Evidence suggested that both theology and atheism are responses to a basic impulse “rooted” in human thought processes, regardless of cultural background.
The researchers underlined that the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project was not aimed at proving or disproving the existence of God. Dr Barrett said: “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.”
The project, led by psychologist Dr Justin Barrett from the Oxford Centre for Anthropology and Mind, involved over 50 academics from around the world and included studies of both traditionally religious and atheist societies. It drew on various disciplines including anthropology, psychology, philosophy and theology.
Project Co-Director Professor Roger Trigg, from Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre in the Theology Faculty, stressed the social significance of the findings, saying: “This project suggests that religion is 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.”
Academics from Tsinghua University in China and Queen’s University in Belfast found that adults across many cultures seem to believe instinctively in a form of afterlife, and can easily conceive a separation of the mind and body.
Students from Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union said that they were “not surprised” by such results. Alan Lewis, a former representative of OICCU, said: “The project seems to knock the common perception that people believe in a God because that is how they are brought up. The results from China, where religious groups are carefully monitored and sometimes shut down, and other societies described as ‘traditionally atheist’, are particularly interesting in this regard.”
But Benjamin Krishna, Chair of the Oxford Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, said the study could mean “humans may create religions without the need for a supernatural presence, possibly due to a lack of strong social support. If so, atheism, and particularly humanism, would seem a positive response to a strong society.”
Dr Barrett said: “The [students’] reactions nicely illustrate the fact that these findings – that religion is natural in some sense – can be interpreted through the lenses of various worldviews, religious or not. They only tell us how our minds naturally work and not whether any given religious beliefs are true or false. That said, many philosophical systems regard people as justified in giving their natural intuitions the benefit of the doubt. If that is right, then we shouldn’t say that people are irrational to hold religious beliefs if they haven’t managed to marshal an air-tight evidential proof for them. Rather we should say that people are rationally justified in holding their religious beliefs until sufficient evidence arises to upset them.”
The findings will be published in two books by Dr Barrett.