February 20, 2008 / 11:40 AM / 12 years ago

Researchers to probe why people believe in religion

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A team of British-based researchers will spend the next three years probing why people believe in religion.

A worshiper of the Cherubim and Seraphim church prays by the sea at Bar Beach in Lagos, November 12, 2006. REUTERS/Candace Feit

They will undertake what they said is the largest research project of its kind, armed with a grant of almost two million pounds ($4 million) from a U.S. foundation.

“I’m not confident enough to say it will give us the answer but it will give us a better answer than we have now,” Oxford University experimental psychologist and one of the project leaders Justin Barrett told Reuters on Tuesday.

“It’s certainly a phenomenon worth explaining.”

The grant came from the Sir John Templeton Foundation. It was founded two decades ago by a Wall Street banker to support science by funding investigation into the “big questions”.

Some experts argued there might be an evolutionary advantage to religious belief, possibly because a society believing in an all-knowing moral god might follow rules better, giving it an advantage over others.

“Groups that have religious sentiment might be more likely to co-operate, giving them a comparative advantage,” Barret said. “Children seem to find the idea of an all-knowing God to be a very easy one to take on. It’s very attractive in an intuitive sense.”

As well as the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, researchers will also look at belief systems with multiple gods from Hinduism to ancient religions still practiced in parts of Latin America.

Barrett said he was a committed Christian but that with such a range of colleagues from theologists to anthropologists, it should not interfere with the study.

“I can agree with my secular colleagues what the evidence shows but perhaps will disagree about the implications,” he said. “They may see something as showing that God doesn’t exist whereas I might think it proved God put it there.”

But they say they will stop short of answering the biggest question of all — whether God or gods actually exist.

“I don’t think you could answer that for 2 million pounds,” Barrett said.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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