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. mike

    you do not have to be religious or belong to a religion to believe in a higher power!!!!!

    May 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Platypus

      You're so right! You don't need religion to believe in the god of your choice. Religion is all bunk!

      May 13, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  2. TTommy

    Absolute nonsense. People believe in God because they desperately want life after death. Humans were cursed witht he ability to wonder what happens when they die. It's as simple as that.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • CD6910

      Thanks for clearing that up for me, o great one! You have ended the debate. What were all those great minds thinking about?

      May 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • TTommy

      CD6910 ............... You are quite welcome, but you don't have to flatter me. A simple thank you would have done quite nicely.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • CD6910

      No fun in that. Glad to know we're cursed with the ability to think about eternity, too. Never knew wonder was bad.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Platypus

      The reality of life & death
      When we die, we die, gone, kaput, finito, and if buried whole – i.e. without incineration – our body rots and stinks and the maggots enjoy a free meal on our venerable carrion. The ego is gone too, so no problem there. That's life!

      May 20, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
  3. freetime1

    Do you think there would have been different results if there was not over 2000 years of cult like indoctrination to religion around the would? I do. Were there test groups that have not been indoctrinated to religion? I think they would be hard to find, so I bet there was not. If there was not, this make the study kind of bogus, well from a scientific stand point any ways. But it's harder and harder to find real science or real news for that matter.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • CD6910

      Religion is older than 2,000 years bro. Everyone is stained by some prejudging – including you.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • freetime1

      Did you miss the word "over" bro?

      May 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  4. UncleM

    FireBrand – the burden of proof is on you.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • firebrand

      You miss the point man. You may think that religious people are delusional. But there is nothing stopping them from thinking you are delusional, so calling people delusional is just silly and amounts to name calling and alienation. No one can disprove the existence of God, and most people can know things without the necessity of water-tight proofs. Faith in itself is not contrary to reason, and most people employ a healthy mix of faith and reason in their everyday lives. Otherwise the amount of verification required to do _anything_ would be suffocating.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Platypus

      FireBrand: “No one can disprove the existence of God”

      Platypus: No one can prove its existence as well…

      May 21, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  5. Harry Ball

    It's just human arrogance. The belief that we are sooooo frickin' important that we can't just die like every other animal on the planet.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • TTommy

      I'm with ya buddy. Religious believers are playing the odds. They know the things they are being asked to believe in are preposterous (talking snakes, parting of the seas, rising from the dead, etc,), but just in case, they say they are buying into it. It doesn't help those fantasies about an invisible friend in the sky and a devil with a pitchfork have been drummed into them since they first comprehend words.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • CD6910

      If you're just another animal let's put a collar and leash on you, stick a hook in your mouth, shoot you, etc without consequence. Oh, all of a sudden we're not just animals anymore, right? Sorry bro – we're more than animal, we have a soul that ponders it's existence.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Artist

      Somebody is k ink y

      May 12, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • CD6910

      Must be you "Artist" – he who smelt it, dealt it.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Harry Ball

      "we have a soul that ponders it's existence."

      No, that would be our brains. Unless you're one of those people who believes our hearts have the ability to love people as well as pump blood.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  6. Ed Watkins

    C.S. Lewis, also of Oxford, wrote in similiar fashion about the human nature with his logical theological result. This did not make him personally popular with Oxford academia of the day but Professor's Trigg's studies are such they will probably keep him in good graces.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  7. Ed

    Thsi may have already been said all of the posts, but prehaps our nature to believe in God is gods way of trying to reach us and get us to believe without being forceful about it.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • WWJD

      Are you ED the talking horse?

      May 12, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • GG

      Perhaps you are a moron.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Platypus

      Ed: “Perhaps our nature to believe in God is god’s way of trying to reach us.”
      Trying to reach us? Are you out of your mind? Ridiculogius! God knows everything!

      May 21, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  8. citizenUSA

    I don't think there is any human nature involved in religious belief. As children we are trained to believe so sometimes you become an adult with that belief. I think it is human nature to be curious about our existance. I think that if you believe there is a god you get those warm fuzzies from believing that so it comforts you and you continue your belief. Some people just conceed that god is the most plausible answer for our existance so they go along with it. It's human nature to believe that anything is possible.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  9. Marco

    I will continue to swindle people who believe because people who believe are very easy targets.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • WWJD

      'Any preacher with more than two suits is nothing but a hustler." Lenny Bruce

      May 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • CD6910

      Lenny Bruce – yeah, that's my mentor and where I get my sage wisdom. A drunk, foul-mouthed comic. Go with that – you wear it well.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  10. GG

    "Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways," such as believing in God's omniscience, said Trigg.

    So what?

