New Oxford study: religion pervasive, ergo impossible to eradicate

I haven’t yet read this study, but it’s just come out and is being publicized all over the place. It’s an Oxford University Study on the pervasiveness of religious belief.  As CNN reports:

Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings, a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests.

“We tend to see purpose in the world,” Oxford University professor Roger Trigg said Thursday. “We see agency. We think that something is there even if you can’t see it. … All this tends to build up to a religious way of thinking.”

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.

Well, that’s not a huge surprise, is it? And, as Trigg noted, it says nothing about whether or not there really are gods.  It speaks to me only of human credulity—a credulity easily understood as a result of wish-thinking, fear of death, and the need to see agency in a cruel and chaotic world.

And children find it easy to think in religious ways? Children are especially credulous, and have probably evolved to be that way, for they have to absorb knowledge from their parents.  But they’re no more credulous about God than they are about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  There’s nothing special about children “being able to think in religious ways.” It’s indoctrination, pure and simple!

But look how the results of this study are characterized by Trigg (via CNN; I quote in extenso):

Famed secularist Richard “Dawkins would accept our findings and say we’ve got to grow out of it,” Trigg argued.

But people of faith could argue that the universality of religious sentiment serves God’s purpose, the philosophy professor said.

“Religious people would say, ‘If there is a God, then … he would have given us inclinations to look for him,'” Trigg said.

The blockbuster study may not take a stance on the existence of God, but it 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,” Trigg said.

“There is quite a drive to think that religion is private,” he said, arguing that such a belief is wrong. “It isn’t just a quirky interest of a few, it’s basic human nature.”

“This shows that it’s much more universal, prevalent, and deep-rooted. It’s got to be reckoned with. You can’t just pretend it isn’t there,” he said.

And the Oxford study, known as the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, strongly implies that religion will not wither away, he said.

“The secularization thesis of the 1960s – I think that was hopeless,” Trigg concluded.

That’s hogwash.  As we can see from the tremendous secularization of the world over the past few centuries, especially in Europe, it is not impossible for religion to wither.  The pervasiveness of a belief gives no warrant that that belief will be with us forever. Look how pervasive, only a century ago, was the idea that women were second-class citizens. This was true in nearly every society.  Ditto for gays and ethnic minorities.  And look how attitudes have changed!  Granted, women, for instance, still get the short end of the stick, but in many parts of the world they’re much better off.  Most of us now realize that people should be treated as equals, regardless of gender, color, and sexual orientation.  That would have been inconceivable a few hundred years ago.

Let’s just tinker a bit with Trigg’s statement:

“If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature as the idea that women are inferior, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests,” Trigg said. . “The female-equality hypothesis of the 1960s—I think that is hopeless.”

The rush to derive religion-friendly conclusions from this kind of data reminds me of Elaine Ecklund and her hopeless quest to prove that scientists are really way more religious than they seem.  Like Trigg, she draws conclusions that extend far beyond the data.

Now, guess who funded Trigg and Barrett’s religion study at Oxford? They were given 1.9 million pounds for it.

I’ll give you one try, and if you can’t get it in one guess, you haven’t been reading this website.

Go here.

Yes, that particular organization paid two million pounds to find out the obvious: religion is pervasive. But what it was really buying was the researchers’ claim that pervasiveness implies permanence—and perhaps correctness.


For more on the antiscience agenda of the Templeton Foundation, see Salty Current‘s post.

h/t: Miranda “Holy Rabbit” Hale


  1. Kevin
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    This is why accommodation won’t work.

    They have multi-million dollar slush funds.

    We have only our voices.

  2. Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Oh, the urge to be religious is deeply-rooted in human nature and universal.

    I’m glad Trigg’s cleared that up for me. I’ve mistakenly been under the impression that I have had no such urge for more than a decade.

    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. If only one of the Gnu Atheists had written a book about that. Like, say, Daniel Dennett.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      Almost 50 years for me…

    • Dave
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Same here: isn’t in my nature; never has been.

  3. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    I find it disturbing that “scientists” assume Secularization Theory out of existence despite the evidence in its favor. Every year, polling data shows religion in decline, but the religious would rather wish the evidence away. Prof. Steve Bruce wrote a wonderful book this year Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory explaining yet again that secularization is happening and why. The response seems to be “Nananananana, I can’t hear you.”

