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My girlfriend sent me this article from the Telegraph. This is an excerpt:

Led by two academics at Oxford University, the £1.9 million study found that human thought processes were “rooted” to religious concepts.

enter image description here
Photo from the article

Not having ever been religious myself I am very skeptical of these claims. Please read the article for more details on the claim. Besides me thinking that it's an incorrect claim, I also don't think that it is actually possible to produce a reliable scientific study on religious belief and genetics—so the studies must be misquoted somehow or not scientifically based.

Does this piece of news correspond to the findings of the studies?
Are the studies scientific or are they philosophical essays?

share|improve this question
Great question! May I point to On the origins of pareidolia, because there I've touched the subject a bit and linked to a talk by Dylan Evans titled Born to Believe. –  Oliver_C May 14 '11 at 10:41
Good question. I'm not religious but I do think we're predisposed to believe these types of things. It strikes me as odd that countless cultures that had no communication with each other developed these very similar ideas that are, quite frankly, absurd. Can't wait to get some hard info on this one! –  user2466 May 14 '11 at 11:35
I wouldn't say "genetically predisposed;" but I do believe people are naturally inclined to look for the causes of things. And when something doesn't have an immediately obvious cause, "someone caused it" seems like a reasonable enough answer. Not too long ago, it was generally accepted that a god carries the sun around the earth; now very few people (that I know of) believe that a god causes either the sun or earth to rotate. But it's still widely believed that a god created the universe, simply because we don't have a decent explanation yet. –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 14 '11 at 19:19
@blu one thing is saying that some religious tendencies are a consequence of childish or uneducated thinking which has genetic or evolutionary origins, another is saying that thinking is naturally hardwired for religion. I have no problem with the first statement, but that is not what the article says. The article asserts the second is the outcome of a scientific study. –  Ebenezer Sklivvze May 14 '11 at 19:31
@Andrew: or they could be biased towards proving that atheists are different from the masses. –  Ebenezer Sklivvze May 15 '11 at 13:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 28 down vote accepted

God? No.


Does this piece of news correspond to the findings of the studies?

Belief in God is part of human nature - The Telegraph
Religious belief is human nature, huge new study claims - CNN

All correspond to the findings of a press release...

Humans 'predisposed' to believe in gods and the afterlife - University of Oxford

...and to any interviews given by the two academics from Oxford University that led the studies.

Are the studies scientific or are they philosophical essays?

Philosophical essays.

The Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project

Funding source: John Templeton Foundation

Grant Amount: $3,876,247
Start Date: October 2007

Our Philosophy Grantmaking

The division of labor and increasing specialization in most fields mean that some of the most interesting, difficult, and profound questions do not get addressed. We try to give great minds the space and resources to stretch their imaginations. We want to work with contrarians, with intellectual entrepreneurs. - source

Project Leader(s)

Project goals.

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. - source

The Science...

Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR)

...CSR’s ability to bridge the gap between strictly evolutionary or biological treatments of religion and strictly social approaches. Evidently, however, the issues addressed by this field are gaining momentum in the public sphere in part because of the anti-religious rhetoric that has come to parasitize the field. We aim to harness this momentum and attention to maximize the scientific potential of CSR, and to engage theological and philosophical perspectives in a potentially mutually productive, instead of antagonistic, manner, pursuing truth wherever the evidence leads. - Project website

Main findings of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project

  1. Studies by Emily Reed Burdett and Justin Barrett...press release text.

  2. Deborah Kelemen from Boston University finds...press release text.

  3. Experiments involving adults...press release text.

The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project's interpretation of the main findings
From the press release...

The studies (both analytical and empirical) conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and an afterlife, and that both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.

‘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. If we look at why religious beliefs and practices persist in societies across the world, we conclude that individuals bound by religious ties might be more likely to cooperate as societies. Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network.’
- Project Director Justin Barrett, Ph.D.

‘This project suggests that religion is 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.’
- Project Co-Director Professor Roger Trigg


The science does not support the conclusion.

Given Dr. Barrett knows he is...

...an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,” as he wrote in an e-mail message. “I believe that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.” - nytimes

He must also know this increases the chances his research could be skewed by
Confirmation bias.