    Children also find it easy to believe in Santa Clause. Because they don't know better and are impressionable. Because they are lied to by adults who "know better".

    May 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  11. Karin

    Eating candy every day when we need the energy certainly isn't the right thing to do. Yet, our brain craves candy because it has learned of the rush of energy our bodies receive after eating candy/sweets. Still doesn't make it right. Because the minds of men in mid-evil times required a god and/or gods to explain the world around them it doesn't make it right for men and women today to seek a god and/or gods to explain the world around them. As we have grown considerably intellectually since the dark ages. Today we find a huge group of individuals whom cast away hard facts for a faith based belief system making it almost impossible to continue our intellectual growth collectively. Why is truly the question one must ask!

    May 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  12. Marco

    "only the good die young, only evil seems to live forever"

    May 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  13. Marco

    Religion did not come naturally for me. Religion did not enter my life until my early 20's as a topic of conversation. I was confused....you mean there are people who believe in a spiritual being that created earth and man? I remember thinking, OMG How stupid!. Before that, religion was just a vocabulary word along with catholic, christian, etc. Did know about jesus, but you coulda told me he was jewish and I woulda believed ya. You coulda told me the star of david was catholic symbol, and I woulda believed ya. I didn't care. All I know is that religion has made me an extremely wealthy man because I take advantage of the akhem..belief's of the nimrods. I look forward to an ever increasing population of athiests as they are growing with every generation. Just research yourself and look at the percentage jump of athiests during the baby boomer era till today. And as every passing generation becomes more and more educated (not sure if you can call it an education in America) religion will slowly be eliminated within 20 generations.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Eric Lucas

      In fact, from a purely historical perspective, it is well known that Jesus was in fact Jewish.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • All In Kind

      I'm fascinated by your upbringing. I assume your parents were not religious. Were they of different backgrounds? Where did you grow up? I ask because I may choose to raise my children without an ingrained religion.

      Ps. Jesus WAS Jewish. He was a Jew who declared himself to be the son of God. His fellowers became Christians.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • CD6910

      Let's see...Jesus Christ...Jew...who became the first Christ-ian. Religion is not ingrained, it is stamped in our soul, our nature. Just like the article said. People will find GOd as they grow – if you get out of the way and don't ingrain them with doubt. That's why kids have greater belief.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • JackLee

      Hey Marco, I am not sure if human race still on Earth for another 20 generations.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  14. Mr Spockk

    In "The God Delusion," Richard Dawkins already argued that tendency towards religion is human nature which is rooted in human evolution.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • WWJD

      It was pounded into evolution by those who saw it as a very useful tool to control the behavior of others.

      The cave man returned from the hunt empty handed and soaking wet. All the good spots in the cave were taken.
      He let out a roar. The first human sound. Several scattered and he got a good spot by the fire.
      Speech in humans is for control not communication.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • makeaneffort

      Dawkins has a habit of bringing up as original issues that were exhaustively interrogated many centuries before by people much smarter than himself.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  15. Ken Bradshaw

    Does this purpose equate to a concept of morality? if so how; in what way? As we learn that waves of light and sound travel forever, I think more and more non-religious people can accept that possibility of existing forever in some sort of form. But will it be a cognitive existence. Will it be amoral or will it have a set of standards of right and wrong? Do standards of right and wrong exist and do they tend to be universally accepted among human beings? (I know they will not be absolutely universal, but will they tend to be?)

    I am religious and of course that colors my thinking. But here is the question. Does the need for purpose and religion stem from a fear of the unknown or from a desire to good and moral in our lives.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  16. JJ

    Just because it is human nature doesn't make it good, or even true. Greed, violence, and hate are also human nature. Maybe we should overcome our human nature. Go to Truthcontest(dot)com and read The Present

    May 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • The all potent one

      Totally agree

      May 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  17. Kate

    I think they need to clarify what is "religion", what is religious belief" (both man-made) and "see a purpose in the world". I would agree all humans see a purpose in the world however as a religious scholar I definitely do not agree that all humans have a "religious way of thinking". Otherwise I guess I'm not human.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • ChrissyinFL

      I agree where you are going with your thought. I thought too that they are improperly labeling peoples' search for any sort of meaning behind things...the "why?" questions, as being necessarily "religious". Humans are inquisitive, and have capabiliyt of higher thought, so we wonder about things. It doesn't necessarily mean we are hardwired to seek a religion or belief in God(s) for our answers. However, since nearly every human group on the planet today have intermingled and traded thoughts and beliefs for millenia, passing them on to their children from a very young age, undoubtedly there will be a prevalence of common religious ideologies.
      If it were possible to question early man, say some 60 thousand years ago, maybe there wouldn't be any "religious" leanings. Maybe just some loose questions about how things came to be, or apathy in general, since the concern would be more on how to survive today versus figuring what came before ones' own lifetime and why anyone is here.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Platypus

      "My passion is humanity, the welfare and advancement of humanity." -Anwar Shaikh (r.i.p. 2009)

      May 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  18. Abby

    Being thrust into religion from the day I was born, I never quite understood it. Even as a young child I found lots of holes in the stories of the bible and what I was being taught. For a good two years I had the largest fear that one day, long after I was dead, I would look down on my grave from heaven and see worms feasting on my flesh. I was nine, but who would have though I would have such insight.

