2 million quid down the tube…

2 million quid down the tube… February 21, 2008

The University of Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion has been handed a cool £2 million for a 3-year, cross-cultural study into why some people believe in god. A fascinating topic, but unfortunately there’s something slightly fishy about the motivation of the lead researchers, according to quotes in The Tech Herald:

Justin Barrett, a psychologist and leading member of the research team, said to the Church of England Newspaper that he believed there is strong evidence that belief in God is a natural thing in humans. “We are interested in exploring exactly in what sense belief in God is natural,” he said. “We think there is more on the nature side than a lot of people suppose.”

Roger Trigg, acting director of the centre, [asked] “There are a lot of issues. What is it that is innate in human nature to believe in God, whether it is gods or something superhuman or supernatural? … One implication that comes from this is that religion is the default position, and atheism is perhaps more in need of explanation,” he said.

Well, there’s nothing like knowing the answer to the question before you begin – it saves a lot of time and bother! But what, exactly, is the evidence that people default to religion?

For sure, kids tend to believe what their parents tell them. And if all they ever hear is Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, then that’s what they’ll grow up believing. But offer them some options, and the picture is quite different.

For example, Voas & Crockett showed in 2005 that, of British kids brought up in a family in which only 1 parent was religious, just 30% end up religious themselves. Which would tend to suggest that the default state, in the absence of indoctrination, is atheism. Incidentally, even when both parents are religious, only 55% of their children are. When both parents are non-religious, 90% of their children follow suit. So children quite happily grow up without a belief in god when placed in a society that offers them a choice.

For sure, many of the psychological illusions that underpin religious belief are built in – simply a result of the fact that our brains process information with an emphasis on making quick decisions, rather than accurate ones. For example, it appears that we are programmed to try to find a causes for the things we see – and so tend to see causes even when there aren’t any (Rossano 2006).

But a predilection for anthropomorphisation, and for wrongly attributing causes, is a long way from ‘religion’. Religion, after all, is a complex edifice usually built around a specific social structure and set of beliefs. There’s no evidence that I know of that this is innate – unless you count Lord of the Flies and other pop culture as evidence!


Voas, Crockett. Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging. Sociology, Vol. 39, No. 1, 11-28 (2005)
Rossano. The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religion. Review of General Psychology 2006, Vol. 10, No. 4, 346–364.

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