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Are humans innately inclined to find theism intuitive?

  • Clarifying the question

    stick figure image of michelangelos creation of man

    Is god-belief intuitive? Do humans innately find the notion of God (or gods) existing to be common-sensical at first blush? Perhaps theologians have long been on to something?

    • John Calvin: “…there is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.” [Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (John Knox Press, 1960), 1.3.1.]
    • C.H. Spurgeon: “You never saw a child startled when it was told for the first time that God made it, for within that little mind there dwells an instinct which accepts the statement.” [The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons, Parts 225-236 (Passmore & Alabaster, 1874). 568.]
  • Researchers say “YES”

    • Justin Barrett (Senior researcher at Center for Anthropology and Mind, and Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University): “Belief in gods and God particularly arises through the natural, ordinary operation of human minds in natural orginary environments.” [Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Alta Mira Press, 2004)]
    • Roger Trigg (Professor at Oxford): “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.”[Humans 'predisposed' to believe in gods and the afterlife, University of Oxford see]
    • Michael Murray (Prof. at Franklin & Marshall college): “For the moment it seems perfectly acceptable for Christians to hold that God created the world, human beings, and human minds in such a way that when they are functioning properly, they form beliefs in the existence of rocks, rainbows, human minds, and God.” [Contending with Christianity's Critics, eds. Copan & Craig (P&H Publishing, 2009), 57.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Scientists find theism intuitive (Boston study, 2013)

    At an instinctual level, trained scientists find theism intuitive

    A 2013 study indicates that even trained scientists instinctively tend to find purpose in nature, having “teleological tendencies.”

    • ScienceDaily: “…even professional chemists, geologists, and physicists from major universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Yale cannot escape a deep-seated belief that natural phenomena exist for a purpose... when scientists are required to think under time pressure, an underlying tendency to find purpose in nature is revealed. ...the human mind has a robust default preference for purpose-based explanation that persists from early in development. … the researchers asked a group of physical scientists from top-ranked American universities to judge explanations such as 'Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe' or 'The Earth has an ozone layer in order to protect it from UV light' under speeded conditions so they had little time to reflect on their answers.” [Even Professional Scientists Are Compelled to See Purpose in Nature, Psychologists Find (08/12): Online].
    • Kelemen D, Rottman J, Seston R.: “…prior research provides reasons to suspect that this explanatory form may represent a default explanatory preference. …In Study 2, we explored this further and found that the teleological tendencies of professional scientists did not differ from those of humanities scholars.” [“Professional physical scientists display tenacious teleological tendencies: Purpose-based reasoning as a cognitive default.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142(4) (2013): 1074-83.]
  • Atheists find theism intuitive (Finland study, 2013)

    Most all atheists find theism intuitive at some base level

    For example, a 2013 study indicates that daring God causes atheists stress/sweat.

    • Marjaana Lindemana, Bethany Heywood, Tapani Riekkia Tommi Makkonena: “We examined whether atheists exhibit evidence of emotional arousal when they dare God to cause harm to themselves and their intimates. In Study 1, the participants (16 atheists, 13 religious individuals) read aloud 36 statements of three different types: God, offensive, and neutral. In Study 2 (N = 19 atheists), ten new stimulus statements were included in which atheists wished for negative events to occur. The atheists did not think the God statements were as unpleasant as the religious participants did in their verbal reports. However, the skin conductance level showed that asking God to do awful things was equally stressful to atheists as it was to religious people and that atheists were more affected by God statements than by wish or offensive statements. The results imply that atheists' attitudes towards God are ambivalent in that their explicit beliefs conflict with their affective response.” [“Atheists become emotionally aroused when daring God to do terrible things.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 24(2) (2013): 124-132.]
  • Humans are “born believers” (Oxford study, 2011)

    The “The Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project” results indicate that humans cross-culturally, from childhood, find theism/theistic-design intuitively compelling

