The God-Gene: Is Religious Faith and Experience a Biological Misunderstanding?
Time magazine is not exactly known for being religion-friendly. They have done nothing to tarnish that reputation in their October 25, 2004 edition, in which they published yet another article challenging religious faith: "Is God in Our Genes?"
The story was prompted by the work of molecular biologist, Dean Hamer, author of The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes.1 Hamer argues that our sense of spirituality is a biological trait hardwired into our genes by evolutionary accident, or possibly even evolutionary design. The implication of Hamer's research is that religious faith and experience are nothing more than a misinterpretation of a biological phenomenon.
If spirituality has biological connections, is religious faith/experience based on genuine perceptions of a divine reality, or is religious faith/experience a biological misunderstanding caused by ignorance of our own physiology? Could belief in the divine be a myth of the mind?
Hamer's thesis developed out of a study he conducted on the topic of smoking and addiction for the National Cancer Institute. More than 1000 individuals took the standardized Temperament and Character Inventory test which includes questions that measure self-transcendence (the ability to get entirely lost in an experience, transpersonal identification, and a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe) and mysticism (an openness to things not entirely provable).
Hamer used the data to conduct a spiritual experiment on the side. He theorized that if our sense of spirituality has biological connections (or causes), those who ranked higher in spirituality should share some genetic link in common that those who ranked lower did not. As a result he "went poking around in their genes to see if he could find the DNA responsible for the differences."2 With over 35,000 genes and 3.2 billion chemical bases in the human genome, he limited his search for the "spiritual gene" to nine genes known to produce monoamines (brain chemicals that regulate mood and motor control).
He found what he was looking for in the gene known as VMAT2. "Those with the nucleic acid cytosine in one particular spot on the gene ranked high [in spirituality]. Those with the nucleic acid adenine in the same spot ranked lower."3 He concluded that "a single change in a single base in the middle of the gene seemed directly related to the ability to feel self-transcendence."4
While he seemed to have identified the spiritual gene, Hamer added some important disclaimers:
1. Human traits often involve the interplay of hundreds or even thousands of genes, so it is doubtful that our sense of spirituality is dictated by cytosine alone. Other genes or chemical bases are likely to be involved.
2. The presence of the nucleic acid cytosine does not directly translate into one's belief in God, or even a pursuit of spirituality. One may posses the nucleic acid and yet not believe in God, or pursue religion. They are simply more likely to do so than others.
3. There is a distinction between spirituality and religion. "Spirituality is a feeling or a state of mind; religion is the way that state gets codified into law."5
4. If cytosine is related to spirituality as a contributing cause, it speaks nothing concerning the reality of God's existence. Hamer said, "My findings are agnostic on the existence of God. If there's a God, there's a God. Just knowing what brain chemicals are involved in acknowledging that is not going to change the fact."6
Kluger's Two Cents
The author of the article, Jeffrey Kluger, interacted with Hamer's thesis throughout. While his comments were generally supportive of Hamer's thesis, there were times he played the devil's advocate, bringing a sense of fairness and balance to the topic at hand. His comments are worthy of both note and examination.
He got to the heart of the debate when he asked, "Which came first, God or the need for God? In other words, did humans create religion from cues sent from above, or did evolution instill in us a sense of the divine so that we would gather into the communities essential to keeping the species going."7
Kluger's portrayal of evolution is intriguing. Notice his use of the words "so that." These words are teleological in nature, indicating an end for which something is done. By modifying an "act" of evolution with a teleological expression Kluger personalized evolution, treating it as an intelligent being rather than the mindless, random chance process that it is. Evolution can do nothing "so that"; evolution can only do "that."
Kluger played the devil's advocate when he asked, "If human beings were indeed divinely assembled, why wouldn't our list of parts include a genetic chip that would enable us to contemplate our maker?"8
While this is a fair observation that seems to work well in favor of religion, it actually works against it. If all human beings were created by God we would expect for all human beings to have this genetic chip, and yet they don't. Why? Why would some be programmed for religious belief but not others?9
Here is where Kluger's fair and balanced analysis ends, and his religious liberalism comes out in support for Hamer's thesis. Kluger treats religion as a placebo, or in the words of Karl Marx, "the opiate of the people." He views the question of religious faith from a utilitarian, rather than a metaphysical perspective. He doesn't ask Does God exist?, but rather What does religion do for man? For example he said,
Even among people who regard spiritual life as wishful hocus-pocus, there is a growing sense that humans may not be able to survive without it. It's hard enough getting by in a fang-and-claw world in which killing, thieving and cheating pay such rich dividends. It's harder still when there's no moral cop walking the beat to blow the whistle when things get out of control. Best to have a deity on hand to rein in our worst impulses, bring out our best and, not incidentally, give us a sense that there's someone awake in the cosmic house when the lights go out at night and we find ourselves wondering why we're here in the first place.
