story with a lot CYAP.

      Of course, we all know that angels are really mythical "pretty wingie talking thingies".

      With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

      o An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,
      o p.4

      o "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."
      p.168. by Ted Peters:

      Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

      o So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Jon

      Wonderful comment. Thanks!

      May 15, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Platypus

      Environment is a sculptor!

      May 18, 2011 at 2:38 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.