***Update***: Since the posting, I’ve learned that this study was funded by the Templeton Foundation.
Also, check out Paul’s comment below, where he notes this was not peer-reviewed in a scientific journal, nor was it vetted by science journalists.
A new study co-directed by Oxford University professor Roger Trigg says that “Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings.”
Trigg is co-director of the three-year Oxford-based project, which incorporated more than 40 different studies by dozens of researchers looking at countries from China to Poland and the United States to Micronesia.
Studies around the world came up with similar findings, including widespread belief in some kind of afterlife and an instinctive tendency to suggest that natural phenomena happen for a purpose.
“Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways,” such as believing in God’s omniscience, said Trigg. But adults also jumped first for explanations that implied an unseen agent at work in the world, the study found.
None of this is surprising. When we’re younger and we see a rainbow for the first time, hear thunder, see a mirage, we always want to know what’s going on. And when an explanation isn’t close at hand, we might make up our own hypotheses… or we might go to our parents — people we trust — to see what they have to say. Sometimes, their reasoning isn’t any better.
We all want answers, but some questions can’t be answered. Not yet. So religion suggests there’s an explanation — a higher power — and we simply can’t understand.
The problem with this, of course, is that we have figured out quite a bit about how the world works. We know why we look like our parents, we know how diseases spread, we know how weather patterns work, we know how our species came into existence — and we also have a good idea of what we don’t know.
When you’ve been satisfied with religious explanations your whole life, finding out there are better explanations available is a huge epiphany.
I remember Julia Sweeney coming to terms with that realization in her show Letting Go of God:
I’m embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, “Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky? You mean, we’re just hurtling through space? That’s so vulnerable!” I wanted to run out and catch the earth as it fell out of space into my hands.
And then I thought, “Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a really long time.” Then I thought, “What’s going to stop me from just, rushing out and murdering people?” And I had to walk myself through it, why are we ethical? Well, because we have to be. We’re social animals. We’re extremely complex social animals. We evolved a moral sense, like an aversion to wanton murder, in order for communities to exist. Because communities help us survive better in much bigger numbers. And eventually we codified these internal evolved ethics inside of us into laws against things like wanton murder. So I guess that’s why I won’t be rushing out and murdering people!
The study in question doesn’t offer any evidence that god exists — only that a lot of people want to believe that god exists.
Justin Barrett, the project’s other co-director, put it this way:
“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,” he said.
They even know how atheists are going to respond:
Famed secularist Richard “Dawkins would accept our findings and say we’ve got to grow out of it,” Trigg argued.
Damn right we do. We need to let go of our insatiable need for answers. We’ve learned quite a bit during our time on this planet and we’re learning more daily. We have to also accept that there are some questions we will never know the answers to — like if anything happens to us after we die or why we exist at all.
If religious leaders were honest, they’d say from the pulpit, “This is our faith’s best as to what happened. But we probably have it wrong. If we want the truth, we’ll have to turn to science instead of making up our own explanations and shutting down further discussion.”
A sermon like that wouldn’t bring in the donations, but at least they’d be telling the truth.
(Thanks to John for the link!)