The Genetics of Belief

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Author: Chet Raymo '58, '64Ph.D.

An itch for God seems to be universal. In the course of history, humans have invented tens of thousands of religions, many of which are assumed by their adherents to be the divinely revealed true faith. Atheism has always been something of an anomaly, and even the word “atheism” has God lurking within it.

More than a century ago the American psychologist William James set out to account for the universality of faith in The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book that maintains a lively presence on college reading lists.

James believed that psychological experiences, rather than the tenets or practices of particular faiths, are the essence of the religious life. Behind the warring gods and formulas of the various faiths, he sought “states of consciousness” shared by all people. We sense there is something wrong about things as they naturally stand, he wrote, and we are saved from that wrongness by making proper connections with higher powers.

The big question, which James was unable to answer, is whether these universal states of consciousness are innate or culturally transmitted. Nature or nurture? Genes or memes?

Genes, of course, are DNA sequences that reside in every cell of our bodies and are passed largely intact from generation to generation by sexual reproduction. Genes shape our bodies and some behaviors.

Memes—a coinage of the biologist Richard Dawkins—are self-replicating units of culture, ideas or concepts passed from one individual to another through writing, speech, ritual and imitation. Memes can be as trivial as jump-rope rhymes or as profound as a full-blown theology.

Now, geneticist Dean Hamer of the National Institutes of Health thinks he has the first proof that some part of religious behavior is innate. He spells out his ideas in The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes, a book that was featured on the cover of Time magazine and turned quite a few heads in bookstores.

Hamer claims to have confirmed what James suspected: Although the forms and practices of religion are memetic, a tendency toward religious faith is in our genes.

Both conclusions can be something of an affront to those who believe that religious faith and practice are responses to supernatural revelation. But Hamer, like James before him, professes to leave the existence or nonexistence of a supernatural being out of his discussion. “This is a book about why humans believe,” he writes, somewhat disingenuously, “not whether those beliefs are true.”

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The gist of Hamer’s argument is this: He has identified a gene that correlates with a personality trait called self-transcendence, as measured on a standard test called a “Temperament and Character Inventory.”

Self-transcendence is a term used by psychologists to describe spiritual feelings that are independent of traditional religion. It is not based on belief in God, frequency of prayer or any other conventional religious practice.

Self-transcendent people tend to see everything, including themselves, as part of one great totality. They have a strong sense of “at-oneness” with people, places and things. They are likely to be environmentalists, or active in the fight against poverty, racism and war. Self-transcendent individuals are mystical. They are fascinated with things that cannot be explained by science. They are creative but may also be prone to psychosis.

In short, they are spiritual and inclined to belief in God.

Hamer administered the self-transcendence test to a thousand random subjects. He also sequenced DNA samples from the same individuals, looking specifically at nine genes known to code for chemicals involved in brain activity.

One variation of one gene showed a statistically significant correlation with high scores on the self-transcendence inventory. The gene codes for a protein called a monoamine transporter, one of a family of chemicals that controls crucial signaling in the brain.

The gene is rather prosaically named VMAT2, and the relevant variation is as simple as one chemical tread on the DNA spiral staircase—in the language of the geneticist, a C rather than an A at position 33050 of the human genome. By analogy, this is like changing a single letter in a dozen sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Clearly, both the title and subtitle of Hamer’s book, while provocative, are somewhat misleading. It is not “the” God gene which he claims to have identified, but “a” God gene. Hamer readily admits that more than one gene, and their expression in interaction with the environment, are likely involved in something as complex as religious behavior.

And it is not religious faith that is hardwired into our genes but rather a single personality trait as measured by a standard psychological inventory. Self-transcendent persons may or may not believe in God.

Interestingly, there were no significant differences in scores for self-transcendence among different racial or ethnic categories; like religion, self-transcendence appears to be a universal human trait. Nor was age a factor. However, women scored significantly higher on the test than men, regardless of age, race or ethnicity.

Can Hamer be right? Can so slight a variation in our DNA incline us toward religion?

It is a slim thread to hang a book on, certainly too slim a thread to support the assertion that faith in God is hardwired into our genes. But sturdy ropes are made of twisted threads, and where Hamer has led others will follow. As geneticists explore the newly sequenced human genome, we will surely hear more about links between genes and behaviors, including religious behaviors.

Even if Hamer’s central thesis is frail, his book is a welcome summary of speculations on the natural origins of religion, an informative survey of current genetic research and a fitting successor to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.

