Why are humans religious? Why do people have faith in a supreme being? A simple answer to that question would be that He exists, but in science, we try to delve deeper than that. In investigating this topic, the most fundamental question and starting point is the following: Are humans naturally predisposed towards religion or is it something we come to accept through societal influence?
The College View took a look at a study by two Oxford scientists, Justin Barrett and John Trigg. Its null hypothesis was that humans are not hard wired to have faith whereas the alternative hypothesis was that people were in some way inclined to believe in the supernatural. The study concluded that humans are naturally are wired to have some sort of religious belief in the world’s purpose. Those educated in the sciences were no exception. This study appears to be quite reliable, as the sample size is enormous. Barrett and Trigg’s paper is actually a conglomeration of forty studies in about two dozen countries.
So people are hard wired to have some sort of faith? But what purpose does that serve? Researchers at Queens University, in a study published by the Association for Psychological Science had a theory that this purpose could be to improve human self discipline. In four different experiments they tested the idea that putting religious ideas into people’s heads through word activities could help increase self control. In this case, their null hypothesis, where nothing is going on, was that thinking about religious words would not increase self control behaviors. The alternative hypothesis was that thinking about these religious topics would cause the subjects of the experiment to exhibit more self control than their peers in the control group. The first three tests were resoundingly rejecting the null hypothesis for the alternative, but there were some wishy-washy results in the fourth. There were three groups in the fourth experiment. One group, rather than normal words, received words related to mortality, a second received words that were related to virtue and not necessarily faith, while the last, as usual, were subjected to words that had to do explicitly with religion and faith. The subjects were then requested to complete the Stroop task, a test that measures an individual’s self control. The virtue group and the religion group preformed equally well whereas the group that was subjected to mortality words preformed poorly compared to their peers.
So what’s the conclusion here? While we can definitively say there is something wired into our psychology that wants to believe in a higher power or at the very least a higher purpose, we can’t say for sure what that purpose is. Evidence from the Queen’s University researchers does indicate that our faith could serve some purpose regarding self control, but in just one study, and one with slightly contradictory results at that, we will need more research before we can fully answer what exact purpose having a religious predisposition serves the human race.