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 NYC

    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.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • JackLee

      Hi Mike,
      We already know now as something already happened. " Mathew 24 : 6-8." God and Science have to go together. Without creation from Creator, there woudn't be science. We all have different talents in nature, to created better technology today, to make our lives more easier. However, there are goods and evils everywhere on this world in human reality. Several countries been using technology to make better weapons for warfare as they had focused on nuclear plans while the regular hard working people to lived in starvation, the evil fascism, communism regimes always wanted to defend for their own power. To understand the purpose of life, we should all seek for wisdom and that is from our Creator.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  2. IceT

    I believe Deities are a side affect of our brain's early stage capacity for abstract thought. Our abstract thinking brain fills in the unanswerable questions with an anthropomorphized being(s) with all the answers.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • K. Reeves

      I know Kung Fu

      May 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  3. fran glass

    i think it's really that fear of death is human nature.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  4. Really

    How does an idea and concept that has to be planted in the mind to even be aware of, come naturally?

    May 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  5. Michael

    Stupidity is human nature, huge new study claims.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Platypus

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

      May 13, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  6. mycatsbreathsmellslikecatfood

    seems like it is indoctrination, rather than "human nature"

    i dont believe in religion, am i going against instinct or a very poorly written article...

    May 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  7. Nkp

    Service to god is the nature of the soul. Its natural to believe in God. We are very happy when we serve and service to god is the highest service. The reason for unhappiness is that we are serving our senses and not doing anything to serve god. Read the "Bhagvad Gita As it is" for more in depth information.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Toby

      I think that love should be what is important and by defining that it will dictate how we live with each other and bring fulfillment into our lives. There is not need to believe in fairy tales anymore.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Platypus

      The soul is not part of the anatomy of a person.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  8. Joe

    Hey, I think that both are right! Non-believers rely solely on factual scientific data. I think that is a hell of an excellent pursuit of the truth, it is awesome! I think the believers in faith know with every bit of their existance, that the God that created this stuff is incomprehensively so much more intellegent than man that we accept that what is not explainable is simply the glory of God. And, I think collectively, a person with the scientific approach simply helps explain some small facet of how this all came about, but not comprehensive and conclusive...and neither is faith conclusive or resolute. There is ALWAYS some element of doubt (unknown). So, rather than continue down the path of who is right or who is wrong, lets pool our faith and scientific knowledge together and improve this planet so we can live longer, healthier, and have a better quality of life for EVERYONE! What do you think?

    May 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  9. Meh

    Fairy tales dont interest me anymore – my own beliefs are good enough

    May 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  10. nofoldems

    Took me 30 years to stop believing in fairy tales. It's so embedded, that I still have doubts. Santa... is that you?

    May 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  11. OrgReligionIsFALSE

    Religion is and will be the end of our world. Man believing in something false based off another mans perversion of the world is our down fall. Religion = HATE

    May 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  12. Jay

    Religion is nothing more than an outdated philosophy created to keep "the flock of sheep" in line. It was necessary at the time, but current society & laws have made it irrelivant.
    Just be good to each other, people. No need to worship an invisible man in the sky who doesn't exist.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Platypus

      "My passion is humanity, the welfare and advancement of humanity." -Anwar Shaikh.

      May 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  13. Heann

    I believe ABBA will come back for another European tour

    May 12, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  14. Ken

    This has nothing to do with religion, it seems to me. I see it more as the human desire to put faith in those mystical aspects of lifedo not fall within the realm conventional science

    May 12, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Chris

      Agreed, feeling a sense of purpose in life, or even believing in an afterlife and reincarnation, has nothing to do with religion, a god, or science.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  15. OrgReligionIsFALSE

    Any org religion has been created to enslave humanity and teaches hate and ignorance. Human nature is not in religion it is Humans .. Its not some Pope or someone saying this is right or wrong.. Its in compassion. Religion is the ultimate of brainwashing hate mongers all over.. Religion controlled by man is a sick perversion of the higher power.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • blah9999

      You're obviously quite ignorant.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • OrgReligionIsFALSE

      u are brainwashed.... religion teaches hate

      May 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • blah9999

      @OrgReligionIsFALSE Sorry, but my religion only teaches love and acceptance of others. Gays, straights, blacks, whites, muslims, christians...

      maybe it's because my religion isn't considered "organized"

      May 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • PWN'd

      Please list, in order and spelled correctly, which parts of the realities of organized religion to which he is ignorant:
      aaaaaannnnnd go:

      May 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • K from AZ

      What higher power?

