Finding Faith in DNA
Why do some people believe in God, while others don’t? Is it a person’s choice, the result of upbringing or simply divine will? Theologians have grappled with this question for centuries, but over the last few years, scientists have jumped into the age-old debate to offer an entirely new explanation: genes.
One of the most attention-grabbing efforts to link spirituality and genetics was put forth by geneticist Dean Hamer in his 2004 book, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes. According to Hamer’s hypothesis, spirituality is a “biological mechanism” that is imprinted on our DNA. “We have a genetic predisposition for spiritual belief that is expressed in response to, and shaped by, personal experience and the cultural environment,” writes Hamer, who years earlier claimed to find the genetic basis of male homosexuality. Although other scientists have put forth this idea in the past, Hamer became the first to identify the gene where God may reside—VMAT2, an acronym for vesicular monoamine transporter 2.
The idea of a God gene echoes longstanding religious debates about whether a person’s level of faith is determined by free will or destiny. In Judaism, discussions about hashgachah pratit, or divine providence, are the subject of rabbinic literature and Jewish philosophy, and ask to what extent God interferes in the details of a person’s life. In other words, is a person’s religious behavior guided by her own choices, or by some immutable force, be it God or DNA?
The Bible also alludes to this in Genesis, when God promises Abraham that his descendants would always have a special relationship with Him by virtue of their bloodline. Rather than a gene, however, God says that a “seed” will be passed “throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant.” This pact gave birth to the idea of the “chosen people,” a group whose progeny would have a preordained—and inherited—closeness to God. But Moshe Tendler, an Orthodox rabbi and professor of biology and medical ethics at Yeshiva University, dismisses the notion that God is in the genes. “I attribute religiosity to the working mind of man searching to answer the mystery of life,” he says.
The God gene has also come under scrutiny within the scientific community. Hamer’s study has yet to be replicated (true of much research in the field of behavioral genetics) and has not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Although he coined the phrase “the God gene,” Hamer himself admits the term is problematic. VMAT2, he explains, only accounts for one percent of all genetic variance. “That means that most of the inherited effects on self-transcendence can’t be explained by VMAT2,” he writes. “There might be another 50 genes or more of similar strength.”
While Hamer’s God gene theory has stirred controversy, his work is part of a growing body of research linking religious behavior to genes and the brain. “There is no God gene, but there are God genes,” says Matthew Alper, author of The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God. “Religious behavior basically plays into almost every part of our brains, and for all of these parts there are different genes.”
This research dates back to the 1970s, when scientists at the University of Minnesota conducted a study on twins separated at birth and showed that genes do indeed play an important role in what they called “intrinsic religiousness.” All of the twins grew up in different environments, but the identical twins, who share matching DNA, were much more likely to have similar levels of spirituality than fraternal twins, who share only half of their DNA.
Other studies in the burgeoning field of neurotheology rely on cutting-edge technology to make connections between religion, genes and the brain. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and author of the 2001 book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, uses advanced scanning technology to capture images of the brain during spiritual states. “There are lots of parts of the brain that we have observed that appear to become involved when people engage in spiritual practices,” says Newberg. “If it’s a very emotional experience, then an emotional part of the brain is involved. If it’s an experience where they lose the sense of self, then areas of the brain that deal with the sense of self are involved.”
These genes have distinct evolutionary advantages, argue Alper and Newberg, such as lowering stress and increasing brain functioning. So what about atheists, or those born without God genes? Alper says that as with other traits, religiosity falls on a bell curve, so while the majority expresses a moderate religious disposition, a minority on one end exhibits “hyper religiosity” and a minority on the other end is “spiritually tone-deaf.”
Newberg has a different take, saying that while some may have the so-called God gene, in the end, humans are more than their DNA: “Some of us are more predisposed to have religious and spiritual beliefs, and others are not. But ultimately, it’s just a matter of what we decide to do with it. We might all be moved by a beautiful sunset—for some people it’s God, and for others it’s light refracted through the atmosphere.”