8 Nov 2008

Research in Belief in God at Oxford

Researchers at the University of Oxford will spend £1.9 million investigating why people believe in God. Academics have been given a grant to try to find out whether belief in a deity is a matter of nature or nurture.

They will not attempt to solve the question of whether God exists but they will examine evidence to try to prove whether belief in God conferred an evolutionary advantage to mankind. They will also consider the possibility that faith developed as a byproduct of other human characteristics, such as sociability.

Researchers at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind in Oxford will use the cognitive science disciplines to develop “a scientific approach to why we believe in God and other issues around the nature and origin of religious belief”.

Justin Barrett, a psychologist who has been quoted in support of arguments by both the atheist Richard Dawkins and his critic, Alister Mc-Grath, a Christian theologian, said: “We are interested in exploring exactly in what sense belief in God is natural. We think there is more on the nature side than a lot of people suppose.”

He compared believers to three-year-olds who “assume that other people know almost everything there is to be known”. Dr Barrett, who is a Christian, is the editor of the Journal of Cognition and Cultureand author of the book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? He said that the childish tendency to believe in the omniscience of others was pared down by experience as people grew up. But this tendency, necessary to allow human beings to socialise and cooperate with each other in a productive way, continued when it came to belief in God.

“It usually does continue into adult life,” he said. “It is easy, it is intuitive, it is natural. It fits our default assumptions about things.”

Dr Barrett said: “The next step therefore is to look at some of the detailed questions – which religious beliefs are most common and most natural for the human mind to grasp?” The most exciting questions were in areas such as the different responses to polytheism and monotheism, for example, and relationships between religion and evolutionary biology.

He and his colleague Roger Trigg will be investigating whether religion is a part of the selection process that has helped humans survive or merely a byproduct of evolution.

The three-year study is being funded by a £1.9 million grant to the Ian Ramsey Centre from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports research into religion, science and spirituality. There will be seminars and workshops, while £800,000 will go towards a small grant competition, with 41 grants for different projects.

Professor Trigg, a senior research Fellow at Oxford and author of Religion in Public Life: Must Faith be Privatised?, said: “Religion has played an important role in public life over the past few years and the debate about the origin of religion, and how it fits into the human mind, has intensified. This study will not prove or disprove any aspect of religion.” (Times Online)

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I will keep track of this research and will post more. If you have any news then please leave a comment. One word of caution; the research is another Templeton funded project. The Templeton Foundation has a lot of money and is unashamedly Christian in outlook. Look closely and one of the goals is to see how "natural" belief in God is. In the theologian's mind if it can be shown to be natural then it is very close to being true. Trying to prop up metaphysical beliefs, rather than investigating spiritual mental states is not, in my opinion, a huge step forward.


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