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.
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God is no more a human instinct than ignorance is. God(s) are the result of man's attempt to explain the unknown at any given time.
your opinion only. no fact to support it. ain't that wonderful!
CD6910, that is exacty what it is. Your religion helps you cope with death, the reason for life, and so on. you would have an argument if religion concerned itself with things like "why crayons come in so many colors", but it dosen't. its all about explaining the unknown.
Religion explains why you hate and love, how and why you make decisions, the impact of those decisions, how to treat others, etc.
Yes, it gives you guidelines as to how to conduct your life. Those guidelines are given credence by entrenching the reasons for it in the afterlife. Without an explanation of death, the reasons for the morality lose its credence.
Morality is based on the internal human conscience, not the thought of afterlife. It is written in natural law as well. Religion does not need to concern itself with "why crayons come in so many colors" because God has created science for that.
If you admit that science provides an explination for morality, which it clearly does, then there is no reason for religion.
People on earth may not be the dreams of the gods, but the gods are the dreams of these people. – Carl Sagan
Morality is the custom of one's country and the current opinion of one's peers. Cannibalism is moral in a cannibal country. -Samuel Butler
God's mercy and forgiveness is greater than His justice. Do not be afraid – pray and your prayers will be answered. Not my will but His. : )
they sure will! Dork.
Perhaps you hate what I wrote because you have doubt inside. Nothing wrong with that. Pray about it and you'll get whatever you need.
Are you the same poster who uses CD6910 on the Gay Christian Action threads?
I dont hate. I'm comfortable with the fact that you are wrong.
Calling someone a dork based on a simple positive post is acting with hatred, in my opinion.
What is the gay christian action thread? don't think so. do you have a post I could check?
CD6910: "God's mercy and forgiveness is greater than His justice. Do not be afraid – pray and your prayers will be answered."
The world population clock reads 6,900,000,000. Most people pray for their health and the health of loved ones. More than a billion pray five times a day. It’s a wonder people still get sick.
Its natural to seek answers to great mysteries. Myth existed prior to the logic of science, so religion is the type of answer that spread. Eventually science will win, because it WORKS. That is the long and short of it.
Reality is, after almost thousands of years of God in our human traditions, we have evolved to believe in one. God doesn't really seem to exist...but we will be inclined to believe one because for so long we were programmed to believe in it. People are however beginning to wake up and see that there is no proof or purpose for god...
Most answer for life can be found in science. What we don't know...we eventually will know. Give it time.
So, religious belief develops over time and that is bad. But, scientific belief develops over time and that is good? Whatever, dude.
An admirably simple faith you have.
@CD6910: "So, religious belief develops over time and that is bad. But, scientific belief develops over time and that is good?"
Science does not require belief. Science is a method used to provide understanding of the natural world based on hypothesis verified by evidencial support.
The difference between belief and scientific understanding is that science leaves room for "we don't know yet". Belief is the claim of knowledge without, and in many cases, in spite of verifiable evidence.
Science does require belief – belief in the methods you apply. True science leaves room for the unexplained to be caused by something that is unexplainable.
@CD6910: I think you are talking about philosophy, not science. The scientific method does not allow for an "unexplainable" variable becuase it cannot be verified.
Philosophy is questions that cannot be answered.
Belief is answers that cannot be questioned.
How many times do I have to tell you people that this existence is a test to see just how gullible you are!
I think we are genetically predisposed to a 'power beyond us' that can protect us when we cant have control of situation.
I think this gene is passed by women via X chromosome, because, throughout human history survival of women has been
dependent on males who continue to have physical power over them. Then there are what may seem to humans inexplicable and unforseen killers – diseases, heart attacks, diabetes. We know it now, but imagine a perfectly good person dying suddenly for no reason.
The article stated that "children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways". Children are not really big thinkers. Their views are whatever they've been programmed to believe. You could have just as easily pointed out that children are more likely to believe in Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy, and The Easter Bunny. Basically children are more capable of fantasies with no need for a rational basis.
Children will believe whatever they think you want them to believe.