In another place he argued that the presence of religion in all cultures in every age indicates that the idea of God "is preloaded in the genome rather than picked up on the fly," and is there for a good reason. He speculates that "one of those reasons might be that, as the sole species capable of contemplating its own death, we needed something larger than ourselves to make that knowledge tolerable."10 Kluger echoed neuroscientist Michael Persinger's thoughts when the latter said, "Anticipation of our own demise is the price we pay for a highly developed frontal lobe. In many ways [a God experience is] a brilliant adaptation. It's a built-in pacifier."11
This utilitarian view of religion gives rise to the idea that religion was an invention of man because it helped him survive the "survival of the fittest" process called evolution. Kluger postulated that "far from being an evolutionary luxury then, the need for God may be a crucial trait stamped deeper and deeper into our genome with every passing generation. Humans who developed a spiritual sense thrived and bequeathed that trait to their offspring. Those who didn't risked dying out in chaos and killing. The evolutionary equation is a simple but powerful one."12
While this is a great summary of religion-as-an-evolutionary-invention, Kluger does not consider just how a human behavior can be passed on genetically. If man invented God for social reasons, how do those beliefs get into one's genes? While it is possible for one's genes to change their behavior, there is no evidence to suggest that one's behavior can change their genes. Man's invention of God could only be passed on in a social manner, and thus belief in God could never be traced genetically. It would seem, then, that if there is such a thing as a spiritual gene, it must either be hardwired into us by a divine Creator so that we can contemplate and experience Him, or it was a chance happening of evolution. But there is no conceivable way in which belief in the divine can be a social invention that now shows up in our genes, compelling us to perpetuate that same social invention.
While I am pleased by Hamer's candid admissions concerning the limitations of his work, as well as Kluger's semi-fair and balanced analysis, a further critique is necessary to evaluate the soundness and value of Hamer's findings.13
Hamer's thesis depends on several presuppositions. First, he presupposes that religion has biological connections, which is why he was searching for a spiritual gene in the first place. He believes biology can explain religious faith and experience. This presupposition is based on scientific reductionism-the view that all reality can be reduced to a scientific explanation. In this case, all human behavior can be explained in terms of biological functioning. Kluger echoed this estimation as he summed up the force of Hamer's work, saying, "Our most profound feelings of spirituality may be due to little more than an occasional shot of intoxicating brain chemicals governed by our DNA."14 Hamer himself said, "I think if we follow the basic law of nature, which is that we're a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag."15 I would agree with John Polkinghorne that "you can't cut [faith] down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking."16
Hamer also presupposes anthropological monism; i.e. human existence is purely physical. Because he makes no room for a human soul, any sense of spirituality we humans experience is assumed to have some physiological cause. But before Hamer can reduce spirituality to biology he must demonstrate that man is monistic--that we are just flesh, rather than flesh and spirit. Unfortunately he assumes it without rational justification.
It is also arguable that Hamer only saw what he wanted to see, and found only what he wanted to find: a genetic cause for spirituality. With 35,000 genes in the human genome I don't imagine it would be all that difficult to find "evidence" that fits your presuppositions. I have to wonder how many people scored mid-to-high range in spirituality and yet did not exhibit the presence of cytosine on their VMAT2 gene? Unless every person in that range exhibited the presence of cytosine it would be unreasonable to conclude that cytosine is the cause of spirituality. Even Hamer himself admitted that those who possess cytosine, who have experienced self-transcendence and mysticism, do not necessarily believe in God. But if our belief in the divine is due to our genetic wiring, how can one not believe in God when the wires are connected?
It would also be interesting to know the number of those in Hamer's study who had cytosine on their VMAT2 gene. Considering the fact that approximately 90% of Americans believe in the existence of God, if Hamer's thesis that belief in God is genetically influenced (if not determined) is true, we would expect to find approximately 90% of those studied to have cytosine on their VMAT2 gene. If say only 40% of respondents possessed cytosine, it would be good reason to doubt cytosine's influence in religious faith/experience.
While Hamer's find seems significant to the question of religious faith, in all reality the presence of a spiritual gene in our brain would accord well with common sense. Virginia Commonwealth University's director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, Lindon Eaves, stated the obvious: "Of course, concepts of God reside in the brain. They certainly don't reside in the toe. The question is, To what is this wiring responsive? Why is it there?"17 Indeed, these are the real questions. How did the genetic wiring get there (assuming the truth of the Hamer's thesis)? Is it there by design or by chance? Does it facilitate communication with the divine, or does it manipulate us into believing in the divine? Maybe a more pointed question would be Does it have anything to do with the divine?
