Is There a “God Gene”? (Part 2 of 2)

Conclusion of yesterday’s column.

Religious people are understandably threatened by the idea that genetics might be determining everything. Quite logically, they reject genetic and biological determinism for the same reason that a proponent of objective reality—a non-supernaturalist—would. Religious people offer no proof for the existence of God, or of a mystical realm, but they can plainly see and prove that there’s more to a human being than his biological make-up.

Walter Houston, the chaplain of Mansfield College, Oxford, and a fellow in theology, told ‘The Telegraph,’ ‘Religious belief is not just related to a person’s constitution; it’s related to society, tradition, character—everything’s involved. Having a gene that could do all that seems pretty unlikely to me.’

This is plainly true. Religious people talk of conversion, prayer and ‘God’s Grace.’ These are the factors, according to them, that bring about religious conviction. Scientists are right to claim that there’s no objective basis for any of these, that these are notions based on fantasy and faith alone, capable of neither being proved nor disproved. At the same time, science has no right to turn around and say, in effect, ‘There is no supernatural. There’s only biology. Our genes determine who we are, what we think, what we feel and do. Period.’ This is no closer to the truth than the religious person who denies the existence of a rational mind in favor of ‘God’s Grace.’

Actually, some of the more reasonable (non-fundamentalist) religious people have high regard for human reason, objective science and the existence of the reasoning mind. These religious people are actually closer to the truth than the biological determinists in the field of science who claim that brain chemistry and genes determine everything—including even one’s religious or philosophical convictions.

Hamer responded to these religious critics that the existence of such a gene would not be incompatible with the existence of a personal God. ‘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.’ Hamer repeatedly notes in his book that, ‘This book is about whether God genes exist, not about whether there is a God.’

You’ve heard the term, ‘politically correct.’ Hamer, as part of his Big Backpedal, is engaging in the religious version of political correctness. You might call it ‘religious correctness.’ He’s backing away from the obvious implications of his own research in order not to offend a large group of people. This is not science. When you make a genuine scientific discovery, the truth you discover (based upon proof and evidence) trumps offending anyone. When Galileo asserted that science proved the earth orbited the sun, and not the other way around, political or religious correctness might save his hide, but wouldn’t bend the truth one bit.

The problem with Hamer is that science and proof are not on his side. Like all genetic and biological determinists, he takes it for granted that genes determine everything. If you can find a gene that appears to correlate with a philosophical or religious conviction—well then, by George, it must be the gene causing it. Determinists like

Hamer ignores a basic axiom of all objective science: Correlation is not causation. Just
because two things happen at the same time, it’s not conclusive proof that one caused the other. Natural selection is not causing religious people to survive, and non-religious believers to perish, particularly given the fact that religion (at least when taken seriously, and applied consistently) is one of the most destructive forces in all of human history.

The very notion of a ‘God gene’ is even more preposterous than the similarly asserted notions of ‘fat genes’ that make you overeat, ‘alcohol’ genes that make you drink too much, and the like. At most, you can assert—thorough a medical discovery about the brain, for example—that certain individuals are predisposed to greater problems because of genetic factors. Genetics surely play a role in determining your basic temperament, aspects of your nervous response system, and the like. But this is no proof that they’re all-determining, because even people with the same genetic structures will believe, act and think in numerous different ways.

When you’re talking about a ‘God gene’ you’re talking about fundamental ideas and beliefs related to philosophical convictions. There’s not even a starting point for suggesting that something so vastly complex as a philosophical or religious conviction is caused by some single aspect of your DNA. Most people’s religious and philosophical beliefs are created by default. People absorb what they hear around them, and they tend not to question it. Other people are more assertive about questioning what they are taught, which leads them to either (1) reject the philosophical viewpoints that their elders taught them in favor of different ones, or (2) better understand the nature of what they’re taught and, if they eventually agree, they make the views of their elders their own.

Walter Houston’s quote bears repeating: ‘Religious belief is not just related to a person’s constitution; it’s related to society, tradition, character—everything’s involved.’ In the end, we’re all in the driver’s seats of our own minds. How much we decide things for ourselves, by either objective/rational or purely subjective standards, or how much we leave the decisions to others will vary widely from person to person, and topic to topic. Most people tend to defer to others when it comes to matters related to philosophy, spirituality and religion. Why this is the case would make a fascinating subject of psychological research, and surely there are reasons for this that have little or nothing to do with the chemical or genetic make-up of the brain.

It’s presumptuous of ‘God gene’ researchers to take for granted that religious people are inherently more optimistic than non-believers. After all, there’s no evidence whatsoever for believing in the actual existence of a supernatural realm. It requires a suspension of rational thought to do so. The extent to which a religious or mystical believer can be ‘optimistic’ is the extent to which he successfully lies to, or otherwise fools himself. Is that really optimism? Can a positive outlook in life only be generated by a capacity for self-deceit and delusion?

That’s clearly what the researchers asserting the ‘God gene’ are implying. In so doing, they reveal more about their own attitudes and beliefs than anything of any particular scientific value.

—’God Gene,’ Wikepedia. See: God_gene
—Hamer, Dean (2005). The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes. Anchor Books. ISBN 0385720319.
—Hamer, Dean H. (2004). The God gene how faith is hardwired into our genes. New York: Doubleday. Pages 211-12.
—Peikoff, Leonard (1993). ‘Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand,’ Penguin Publishing.
—Zimmer, Carl (October 2004). ‘Faith-Boosting Genes: A search for the genetic basis of spirituality’. Scientific American.