These intriguing findings would certainly be strengthened by replications with additional stimuli sets, alternative methods, and with different cultural populations. As they stand, they suggest one possible cognitive reason for the culturally widespread existence of religious beliefs in deities that either order or create the natural world: such ideas resonate with an early developing and persistent intuition that the natural world looks purposefully designed.
Positing a designer (or designers) fits with our intuitions. - Barrett

There is also the problem of
Biased interpretation

We are moral realists. Gods, by virtue of having access to the facts of any matter, also know the moral facts of the matter, and (perhaps not surprisingly) tend to see things the way we do. Theists, then, can glibly accept moral realism. Not so for the atheist. Atheists may have approximately the same moral intuitions and behave just as morally as theists, but have some intellectual work to do that the theist has managed to avoid by relying on the authority of the gods. Atheists have this extra work to do in the moral domain, but that does not mean that it cannot be done. - Barrett

And good old fashioned

Refusing to accept that, in principle, science could ever allow space for non-material, even theistic, explanations demands philosophical argument, not an assertion of the supremacy of science. The obscurantist refusal to allow the theory of Intelligent Design to be even discussed in a scientific context can only be the product of a deeply-ingrained materialism, even atheism.
- The Religious Roots of Science, Roger Trigg.

The Bottom Line...

The Essence of the Skeptical Position*. (edited for brevity)

  1. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.
  2. The burden of proof lies with the claimant.
  3. The claim stands or falls on the quality of the evidence the proponent can provide.
  4. To be taken seriously, claims must be testable, at least in principle.
  5. Claims must be falsifiable.
  6. The evidence must be public and accessible to all competent critics.
  7. Science is a public activity based on trust.

Failed on all counts.

*Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience, Beyerstein


Journal of Cognition and Culture, ED: E. Lawson and Pascal Boyer. Book editor: Justin L. Barrett.
Cognitive science gaining ground in U.S. academic religion studies

share|improve this answer
Wow. Great, great answer. –  Ebenezer Sklivvze May 16 '11 at 20:03
+1, however I would refrain from linking to the Daily Mail. –  billynomates May 17 '11 at 11:49
@billynomates Ahhh. I just linked them as another example of "Running a press release". But why give them traffic. I'll kill the link. Thanks. –  Rusty May 19 '11 at 11:54
-1 for providing a rich mine of confirmation bias for skeptical atheists but not actually addressing the question. Evolution could easily select for credulity if it has a positive value in survival. And a natural belief in religion might exist despite it being bad in the current environment. And it is quite important to know whether the tendency is natural or not as strategies for dealing with a natural tendency of people will be different to dealing with a random aberration in individuals. –  matt_black Mar 4 '12 at 21:37
@matt_blac: I back you entirely and downvote as well. The scientists MAY suffer from confirmation bias but to immediatley dismiss their study because it agrees with their prior position which the answerer disagrees with is more toxic than engaging the paper on its merits. –  medivh Jul 5 '13 at 23:07

EDIT TO ADD: dancek (who gets a +1 from me) found the actual study and the relevant information on the study. Given the list of authors, this seems to be a theology/philosophy study rather than hard science. Furthermore, since this appears to have the hallmarks of a meta study, I must add in my thoughts on that. The correlation factor (oft called Gamma) is pulled out of the air and pretty much reflects the bias of the people funding the 'study'. They often rely on something called a Gaussian copula. Here's an article about a famous, Nobel Prize winning one. http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/17-03/wp_quant different use, but similar method. Basically the heart of the Wired article says that people will see what they want to see. A sort of confirmation bias.

(Original text follows) Sadly it's very difficult to answer your question directly since the Telegraph article does not link to the studies themselves. Furthermore, it seems to be (at least the title question) a very philosophical question. At this point in time, the only thing we can say for sure is that we don't know if humans are predisposed to believe in anything. Although I am familiar with some of the discussions based on personal research and discussions, so let's see if we can possibly get at the root of this.

First to address the actual questions:

Does this piece of news correspond to the findings of the studies?

Are the studies scientific or are they philosophical essays?

In looking at the claims of the article, I would guess that this is a meta study that would include elements of both. Without a link to the actual papers and studies though, we are left very short on an actual answer. Every single search on the internet led back to an article similar to the one in the Telegraph with no additional citations.

Now let's see if we can ferret out some of the roots of this sort of thinking. If you are familiar with Richard Dawkins's series "Root of all Evil", he posits the idea of religion seen as a virus in the sense of a meme. He begins by explaining how a child is genetically programmed to believe without questioning the word of authority figures, especially parents – the evolutionary imperative being that no child would survive by adopting a skeptical attitude towards everything their elders said. But this same imperative, he claims, leaves children open to "infection" by religion. (1)

I would personally posit that evolutionarily, we are predisposed to listen to authority figures. An evolutionary benefit is that we would behave as a cohesive unit, and if this authority figure is older, or possesses some unique trait that allowed him/her to survive, that information would be a benefit. There are numerous studies showing how humans gravitate to authoritarian behaviour, such as the Milgram studies, or the Stanford prison experiments. Religion has managed to hijack this particular evolutionary trait in such a way as to become pervasive throughout human society. And if there is no specific religion, then another authority figure steps in to fill the void (such as a cult of personality or a political idea).