    • abb3w
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      Of course, it is possible that the trend toward increasing irreligiosity (particularly with younger birth cohorts) will reverse itself, or stop well short of producing a demographic majority. Past performance trends do not guarantee future results… but they do give a statistical tendency.

  4. Jason A.
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    “It isn’t just a quirky interest of a few, it’s basic human nature.”

    Atheists – not fully human.

    • Maverick
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      They needed a multi-million dollar study to figure that out? Religious folk are really off their A game.

    • Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Ooh – I like this way of putting it better than mine.

    • Chayanov
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Yep, if you’re not religious then there’s something wrong with you. Probably can’t be trusted, either.

    • Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      Fully gnu.

  5. Bruce Burnett
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    “children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways” Horsefeathers, this is just an example of blaming the victims. Children think initially in whatever ways they are brainwashed by their parents. As they mature, if they happen to have some intelligence and spunk, enough to question the status quo, they may extricate themselves from religious oppression. Check out for many anecdotes of these struggles. Dawkins said it already. There is no such thing as a muslim child or a christian child, only unfortunate children of muslim or christian parents. Dennett has the right idea when he suggests that religion should be taught in all schools, as a historical comparative subject. This is because religion is very important, far too important to leave to the religious. But the faithheads will never let this happen.

    • Chayanov
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      Children also find it easy to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and monsters under the bed. They’ll pretty much believe anything adults tell them. I fail to see why this is supposed to be a good thing. Maybe Templeton can spend a couple million more explaining why we should act like children.

      • Karen
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

        I don’t recall the “monsters under the bed” hypothesis as being induced by my parents, but I certainly experienced it. I suspect it goes deeper than religious upbringing.

        Alas, at age 51, I still have monsters under my bed; but I react to them with, rather than fear, a terse “dammit, cat, come to bed!”

        • Jeff D
          Posted May 14, 2011 at 4:39 am | Permalink

          Yes, my wife (also a “Karen”) does this almost every night with our number one cat, Max, after I have fallen asleep, and on many nights she moves him to another bedroom.

        • Loren Petrich
          Posted May 14, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

          Fear of monsters under one’s bed may be a protective instinct, dating back to when there’d be real monsters to fear — predatory animals like hyenas and leopards.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

            Cats are not predatory animals to fear!?

            Obviously your cat hasn’t trained you well enough yet.

    • Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Hmm… not horsefeathers.

      I recall Dawkins making the point that children do have a significant tendency towards teleology, in his program on faith schools, perhaps?

      Independent of any particular stories their parents might have told.

      But it makes them more accepting of those stories.


      • BilBy
        Posted May 14, 2011 at 4:18 am | Permalink

        “promiscuous teleology” – children find it easy, apparently, to say that things are ‘for’ other things. Lions are ‘for’ roaring. Cats are ‘for’ stroking. So, as Antallan says, makes them accepting of other such stories

    • Ichthyic
      Posted May 16, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      those interested in this subject might want to check out the work done by Bloom and Weisberg on the subject.

      here’s a paper on it they published in Science a few years back:

      It’s short, and it’s also a review paper with a great bibliography.

  6. julian
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Haven’t you heard? Templeton are the good guys. Nothing at all like the DI. Just ask Josh Rosenau.

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Do I have too ? He makes no sense at all.

    • Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      And if you say they have a religious agenda but it’s more subtle than that of the DI, why, you’re saying they’re identical to the DI. Oh yes you are; don’t you dare make that face at me.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        Well, if your idea of subtle is a knife in the back. DI is more like “see, the knife cuts _both_ ways!”

  7. Gayle Stone
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m not going to look because Templeton is the only outfit that has that kind of money and the only one that wants this kind of garbage publshed. Most everything in the “study” has been said before,much of it true; they are just putting it in another approach ligo to satisfy Templeton’s outlay. But, but, but to say Richard will go for it, they should have their heads examined so as to decide where he would begin a lobotomy.

