What the “god gene” means.

July 9, 2006 | By | 11 Replies More

In 2004, the same geneticist who had earlier discovered a gene linked to male homosexuality found a gene associated with religious belief. The geneticist, Dr. Dean Hammer of the National Cancer Institute, used a 226-question survey to determine a person’s feelings of spirituality, or willingness to believe in supernatural phenomena. He found that those with an inclination for religiosity tended to share a gene called VMAT2. Nicknamed the “god gene”, it purportedly dictates the flow of mood-altering chemicals in the brain, and determines one’s level of belief in religious experiences.

I first accepted this research with a sense of mild dread. I assumed, forgetting that the devoutly religious tend to eschew all scientific or logical prospects, that the religious would respond to this discovery as a palpable sign that God exists. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for classic religious circular logic, the same used to “prove” the significance of the Bible: We know God exists because we believe in him, and we believe in him because he wants us to.

Even Dr. Hammer used this train of thought. In an interview shortly after his discovery became public, he said, “Religious believers can point to the existence of god genes as one more sign of the creator’s ingenuity – a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence.”

However, the religious community did not embrace Hammer’s findings. Christian reviewers of Hammer’s book on the subject labeled it as bad science, and claimed that he didn’t define ‘spirituality’ properly. Theologists said Hammer just couldn’t isolate nature from nurture, despite findings in Hammer’s study suggesting that upbringing has no influence on spirituality. High-ranking Church officials simply rejected Hammer’s findings outright. Dr Donald Bruce, director of the Church of Scotland, had this to say about Hammer’s findings:

“I regard his claims as scientifically ridiculous. There is absolutely no such thing as a god gene. The whole point is that God makes himself available to all equally.”

The religious have always had a common tendency to believe whatever they desire, and ignore all evidence otherwise. We’ve certainly seen this trait before. But why do the religious reject this finding? What do they find so offensive and threatening about it? Doesn’t the “god gene”, as Dr Hammer said, serve well in their argument for God?

Not exactly. First, as Hammer explains in his book The God Gene, the gene VMAT2 and the brain chemicals it controls determines one’s sense of spiritual transcendence, or a Nirvana-esque emotion that makes a person “feel” a connection to God or some other supernatural force. This not only equalizes all religious from Christianity to Buddhism, it describes religious epiphanies as a typical reaction of brain chemicals, like any other strong emotion. Religious leaders find this understandably threatening, because it likens the touch of a “higher power” to mere superstition, strong emotion, or even nonreligious meditation.

Next, the discovery of a “god gene” completely devalues the importance of a religious environment. The religious right speak vehemently about the importance of a solidly Christian society to form a strong moral backbone and mold our children into upstanding, devout youth. They also make the claim that the heathens among us have come from warped, father-less, unstructured families with no access to religious guidance. If religious belief comes from genes rather than environment, this ideal Christian society does not matter at all.

Last, I suspect religious leaders find this discovery threatening because it does the same thing to religiosity that Hammer’s previous finding did to the understanding of homosexuality: it removes the myth of choice. If we accept the implications of the “god gene”, then we believe and devote our lives to religion because of genetics, not because of individual desire for piousness. We cannot commend someone for great faith, just as we can’t condemn anyone for their sexual orientation, because both boil down to a matter of genetics. A smug, holier-than-thou sense just doesn’t work when one’s holiness sprouts from a few excess brain chemicals.


Tags: , ,

Category: Meaning of Life, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (11)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Nick says:

    Interesting commentary. Most people (if anyone really at all) aren't familiar with the contributions of individual genes on behavior. The tendency is to misinterpret the finding as an end all explanation of some aspect of behavior like homosexuality or belief. And it's not certain that both just "boil down to a matter of genetics". Individual genes usually narrow down the possibilities for behavior when exposed to certain environmental factors. This discovery really shouldn't be publicly touted as anything more than progress in the quest to understand human behavior. The general public, and especially the reactionary religious community, does not have the experience or knowledge base to understand the effect of this single gene on behavior.

