Humans Are Religious By Nature, Says Study

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.


Deborah W.
Deborah W.3 years ago

Religion -- a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe -- relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.

Many roads, more alike than different ... when will we learn.

Philip H.
Philip H.3 years ago

I'm religious, and have always been, even if i weren't raised in a christian family and community, with no mention of god, i would be religious, this is part of me.

Ian Brown
Ian Brown4 years ago

I may have been born with an innate belief in religion but, because of the way some religious people behave, I have learned not to believe in religion.

Ian Brown
Ian Brown4 years ago

I may have been born with an innate belief in religion but, because of the way some religious people behave, I have learned not to believe in religion.

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S.5 years ago

I take issue with the presentation of this article. Firstly, it lacks description of scientific evidence and seems ambiguously misleading. What is meant by "40 separate studies"? Do you mean that only 40 cases (persons) were examined in this study or were they 40 separate studies involving significant statistics in each? Only two examples are listed: 1.) interviews with children under 5 [btw, the age range beginning from ability to verbalize to five years is extremely subject to parental influence, so how do you learn about an individual's predisposition from this?] and 2.) experiments involving adults [how do you know what is instinctive for adults after their years of societal indoctrination and other environmental factors?]. This study seems severely flawed.

Hartson Doak
Hartson Doak5 years ago

Yes Jane, I agree that we are responsible for our actions. We can not blame anyone but ourselves. However, I have spoken to several people who have pasted back through the tunnel of light from death. They believe in the after life having been there. I suppose if you do not believe there is a Creator of the seen and the unseen then you will think that the after life is just a part of the natural order. Which it is. We are in agreement.

Hartson Doak
Hartson Doak5 years ago

Though I am not a Christian,but I believe there is Truth in the two chapters of God's religion called the Bible, the Torah and the Evangel. It is written simply for a simple time and minds. We can not ever comprehend the Creator. But we try. We make Him look like us. The Old Man on the throne with a book of reckoning in one hand and a lighting bold in the other. We look for God because we are made in His image. This is a spiritual image not a physical one. God is spirit. We are spiritual beings in a physical body. Our souls yearn to return to that realm. So that is why we look to a Maker, Creator, the Unknowable Essence.

CHRISTOPHER S.5 years ago

Only religious people need to reconnect with god (the universe, the force, whatever you want to call it) because only religion teaches us that we are separate from god (everything, whatever). The rest of us know that we are already whole (always have been, always will be). So, you only need religion if already have it, once you lose it, you're free. We are not religious by nature, you can only become religious by nurture, and nothing in this article says that this study has shown otherwise... So give it up, and be "free at last, free at last, free at last!"... Can I get an AMEN?

Elena B.
Elena Belikova5 years ago

It was a bit strange to read about this studdy:) Why don't they make a study to find out if we are human beings and not somebody else?
For any human it's absolutely natural to be religions (to re-establish his inner bond with God). Some people call it God, some - cosmic supermind or whatever else. It doesn't change anything. And it's not surprising at all that kids have those beliefs. They are much more pure in their perception of life than the adults so they have what they were given by nature, before adults changed their ways of perception anyhow.
I liked an article I've read recently. It was an interview with a physicist who is now receiving messages from that superpower or whatever you call it. He said that even though many scientists may say they are materialists and trust their experiments only, there are always axioms at the beginning that they cannot explain, they just need to accept them. Many experiments that they conduct make them realize not only the existance but an inmense potential of that superpower. So they can't help believing in God. Again, they just give it different names.
For any thinking and feeling human being it's easier to believe in God than not to. We all are souls -sparks of God- so we not just have it, we are it! Scientists have managed to take a picture of our aura and its changes when a human being dies, and also - how it leaves a body. There are so many people who will tell you what happened to them after death. Ask whatever atheist to ex

Derp Herpington
.5 years ago

People who made stuff up to explain a world over 2000 years ago without the technology to know how things actually work can not be trusted as moral authorities. This is partly why human society is the way it is despite most people being religious to various degrees. In fact with decreasing religiosity over the centuries things have only gotten better because with the advent of science/technology/research we are gaining true moral insight, and uncovering the lies religion previously taught.

True morality, true goodness if you like that term better, can only be found with Atheism, because morality (like a house) has to be based upon something real in order to hold up. There is nothing more real than FACTS because facts are not based on opinion, and remain true regardless whether you like them or not. We discover facts by the scientific method.