      May 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • btinc

      Hard to say, blah9999, who is more ignorant. OrgReligionIsFALSE's rather strong statement, or people who believe in an invisible sky god who impregnates a virgin and sends a human-god version of himself down to earth to be murdered for the sins of mankind, even sins that most people have never committed.

      It really is hard to defend mythological beliefs.

      Everyone is an atheist when it comes to the hundreds of gods mankind worships, I'm just an atheist regarding one more god than Christians and Muslims.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • blah9999

      How does having a religion make me ignorant? When you make statements of generalization like that, that all religious people are ignorant, that in itself is ignorant. You're a hypocrite. If being religious makes someone happy, why demean them? That's just they way they are, is it not? Why not be more accepting of others and stop being so discriminatory?

      May 12, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  16. DocBlogger

    Here is the irony: people who are quick to denounce contemporary science and media, just about when they have the chance to learn and test by themselves, are quick to accept religious books as authentic and above question just about when it has a high likelihood of embellishments and unsubstantiated statements.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:30 pm |

      And People who are so quick to embrace Man created EVOLUTION THEORIES And "WEIRD" Science will balk at looking at the POSSIBILITY that there JUST MIGHT BE A GOD!

      May 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  17. ABRU

    Stupidity also comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings

    May 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • kristoffa99

      So does hubris...

      May 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • K from AZ

      The world is living proof of that: 35 centuries of written history substantiate that.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Allen N Wollscheidt

      K fr AZ : : Correct, unfortunately ! !

      May 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  18. sami

    I believe in God and religion. I also believe in keeping my beliefs to my self. I am not interested in what you have to tell me about your religion, and I will not discuss my beliefs with you. It is a good system.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Tom Paine

      Sounds pretty lonely to me.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • jdoe

      Unfortunately many religious people don't feel the same way. They want to impose their belief on others, try to convert others, vilify and demonize other beliefs, and/or try to make their belief the law of the land.

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

      actually, it may sound lonely to you because you feel the need to discuss, whereas sami doesn't. loneliness, just like many feelings pertain only to the person conveying the feeling.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  19. The Dude

    I guess this validates the thought that there is a sucker born every minute.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Allen N Wollscheidt

      : : T D – Correct !

      May 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  20. Dexter Skagway

    Man is also instinctively inclined to war, fearing and hating people who are different from us, and trying to get things that belong to others. Fortunately, humans have reason (okay, many apparently don't have very much of it) to overcome these behaviors if they choose.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Allen N Wollscheidt

      Dx Sy : : : Right on, Exactly DEAD CENTER ! ! !

      May 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Brad

      "Man is also instinctively inclined to war, fearing and hating people who are different from us, and trying to get things that belong to others. "

      Hmmm....read "The Compassionate Beast".

      To say we are "instinctively inclined to way" is a vast misstatement of what human nature is/or is not.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • not sure i agree

      are children also prone to hate people who are different than them and declare war? could it be that when we are children we are most inclined toward God and the least judgmental/harsh/cruel and then later in life we are less inclined toward God and more inclined toward war/prejudice/evil?

      May 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • oneSTARman

      AGE of UN-REASON or Irrationality. You raise a GOOD POINT. The ability to REASON is what allows a Firefighter to Run INTO a Blaze even though his FEAR Tells him NOT To. EVIDENCE would indicate however, that MOB MENTALITY – which tends to TURN OFF the ability to REASON is what is so EVIDENT in Public Discourse Today. BIRTHERS or CLIMATE-CHANGE DENIERS or those think giving BILLIONS to Millionaires and Cutting off Help for Grandma somehow Benefits Their Own Greed Pigginess.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Chris

      I disagree. Reason is often used to justify war, fear, and hate. Compassion does not come from reason, nor does it need come from religion nor belief in a god. Like a sense of purpose, compassion comes from a higher order of thinking.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:49 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.