    • Susan K says:

      As a Christian, the only thing that crosses my mind in regard to this god gene thing is the paranoia I find in the non-believing scientific community. I fear that they will try to find a way to remove this so called gene in people's brains in order to sterilize the world …. so the world makes more sense to them as they prefer to understand it.

    • Susan K wrote: " …. so the world makes more sense to them as they PREFER to understand it." (Emphasis mine)

      Susan, I would counter that your Christian world-view is not necessarily the truth, but it is how YOU prefer to understand the world.

      I say that because, despite the many well-documented absurdities of Christianity, it is the belief system that you consciously choose to embrace. There must be a good reason for that. It obviously deeply satisfies you in some way. Would I be correct in saying that?

      Or are there things about your religion that you find sense-less and yet you believe in it anyway? If that is that case, could you explain why?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Kierkegaard often wrote that he believed in Christianity BECAUSE it was absurd. I never understood his reasoning, but this goes to show that there is a non-pejorative approach to believing the absurd.

    • I'm not sure what he means either! I hesitate to disagree with a philosopher of Kierkegaard's stature but,it is precisely the clinging to absurdity that makes me doubt Christianity's "truths".

      Something that people need so badly to believe such that they will suspend their intellect over and over again, by its very nature must be something that is in such dire psychological need that its veracity becomes suspect.

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    It also brings Darwin into the cloister in a big way. I recall an anthropological study published several years ago in Scientific America that examined the "survivability index" of religious communities and found that commonly-held beliefs promoted not only security within a group but also was a strong "selector" for breeding partners.

    What it does is make the whole "god process" part of the machine, that free will is present not when we choose to believe but when we choose not to, because that is a denial of salvation, which must be accepted as a conscious choice.

    It also renders, as Hammer and you point out, all religion equal–it's not the tenets of a faith but the act of embracing it that matters, never mind the details.

    It also suggests, however remotely, that we could "select" this gene out–or have embryonic gene therapy to eliminate it.

    What would a generation of constitutionally non-spiritual people be like?

  3. Erika Price says:

    Nick, you have it absolutely right. Neither trait comes from one gene alone. Dr. Hammer came under fire for both of his findings, not because his methods proved off-base, but because of the way he marketed them. In an interview with a religious radio station, Hammer admitted he should have called the book A God Gene, not The God Gene. The gene regulates highly spiritual experiences, "holy moments" if you will. That certainly doesn't explain the whole of blind faith that takes place in religions' lesser moments.

  4. Peyton says:

    What would a world with only the people who had been geneticaly enginered to eliminate the "God Gene" be like? My guess would be a lot like Nazis!

    Understand I am not religious nor do I belive in any sort of "God Being". But I do belive I am a spiritual person.

    I am also very familar with Dr. Hammer's work. In fact, I speculated on the existence of the "God Gene" years before he did. That gene is VMAT2.

    Religion is irrational yes, but it must serve some survival purpose or it would not have evolved into our gentic code.

    I like the civilty and intelect of this forum and i will be back.

    Currently writing my 6th book on these and related subjects.

    My ideal is to try to write in a meaningful but non-technical way so the averge person can "get it". The title of my book now is The TOOLS OF GOD.

    I do not want to preach to the choir like so many athesist do. MY objective is to get religous people to think deeepr than their particular religious dogma. Hence, I do not want to allienate them, that closes off communication and would defeat my purpose. Peace be with you all. Peyton Quinn

  5. brandon hutzell says:

    If God exists, then he is certainly beyond our comprehension. What if making the rational decision to believe in God alters our genetic makeup?

  6. Brandon

    That would be testable.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Kierkegaard was a Christian existentialist. As an agnostic existentialist I may be able to explain. Or not.

    Existentialism is descended from Absurdism, a philosophy that sees existence as meaningless, and the search for meaning to the universe as absurd. As a Christian, he wanted to believe in a purpose of being, while acknowledging that it is impossible to actually know what that purpose was or even if there was one.

    When asked which came first, the hen or the egg, the theist promptly says "The Hen. The first one made by God laid the first egg."

    The naturalist would answer, "The first egg was laid by a proto-chicken, something almost but not quite evolved into a chicken."

    The existentialist would say; "What does it matter?"

    The absurdist would answer, "The rooster!".

Leave a Reply