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Once in a while, we agree with the atheists. The latest occasion is the release of a new study on religion.

In 2007, the John Templeton Foundation made an award of £1.87 million to the University of Oxford for the Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project. The project sought to improve the scientific and philosophical rigor of the study of religion. As the web page announcing the study put it, "Both missions were accomplished with goals exceeded."

The study affirmed the familiar and uncovered a few surprises, such as:

  • "Children and adults have a tendency to see the natural world as having function or purpose—even those with advanced scientific education."
  • "In early childhood we have a natural tendency to attribute super properties to other humans and gods, including super knowledge, super perception, and immortality."
  • "Adolescents and young adults may find religious ideas easier to remember and use than older adults."
  • "Religious beliefs and practices might persist in part because they make us more cooperative and generous with others."

A number of media outlets trumpeted the story, many of them treating the obvious as news. The opening of CNN's story read, "Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings, a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests."

Then again, this hasn't been obvious to some. The secularization theory—that as societies modernize and become more scientific, people will become less religious—has held sway for nearly 200 years in Western intellectual circles. Now we have another study from perhaps the most respected academic institution in the world that says religion is not only here to stay, but is built into the very fabric of human existence.

As we might ...

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In the Magazine

August 2011

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