Why Do People Believe in God? New Research Says We're Not Born Believers After all

A pilgrim walks alone on the Way of Saint James near the village of Manjarin, Spain, on May 29, 2015. MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Image

Is it intuition that causes people to believe in gods? Or logic?

According to researchers from the universities of Coventry and Oxford, the answer is neither.

Previous research has generally held that religious people rely more on gut instinct than factual analysis, and in the event that they do become more analytical, they become less religious. But now new research shows the biggest factor in determining a person's religiosity isn't intuition but culture. Your upbringing and social environment are probably what determined your degree of faith, not your gut; people aren't "born believers," meaning they aren't religious because of certain characteristics in their personalities.

A study detailing the research was published Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Religious belief is most likely rooted in culture rather than in some primitive gut intuition,"" lead author Miguel Farias said in a press release. "There has been a long debate on this matter, but our studies have challenged the theory that being a religious believer is determined by how much individuals rely on intuitive or analytical thinking."

A pilgrim looks at Spain's Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Obradoiro Square as he stands in front of a podium on November 4, 2010. MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images

The researchers studied individuals along Northern Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostela, one of the world's largest pilgrimage routes. They asked the pilgrims various questions to determine how strongly they believed in their faith and then had them participate in a probability test that determined whether they made decisions based more on intuition or logic.

Contrary to most contemporary research, the team concluded that the pilgrims showed no link between faith and intuition. The same results bore out even when the team increased the tests to intuition with math puzzles and used (painless) electrical currents to stimulate their analytical processes.

That third method had previously been used to show the areas of the brain that are engaged in atheists when they're confronted with an argument for supernatural faith. The team says the results indicate that assumptions about religious people being intuitive people are premature. Rather, faith is informed by a "nurture-based process," which includes things like your education and the way you were raised.

"We don't think people are 'born believers' in the same way we inevitably learn a language at an early age," Farias said in the press release. "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."