Sunday, June 05, 2005

An itch for God

More than a century ago the American psychologist William James set out to account for the universality of religious 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. The big question, which James was unable to answer, is whether these universal states of consciousness are innate or culturally transmitted. Nature or nurture?

Geneticist Dean Hamer of the National Institutes of Health thinks he has the first proof that some part of religion 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 cultural, a tendency toward religious faith is innate.

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, self-transcendent people 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 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.

Can he 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.

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

Certainly, the Sermon on the Mount lays out a self-transcendent covenant we can all profitably live by. And if ever there was a self-transcendent belief that deserved wide circulation it is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Unfortunately, other of our religious beliefs 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.

(This is a much abbreviated version of an essay that appeared in the Spring edition of Notre Dame Magazine.)?

Student Activities

  1. How would you account for the near universality of religious faith?
  2. Consider your own religious faith. Do you think you would have the same faith if you were born and brought up in a different part of the world to different parents?
  3. What is the common core, if any, of the world's great religions?
  4. What selective advantages might have reasonably led to the evolution of "a God gene"?

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.