The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project led by Dr Justin Barrett, from the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford University cost £1.9 million (approximately $3.1 million) and involved 57 researchers, among them cognitive, developmental and evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, behavioral economists, computer scientists, philosophers, theologians, comparative religionists, historians of religion, and sociologists, conducting 40 separate studies in 20 countries from 2007-2010.
The project’s goal was not a modest one: to explain religion. It was to “support scientific research that promises to yield new evidence regarding how the structures of human minds inform and constrain religious expression.”
Toward this goal the project conducted research “on the cognitive underpinnings of religious concepts and practices – for example, ideas about gods and spirits, the afterlife, spirit possession, prayer, ritual, religious expertise, and connections between religious thought and morality and pro-social behavior.”
The project’s FAQ sheet explained the reason for the study, answering questions about previous attempts to explain religion (and no, the old “it’s a means of control” won’t do any more than will Marx’s “opiate of the masses”):
Understanding the causal factors contributing to the spread and appeal of various forms of religious concepts has exercised scholarly minds for hundreds of years. Indeed, almost everyone we talk to will quite readily offer their own explanation of religion – in terms of guilt repression, or as an emotional crutch, or as satisfying intellectual curiosity, and so on. But these explanations are invariably insufficient and often parochial.
One thing the study was not interested in is whether god or gods exists. This is properly outside the purview of the research (indeed, outside of the purview of science itself), which focuses on an explanation for religion. As the project’s FAQ goes on to explain,
Indeed, we are just as interested in identifying the cognitive and ecological factors that contribute to the spread of atheism as we are in the factors contributing to the pervasiveness and persistence of beliefs in God or gods (in all their remarkable crosscultural variation).
Quick to quiet fears about the study’s purpose they also point out that explaining religion is “not the same as explaining it away.” As Dr. Barrett put it,
‘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. If we look at why religious beliefs and practices persist in societies across the world, we conclude that individuals bound by religious ties might be more likely to cooperate as societies. Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network.’
You might remember here that according to the Republican narrative cities are “godless” places and that all real Americans are rurally based. I suppose support networks have a liberal bias, since they exclude God from the equation. How long before we’re told “the cities must go!”?
It turns out, probably to the chagrin of militant atheists, that whether God or gods actually exist, religion itself is part of the human condition:
The emerging evidence in Cognitive Science of Religion suggests that many (but certainly not all) aspects of religious beliefs are cognitively natural, i.e. they are, under certain specifiable conditions, predictable outputs of our evolved cognitive architecture. It appears that many notions to do with life after death, gods and spirits, a purposeful life, and design in the world do not need to be culturally inculcated and reinforced in order to be acquired and sustained. Rather, these notions are readily and easily generated and grasped, requiring minimal or even no schooling. If much of what we call religious belief is in this sense “natural”, we can probably expect religion to be with us into the future and, where the attempt is made, difficult to eradicate (e.g., through appeal to schooling in non-religious worldviews, etc.).
Said Project Co-Director Professor Roger Trigg of the University of Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre:
‘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 as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life.’
Pagans have argued that polytheism is the “default” setting for humans. Certainly, monotheism has been rare (and a late development at that). But the study was not interested in this particular issue. The happy news for the religious and the bad news for atheists is that it’s natural to be religious. Billboards and commercials won’t change that. Religion isn’t going to go away.
Of course, our predisposition toward religion does not excuse the excesses of certain religions. Most sane people would not endorse human sacrifices, inquisitions, crusades, or religiously-inspired ethnic cleansing such as we’ve seen all too often throughout history, and such as is found in the Old Testament.
It would seem that it is not religious people who have made a conscious decision to believe but rather atheists who have made a conscious decision to cease believing. Given the excesses of religion since the fifth century’s Theodosian Code it is difficult to blame atheists from opting out. At the same time, it is refreshing to see a study about religion which argues neither pros nor cons but simply tries to understand it.
What seems important to those of us in 21st century America is that religion itself is not the enemy of democracy. Religious societies gave birth to ancient forms of democracies and co-existed peacefully, just as they did here in the eighteenth century. It is a particular type of religion that endangers our world and it is important that we be precise in identifying the form and nature of the enemy. After all, it is not only atheists who are threatened by the specter of dominionism but Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and pagans like me – and even Christians, the vast majority of whom do not share the extremist beliefs of the few.
 ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm