Belief In God “Rooted” In Human Nature Say Academics

New research has shown—and by “research” I mean a fact long known to citizens is revealed to academics who attach a p-value to it and publish it—“that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies.” Suggests.Religion

The Daily Mail heard those very words from Oxford University
Professor Roger Trigg, co-director of the £1.9 Cognition, Religion, and Theology project. The pounds, not dollars, were provided by the religion-friendly John Templeton Foundation.

The overarching goal of the project is to support scientific research that promises to yield new evidence regarding how the structures of human minds inform and constrain religious expression. The project will conduct research on the cognitive underpinnings of religious concepts and practices – for example, ideas about gods and spirits, the afterlife, spirit possession, prayer, ritual, religious expertise, and connections between religious thought and morality and pro-social behavior.


What has been discovered? In “part of the study, conducted in 20 countries, researchers found that people who hold religious beliefs might be more likely to co-operate as part of societies.” Another part “suggested that children under the age of five found it easier to believe in ‘superhuman properties’ and were readily able to think religiously.”

Perhaps the most interesting finding came from “Separate experiments in China and Belfast” which “found that people from a variety of cultures believed that some part of their mind, soul or spirit lives on after death.” Experiments.

These pieces of evidence will be used to explore “the philosophical and theological implications of findings from the evolutionary and cognitive sciences as applied to religion.” What might that mean? Trigg says that this work will prove that religion is “basic human nature.”

Indeed, matching cognitive sciences with—drum-roll—“evolutionary psychology” has lead to the creation of the brand new academic field: “Cognitive Science of Religion.”

We can now look forward to myriad new peer-reviewed studies which show that we have no choice but to believe in God—or in gods and goddess—because berries on the plains of Africa were sparse and prettily colored and because our ancestors were so grateful for the rare sustenance that our minds evolved needing to express this gratefulness with colors and ceremony.

Or how about because the animals in our early history resisted vigorously being killed and eaten by us so that we had to learn how to cooperate or else, and that with this cooperation came the idea that religion should be done in groups.

The lovely thing about evolutionary psychology is that hypotheses can be generated endlessly. There isn’t any aspect of behavior, no matter how grand in scale or how miniscule, that can’t be imagined to have been “generated” by this or that condition thought to have been ripe in the environment of humanity’s youth.

These hypotheses are always easily “proved”, too. Groups of twenty to forty college sophomores are gathered and asked battery of questions which, we are assured when answered a certain way assure us the researchers’ hypothesis is true.

And just think of all the studies that await us which show that this region of the brain lights up under an MRI—magnetic resonance imagery, electronic phrenological devices which show excited neurons in “regions” of the brain that are “associated with” some “emotion”—when people think about God, while another rejection glows warmly when they think about reason and the New York Times.

Christopher White, on a discussion site sponsored by the study, cautions us that he’s “not sure that recent neurological studies will dramatically change contemporary religious belief or practice.” Was he worried or desirous that they would?

Underlying this research is the fallacy that religion and theology are, as matters of thought, somehow different than other subjects. But thinking about religion is no different than how we think about the workings of internal combustion engines, or mathematics, or cognitive science.

That is, most don’t think and only understand the subjects from what lessons their bettors undertake to teach. Only a few carry on sustained thought, seeking through reason—-reason which is often misguided by desire, or otherwise mistaken, as it is in any field—to develop a philosophy from first principles.

Theologians try to find truth: that which is so no matter what. In particular, those foundational absolutes which are true regardless whether mankind evolved in the cold or the hot, whether our brains have this many or that many lobes, certainties which are, that is, just plain true.

How we get to these truths might have some interest—in particular, how we might avoid common mistakes in reasoning—but those paths, whatever they might be, are irrelevant to the truths themselves.


  1. Tim

    Religion is certainly not instinctive. Where you happen to be born in this world and the predisposition of your parents play the greatest role in determining the likelihood of your “initial” religion/faith.

    At some point we are all free to join Cat Stevens on the Peace Train, Jim Jones in the Jungle or watch amusingly on the sidelines while the others kill each other.

  2. Big D

    I wonder which lessons those bettors undertook to teach…perhaps that it was a sure thing this research would show something. But really, what do you expect for £1.9?

