The £1.9 million project involved 57 researchers who conductedover 40 separate studies in 20 countries representing a diverserange of cultures. The studies (both analytical and empirical)conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and anafterlife, and that both theology and atheism are reasonedresponses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.
The researchers point out that the project was not setting outto prove the existence of god or otherwise. They sought tofind out whether concepts such as gods and an afterlife appear tobe entirely taught or basic expressions of human nature.
Mothers are not all-seeing and all-knowing
‘The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project’ led by Dr JustinBarrett, from the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at OxfordUniversity, drew on research from a range of disciplines, includinganthropology, psychology, philosophy, and theology. They directedan international body of researchers conducting studies in 20different countries that represented both traditionally religiousand atheist societies.
Main findings of the Cognition, Religion and TheologyProject:
-Studies by Emily Reed Burdett and Justin Barrett, from theUniversity of Oxford, suggest that children below the age of fivefind it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than tounderstand similar human limitations. Children were asked whethertheir mother would know the contents of a box in which she couldnot see. Children aged three believed that their mother and Godwould always know the contents, but by the age of four, childrenstart to understand that their mothers are not all-seeing andall-knowing. However, children may continue to believe inall-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agents, such as a god orgods.
-Deborah Kelemen from Boston University finds both children andadults imbue the natural world with ‘purpose’. For instance,respondents were provided with three possible answers to thequestion of why polar bears are white. Adult respondents, who wereobliged to supply answers quickly without time to think,instinctively gave answers that implied ‘purpose’ in the naturalworld.
They would reply that polar bears were white for reasons ofcamouflage, rather than the more scientifically accuratemechanistic explanation that a polar bear fur lacks pigment, or thesilly answer that polar bears have been bleached by the sun.However, if the respondents were given more time to answer, theyopted for a ‘mechanistic’ response i.e. that polar bears did nothave pigment. The researchers conclude that the immediate,instinctive response was over-ridden by a scientific, reasonedresponse if participants had time to reflect.
-This research extends Kelemen’s previous research showing thatchildren prefer purpose-based explanations: children were asked whyrocks were pointed and were also found to choose answers thatimplied purpose, saying that rocks were pointed so the birds couldsit on them.
-Experiments involving adults, conducted by Jing Zhu fromTsinghua University (China), and Natalie Emmons and Jesse Beringfrom The Queen’s University, Belfast, suggest that people acrossmany different cultures instinctively believe that some part oftheir mind, soul or spirit lives on after-death. The studiesdemonstrate that people are natural ‘dualists’ finding it easy toconceive of the separation of the mind and the body.
A common fact of human nature
Project Director Dr Justin Barrett, from the University ofOxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind, said: “This project doesnot set out to prove god or gods exist. Just because we find iteasier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is truein fact. If we look at why religious beliefs and practices persistin societies across the world, we conclude that individuals boundby religious ties might be more likely to cooperate as societies.Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive inpopulations living in cities in developed nations where there isalready a strong social support network.”
Project Co-Director Professor Roger Trigg, from the Universityof Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre, said: “This project suggests thatreligion is not just something for a peculiar few to do on Sundaysinstead of playing golf. We have gathered a body of evidence thatsuggests that religion is a common fact of human nature acrossdifferent societies. This suggests that attempts to suppressreligion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to berooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernaturalagents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife orpre-life.”
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