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A genetic link to spirituality will come as no surprise to students of evolutionary psychology. Biologists Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins are just two of many prominent scientists who have proposed innate religious behaviors.

Wilson writes: “The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.” And there are ample reasons, he notes, why natural selection might have favored such tendencies.

For example, stratified and cohesive societies tend to fare best in a conflict with their neighbors, says Wilson, and religion provides both hierarchy and cohesion. But Wilson’s supposition assumes that natural selection can favor groups as well as individuals. Not all biologists believe group selection plays a significant role in evolution.

Richard Dawkins has suggested (admittedly without proof) that what has been favored by natural selection is infant credulity. The child who innately respects parental authority (“Don’t go in the water, or the crocodiles will eat you.”) is most likely to survive and to reproduce. An inborn credulity trait, if it exists, might then be exploited by priests, shamans or tribal elders as a way of gaining power or strengthening the cohesiveness of the group, says Dawkins.

If such evolutionary biologists as Wilson and Dawkins are right, spirituality is beneficial to our physical and mental health, which is why “God genes” may have been selected by evolution. Up to now, however, these biologists have been theorizing in the dark. It is Hamer’s contribution to provide the first concrete link between a specific gene and religious behavior.

And what if it’s true? What should be our response to the discovery that the behavioral basis of faith is hardwired into our DNA?

Some believers will reasonably suppose that if God wanted us to acknowledge his existence, he might logically provide us with an innate predisposition to belief. (Although one might wonder why he would provide the C-version of the VMAT2 gene to some of us and not to others.)

Most believers, I would guess, will say that this “God-gene” business is a tempest in a scientific teapot. They will admit that some degree of self-transcendence may be innate, like a talent for mathematics or music, but deny any relevance to revealed truth. People of faith have traditionally resisted any attempt of “deterministic,” “reductionistic” and “materialist” science to see religion as anything other than supernaturally inspired. When Hamer first broached the idea of a God gene in an essay for the online magazine Slate, the response of believers was quick and overwhelmingly negative, he tells us in the book. The war between science and religion is evidently alive and well.

Some few of us, however, will agree with Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who writes in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis: “To understand ourselves, we must understand how nerve cells behave and how they interact.” Crick’s “astonishing hypothesis”—that the soul is biochemical—is not particularly astonishing to most scientists.

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In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote: “The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion.” He did not, of course, have anything to say about genes or brain chemistry as the source of the “inarticulate feelings”—it was too early for that—but he was convinced that an innate propensity toward belief lay behind every great world religion, be it Buddhism or Catholicism. “The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition,” he wrote.

Almost a century later, E.O. Wilson agrees that religiosity is innate. In his best-selling book Consilience, he writes: “For many the urge to believe in transcendental existence and immortality is overpowering. Transcendentalism, especially when reinforced by religious faith, is psychically full and rich; it feels somehow right.” A thoroughgoing empiricist himself, Wilson readily concedes that transcendentalism will always trump empiricism. “The human mind evolved to believe in the gods,” he says, “it did not evolve to believe in biology.”

And if it turns out that religion has its origins in brain chemistry, is it necessarily a bad thing? Self-transcendence—identification with something greater than ourselves—is an aspect of religion we can all admire. Even a secular humanist such as Wilson acknowledges that religion is largely beneficent. “It nourishes love, devotion and, above all, hope. People hunger for the assurance it offers,” he writes. “I can think of nothing more emotionally compelling than the Christian doctrine that God incarnated himself in testimony of the sacredness of all human life, even of the slave, and that he died and rose again in promise of eternal life for everyone.”

Certainly the Sermon on the Mount lays out a body of self-transcendent memes we can all profitably live by. And if ever there was a meme that deserved wide circulation it is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Unfortunately, other of our religious memes have given us inquisitions, crusades, pogroms and jihads. “Oh how we hate one another,” said Cardinal Newman, “for the love of God.” Happy the world in which a VMAT2 C-variant inclines us away from self-aggrandizement.

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Hamer is cautious in suggesting the theological implications of his research. However, as a biologist and geneticist, he offers three insights into the perceived conflict between science and faith.

Science can tell us whether there are God genes, he says, but not whether there is a God. Spiritual experiences, like all experiences, must be interpreted by our biologically constructed brains.

Spiritual enlightenment takes practice, he says, and self-transcendence can be enhanced by such traditional practices as meditation, psychoactive drugs or self-imposed physical rigors. What we do with our spiritual genes is up to us.

