Researchers at the University of Oxford will spend USD$3.7 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.”
The cognitive sciences, or the science of mind and intelligence, combine disciplines such as evolutionary biology, neuroscience, linguistics and computer sciences to examine human behavior.
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 3-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 Culture and 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.”
The research will feed into other areas, such as whether the conflicts associated with religion are a product of human nature. The project will also examine whether belief in the afterlife is something that needs to be taught or is a product of natural selection.
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 USD $3.7 million (£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 USD$1.56 million (£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.”