The fact of the matter is that the "feeling of transcendence" Hamer studied has nothing to do with the question of God's existence. He admitted as much, saying, "The 'God gene' doesn't actually have anything directly to do with believing in God, only with the capacity to achieve self-transcendence." This severely diminishes the significance of his find. In separating spirituality from religious belief, Hamer has
jettison[ed] all that is customarily associated with theism, avoid[ed] everything that has to do with the content of belief, and redefine[d] his entire concern in terms of self-transcendence-an experience he admits can be purely secular. In other words, Dean Hamer tells us absolutely nothing about belief in God and very little about modern genetics. Having redefined his terms, limiting the specific scope of his explanatory thesis to concern for self-transcendence that can be understood in purely secular terms, Hamer undermines his own argument and marketing strategy.18
The idea people believe in God because of mystical experiences is wrongheaded. One need not feel anything, yet alone have a mystical experience to believe in the existence of God. Arguably, most individuals who believe in God have never experienced Him in a mystical way. Quite a few believe in God for purely intellectual reasons. Others simply have an intuitive awareness of His existence.
The "feeling of transcendence" is not necessarily a religious experience. Indeed, if Hamer is right, the feeling is just a biological one. The monoamines involved in the feeling of self-transcendence are the same monoamines that are scrambled by ecstasy, LSD, peyote, and other mind-altering drugs. All Hamer's study really proves, then, is that body is capable of generating something akin to an acid trip without the acid! If the feeling of transcendence can be caused naturally by cytosine, or unnaturally by narcotics, there is no reason to attach any supernatural significance to the feeling. Hamer's study only proves that our natural orientation can be manipulated both naturally and unnaturally. There is no more religious significance to this finding than there is to any other advancements in our understanding of biology.
At best he demonstrated that it is not rational to conclude God exists simply because you have experienced self-transcendence, and nor is it rational to conclude that God does not exist because you have had no such experience. But to conclude that God is a figment of our genetic imagination because people have improperly confused biological functioning for a religious experience is a categorical error. Just as an acid trip cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, neither can a dose of cytosine speak to this issue. If the feeling of transcendence is a biological experience rather than a religious experience, then studies performed on that experience only tell us about biology, not religion. The question of God's existence remains a philosophical question, not a biological question. While the sciences can tell us a lot about the physical world, they are not equipped to evaluate the spiritual. Only philosophy is equipped to evaluate metaphysical issues such as the existence of God.
While Hamer's work is not necessarily atheistic, it is motivated by the atheistic philosophy of scientific reductionism, and lends itself to the idea that the need for God created the idea of God. It was not the first, and by no means will it be the last attempt to relegate religious faith to a by-product of evolution, with no basis in reality.
While many will use Hamer's findings to explain away religious faith as genetic deception orchestrated by Mr. Evolution, the evidence does not warrant such a conclusion. The following points must be considered:
1. While biology can tell us a lot about human beings, it tells us little about God.
2. The existence of a spiritual gene cannot be the cause of religious faith if all those possessing the gene do not believe in God.
3. The number of people possessing the spiritual gene should be proportionate to those who believe in God. If the number is disproportionate, the theory of a God-gene is suspect.
4. Belief in God cannot be an invention of man if it is genetic in nature. It is either the product of evolution or the product of a Creator, but it cannot be a product of man.
5. Establishing the existence of a spiritual gene, and establishing a causal relationship between that gene and religious faith are two different things. It remains to be determined whether God caused the gene, or the gene caused "God."
6. It does not follow that knowing which genes/chemicals facilitate our encounter with the divine casts doubt on the very existence of the divine.
7. The spiritual gene is not spiritual at all because it does not cause a religious experience. It causes a natural experience of self-transcendence that some have unwittingly interpreted as an encounter with the divine.
8. While humans may be guilty of confusing a biological function for a religious experience, it does not follow that God is a figment of our genetic imagination.
9. God's existence is not dependent on our experience of Him, and our experience of Him is not limited to a sense of self-transcendence.
In a society that has relegated religious faith to experience and feeling, knowing that their "religious" experiences/feelings may be genetic rather than divine in origin may cause them to lose faith. But for those of us who understand that religious faith is both rational and experiential, doubts cast on our experience are no match for the wealth of rational evidence in favor of God's existence. We do not believe in God merely because of some experience, but because the rational evidence compels us to. Any scientific find claiming to explain away our religious experience can never explain away our faith.
1. This is the same Dean Hamer who was behind the famous "gay-gene" study of 1993 that received so much unwarranted media attention.
2. Jeffrey Kluger, "Is God in Our Genes?", Time, 25 October 2004, 66.
6. Ibid., 65.
7. Ibid., 64.
8. Ibid., 68.
9. While such selective genetic programming may seem to favor a Calvinistic view of Christianity in which only some are elected to salvation, the selective presence of the nucleic acid does not square with the Calvinistic doctrine that those who are damned are damned because they have rejected God. How could one reject God if they do not have the capacity to recognize that He even exists?
10. Kluger, 68.
11. Ibid., 68.
12. Ibid., 65.
13. This critique is based solely on the information presented in the Times article, not on a reading of Hamer's book.
14. Kluger, 65.
17. Ibid., 68.
18. Albert Mohler, Jr., "The God Gene--Bad Science Meets Bad Theology"; accessed from http://www.crosswalk.com/news/weblogs/mohler/?adate=10/1/2004#1288000; Internet, 03 November 2004.
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