It is human nature look for and see 'patterns' in all things around us. This would have been very useful to early man, and today we use it to try to predict things. The belief in a higher power fits exactly with this since it allows us to match all of the unexplained events into a nice tidy package.
So we have a natural inclination to see purpose in the purposless... hence why we've anthropomorphized sun worship into monotheism. We just explained away God for the tenth millionth time.
Nonsense. We are indoctrinated from the moment we emerge from our mother's by religion, and this guy concludes that it's innate?
A true study would be to take 20,000 people at birth and NOT subject them to silly fairy tales and other idiocy, and compare them with 20,000, (or everyone else for that matter,) and see what happens.
My guess is, since we are ALL born Atheists, one would find that religion won't even exist in the 20,000 if their fresh brains are polluted with religion.
I believe this experiment was already tried in our earliest evolutionary stages. The results don't tend to support your assertion as far as I can see.
The problem with this study is it doesn't begin with the absence of the knowledge of a god.
We are predisposed to the belief in gods because of exposure to the societal and cultural norms that have evolved surrounding the creation of gods.
Our evolutionary development began with the absence of god. The earliest human didn't know of god. For some reason various cultures kept looking for this god. Why? I don't know.
When I was young, somebody told me that there's a 'godshaped void" inside every human being. Throughout life, humans search continuously for "the meaning of life". Those who have met and embraced the true find that the search is then over, and understanding to the meaning of life becomes clear for the first time. I only speak from experience, not to change your mind but to tell you how it was in my life.
Oops....meant to say "those who meet and embrace the true God..."
I make no mention of religion or god to my 4 year old son. We'll see if he turns naturally toward religion or if his questions about universal mysteries are satisfies elsewhere. Religion is a vestigial tail that will eventually be shed, like it or not we are evolving.
PDX_Atheist wrote: "I make no mention of religion or god to my 4 year old son. We'll see if he turns naturally toward religion..."
How do you explain the commercial spectacles of christmas and easter? Has he noticed the "In god we trust" motto on U.S. currency? As soon as he's able to go and visit friends, is it not possible that, should they, for instance, make it a practice to "say grace" before a meal or perhaps relate their latest religious experience to him he may be introduced to the doctrines that many in this society insist on forcing on others? How will you handle that?
@PraiseTheLard: Simple I'll explain to him in words that a young human can understand that people believe all kinds of stupid garbage. Just because they believe it doesn't make it true. Then I would encourage him to refuse to bow his head when prayers are muttered, and not conform to ridiculous traditions.
Question is that if you lived in a society where people from different religions live together, how would you accept the others.
If you truely believe in your religion to be true, the universal truth, you would not be able to accept the other regions to be true in good conscience. The question is how do we reconcile with this dilemma?
Thing is teachings of many regions are the same. How do we be good for goodness sake? A religion of Santa?
Then the article should have stated, this is not a belief of a God’s existence but that we are wired to know of a God’s existence. For instance, regardless of race, ethnicity or culture, a person laughing will be understood by any other, that this person is happy or pleased with the moment for whatever the reason or situation. We are wired this way. The question is; does this wiring really indicate the existence of a super intelligent deity and we are destined to share an everlasting existence with this deity, be it in heaven or hell?
To John M. Knapp, LMSW:
I believe that we each have fundamental needs (similar to Maslow's list) which are in fact emotional needs – the need for Safety, Security, Belonging, Love, Knowledge, Beauty and Spirituality. How we each seek to fulfill them is a personal quest. What I have discovered – finally – after decades of seeking to have them fulfilled by others (that never works) – and more decades of gaining new knowledge and experience – is that only I can fulfill these basic 7 emotional needs within myself.
I am with you. But I can imagine that some can get that sort of satisfaction by believing in an omnipotent being. Other people are going to let us down at one point or another. But some imaginary construct in our mind that is perfect and watching out for us may make us feel better. It can help us cope with death for ourselves or a loved one, when bad things happen we can believe there is someone to see us through it or is teaching us a lesson, that sort of thing. I don't believe, so I rely on myself and am happy. Probably people that can't trust themselves to do the right things to make them happy are more likely to turn to God.
