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Are We Born Believers?

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Child with folded hands on bible

Sasiistock/Thinkstock

Upbringing, culture probably lie behind most people’s religious beliefs.

Over the past two decades, there has been a growing trend in cognitive psychology, leaning toward the idea that belief in God or the supernatural comes to humans “naturally.” But is it true? Are humans born to naturally believe in the supernatural? Researchers from Coventry University’s Center for Advances in Behavioral Science, and neuroscientists and philosophers from Oxford University, took on this topic in a new study.

Some previous studies have suggested that people with very strong religious beliefs are relying more on intuition and less on analytics, and that if you increase analytical thinking, their religious beliefs will decrease. This study, published in Scientific Reports, suggests that religious beliefs are not linked either intuition or rational thinking.

The research was first done along a pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (the “Way of St. James”), in Spain. Pilgrims were asked about their beliefs, and assessed with a probability test that asked them to decide between a logical and intuitive choice. In that study, there was no link between strength of intuition and supernatural belief.

Next, researchers used math puzzles on subjects, again looking at intuitive decision-making, and did not find a link.

In the last part of their research, they used electrodes to painlessly activate the subjects’ brains. They worked with the right interior frontal gyrus, which controls inhibition. When stimulated, subjects saw increased levels of cognitive inhibition, but their beliefs did not change. Researchers say their work supports the theory that religious beliefs are nurture-based, not nature-based, and come to us via our upbringing, rather than how the brain works.

“We don't think people are ‘born believers’ in the same way we inevitably learn a language at an early age,” writes lead author Miguel Farias. “The available sociological and historical data show that what we believe in is mainly based on social and educational factors, and not on cognitive styles, such as intuitive/analytical thinking.

“Religious belief is most likely rooted in culture rather than in some primitive gut intuition.”


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Spirituality & Health’s Wellbeing Editor, Kathryn Drury Wagner, is based in Savannah. She’s been a contributor to the magazine for many years, and she loves sharing ways to build a healthy, mindful, and sustainable lifestyle. 


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