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. Marie G.

    Catholic Catechism – CATECHESIS ON CREATION:

    282 Catechesis on creation is of major importance. It concerns the very foundations of human and Christian life: for it makes explicit the response of the Christian faith to the basic question that men of all times have asked themselves:120 "Where do we come from?" "Where are we going?" "What is our origin?" "What is our end?" "Where does everything that exists come from and where is it going?" the two questions, the first about the origin and the second about the end, are inseparable. They are decisive for the meaning and orientation of our life and actions.

    283 The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: "It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me."121

    May 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  2. Ralph T

    Maybe it comes instinctively because we are all literal children of God. At least, that's what I believe.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  3. Chris

    I Believe That There Is No God And That Were Here Because Of Astounding Event's In Earth's Past And Natural Selection. Not Adam And Eve In A Garden With A Talking Snake.....lol

    May 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  4. kamillah

    it is called the fitrah, the natural inclination to believe in The One God, The Creator, upon which every child is born. That is why the study found that children easily believed in God. it is the environment that causes human beings to depart from the pure monotheist belief- the Fitrah

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

      Why do you assume that the people in these studies believe in the Judeo-Christian God? The article doesn't say that. They could be worshipping Buddha, Ginesh, or any number of other wacky beings.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  5. douglas

    This appears to be opinion and not a valid study. To show that the belief in God is human nature, you'd have to show that a person or culture came to believe in God without being influenced or pre-conditioned in any way. I don't know how you could do that in this day and age. Maybe in the days that Joseph Campbell was doing his research...maybe. But not today. I don't think there could be any groups of people left on any continent or island that have not been heavily influenced, or even exposed, to God.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  6. Religious sects

    Look at dreams, rich in metaphor but lacking in reality based scenarios. It shows how fertile our subconscious ability for abstract thought really is. Religion seems to be a subconscious abstract metaphor (for things we don't yet understand) that has been sculpted by our conscious mind to fit our reality. That could be why it's so hard to shake from the human races collective consciousness.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  7. closetiguana

    Believing in gods is a far easier explanation than to have science come up with an explanation. And if the bible gets it wrong, for example: "the sun revolves around the earth", then simply chalk it up to "god was testing you".
    See how easy it is to believe in gods?!

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

      Don't forget my favorite bs, "he works in mysterious ways"

      May 12, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • closetiguana

      The old stand-by answer

      May 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • closetiguana

      How did you get all these races from one race without evolution? "God is mysterious".

      May 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  8. Chaz

    There is only ONE way into Heaven...someone tell Oprah

    May 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  9. Joe

    "Indoctrination" is the key word.. the same way as evil corporations leads us to falsely believe that drinking milk is good for you (remember "Got Milk??")... Religious groups want to manipulate young minds so they grow up as believers... I do not agree with the article... Religion does not come naturally, even instinctively, to human beings... imagine for a second that you take 10.000 kids... isolate them in groups of 100... then let them grow up normally.. but without never ever mentioning the concept of a "god" or religion.. or the idea of believing in a supreme being... are you going to tell me that let's say.. 80% or more of them are going to reach adulthood and somehow spontaneously realize that a) There is a "god" b) you need to believe in it in order to have a sense of purpose in life c) you need to organize in groups and form religious groups with the purpose of worshiping this newly found "god".. Seriously ???... as somebody said here, a great percentage of the Western European societies are atheistic... why is that?.. a fluke? a freak of nature because they do not "naturally" believe in a deity?...

    May 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Religious sects

      Religious indoctrination of children from birth is a form of child abuse. We give our children Santa, Easter bunny & the Tooth fairy and reveal the truth when a child matures and logically questions them. Logical deduction prevents them from continuing to believe on their own, but many are force fed, under threat of eternal damnation, the continued belief in God out of their parents own indoctrinated fears.

