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Is it natural to believe in God?

May 30th, 2011

We all like to think we make good choices for good reasons. Those who believe in God like to think they are right in their belief, whereas atheists think believers are mistaken, sometimes even ‘delusional’. Some atheists would like to see all God-belief eliminated because they believe it does so much harm.

Yet new scientific studies suggest it is ‘natural’ to believe in God.

The idea has been around for some time that belief in God is ‘hard-wired’ into our brains. that is, whether we were taught about God or not, there is something in us that concludes that God exists and reaches out to him.

Now a £1.9 million study by Oxford University has undertaken a series of studies by acknowledged experts in their fields, collected data from around the world, and is beginning to draw some conclusions.

The first conclusions published include:

  • Religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies. (I would have thought this was obvious.)
  • Children and adults have a tendency to see the natural world as having function or purpose, which makes it more likely they will believe in a creator God.
  • It seems that humans naturally believe in God and an afterlife, and have to be talked out of such beliefs rather than talked into them.
  • Adolescents and young adults may find religious ideas easier to remember and use than older adults – which may explain why the majority of religious conversions occur at these ages.
  • Religious beliefs and practices appear to make us more cooperative and generous with others, which may be a factor in the persistence of religious belief.
  • Religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network.

The study leaders are quite explicit that this study says nothing about whether God actually exists or not, nor does it make any assumptions about God’s existence. But it is inevitable that people will consider whether the study’s findings (the ones already released, and further findings in the future) tend to support belief or disbelief.

I guess predictably, some non-believers are less than impressed with the study. Some atheists tend to disapprove anything associated with the Templeton Foundation which funded the study, because it is an organisation which seeks to link science and religion (see Further appreciation of Martin Rees). One reviewer disagreed with what he believed were the Foundation’s motives: “what it was really buying was the researchers’ claim that pervasiveness implies permanence—and perhaps correctness.” But this seems unreasonable as long as the study is conducted in a proper scientific manner. Maybe I am too easily impressed, but I would have thought that a study conducted by Oxford University would be unlikely to be dodgy.

It seems to me that the study is worthwhile, and can be interpreted in one of two ways depending on one’s viewpoint.

  1. If there is a God, he has made us to be capable of responding to him (it seems doubtful that animals would have the same capability). These studies are showing how this occurs in a little more detail.
  2. If there is no God, then the human brain is the product of natural selection. Belief in God must have conferred a survival advantage, for whatever reason.

But three conclusions seem reasonable, whatever view we hold.

  • Co-director of the project, Professor Roger Trigg, said the research showed that religion was “not just something for a peculiar few to do on Sundays instead of playing golf. We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies. This suggests that attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life.”
  • The study 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,”
  • It seems to me that the study makes it harder to justify the oft-stated atheist claim that religious believers are ‘delusional’. At the very least, religious belief is ‘normal’ and has had survival value.

Read more about the project or this account of the project in The Telegraph.

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