We Are Not Born Believers

Image: Karl Fredrickson
Are religious and spiritual beliefs a matter of the heart or the head? Or neither?

The growing consensus among cognitive psychologists has been that people who are more intuitive and less analytical end up being religious as adults.

But new findings by researchers at Coventry University's Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science and at Oxford University challenge this assumption.

Their research suggests that people are not born believers, and that no specific personality traits or cognitive styles cause some to be more religious than others.

Instead, the factors most likely to influence religious belief are where an individual was born and the upbringing and education they received. 

"We don't think people are 'born believers'... 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," said lead author Miguel Farias.

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

The reason this research is important is that it challenges a deeper implied assumption that those who are more emotional or less rational tend to hold beliefs in the supernatural, while those who are more "left-brained" or scientific tend to hold secular or atheistic beliefs. In some circles, intelligence is linked with lack of religious belief, while having a lower IQ is linked with being a believer.

Image: Pew Research Center
For example, since 41% of American scientists do not believe in God or a higher power, compared to only 4% of the general public, some conclude that this is because scientists are generally smarter. The reality may be that those who had access to a particular kind or quality of education throughout their lives become more inclined to favour scientific explanations over supernatural ones.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who are religious and support a spiritual worldview may believe that having a strong intuitive sense puts them "closer to God" or to spiritual insight. The above-mentioned study calls this assumption into question as well.

Important note: This is a preliminary study, which means that more studies like it are needed to confirm its findings. So, while the new research calls into question previous assumptions many have held, nothing conclusive can yet be drawn.

Recommended Reading:

In an era of hardening religious attitudes and explosive religious violence, this book offers a welcome antidote. Richard Holloway retells the entire history of religion—from the dawn of religious belief to the twenty-first century—with deepest respect and a keen commitment to accuracy. Writing for those with faith and those without, and especially for young readers, he encourages curiosity and tolerance, accentuates nuance and mystery, and calmly restores a sense of the value of faith. Ranging far beyond the major world religions of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, Holloway also examines where religious belief comes from, the search for meaning throughout history, today's fascinations with Scientology and creationism, religiously motivated violence, hostilities between religious people and secularists, and more.

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris delivers a startling analysis of the clash between reason and religion in the modern world. He offers a vivid, historical tour of our willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs―even when these beliefs inspire the worst human atrocities. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris draws on insights from neuroscience, philosophy, and Eastern mysticism to deliver a call for a truly modern foundation for ethics and spirituality that is both secular and humanistic. Winner of the 2005 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Nonfiction.

Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning that at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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  1. very informative blog as i also believe that individual religious beliefs are influenced by upbringing. This had some good points in it.


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