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

      I believe your experiment has already been performed. If you believe in evolution, then the first humans would not have known of the concept of god. However, various groups of first humans developed their own innate search for this concept. I just can't see why the assumption is that if you did the experiment today the results would be any different.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  10. Jon

    What this article was trying to say is that religion is basiclly a product of Evolution. I agree that religion has allowed for society to become robust and during very trying times (like the Black Death for example) religion gave people comfort in a world falling apart. However, we can all see that sometimes religion has a problem with keeping up with the advances in science and technology. Even though religion is deeply rooted in human experience, there is also another side. Humans are the only species that can change the way it thinks. If we are truly to survive this adolesence we are currently in, we must began to reevaluate our most sacred of beliefs. They only hold us back from reaching our potential, of truly becoming one planet and one race...human.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  11. Kevin

    Religion has been the greatest source of evil in the history of mankind.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Tom Paine

      Then Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were purveyors of good since they were so anti-religion.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Up Your Rear Admiral

      Tommy boy, Hitler was an avowed Catholick.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Tom Paine

      Up, Hitler did not practice his faith, particularly when he came into power. He believed in the occult. He had priests and pastors thrown into prison. He asked the church to recognize him as the head of the church. I don't think anyone would call him a real Catholic.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • tommas

      Tom, really I think all those attributes describe the history of the catholic church quite well.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  12. Tom Paine

    Beliefnet Blog 101: The articles are about belief but the comments below could be called, "the UnBelief Blog."

    May 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  13. Jeffery Bradley

    Read this, not that ...


    May 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  14. RT

    Fore each christian there must be several idiots...So there must be an empty Kmart somewhere because there all here today.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  15. Anglican

    This is no surprise. We all have one Creator.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Tom Paine


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

      Hahahaah.... you are quite irrational.

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

      Sorry, but you have two: A father and a mother.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Dave

      Apparently you did not read the article. It does not support any hypothetical deity in the slightest

      May 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • tommas

      And if you go back in time far enough it was two mutant apes doing the horizontal shuffle.

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

    Matthew Alper "The God part of the Brain" examines this exact topic.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  17. sourpickles

    Question: If I follow what's being described in the article, a sort of basic human need for a religion, why isn't religious affiliation more wide spread? I'm thinking of Europe, which is very secular and has been for a long time.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • 3lwood

      Because Europe has grown out of it. Religion was our first stab at every life question. We used to think gods controlled the weather, or sickness. But science has answered those questions in a much more eloquent way.

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

      Education. Europe is very highly educated. With a few notable exceptions, the more educated a culture is, the lower the tendency to believe religion.

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

      "Education. Europe is very highly educated. With a few notable exceptions, the more educated a culture is, the lower the tendency to believe religion." and why the bible belt is infested with palin stupids

      May 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Justathought

      Because it has been socialized out of European (and other) culture(s) such that it is no longer the norm. This does not argue one way or the other about its legitimacy, but it does offer an explanation for how it could be predisposed and yet not manifest.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  18. Jen

    What idiot came up with this summary? The only reason most people follow religion is because they've been brainwashed into it from the moment they were born – mothers bring their newborns to church every sunday just like their parents did and it's a cycle that goes back for hundreds of generations. Break the cycle and don't brainwash a population and only then do a study if this will be "natural' to them after they become adults – and make sure they're educated and not dumb as a nutshel.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Sam

      @Jen: I would recommend you to seek out someone who has experienced the tragedy and life changing event of War. I'm not talking about a single firefight or someone who served a simple term in Afghanistan. I'm referring to a true war veteran, someone who has seen life destroyed all around them over and over. In these situations even the "toughest" warriors, when wounded and hope almost seems lost, will cry out for something higher. Such as "please God, help me."
      I've heard these pleas of help come from individuals who's background there was not one iota of religious makeup. I'm not saying I know for sure, but when a dying soldier's last cry for help is him reaching out towards something we can't "see"...it makes me take a second and contemplate before just denouncing there is no God.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  19. jl

    the first step is skepticism and materialsim. after that, maybe the individual takes a more speculative position

    May 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  20. unowhoitsme

    Religion is such a cult that destroys so many lives. Never confuse God (no matter what you call him/her/it) with religion.

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

      religion is something u install into your children, so how can u do a study on it when the subjects are poisoned at birth?
      sweden ireland and many other countries are 50%+ athiest now and growing..... this faery tale has a real THE END.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:41 pm |

      Agreed. Finally, someone who believes as I do.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Platypus

      You don't need religion to believe in the god of your choice.

      May 13, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
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