  8. 386sx
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Lol, why in the world would it take 1.9 million ponds. I can think of a lot better things to spend 1.9 million pounds on. I guess they had to buy a lot of “study” stuff for the study. Maybe they had to purchase Microsoft Office. That’s a big chunk right there.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      $1.5 billion would save a lot of children in the developing world. It’s a sad fact of life that most rich Christians would rather fund junk science and religious propaganda than doing something useful.

      • julian
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        Messed up part is, with federal funding dwindling fast and so few other sources to draw from, more and more researches are going to ‘see the light’ and suck up to Templeton. All without realizing what they’re doing.

  9. Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I think this is kind of clever–a scientific study showing why we need science in the first place: to provide a corrective for our flawed brains. Brava!

  10. Dominic
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I just read this story & was about to see if you had heard of it – & low! Sadly predictable about the funding & the results. Who on earth is publishing this crud? I saw no indication on their Cambridge Anthropology website.

    I agree with the idea that children have this idea of things being for them – well clouds being for rain, to use the example I read, but this is no reason for us to fall prey to this as adults. Unless you think that most people are stupid, but that would be arrogant and wrong, wouldn’t it?? 😐 Sorry – just had a glass of mead, a glass of ginger wine & am now on beer!

    • D. Beg
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Children do have a tendency to be teleological. Try asking children
      “It rains because…
      a)water vapor condensates in clouds b)plants need water to grow”
      Most will answer b)…

      • Posted May 14, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

        I’m not surprised if you throw them an uncromulent word like “condensates”…

  11. Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    A problem with broad claims like this about religion is that religion is such a broad term that it has little consistent meaning. To try and say that the same sort of beliefs apply to a fundamentalist Christian and a Zen Buddhist is clearly nonsense.

    • YourName's notBruce?
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. Religion is not one “thing”. This is just one of the problems with the whole idea of having science and religion “talk” to each other. Science can be seen as a unified body of knowledge about real things in the real world and the process by which that knowledge is generated and tested. Religion is, for the most part, a bunch of stuff that people just made up. And different peoples at different times made up different stuff, very little of which has much in common with other stuff made up by other people.

      Maybe people universally project agency on the natural world, but the agents they project are all different.

      • Posted May 14, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

        “Science can be seen as a unified body of knowledge…”

        Well, as a way of looking for and unifying a body of knowledge…

  12. Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Right, Templeton. On the other hand Andy Thompson has just put out a book called “Why we believe in gods”. I can’t wait to read it. Ordered it today.

  13. godskesen
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Fuck that. The pervasiveness of religion or of a tendency to see agency and purpose in the world can’t possibly provide support for the contents or particular beliefs of any religion. At most that just means that if we can think of no explanation our minds will drift to some vague notion of “Someone wants it that way which is nice, maybe.” It’s not an inference to the best explanation; it’s an inference to any purposive explanation, the least effortful explanation.

    Christian beliefs, or other such contents of religions, are socialised or cultivated in children and just maybe children have an easier time understanding and adopting religious beliefs. But that in no way shows that people will necessarily be denying their nature or feel deprived of anything if they choose not to believe in whatever agency and purpose that sometimes suggest itself to them. People can be socialised to be religious but they can also be socialised to monitor the logic and empirical basis of their thoughts.

    The tendency of the religious to believe that their lives would be horrible and pointless and ugly without religion is what motivates them – and it’s just pathetic. Religions infect the minds of children by spreading the lie that everything worldly is worthless and that our only hope for any meaning lies in an invisible magic place. I call it material revulsion. But their distaste of disbelieving is not human nature; it’s just the second nature of one particular culture drummed into its members from infancy – a social control mechanism for men in power. An atheist life is just different, if not better. No need for a god-given meaning of life. So fuck the Templeton Foundation!

  14. Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    You know, young children are also quite fond of shitting their pants. And I’m sure more than a few adults have experienced distress at the distance to the facilities and quite naturally thought maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to try for themselves.

    So, who do you think will give me $3M to study the pervasiveness of adult incontinence and whether or not it’d be a good idea for it to become socially acceptable to walk around with loaded drawers?



