We humans have a “predisposition” to believe in some kind of divine being and in the afterlife; to be religious. Such beliefs are, indeed, part of what makes us human and are innate rather than learned, says an international project, The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, based at Oxford University academics.
For over three years, 57 researchers conducted over 40 separate studies (both empirical and analytical/interpretative) in 20 countries representing a diverse range of cultures, says Science Daily. Humans, they found, are predisposed to believe in both gods and an afterlife, and “both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.”
The point of the project was not to prove that “some divine power” exists, but to get a better sense about “whether concepts such as gods and an afterlife appear to be entirely taught or basic expressions of human nature” — whether such concepts are the result of nurture or are innate. Science Daily describes two other findings by the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project concerning whether young children believe in some sort of “superhuman properties,” and whether such beliefs extend across cultures:
Studies by Emily Reed Burdett and Justin Barrett, from the University of Oxford, suggest that children below the age of five find it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than to understand similar human limitations. Children were asked whether their mother would know the contents of a box in which she could not see. Children aged three believed that their mother and God would always know the contents, but by the age of four, children start to understand that their mothers are not all-seeing and all knowing. However, children may continue to believe in all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agents, such as a god or gods.
Experiments involving adults, conducted by Jing Zhu from Tsinghua University (China), and Natalie Emmons and Jesse Bering from The Queen’s University, Belfast, suggest that people across many different cultures instinctively believe that some part of their mind, soul or spirit lives on after-death. The studies demonstrate that people are natural ‘dualists’ finding it easy to conceive of the separation of the mind and the body.
There’s a potential political application to the project: Efforts to repress a religion are “likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts,” says Project Co-Director Professor Roger Trigg, from the University of Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre. Religion is a “common fact of human nature across different societies.”
I’m teaching mythology in the fall and will be mentioning the project’s findings to my students. One of the first assignments I like to give my students is to research the cosmology — the account of the creation of the world — from a different culture or religion. As varied as the gods, narratives, names and other aspects of cosmological myths (from the ancient Greeks to the ancient Norse to Native Americans to the Mayans) are, one thing that draws them all together is that so many people from so many cultures at so many different times in the history of the world, have believed in some “power higher than themselves,” in supernatural forces, in some kind of existence after death.
As for why people hold such believes: It’s simply part of being human.
Photo of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi taken in March 2011 by the author.