I understand that it is your right to believe or not to believe in god. I just don't know what the non believers are going to do when the "Great Tribulation" happens, because when it does happen, there will be no help for you. Jeremiah 25:31-33
It won't happen...so we don't worry about it.
Considering that it will never happen, we won't do anything.
I could also ask the same of you with the "Great Tribulation" does not happen. We all see meaning in randomness, the difference is that some of us accept it and move on.
Judge not, lest ye be judged.
Now, go bake some cookies.
Jennifer, you are assuming that you are right, and non-believers or those who follow other religions are all wrong. That seems like arrogance to me. Very un-Christian of you.
So be it. But one thing you cannot say is that, you were never warned...
I just lost about 3 minutes of my life and likely killed numerous brains cells reading the drivel; both the article and the comments.
talking to imaginary friends gets old fast though.
What balderdash. How did they conduct this study? Did they study modern day humans who are already seeped in ancient religious tradition?
If so, then their study is flawed and meaningless.
To be truly objective, they should use only those modern human beings untainted by religious ignorance, who are educated with real world knowledge. I strongly doubt such subjects would develop any religious "need" to understand the world around them.
I'd wager these educated subjects would never feel or devise a need for a sun god to explain why there's daylight every new morning.
And they would probably eat pork.
Theres plenty of intelligent people who believe in God or a deity of some sort
Agreed. I make no mention of religion or god to my 4 year old son. We'll see if he turns naturally toward religion or if his questions about universal mysteries are satisfies elsewhere. Religion is a vestigial tail that will eventually be shed, like it or not we are evolving.
A study would find that among more intelligent (high level of college education), older adults, there are plenty more atheists than there are theists. While there are some intelligent theists, the amount of atheists greatly outnumber those.
This study proves that religion is a means by which the ignorant explain natural phenomena. For example, the Greeks explained lightning by saying that Zeus did it. Yeah, we know they were completely wrong and we sometimes laugh at their stupid beliefs as we now know how lightning is caused. But then if you look today, people use religion to explain what happens after death and how life was created. It's the exact same situation, and if the origin of life or if an afterlife exists or not is ever proven by science, and I am sure it eventually will, people will laugh at these crazy lunatics who believed God created two people who then had incest for thousands of years to create the human race.
Odd proposal. Such a study could only test the hypothesis that avowed atheists reject a divinity.
That's not very logical. If you do an extensive study on how and why human beings believe in god, wouldn't you have to include the educated and the uneducated? The intelligent and the not-so-smart? We are all so different. More than 90% of the world believes in god in one form or another. That percentage may decrease as we become more aware of how the universe works, but what this study shows is that it is in our nature to question, and to make up answers if we must.
USMC JOSH: You look up the list of famous scientists, artists, writers etc and you’ll find half are believers in god and half are not. I think that belief in a religion is more emotional than anything else. Just like voting for your favorite political representative.
All this study says is that we are naturally inclined to infer causation when something out of the ordinary happens. Anything that deviates from the average, we look for some factor to cause it because we do not intuitively understand statistics. This is human nature, just like a gambler believes in hot streaks even though they are statistically normal events. I highly recommend a book I read a while back, "How we know what isn't so." It covers a lot of the ways our view of events gets skewed, based on how we count events as "hits" (significant) and ignore when these events don't occur. This causes common mis-perceptions like "You always do that", or belief in ESP.
As for this tendency to be proof of God, it is more a proof of evolution. The ones who survived were the ones that could see common threads in events and therefore predict where the game would be found or whether a predator was nearby. Making the occasional bad inference would have a lower cost (no antelope here today) than missing the cues (There is a tiger here!), so we tend to make associations even when they don't exist. Thus we have people wearing their lucky jersey so their team will win again, because of those bad inferences.
Searching for patterns and 'explanations' is inherent in all of us. From reading tea leaves to playing the Stock Market. It doesn't imply that the patterns we find (i.e. a deity helped me out) have any meaning.