    • madamX
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Speaking of soiling one’s pants, I bet a certain journalist creamed his designer Gucci undies when he saw the 1.9 mill payoff. Don’t worry, I have a feeling he’ll find the money to have them dry cleaned…

  15. Posted May 13, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Everyone knows that children indulge in magical thinking, and the idea that religion rides on some basic psychological impulses like agent attribution (which arose for other reasons, like getting along as a social species) is not news. But that’s no warrant to say that religion *as such* is deeply rooted in basic human psychology — in its modern forms, religion is a socially-imposed parasite on all that stuff.

  16. Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    So, what they are saying is that large groups of humans are able to believe things that they have no evidence for over an extended period of time. I am pretty sure this was covered in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Just because humans are able to share delusions doesn’t make those delusions any more real.

    “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,” Trigg said.

    Bacterial infections and suffering from age-related afflictions are also deep-rooted in human nature. That doesn’t mean that we have to accept them. Deluded thinking is in the same category; just because we have a common delusion does not mean we have to keep it. By using science, we can discover that we have delusions, and can then do something about them.

    The book The Invisible Gorilla describes the ways that the human mind can fool itself into thinking and remembering things that are just, well, made up. It also has a quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that is quite apt:
    “The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something that you actually don’t.”

    This Templeton-funded study says that religion is common, and that is it. If there has not been an investigation into the truth of the beliefs, then this study’s purpose is really only to further belief in religion through the influence of a social proof; lots of people believe it, so it must be true.

  17. Insightful Ape
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Secularization is not hugwash. The conclusions of this study are.
    Greg Paul is the ultimate authority on this subject and he doesn’t endorse this.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Agreed. But I hug, you wash.

  18. HenkM
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    What a load of bullshit. Pardon me the expression.
    Where can I get the funding for my study to prove that Man is basically superstitious. Wants to believe what he is made afraid of. On fear of eternal damnation.
    And this Trigg calls himself a scientist?
    Or is that Prigg? (pronounciation is the same, right?)
    Words escape me to express my anger.
    Red hot would come closest, I suppose.

  19. Charles Sullivan
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Xenophobia is pervasive too…

  20. Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Yeah – I knew it had to be Templeton as soon as I saw Oxford and the subject matter. They’ve taken over that place. Tell Richard to watch out for pods.

  21. Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Oh for fuck’s sake.

    “Religious people would say, ‘If there is a God, then … he would have given us inclinations to look for him,’” Trigg said.

    And not find “him” so hahaha. Nice “God” these people worship.

    • YourName's notBruce?
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      Tag, we’re “it.”

  22. 386sx
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    “Religious people would say, ‘If there is a God, then … he would have given us inclinations to look for him,’” Trigg said.

    I realize he’s paraphrasing, but that’s a non sequitur if I ever saw one. Lol. They don’t get any more non sequitur than that. That is some primo non sequitur.

  23. colluvial
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    “Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings …”

    Because the term ‘religion’ is more often than not associated with one of the organized religions, this wording gives the impression that a particular religion is a natural by-product of an innocent mind. As if a child raised by wolves would occasionally be on his knees praying to Jesus.

    Superstition comes naturally, but religion comes by indoctrination.

    • YourName's notBruce?
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Maybe they were wolves in Shepherd’s clothing.

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      Is religion not superstition?

      • Andrew Wilson
        Posted May 14, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        Not to put words in colluvial’s mouth, but I imagine (s)he meant:

        ” … Superstition comes naturally, but (specific) religion comes by indoctrination. … “

      • Posted May 14, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        I’m not sure it’s the same. Religion comes from outside: someone else has to tell you what to believe. Superstition comes from your experience: because you found a diamond while there was a rainbow you thought that it was a condition. Of course, the contrary works as well -even better giving my example: each time there is a rainbow, you don’t find a diamond.

        • Alexander Hellemans
          Posted May 14, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

          Most superstition is based on existing ideas or rules, such as “don’t walk under a ladder, don’t hang your handbag on a door knob, don’t open an umbrella in the house, don’t let a black cat cross your path, and of course, “Spinne am Morgen bringt Kummer und Sorgen, Spinne am Abend erquickend und labend.” How is this different from religious indoctrination?