    • University of Oxford (2011): “A three-year international research project, directed by two academics at the University of Oxford, finds that humans have natural tendencies to believe in gods and an afterlife. The £1.9 million project involved 57 researchers who conducted over 40 separate studies in 20 countries representing a diverse range of cultures. The studies (both analytical and empirical) conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and an afterlife, and that both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.” ["Humans 'predisposed' to believe in gods and the afterlife" Oxford online]
    • Justin Barrett (Psychology professor., Senior Researcher at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind & The Inst. for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford): “The new science of religion begs to differ. Children are born primed to see god at work all around them and don't need to be indoctrinated to believe in him… Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language.… From birth children show certain predilections… But adults generally do believe in gods. That such belief begins in childhood and typically endures into adulthood places it in the same class as believing in the permanence of solid objects, the continuity of time, the predictability of natural laws, the fact that causes precede effects, that people have minds, that their mothers love them and numerous others. If believing in gods is being childish in the same respect as holding these sorts of beliefs, then belief in gods is in good company.” [“Born Believers”, NewScientist (17 March 2012)] Note also: Approximately 88%–93% of persons in the world are theists. [Derived from Phil Zuckerman's "Atheism: Contemporary rates and patterns." in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Martin (Cambridge, 2007), 47–68.]

  • Intuitive thinkers favor theism (Harvard study, 2011)

    People with a more intuitive thinking style tend to have a stronger presupposition in favor of theism.

    Note: By “intuitive,” the following researchers mean “judgments made with little effort based on automatic processes.”

    • Amitai Shenhav, David Rand, Joshua Greene: “Some have argued that belief in God is intuitive, a natural (by-)product of the human mind given its cognitive structure and social context. If this is true, the extent to which one believes in God may be influenced by one's more general tendency to rely on intuition versus reflection. Three studies support this hypothesis, linking intuitive cognitive style to belief in God.”
      • Study 1 showed that individual differences in cognitive style predict belief in God. Participants completed the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT; Frederick, 2005), which employs math problems that, although easily solvable, have intuitively compelling incorrect answers. Participants who gave more intuitive answers on the CRT reported stronger belief in God. This effect was not mediated by education level, income, political orientation, or other demographic variables.
      • Study 2 showed that the correlation between CRT scores and belief in God also holds when cognitive ability (IQ) and aspects of personality were controlled. Moreover, both studies demonstrated that intuitive CRT responses predicted the degree to which individuals reported having strengthened their belief in God since childhood, but not their familial religiosity during childhood, suggesting a causal relationship between cognitive style and change in belief over time.
      • Study 3 revealed such a causal relationship over the short term: Experimentally inducing a mindset that favors intuition over reflection increases self-reported belief in God.” [“Divine intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God”, J Exp Psychol Gen. 141(3) (2012): 423-8.]
“No, after all…
  • Some/many people are non-theists

    There are many people in the world who lack belief in God or gods.

    But no...

    • Only a very small percentage of the world lacks belief in God.1

    But, so what? Couldn't it simply be that…

    • They became non-theists for what they felt were good overriding reasons?2
    • They have repressed the natural intuition?3
    1. Currently: “…non-religious 9.66% [but this includes deists etc.], atheists 2.01% (2010 est.).” [The World fact Book at] Note: Even that 2% largely occurs in countries where atheism is mandated.
    2. For example, some people (e.g. often influenced by ideas in the University) don't believe in objective moral values, but it's been empirically demonstrated that this is nevertheless an instinctive belief.
    3. For example, humans are naturally predisposed to love their offspring, but this doesn't mean societies/religions etc. couldn't be structured such that millions of parents do not love their offspring. In fact, even if in the future, for whatever reasons, 90% of humans adults don't love their offspring, that would not imply that these humans were not naturally predisposed to love them. Humans are hardwired to love their offspring.
  • Some people report having no such intuition

    Some people assert that they don't find theism intuitive.

    But, so what? Couldn't it simply be that…

    • They are accidentally fooling themselves?1
    • They have repressed the natural intuition?2
    • They are suffering from a cognitive defect?
    • They (or at least some) are lying?
    1. Psychologically, it seems possible to find a concept intuitive and nevertheless fool yourself into believing it is not intuitive. Presumably, naturalist scientists would verbally reject that they have an intuition favoring a theistic view of the world. But, when tested, results show otherwise (see above). Similarly, many atheists would verbally deny that daring God would cause them any stress, but again, empirical results show otherwise (see above).
    2. It is ostensibly possible to render an otherwise intuitive belief less intuitive over time. For example,  one could grow callous to the intuition that one ought not steal or murder. Consider that some people (e.g. often influenced by ideas in the University) do not believe in objective moral values. Nevertheless it has been empirically demonstrated that this intuition of an objective morality is nevertheless instinctual, and hardwired into humans. For someone who is cognitively healthy, the most they can hope to do is somehow repress this. See Richard Joyce's The Evolution of the Morality (Bradford Books, 2006), 129. for an excellent discussion of the various studies on the topic.