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.

Neither ritual nor ethics nor theology seems to make much of an impression on God.

As we might expect in a secular age, the project directors, Justin Barrett and Roger Trigg, made sure we all understand that this study in no way proves God's existence. In fact, Trigg added, both atheists and believers could use the study to argue their side. He said well-known secularist Richard Dawkins "would accept our findings and say we've got to grow out of it."

We would agree with Dawkins and friends. As much as we might be heartened by scientific evidence that suggests human beings are inherently religious, this is not necessarily good news. As Karl Barth, in his groundbreaking commentary on the Book of Romans, put it:

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No human demeanor is more open to criticism, more doubtful, or more dangerous, than religious demeanor. No undertaking subjects men to so severe a judgment as the undertaking of religion. The whole rich abundance of the worship of God, from the grossest superstition to the most delicate spirituality, from naked rationalism to the most subtle mysticism of the metaphysician, is under suspicion both from above and from below. God treats it as arrogance, and men as illusion.

This seems to be the stance of the prophets (see Isaiah 1) and Jesus (see Matthew 23) and Paul (see Romans 1-3). Neither ritual nor ethics nor theology seems to make much of an impression on God. That's because most of the time, religion is an attempt to avoid the living God.

We tend to create rituals and beliefs, rites and ethical systems to justify our existence, to placate our guilt and fear of death, to make ourselves useful to the world and acceptable to God. In short, religion is our valiant attempt to get right with God while ignoring the fact and way that he has gotten right with us: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ. To continue to work for our justification instead of accepting our justification is the essence of religion.

But of course, worship has another dimension. To worship, to pray, to teach, to build churches, to feed the hungry—all of these are religious acts. We often say that we mustn't confuse being a Christian with being religious, but it's impossible to be a Christian without being religious. God uses religion—especially preaching, worship, the sacraments, prayer—to communicate himself to us.

So we have to "commit religion" in order to be Christians. This is almost, but not quite, like saying that when we commit sin, grace abounds. As we commit religion, grace will abound. Sometimes when we commit religion, we will be trying to justify ourselves—and for that we need forgiveness. Sometimes we will be rightly using the means of grace given by God. In either case, we should agree with the atheists in the hope that someday we will "grow out of it"—or more biblically, that God will abolish it. For someday, we will not need rituals or preaching or sacraments to know and be known by him. Someday (Rev. 21), God will be in our midst.

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Related Elsewhere:

For more on the Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project, see the University of Oxford's website.

Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for a corresponding Bible study on "Good Religion, Bad Religion."

Additional coverage of religious zeal and atheism includes:

How to Become a Successful Religion | A marketing consultant advises early church leaders. (August 19, 2010)
Taming Religion | Why we need to keep The Extremist in check. (May 13, 2010)
Jesus Is Not a Brand | Why it is dangerous to make evangelism another form of marketing. (January 2, 2009)
Puncturing Atheism | Fourfold God Squad brilliantly takes on Dawkins, Hitchens, & Co. (October 31, 2007)

Christianity Today also has more editorials on our site.

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