    Believing in a religion, or not believing. Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, Agnostic, Athiest, Jewish (and everything else) all have the same result. You believe what you want, and you move on. Religion doesn't bring you a better life or more money, and neither does Athiesm. However, the strong belief in either of these can become a driving force to do better, and to sort of "one up" the person who believes the opposite that you do.

    And also, much to everyone's disbelief (and like someone above me said) there is little to no difference between "church" and "cult." Both have beliefs, and both follow them. Being Wiccan (for example) won't send you to hell any faster than being Catholic will. On a quick side note. Holy Communion is used to forgive your sins. However there are a lot of people who think, "Well by gosh, if my sins are going to be forgiven then let me just break all the rules of everything!" It doesn't make any sense.

    If you look at belief from an unbiased standpoint, all religions suck in their own way. They all have "rules" that are different than what we believe, and that makes them "wrong." However I would like to point out to people one thing: For those of us who practice a religion that uses the Bible (and maybe Torah... Probably Torah) as a holy book, we are told to be tolerant and non-judgemental. Take a step back from your life and understand you cannot, "not do no wrong."

    May 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Bonnie

      Try selling that to a Christians who believes being gay is wrong, then blocks them from being able to marry. Nice writing but living in reality....is a very different story.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Tim

      sad, that is one of the most Ridiculous statements I have ever heard

      May 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Bryan Jon

      Just wanted to say that holy communion never has and never will forgive your sins, I don't know where you got that from. Your sins are forgiven by repenting and asking God to forgive them. Holy communion is an act whereby we remember what Christ did for us on the cross! Now I'm ready for the all of the come backs. But, before you do, just remember that God loves you and so do I. bjon

      May 12, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • San Diego State

      Just want to point out that your rant is a religious rant. Your are expressing an agnostic relativist viewpoint. Religion needs to be defined broadly as the ideology or beliefs a person has about the nature of reality.
      Tolstoy wrote "It is impossible for there to be a person with no religion (i.e. without any kind of relationship to the world) as it is for there to be a person without a heart. He may not know that he has a religion, just as a person may not know that he has a heart, but it is no more possible for a person to exist without a religion than without a heart.” Note that under this definition (which admirably is debatable), Atheism is just as much as a religion as any.

      You are not expressing any view transcendent of religion, but expressing your own religious beliefs. Just wanted to emphasis that.

      And please do a little research on Soteriology before making universalist statements like that. Jesus explicitly stated that he is the only way someone can be reconciled to God, and this is the basis of Christianity. Sola Fide. Salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone (read the book of Romans, it explains this well). Universalism is just as intolerant to other views as any other ideology.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Platypus

      @ Brian Jon: Christ on the cross: A dead body hanging on two planks, a gruesome sight indeed!

      May 13, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Platypus

      @ San Diego State: Salvation from what?

      May 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Platypus

      Abby: “religion doesn't bring you a better life or more money…”

      Yes it does to the Vatican…

      May 21, 2011 at 3:06 am |
  19. Paul

    So it took a "study" to figure this out? Just about every civilization that ever lived on Earth had some sort of spiritual belief. If universities spend their money on studies that are obvious, no wonder higher ed is so expensive.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Michael

      Does it mean that atheists are "inhuman?"

      May 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  20. RationalThinker

    Just goes to show that humans are still very much animals acting on their animalistic instincts. People who use their brains to examine what's real in this world and what's not rather than giving it up to an unprovable concept will ultimately drive a split in our species akin to the Neanterthal and Cro-Magnon divergence.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • CD6910

      I do not agree with your first sentence. There is no evidence to support that dogs, birds, fish, – other animals – think of religion naturally. Your nature is not your instinct.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • makeaneffort

      "... will ultimately drive a split in our species akin to the Neanterthal and Cro-Magnon divergence."

      As this is an unprovable concept, all tational thinkers must reject it.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • RationalThinker

      I agree that at this point in time animal belief seems highly unlikely because we are currently unable to decipher the complexities of animal thought patterns and communication, although caetaceans and primates for example seem to cast doubt on that. So should we not strive to answer these questions and learn more about the intricacies of life, or surrender the explanation to a holy creator?

      May 12, 2011 at 3:34 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.