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.



  1. 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. 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. 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 😀

  4. Hmmmm.

    I was raised Catholic, or rather, made to participate in the rituals, by an older generation of people who were largely irreligious. The intentional damage done to innocents through the Church’s hypocrisy and greed speaks for itself, and when you can show me that a man walking the earth is infallible, I’ll speed-eat three pounds of Cilantro *chokespit*. Yeah, I’m Italian.

    But I have always felt connected to something, and it doesn’t have to do with a personification of a god. Recently I began a course of treatment with a biodynamic cranio-sacral chiropractor. It benefited me greatly.

    The treatment has no mystical component. It’s based on the idea that the Breath of Life__that which informed our cells when we were born about how we were to be made, can be accessed, first through the informed touch of another, and then independently. It’s linked to the biophysical movement to find smaller and smaller atomic particles, ultimately looking for what they would call the “god-particle”.

    Anyway, I feel better. The meditation and treatment took away my depression, and relieved some of my chronic pain, in an impressive enough fashion to make me want to study it further. Again, it’s a physical and anatomical study of the brain, not church. It just does some of the things that church is supposed to do, without the mumbo-jumbo.

    So, that’s something that I’ve experienced. It IS in my genes, but It doesn’t come with men in special hats speaking arcane prose and denigrating one sort of person while protecting its most base members.

    Jay Thomas

  5. I don’t get it either. I did see a documentary on the brain on this. A person who had no religious beliefs was placed with electrodes on their head and a certain part of the brain was stimulated. When stimulated this way, the person reported feeling “a presence” and of “not feeling alone”. So, I guess I was born without this area of the brain…….thankfully.

    What also mystifies me is the reports of people saying their deceased loved ones are leaving signs that they are with them……butterflies, cardinals, flickering lights, a dime found in an unusual place, etc., etc. This makes no sense at all. Maybe people just choose to believe what makes them feel better.


  6. It seems rather a stretch to extend genetics to our free thoughts, and would that not suggest there aren’t any? Religion, like any hypothesis, should be open to objective examination, without prejudice, if we are truly, and not lazily falling back on science to model the truth of the world in which we live.
    Certainly, the truth of a religious explanation of our personalities and our destiny would be a momentous discovery.
    Perhaps those intelligent people you see as naturally religious have put in the effort of such an examination of themselves and society and stumbled on a hitherto unthinkable conclusion.
    Remember, that if it’s true that there is an independent, objectively real God, then He will be free to act in a person’s life irrespectively of that person’s thoughts and imagination.
    Do you not crave something objectively real outside a closed subjective world?

  7. No, I have no craving for “god,” “spirituality,” etc., never have that I can remember, and I continue to be somewhat baffled by those who do. Hence my conjecture that there is a genetic component to how strongly, weakly, or not at all any given human feels that sort of thing. I can’t prove there is nothing “beyond this world,” but neither can anyone prove that there is. As long as people insist that “faith” is proof, the question is not resolvable. I am perfectly fine with anyone believing whatever they like, until – as so often happens – they want to force and enforce those beliefs on others. Then we all have a problem.

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