Our brains and religious belief

New scientific studies suggest it is ‘natural’ to believe in God. What are christians to make of this?

Some neuroscientists have believed 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. Others have dismissed the idea.

This conclusion says nothing about whether the scientists think God actually exists or not, only about the brain processes that accompany belief. As this New York Times article outlines, this conclusion may be seen as threatening by both non-believers and believers.

Oxford University study

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.

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.

So what should christians make of this?

Firstly, it seems to me that it is quite reasonable for christians to believe that God has made us to be capable of responding to him and these studies are showing how this occurs in a little more detail. I don’t see anything here (at least, not yet) that threatens our beliefs.

But more than that, I think these studies offer some facts to stand against some of the rhetoric of the more extreme atheists.

  • 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,”
  • Thus 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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