  3. Noblesse Oblige

    There is a set of prefixes, such as “eco-” and “cognitive-” which when attached to the names of real fields produce instant new fields, ripe for press releases, grants, committee chairs, and hopefully and ultimately to membership in the NAS. So we have “eco-radiology,” an offspring of nuclear engineering with no engineering component whatsoever; “eco-psychology,” a self indulgent crown for those who want to designate all those who oppose the machinations of the greens as mentally ill (not mentally deficient — there is a difference); and the aforementioned cognitive religion (sic). Popper would not be amused, but Voltaire would have a field day with this.

  4. genemachine

    Are we not all in agreement with evolutionary psychology in the general sense that natural selection shaped our brains as well as our bodies, like the other animals? Excluding creationists and “blank slate leftists”, who has a problem with this basic tenet?

    On whether religion is a part of our nature – I’m sure propensity to accept the beliefs of your neighbours has had a selective advantage at many times in history and prehistory. Like every other human attribute, propensity to believe will be partly heritable and natural selection will work on any variation. Even in the present, religous belief seems to cause a fertility gap beween believers and non-believers. Gathering evidence to test theories on how this propensity to believe has been shaped by natural selection is no easy task.

    I’m open to the idea that these authors have got it wrong on many levels but this is no reason to dismiss either the field of evolutionary psychology or the evolutionary psychology of belief.

    If you have time Briggs, I would be interested in reading a good critique about the evolutionary psychology used in “War in Human Civilization” by Azar Gat.

  5. bob

    It sounds like intellectual self-abuse to me.

  6. Sander van der Wal

    Clearly religious people with plenty of money haven’t yet evolved a defence mechanism against rational people trying to separate them from said money. Serves them right for not believing in evolution.

  7. Ken

    It would seem they didn’t address the most basic question: “What is religion?”

    Consider just the various versions of Christianity, there are numerous rigid formal mutually-exclusive doctrines (all derived from the very same references ), and, there are versions actually practiced by the self-reporting adherents…which sometimes bear some resemblence to the actual doctrine they profess to link themselves to (though, very commonly, merely talking about it suffices & actually behaving in accordance with the faith is secondary, if even considered).

    Thus, it seems that whatever else its defined to mean, “religion” inherently includes as a dominant facet: “whatever the practioner needs it to be.” As commonly practiced there’s a substantial element of “lets pretend” woven in, with the ultimate effect of allowing the practitioner to feel good about themselves, and very often, to be able to assert some superiority over another. All without actually having to behave any differently…other than talk about it.

    Joseph Heller switched the emphasis around to make [fun of] this same point in his famous book:

    “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
    “I don’t. But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”
    –Yossarian and Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife on God
    –CATCH-22, page 190

  8. commieBob

    This is a subject that has received a lot of scholarly attention. Below is a quote from the website of a group of scholars who have banded together to study the evolution of religion.

    Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the idea that religion may be a product of evolution. Many prominent authors, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, argue that religion is an evolutionary accident—a by-product of big human brains.

    We suggest exactly the opposite hypothesis. If religious beliefs and behaviors promoted survival and reproduction in our ancestral past, then they may have been favored by natural selection over human evolutionary history. This would mean that religious beliefs and behaviors are “adaptive”, and that religion evolved as a natural product of Darwinian processes. Religion may thus not be an accident of evolution, but rather an example of evolution.

    Evolution of Religion website The Evolution of Religion project is generously supported by The John Templeton Foundation. Hmm.

    The site has, and points to, a brain-exploding volume of scholarly work.

  9. jae

    I think most people make the subjects of God and religion way more complicated than necessary. And, of course, we have many pseudointellectual elitists who affirm that they are POSITIVE about such subjects and anyone who disagrees is “unthinking,” “less intellectual,” or something.

    All rational people are curious about the past, and especially “where did all this stuff come from, originally?” One of the easiest answers is a God. To believe in a God is no “sillier” than to NOT believe in God (in fact it makes much more sense, IMHO). Then you get to the religious part: does that God have a plan for the world and humans? Believe what you will, but you are on no firmer ground than a “religious” person.