  24. Alex SL
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Thing is, what exactly are we discussing here? I would certainly agree with the sentence that religion is impossible to eradicate (title of this post). Obviously those secularized countries still have churches, and they still have religious fundamentalists, only they are fewer. So religion, and of course irrationality in general, may well be impossible to get out of our systems.

    But so what? Theft and violence are fairly obviously impossible to eradicate anyway. The difference is, virtually nobody is promoting them. Virtually everybody agrees that we should minimize them although it is clearly futile to expect to ever get rid of them entirely. This is what we would need to aim for with irrationality, and not get hung up on the question whether there will ever be a world without it.

    • YourName's notBruce?
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if that use of “eradicate” is to suggest that atheism is out to force people to give up religion “Stalinistically” rather than “Socratically”?

      • ckitching
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

        Now that you mention it, there are a lot of dog whistles in there, aren’t there?

        Atheists are not complete human beings (aka the “God-shaped hole”). Secularists are attempting to push religion out of the public (when we’re usually careful to say we want it out of government and government public officials should not use their office to promote religion). Religion is innate, so the non-religious are denying part of themselves. Etc.

  25. Posted May 13, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    I love being told that I’m not fully human by people making questionable conclusions from data!

  26. Tim Harris
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Judging from the story, Trigg’s remarks and the orchestrated publicity, what is happening is that Trigg, his pals and his Templeton backers are trying to mount a pre-emptive attack that will hinder or prevent the obvious conclusions from being drawn from the work of cognitive scientists and anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer. It is a contemptible (and well-funded)ploy to muddy the waters in the manner of climate-change deniers, biologicians and discovery institutionalists.

    I should like to paste here part of a comment I posted in response to Eric MacDonald’s take on the Trigg/Templeton business, because these books by Walter Burkert pull no punches about the aggression that lies at the heart of much religion:

    ‘I want to recommend very highly indeed the the works of Walter Burkert. I have just read ‘Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions’ and am now started on ‘Homo Necans (‘Man the Slayer’, if I remember my Latin aright): The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth’ – a book whose scope and suggestiveness go far beyond its stated subject. I am reading it with mounting excitement. These are remarkable books – extraordinarily informed, hugely perceptive and illuminating and clearly written, and unlike Trigg in his superficial study and subsequent comments for publicity, Burkert addresses very convincingly the question of the origins of religion, which he suggests lies in sacrifice, shows how these origins lie in our past as hunter-gatherers for millennia, and puts his finger on the aggression that is at the heart of religion and that acoounts for religion’s hold over our minds (this aggression, this threatening quality, is something that Eric put his finger on in one, or perhaps two, excellent recent posts of his) . And lest it be thought that this is merely me being excited, his books have been praised to the skies by such as Norman Cohn, Daniel Dennett and Wendy Flaherty. I urge everyone to read them.’

    • Posted May 13, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      And Christianity has the sacrifice origin to end them all!


  27. Sastra
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    As others have mentioned, there’s already a large amount of scientific literature on the anthropomorphic and teleological tendencies of children and adults. Dan Dennett, Steven Pinker, Paul Bloom, etc. It’s part of the atheist arsenal.

    But of course theists try to put that desperate little spin on it: God made the human mind superstitious and error-prone so that the TRUTH would seem plausible — even though this TRUTH resembles all the FALSE superstitions and human errors. IIRC it reminds me of the way Matt Alper suddenly made an abrupt about-switch in his neurology book on the brain’s tendency to misattribute agency by saying maybe God set up the human brain to commit errors.

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted May 13, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      Yes! For me, the most powerful part of The God Delusion was the extended discussion of the cargo cults springing up simultaneously and independently. If it is true they were created independently — without communication between the cults — then that shows me any human intuition of “god-detection” makes just as much/little sense.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted May 16, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

      again, just for thoroughness, and since Sastra mentioned him:


      and Weisberg:

      I’ve been posting this for years now, I do hope it starts catching on.

      there seems to be a great general interest in the topic, but few have actually read the work of any of the seminal people involved.

  28. E.A. Blair
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me so much of being told, as a child, “If all the other kids jump off a bridge, are you going to do it?”

    Joining a religion is jumping off a bridge.