Finally, and most important in Hamer’s view, is the difference between spirituality and religion, a point made equally strongly by William James. Some part of spirituality may be an inherited ebb and flow of monoamines in the brain, but the forms and practices of religion are cultural and passed from one person to another by learning or imitation.

It remains to be seen whether Hamer’s research bears up to further scientific scrutiny, and whether further research will reveal even more of the biochemical basis for spirituality. If religious behavior is part of our human nature, it is easy to understand why religions are universal and why belief in God and personal immortality are not going away any time soon.

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And the war between science and faith? It is likely to continue, perhaps become even more strident as science learns more about how the mind works.

By definition, science cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural. What science can do is show that there is no evidence, other than anecdotal, for immaterial souls, miracles or answered prayers. Scientists generally are reluctant to extend theories beyond what is necessary to explain the phenomena. A 1996 survey of American scientists found that 46 percent are atheists and 14 percent doubters or agnostics. Only 36 percent expressed a desire for immortality, and most of those only moderately so. These numbers differ dramatically from those of the general population; 95 percent of Americans profess a belief in God, and more than 70 percent believe in an afterlife.

Although scientists as a group might be less traditionally religious than the rest of us, in my experience they are no less “spiritual.” Microbiologist Ursula Goodenough, for example, is not a theist but considers herself deeply religious. In her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, she reminds us that the word religion derives from the Latin religio, to bind together again. She writes: “We have throughout the ages sought connection with higher powers in the sky or beneath the earth, or with ancestors living in some other realm. We have also sought, and found, religious fellowship with one another. And now we realize that we are connected to all creatures. Not just in food chains or ecological equilibria. We share a common ancestor. . . . We share evolutionary constraints and possibilities. We are connected all the way down.”

In revealing the universe of the galaxies and the DNA, science opens our eyes to a creative power of far greater majesty and mystery than the Olympian divinities of our ancestors, and many of us would like to see theologians adapt their concepts or memes to the new evolutionary story of the universe. As Wilson writes in Consilience: “The spirits our ancestors knew intimately first fled the rocks and trees, then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative.”

Can such a narrative be found, one that is not in conflict with science? Wilson thinks so. The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic, he says. And many Catholic religious thinkers agree. They stand ready to embrace the evolutionary story of creation as a satisfactory ground for faith.

Thomas Berry, for example, a cultural historian and Passionist priest, urges us to assimilate the scientific story of creation —what he calls the New Story—into our religious and prayerful lives: “The universe, the solar system, and the planet earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being.”

The forms of religious belief that guided us in the past are inadequate to energize our future, Berry says. The ancient Christian creation story has functioned well in its institutional and moral efficiency, but it is no longer the integral story of the Earth and mankind, the story by which we live our daily, highly technological lives.

For Berry, the spiritual significance of the New Story, the scientific story, is this: The universe is a unity—an interacting, evolving and genetically related community of beings bound together inseparably in space and time. Our responsibilities to each other and to all of creation are implicit in this unity. Each of us is profoundly implicated in the functioning and fate of every other being on the planet and ultimately, perhaps, throughout the universe.

Science cannot resolve the conflict between science and religion; science must go wherever it is led by the empirical method. If the conflict is to be resolved, it is up to persons of faith to modify their concepts, and indeed this has been happening since the beginning of human history. Most Catholics no longer talk about banishing unbaptized babies to Limbo, and they no longer believe the Bible offers a literal account of creation. The Index of Forbidden Books is gone, Galileo has been rehabilitated and Catholic institutions of higher education excel as centers of scientific research.

So where does all this leave us? With plenty. Faith communities at their best add immeasurably to the storehouse of human well-being. Works of charity, celebration of the ineffable Mystery of the world, rites of passage, ethical principles: All of these have no conflict with science. And surely we can learn to celebrate the wisdom of our respective faith traditions without seeking to impose our traditions on others.

A thoroughgoing empiricist can without compromise agree with the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis: “We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence. But we have named it God because only this name, for primordial reasons, can stir our heart profoundly. And this deeply felt emotion is indispensable if we are to touch, body with body, the dread essence beyond logic.” In this sense, every one of our tens of thousands of genes is a “God gene.”

But past experience suggests that reconciling science and faith will be slow, with a hefty dose of fundamentalist reaction along the way. Genes and memes—those primordial forces—are sturdily resilient.


Chet Raymo’s latest book is Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland’s Holy Mountain. He resides on the web at www.sciencemusings.com.

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