In searching for the evolutionary basis of religious thought, I did find this New Scientist article. It has a great deal to say on the subject, and contains many useful links that could have been part of the meta study. For instance, on sentence mentions

Theories on the evolution of religion tend toward two camps. One argues that religion is a mental artefact, co-opted from brain functions that evolved for other tasks. Another contends that religion benefited our ancestors. Rather than being a by-product of other brain functions, it is an adaptation in its own right. In this explanation, natural selection slowly purged human populations of the non-religious.

Another site seems to be dedicated to ferreting out how religion evolved in humans. I haven't perused this site much, but http://evolution-of-religion.com/aims/ may give some data. Be aware that this site is funded by the Templeton Foundation, but their aims seem to be interesting at least. This page gives an EXTENSIVE list of publications on the subject. I am not that familiar with all the authors, but I have a new reading list I think.

There is also the idea that human brains are naturally tending towards purpose driven explanations for things as opposed to understanding the full spectrum of how the world around us really works. This is a hallmark of a young and immature mind, yet many adults exhibit this behaviour as well.

called promiscuous teleology - in young children. Seven and eight-year olds agree with teleological statements such as "Rocks are jagged so animals can scratch themselves" and "Birds exist to make nice music". These mistakes diminish as kids take more science classes and learn causal explanations for natural events.

A first round of experiments suggested that adults make more teleological mistakes when pressed for time than when not.

Finally, Talk Origins has a page dedicated to the evolution of religion.

Sadly, searching for "the evolution of religious thought" turns up a lot of silly articles about evolution itself being a religion... Anyway, the links provided are a good start for further research since the media doesn't seem to want to tell us what studies were used in making their headline...

(1) Lifted from the Wikipedia description of his show.

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Great answer, and well referenced –  Lagerbaer May 14 '11 at 14:10
@Lagerbear, I only wish I could find the actual papers that the Telegraph article referenced. That would provide a better answer to Sklivvz's actual question... Of course, since when has the media actually been concerned with actually providing information instead of sensationalist headlines? –  Larian LeQuella May 14 '11 at 14:12
@Joe Blow, you are correct. At least with "at this, stage we have utterly no clue", although this isn't really a very new field of study/thought. People have been thinking about this for ages (for instance, Pascal's "god shaped hole" quote). We just don't have the tools to determine the answer yet. My answer was mostly meant to address the other two questions at the end, but I will take your input and change it slightly. –  Larian LeQuella May 14 '11 at 16:29
Great.... Tim Ross doesn't provide his email address... –  Larian LeQuella May 14 '11 at 16:39
@Larian: Thanks for this. I'll have a lot of fun reading the rest of those links tomorrow. Cheers. :) –  user2466 May 14 '11 at 16:58

Cognition, Religion & Theology logo

The referred research project is called Cognition, Religion and Theology, and summaries of the topics covered are available (containing citations to actual publications, including empirical research).

The project has an FAQ that states the project goal as follows:

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 behaviour. Research is not limited to any particular religious belief or tradition. Indeed, much scholarship in this area is concerned to explain broad patterns of recurrence and variation in religious concepts and practices across diverse cultural and ecological contexts, and throughout history and pre-history. The project forms part of a broader field of interdisciplinary scholarship on the cognitive foundations of cultural expression more generally.

On the front page the research team is introduced:

The research team consists of experimental psychologist Dr Justin Barrett (Primary Investigator, Centre for Anthropology and Mind), philosopher Prof Roger Trigg (Co-Investigator, Ian Ramsey Centre), and Dr Miguel Farais (Theology). Ms Ann Cowie is Programme Administrator.

It seems to me like the research would lean towards philosophy and theology. However, the project has included a huge amount of research on different topics by different teams, and I can't currently be bothered to really look deep into their research.

EDIT: A couple of quite good articles from New Scientist say that humans find purpose even where there's none and that children naturally believe in supernatural things. These articles are be based on empirical research (though of course New Scientist is no peer-reviewed journal).

I've heard this kind of claims elsewhere, and I find quite believable that:

  • People believe in purpose (even in some random things)
  • Children can believe in God/gods without anyone telling them to

I guess one could simplify and combine a prioris like these, and come up with the claim "human thought processes are rooted to religious concepts".

share|improve this answer
Thanks, very informative. –  Ebenezer Sklivvze May 15 '11 at 6:37
Templeton = bad source on this topic. They have a very clear selection bias in the results they use. –  Konrad Rudolph May 15 '11 at 11:20
@Konrad Rudolph: Ok, but they're not really the source. That's just a "reissue" from New Scientist that I linked to because the original was behind a paywall. I did note that New Scientist is no peer-reviewed journal, so feel free to question them, I don't mind. –  dancek May 15 '11 at 13:56

protected by Ebenezer Sklivvze May 14 '11 at 19:55

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