  29. Scote
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    So, religion is pervasive, like Kudzu or some other invasive weed…doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continually cut it back to let some enlightenment in…

  30. Ludo
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    With this weird Oxfordian interpretation of religiousness a lot of dogs and cats (and other animals) can be counted as true believers! Charles Darwin(no doubt with tongue in cheek) elaborated on magical thinking in ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871):
    “The tendency in savages to imagine that natural objects and agencies are animated by spiritual or living essences, is perhaps illustrated by a little fact which I once noticed: my dog, a full-grown and very sensible animal, was lying on the lawn during a hot and still day; but at a little distance a slight breeze occasionally moved an open parasol, which would have been wholly disregarded by the dog, had any one stood near it. As it was, every time that the parasol slightly moved, the dog growled fiercely and barked. He must, I think, have reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner, that movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent, and no stranger had a right to be on his territory.
    The belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the belief in the existence of one or more gods.” (page 67)
    No doubt Darwin would have found this Oxford University study quite amusing and revealing.

  31. Dave Ricks
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    I think this project was discussed on RDnet a year or two ago. From what I remember:

    1) The interviews prompted the children in a way that reminded me of the daycare sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s (i.e., I felt the interviewers manipulated the children as tools or pawns to support the preconceptions of the adults, which I found disgusting),

    2) When the children were prompted by the adult interviewers, the children talked in terms of teleology, or agency distributed among natural objects that reminded me of Australian aboriginal belief, which I thought Christians considered to be a primitive superstition that was a wrong way to view how their Abrahamic god runs the world (i.e., you could just as well take the children’s views of distributed agency as “evidence” that the Abrahamic religions are wrong to believe in monotheism centralizing and personalizing such agency),

    3) Anyway, even atheist scientists sometimes talk in terms of teleology or agency as a heuristic stepping stone to get students started dealing with some material. For teleology to be heuristic speaks to how our minds work (for better or worse). But in the end, a final exam in a science class will not grade you on whether you got a heuristic stepping stone “right” or not.

  32. MadScientist
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Hahaha; I barely finished reading the fourth quote and I was already thinking “this bears the Templeton brand”.

    So humans tend to see things in a backward way – unlike other animals we can actually teach children why it is wrong to think that way and teach them how to understand their world and master it. Accepting ass-backward thinking simply because it comes naturally is a very bad idea. We certainly lose nothing by eliminating faulty thinking. What Trigg is actually advocating is a form of moral relativism (it’s ‘natural’ so it must be OK) – it is a prescription for acceptance of an amoral society. I find it pretty funny because the religious are always accusing the godless of not having morals.

  33. saintstephen
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings,” a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests.

    So does shitting one’s diapers. Comes naturally, even instinctively, I mean.

    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,” Trigg said.

    So thwarting children from shitting in their diapers is not enabling them to fulfill their basic needs.

    Work it needs, this “argument.”

    • Alex SL
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 5:54 am | Permalink


    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      No shitting!

      [ROFL, BTW.]

  34. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    Let’s assume(!) that human feelings about teleology and life after death truly reflect some divine principle (I already feel queasy for proposing this debating point).

    So some sort of god(s) exist; how do we collectively explain why the divine principle has been elaborated into gay-hating or women-hating or original sin or gold plated altars or celibate priests? How do we explain the ineffectiveness of prayer? Bad things happening to good people?

    A delusion about a ‘divine spirit’ could be relatively harmless, but Religion is toxic.

    Since no adult believes in Santa Claus it is possible for rationality to correct emotional mistakes.

    • Posted May 14, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      “Since no adult believes in Santa Claus it is possible for rationality to correct emotional mistakes.”

      Unless you destroy reason itself:

  35. Posted May 14, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I’m glad that someone mentioned Boyer – but there’s also a whole academic field of the sociology of religion, for example; ditto the psychology of religion as mentioned.

    It looks like Templeton is branching out into the pseudosciences of the sciences which study religion. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to coop those.

    • Posted May 14, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Oh, they already have their claws in the sociology of religion. Ecklund’s just the tip of the iceberg. They fund people, projects,…

      The December 2010 issue of American Sociological Review (considered the premier journal in the discipline) contains an article: “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction.” Under Funding:

      “We are grateful to the John T. Templeton Foundation for their generous support of the larger American Grace project, as well as their support of both waves of the Faith Matters survey. We also thank the Legatum Institute for their support of this particular work on religion and subjective well-being.”