  10. JH

    “Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn.”

    We are not born with fear, are we? So, can we say that fear is a basic part of human nature? Now replace the word “fear” with “religion” or “belief in God”.

  11. Eric Anderson

    “The lovely thing about evolutionary psychology is that hypotheses can be generated endlessly.”


  12. Briggs


    I haven’t seen that book before, but I’ll look it up.

    For now, I recommend this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (a similar, non-rigorous argument against kin selection is made in David Stove’s Darwinian Fairytales, a book which takes on evolutionary psychology—not evolution).

    What makes the Chronicle story hilarious is that the main-stream scientists are sniffling over the tone of Nowak’s paper. They are saying (in effect) that Nowak—a man who shares very few genes with his critics—isn’t being sufficiently cooperative. Ha ha!

    Selective advantage for any thought does not imply that that thought is true or false. We may be evolutionarily disinclined to disbelieve any number of truths; however, this does make any of these truths false. Too, we may have evolved to believe falsities (but good luck proving that); however, this does not make the falsities true.

  13. Rich

    We all grow up in a world where everything that happens is done by somebody. It’s quite natural to conclude later that everything else that happens is done by somebodies you can’t see. It actually requires a bit of work to realise that some things happen without somebody doing them at all and even more to demonstrate it. Belief in god is a natural mistake. It’s been human nature for some people to exploit the mistake.

  14. genemachine


    That’s an interesting recommendation. Unfortunately I do not have a subscription to the site.

    I have heard of the extremely controversial paper by Martin A. Nowak,
    Corina E. Tarnita & Edward O. Wilson, “The evolution of eusociality”.

    The tone? What a peculiar critique of the paper. I dont think that’s their only criticism. As I understand it, this is the biological equivelant of claiming the world is flat. Really, it’s that outlandish.

    “Kin selection”/inclusive fitness is considering the outcome of a behavior or trait not just on the individual’s direct descendants, but also other relatives in proportion to their genetic relatedness. It would seem to be a mathematical necessity that the effects on relatives in these exact proportions should better predict the fate of a gene than only considering offspring.

    Newak and friends seem to disagree, presumably thinking that the only subset of inclusive fitness that is important is parental care. I’ve not read the details of their argument, but my mind boggles trying to imagine their reasoning. Actually I think they say that inclusive fitness is sometimes worth “resorting to”, though I dont know in what exact situations. Either these guys are on the tip of a biological revolution greater than that of Hamilton/Haldane/Fisher (whose ideas they are claiming to disprove), or they are as mistaken as a flat earth geologist.

    As much as I love to back an underdog, their ideas do look a bit mad to almost everyone except the peer reviewers.

    Is this how you understand the controversy Briggs?

    “They are saying (in effect) that Nowak—a man who shares very few genes with his critics—isn’t being sufficiently cooperative.” – haha very good 🙂

  15. Bob Ludwick

    1. In the beginning there was nothing at all. Then there was around 10^54 kg of stuff and a universe to put it in. Fifteen billion years and a bunch of evolving later, here we are.

    2. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

    One of these statements is a patently silly religious superstition; the other the perfectly sensible culmination of cosmology.

    I’m not picking sides here, but I don’t see where either has a huge advantage in inherent plausibility.

    “Evolution writ large is the belief that a cloud of hydrogen will spontaneously invent extreme-ultraviolet lithography, perform Swan Lake, and write all the books in the British Museum.” Fred Reed, March 7, 2005

    Bob Ludwick

  16. Elizabeth

    Isn’t there a big difference between a “belief in God” i.e Spirituality and RELIGION? Religion is an artificial construct – and was it the subject of the study? Mmm..

  17. Briggs


    Send me an email and I can get you the articles.

  18. Ken

    For a related construct — the psychology driving societies & their behavior– check out:

    At first it may seem a bit like selective data gathering & force-fitting the data to meet some ulterior motive. But there are clear patterns that one can, with some effort, verify independently. Intriguing to say the least.

  19. Briggs


    I know these guys. Hard-core Freudians, supporters of “retrieved memory” therapy and so forth. They sided with many of the accusers in the Satanic Panic scare of the ’90s.

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