Hardwired for God

June 27th, 2011

Finding God in a Seal

When I encountered a harp seal on the beach, I did not know who was more surprised––the seal or me. Seals from Arctic waters do not usually find their way to Virginia; and when I came across this seal while I was running, I sensed that it was more than just a chance encounter. As I told friends about it later, I realized I was describing the meeting like a holy event, as though God was investing the encounter with a deep message.

A recent University of Oxford study by its Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project has concluded that “children and adults have a tendency to see the natural world as having function or purpose––even those with advanced scientific education. This tendency makes the idea of forest spirits or creator gods satisfying.” Science, it seems, is not surprised that I would find God’s presence in a meeting with a seal, according to this study.

The Oxford study is one of the most recent research projects suggesting that religion may not be an optional addition to human nature. In fact, religion seems to be part of what it means to be human. In cultures around the world, the project found evidence that “a religious way of thinking” is natural. We seem to be hardwired for God, or at least for religion.

Belief From the Beginning

“We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies,” says Roger Trigg, co-director of the Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project. The body of evidence includes over 40 studies involving people from 20 countries. The research highlights a seemingly natural tendency for humans to hold belief in supernatural forces.

The project found that children under the age of five were particularly prone to thinking religiously. One test asked children whether their mothers would be able to identify the contents of a closed box. Three-year-olds seemed to believe that their mother would have that god-like quality of knowing what was in the box. That belief diminished among the four-year-olds, but the early use of this way of thinking suggests something innate.

The study also claims that there is an innate belief that part of us lives on after death and is present in human beings from the beginning of their lives. The project summary notes that “it may be that we have to be talked out of beliefs in the afterlife (or even a life before birth), rather than talked into them.” Summarizing the project’s findings, Trigg says, “This shows that [religious belief is] much more universal, prevalent, and deep-rooted. It’s got to be reckoned with. You can’t just pretend it isn’t there.”

God and Humans

So what do these findings tell us about the existence of God? On the one hand, those who are convinced that there is no deity can look at the study and say that just because human beings have inclinations toward religion does not mean that a supernatural realm or heavenly beings actually exist. On the other hand, as Trigg notes, “religious people would say, ‘If there is a God, then . . . he would have given us inclinations to look for him.” Believers and nonbelievers are still looking at one another across a divide.

What the findings do shed light on are the building blocks of human nature. Contrary to theories that religion evolved in order to help human beings adapt to their environment, the study indicates that religion is more basic and instinctual. It also means that it is persistent and resistant to governmental and cultural efforts to suppress it. Trigg says, “If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests.”

In a similar vein, the emerging field of neuroscience is challenging old notions of the soul. As technology such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) allows researchers to watch the brain work, it opens up new windows on how things we used to think of as belonging to the soul, such as religious feelings, have connections to specific areas of the brain.

In this area as well, the findings tell us more about humans than they do about God; but they challenge long-held assumptions about what science can reveal. Perhaps the soul is not entirely out of reach to scientific inquiry. Perhaps body and soul are more closely integrated than many Christian writings have expressed.

Stages of Faith

The Oxford project lends a great deal more data to the subject of human beings and religious belief, but an earlier project by a United Methodist clergyperson and developmental psychologist also has been influential in thinking about faith and human development. James Fowler, who retired from Candler School of Theology, wrote the book Stages of Faith to wide acclaim in 1981. In the book, he outlined a model of faith development in six stages, which correspond roughly to the stages of life.

Fowler made a distinction between faith and belief. For him, faith is not a set of assertions related to a particular religion but an orientation toward something beyond ourselves. Fowler says faith “is the most fundamental category in the human quest for relation to transcendence.” As infants, our faith is formed by our experiences with those who care for us; and, according to Fowler, we can develop trust or distrust of the world and of God. In later stages of development, we take more ownership of our faith and develop more complex relationships to religious symbols. While Fowler allows that not all people will express their faith through participation in particular religions, he shares with the study the notion that some form of religious thought is basic to human nature.

“You Have Made Us for Yourself”

The Scriptures of the Christian faith take it for granted that human beings have a God-orientation. The opening chapter of Genesis describes the creation of man and woman in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

In the following chapter, the first humans occupy a garden in which they are in intimate contact with God. One of the first signs of the rupture between God and humanity comes in Chapter 3, when Adam and Eve furtively hide from God’s presence after eating from the forbidden tree and God calls out, “Where are you?” (3:8-9).

The story of God’s relationship with humanity in the chapters and books that follow is one that navigates through times of closeness and times of separation. There are moments when it seems that God is far from the people, as when 1 Samuel 3:1 notes that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days.” At other times the people are reminded that even in their brokenness, they still have the capacity to respond to a God who is still near to them. This is particularly evident in Jesus, who comes as God in human form and who tells his followers that he comes like a shepherd and “[the sheep] follow him, because they know his voice” (John 10:4, CEB). Something instinctual in us responds to God’s call.

In the opening lines of his autobiographical work Confessions, the early church leader Augustine of Hippo wonders at how he is made. Throughout the book he traces his long journey to faith, a journey that often winds through experiences that would seem far from God. Augustine loved the pleasures of the flesh; but the purpose of the book was to identify how God was near to him and within him, even when he was making a mess of his life.

At the beginning of the book, Augustine recalls the words of Romans 10:14: “How shall they call upon him in whom they have not believed?” Even to turn to God is to return to an original instinct for God, an original trust in God, for Augustine. It is in this context that he offers one of his most famous sayings: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

As new studies illuminate the mysteries of human nature, perhaps they will be in harmony with this primal restlessness.


This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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