      Guess what they “found”?

      • Posted May 15, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

        Wait… Are you calling anthropology, sociology, and paychology pseudosciences?

        • Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

          I think the key phrase here is “pseudosciences of the sciences”, ie. the fringe where legitimate scholarship shades over into shoddy work in support of a pre-conceived agenda.

          • Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

            Er, yes, that was how I read it the first time.

            Amazingly, reading it again when I awoke at 5 AM led to a misinterpretation.


        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink


          Look, I know of “pay-chiatry”, but…

          [notes a & s adjacent on keyboard] … oh!

  36. Contrabandista13
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    That the Tempelton Foundation is funding something like this, only shows how defensive their forces have become in their futile efforts.

    From my first introduction to religion in a catholic environment in pre-school, my first thought was.. “This is Bull Shit..” I went along with it and pretended, it served my purposes, and I was acting in self interest. Now 56 years later, I still attend catholic church on Sunday, the reason, it makes my mother happy to see me there… What a good little Atheist I am…! She knows I am an Atheist, she knows that I have nothing but contempt for the charlatan, catholic church… And she told me that she loves me even more becasue I go to church, just to make her happy…. A small price to pay…

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted May 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes, a nice example showing that the idea that only religious people have a sense of morality and ethics, or even compassion, is completely wrong. Your example makes clear why we call ourselves humanists.

  37. GroovyJ
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    The design and positioning of the human eyes is such that everyone naturally perceives the Earth as being flat. Indeed, children are born ready to accept the idea of a flat Earth. A flat Earth seems a natural, obvious conclusion to anyone who has not been educated otherwise.

    Obviously, we will never be able to eliminate belief in a flat Earth, and maybe that in itself is a kind of evidence that the world realy is flat in some sense.

    Anyone persuaded?

    • Posted May 14, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      everyone naturally perceives the Earth as being flat.

      Everyone except those living on the coast.

      Or who carefully observe wells at midday.


    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Good, really good!

      First, I may have to quote this in a current discussion.

      Second, it looks like a good analogy for catholic thinking of gods inserting “souls”. Thinking that humans “embodies a soul” despite the vast fact of evolutionary related species is like thinking the Earth is locally flat.

      Also, nobody has seen gods hammering the Earth flat to achieve that perspective anymore than they have seen “soul insertions” to achieve our intelligence.

      I like it!

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Keeping in mind that few if any believed in a flat Earth in historical times, of course.

  38. abb3w
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Selfishness, sexuality, and immorality are pervasive; therefore, they are impossible to eradicate, and attempting to reduce them is a waste of effort.

  39. Ludo
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    In a way this Oxford-Templeton project points out that religiousness is caused by infantile thought patterns (‘magical thinking’) remaining in place throughout adult life, instead of being timely jettisoned when growing up. The way to prevent this malignant growth of religious bigotry is obvious: allowing young minds to grow and thrive in an atmosphere free of mind-scarring religiosity.

  40. Posted May 14, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Trigg is at the Ian Ramsey Centre – which is a Templeton creation.

    The CNN article never so much as mentions Templeton, yet the project that is the subject of the article is Templeton-funded.

    We’re always scolded for saying Templeton is a stealth organization.


  41. Posted May 14, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I’m infuriated by Templeton’s corrosive influence on academic research.

    Thanks for the link! I just posted a bit more about the climate denial activities, in case anyone’s interested:

  42. Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    My parents forgot to tell me about religion – they aren’t overt atheists, just not interested in that stuff. Consequence: I’m not at all religious and have always found the idea of gods a bit silly, even as a child. So much for “Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways”. Sure; they find it easy to think in *any* ways, if they’re taught.

  43. Michieux
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    On the Oxford website relating to this study, it says:

    “The project seeks to support scientific projects that promise to yield new evidence regarding how the structures of human minds inform and constrain religious expression including ideas about gods and spirits, the afterlife, spirit possession, prayer, ritual, religious expertise, and connections between religious thought and morality and pro-social behavior.”

