Genetic Hardwiring for God

Over the past week I was hiking the Four Corners area and visiting ancestral Puebloan sites spanning the entire range of culture history for the region — from early Basketmaker (1200 BCE) through Pueblo III (1300 CE). While Mesa Verde National Park gets all the attention, the recently created Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is not to be missed. There is nothing like being alone in the gorgeous backcountry visiting cliff dwellings and other ruins that tourists will never see. While I was back in time and wilderness, an old and odd theme in religious studies resurfaced not once but twice.

In the first, David Barash revisits Dean Hamer’s ill-fated The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes (2004). My take on the book was that even if the VMAT2 gene governs a person’s ability to experience transcendence, the notoriously difficult to define and widely divergent experience of “transcendence” does not explain god beliefs. While transcendence is an important aspect of some supernatural-religious traditions (especially post-Axial traditions), it is unimportant in others.

In his review of The God Gene, Carl Zimmer famously suggested that a better title for Hamer’s book would have been: A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study. Eight years later, the study on which Hamer based his entire book has yet to be published. Barash is rightly skeptical and correctly observes:

“[T]here can certainly be genes that make people more or less likely to believe things without empirical evidence, more or less likely to accept the authority of others, more or less likely to enjoy ritualized behaviors such as singing in a chorus, and so forth. Instead of thinking about genes “for” religion, it is more useful to consider genes that result in an openness or susceptibility or inclination for certain kinds of experiences that manifest themselves via religion. (Incidentally, this is very much what evolutionary biologists have in mind when we discuss the biological underpinnings for other behavioral traits, such as altruism, aggressiveness, parental love, honesty or dishonesty in communication, and so forth.)”

In the second (and similar vein), Megan Erickson asks whether the brain is hardwired for God and interviews Dr. Andrew Newberg, who has published several books and many articles on neural activity and religious experience. Newberg’s work is considerably more sophisticated than Hamer’s. While I am not so impressed by Newberg’s brain imaging studies (which are splendidly critiqued by Matthew Crawford in “The Limits of Neuro-Talk“), his argument that the brain-mind habitually generates causal stories that are mythical or religious is on target. His other main argument, which focuses on transcendence (a major concern of Axial traditions but not earlier religions), is less compelling. For those not familiar with Newberg’s work, this (open access) article provides a nice introduction.

Newberg’s work helps explain this incredible finding from the June 1, 2012 Gallup Poll:

“Forty-six percent of Americans believe in the creationist view that God created humans in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years. The prevalence of this creationist view of the origin of humans is essentially unchanged from 30 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question. Despite the many changes that have taken place in American society and culture over the past 30 years, including new discoveries in biological and social science, there has been virtually no sustained change in Americans’ views of the origin of the human species since 1982. The 46% of Americans who today believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years is little changed from the 44% who believed this 30 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question.”

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