The God Gene: Why Some of Us Just Don’t Get Religion?

In this new book, Dean Hamer discusses possible genetic components of “a personality trait known as self-transcendence, originally identified by Washington University psychiatrist Robert Cloninger. Cloninger found that spiritual people tend to share a set of characteristics, such as feeling connected to the world and a willingness to accept things that cannot be objectively demonstrated. … Hamer confirmed what earlier studies had found: heredity is partly responsible for whether a person is self-transcendent or not.” (quoted from a review on Amazon)

The book has been attacked on various grounds; I won’t bother to attack or defend since I have not yet read it. But the theory that religious feeling (or spirituality) may be genetically determined would explain something that otherwise puzzles me greatly: why do many intelligent people believe in god?

A number of religious people have been part of my life, including some who, while not following any organized religion, believe in or crave some sort of “spirituality.” I try – I really do! – to be respectful of their beliefs, because I respect these folks personally for other reasons.

But, frankly, I just don’t get it. I don’t feel a need for god or spirituality. I can feel connected to the world, and delight in its many wonders, without needing to thank anybody. I have my own strong moral compass that tells me how to treat people and the world, without reference to any scripture. I have no belief in a spiritual world I can’t see, and don’t feel the lack of that belief. Some people are born color-blind; I guess I was born god-blind.

Religions have an explanation for people like me: we haven’t been exposed to, or have refused to accept, the word of god – we haven’t seen the light (as I said: god-blind).

Until now, I’ve been groping for a way to explain them. “Opiate of the masses” only covers the ignorant and easily-led, and assumes complete bad faith on the part of every spiritual leader who ever lived. I can’t go that far. So I’ve had to assume that people whom I know to be intelligent in every other way are just dumb in this particular area, or victims of a traditional upbringing. Which, of course, is no explanation.

I therefore like the idea that the need for religion may have a genetic component. This would explain why some people feel this need strongly, and others not at all. The desire for this feeling of self-transcendence is independent of any specific religion, and even of the question as to whether there is a god. There may or may not be something “beyond” what science will ever be able to explain; for genetic reasons, some of us care a lot about being in touch with whatever it may be, and others don’t. In either case, we can’t help it – we were born that way.


3 thoughts on “The God Gene: Why Some of Us Just Don’t Get Religion?

  1. urbanturbanguy

    Things tob think about:
    . Religion: the word is mostly used to identify practices that represent mainstream Christianity. That is why first in order to be classified as a religion u need to have certain practices & ways of thinking that any rational person can easily refute.

    2. Will those who for a long part of their life were opposed to “religion” then decided to follow one be concidered peolle who went through a mid life genetic mutation?

  2. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    1. Here in the US, yes, but my own experience is much wider than the average American’s. eg, I grew up with the Ramayana in both Thailand and India.

    2. The gene, if it exists, is more about a tendency towards or yearning for that feeling of “transcendence”, however it may be expressed. My dad claimed at various points in his life (that I can recall) to be atheist or Buddhist, then a few years before his death worked (for a while) on converting to Judaism. I was skeptical, but not surprised – even at his most atheist, he had always had a “mystic” or “spiritual” bent (that I had no sympathy with).

    Did you know there is a gene which makes cilantro taste like soap to some people? Many Italians have it, among others. I used to think my Italian friends were just being squeamish about something unfamiliar to them, but turns out it actually does just taste really bad – to them. That’s kinda how religion is for me. (NB I do like cilantro, though!).

  3. sahab sertan

    answer to the second question by urbanturban: Their belief center is triggered ephiphanically to dominate and molest the center of logic in their brains … LOL. I am serious 😀

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