    I’m wondering what can be considered “new” here, since its primary finding seems to tell us what we already know.

    What a waste of dollars — dollars that could have been better spent on cancer research, for example.

  44. Diane G.
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink


  45. wyocwboy62
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Is Trigg religious himself? If so then that would through the whole study out the window because he cannot be unbiased. I also run into a problem with religion being natural…why do you have to indoctrinate the people to be religious, if religion is natural? If religion was natural why are we not born with the knowledge of religion?

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      I think this quote answers your question (Is
      Trigg religious himself? )

      “We tend to see purpose in the world,” Oxford University professor Roger Trigg said Thursday. “We see agency. We think that something is there even if you can’t see it. … All this tends to build up to a religious way of thinking.”

      What also is disturbing is that you have people with a PhD in theology taking part in this study. What is theology? Is it science? If yes, why is it not called “study of belief systems” or “comparative studies of religiosity?” Is theology a critical view on religiosity? A PhD in theology sounds to me as silly as a PhD in astrology (they are awarded at some Indian universities).

      • Tim Harris
        Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

        Theology assumes there is a (Christian) god and then talks about it. It is not a study of belief systems and it is not involved in comparative studies of religiosity. Nor is it a critical view of religiosity.

        • Alexander Hellemans
          Posted May 16, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

          So it is clear that the Templeton Foundation directly funds religion as well since theologians are not scientists.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted May 16, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Permalink


  46. Lee
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    Is this a case of “praise science” until science says something you don’t like?

    Here are some problems with your thoughts:

    1. “I could have told you that religion was pervasive.” Actually no, you couldn’t, because you didn’t carry out a study. It is possible that there could be cultures without recurring religious themes. The study confirms that, so far, all cultures do. It may have confirmed your suspicions, but suspicions are not reliable sources of knowledge. Right?

    2. “It’s indoctrination of children when they come to have religious believes.” I SOME extreme cases then yes, perhaps this is true. However, for it to be all cases then you would have to argue that the meaning of indoctrination is coming to share the beliefs of the society of which you are encultured. In which case, indoctrination is so ubiquitous that any meaning of the word is lost.

    3. “Tremendous secularisation over the last few centuries.” Maybe among you and your mates, but you need to learn your history. There is a long history of secularism (not the same as atheism) and the idea that once upon a time the whole world was, or was in thrall to, religious zealots is just poor unsophisticated history.

    The saddest thing here is the hypocrisy. As soon as someone says something you dislike, you immediately become suspicious, but you never turn that suspicion upon yourselves. What you might find is that rather than engaging in a search for knowledge, you search for confirmation of what you think you already know. That is not science.

    You give scientists a bad name. You give atheists a bad name.

10 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] See Jerry Coyne’s take on the same study, which as he points out, was funded by — guess who! — the John  Templeton Foundation. The so-called “findings” of this study are so obviously religious presuppositions dressed up in research disguise that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there are a number of religiously inclined philosophers, psychologists and other academics out there who are just milking Templeton for all the money they can get, no matter how feeble their research methodology or how tenuous their conclusions. Read the description of the research project to see what Templeton got for its £1.9 million. There is, I think, something morally questionable about this process, something like academic prostitution — which is unfairly to characterise real prostitutes, who provide a genuine service in return for fees paid. […]

  2. […] And read Jerry Coyne on the subject […]

  3. […] Why Evolution Is True: New Oxford Study: Religion pervasive, ergo impossible to eradicate. […]

  4. […] And read Jerry Coyne on the subject […]

  5. […] we go again. Via Jerry – we learn of a CNN report on a “huge” new study that tells us religion is […]

  6. […] so many believe this, then this belief cannot possibly be delusional”. It just so happens that Jerry Coyne talked about a similar topic (not as a part of our thread). He was talking about an Oxford University study about how pervasive religious belief is. Coyne […]

  7. […] And read Jerry Coyne on the subject Share and Enjoy: […]

  8. […] unlike the Gnu Atheists I don’t believe in the secularization thesis, never have, never will. Religion is not going away, ever. I find it fascinating that people who […]

  9. […] And read Jerry Coyne on the subject […]

  10. […] 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 […]

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