Reformation 500: Is religious faith hardwired into our genes?

Where does religion originate? Why and how does religion exist? What is the purpose of religion? Since the 18th century, enquiries concerning the nature of religion have been of intense academic discussions. There are numerous theories from social studies concerning the definition and meaning of religion that have been proposed. For instance, Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), the founder of cultural anthropology, regarded religion as the belief in spiritual beings as a means to rationalize natural phenomena[1]. Tylor went on to propose that the true origin and essence of all religions lie within animism, which regards matter as being inhabited and moved by the spirits or souls. This prompted him to conclude that modern religious faiths resulted from the survival of primitive ignorance and repudiation of scientific explanations.

The quest to understand the nature of religion is not reserved to the realm of social studies alone. Interestingly, natural science has also set out to investigate the subject and attempted to provide its own explanations. The field of Genetics is one example, of which the discipline has become the cornerstone of modern biology and has revolutionized the way we understand life since the 20th century. It is held that genes, which are composed of the molecular machinery called DNA, are the basic hereditary unit and the master-code that defines humans’ form and functions.

The genetic material DNA encodes a “message” containing the instruction for a cell to make proteins. These proteins are often regarded as the building blocks of life, capable of performing a vast array of functions within an organism. Enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters are all proteins. The DNA “message” is made up of a string of letters written in a four-letter chemical (A, T, C, G), akin to the alphabet we use to build meaningful words. Because the DNA is regarded as being vital to life, it is not surprising that some scientists push this idea further to the extreme. A classic example from Richard Dawkins, a well-known atheist, serves the purpose well. He argued, “Human beings are simply machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.”[2]

While scientists have learned the secrets of the human genome and genetic traits in molecular detail, however, they admit that genes are not the stand-alone explanation for life. It is well-established that human traits (cognitive ability, personality, diseases, etc.) involves the complex interplay between genes and environment. Nevertheless, the matter becomes intriguing as scientists recognize the roles of genetics on human behavior. It is not rare to hear some people blame their genes for their uncommendable behaviors, such as for being aggressive, bad-tempered, etc. Are all human behaviors influenced to a certain degree by the genes? If genes do play a role in shaping one’s behavior, to what extend do they influence it? What about religious beliefs? 

In 2005, Dr. Dean Hamer, a world renowned geneticist, published a book titled, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes. The inspiration of writing this book stems from the attempt to rationalize on the origin and the purpose of religious faith in human being from the perspective of biology, hoping to address the fundamental questions such as why spirituality is so widespread all over the world? Why do people believe in things that are inaccessible to the senses? And why do some people value spirituality as much as they value wealth or power?

In this issue of PILLAR, I would like to compare and contrast Hamer’s thoughts with the Reformed standpoint concerning the nature of religious faith, and finally argue that spiritual beliefs remain the gift from God alone, which is not a product of evolution and cannot be ultimately reduced to its biological components. We will not immerse into all of the scientific details presented in the book, because our main objective is to unmask the philosophy behind the ideas, and then examine them under the light and guidance of the Scriptures. In other words, we are interested in a basic biblical apologetic response towards external challenges to our Christian faith.

To begin with, Hamer claimed to be agnostic towards the existence of God, and repeatedly warned its readers that the book is not intended to argue against the existence of God, but rather arguing for the existence of God genes to partly account for spirituality. To sum up, it is not the question, “Is there a God?” that becomes the main highlight of Hamer’s book, but it is the question, “Why do we believe in God?” that ignited his investigation, claiming that the answer can be reached within science. Interestingly, though, the author closed the discussion with an analysis of the human civilization from prehistoric time to the present for the purpose of demonstrating the significance of religion in human life, leading him to conclude that God is actually alive and well.

Hamer defined spirituality as one of the basic human instincts (e.g. foods, relationships, etc.). However, spirituality is special, because contrary to instincts in general, it is an activity that is conscious, deliberate, and culturally-learned. Spirituality is an activity of the private domain which involves one’s emotions, reasons, and revelations. Nonetheless, it is not completely isolated from the society. Indeed, religion is the evidence of the association of spirituality with the public domain of human life. The difference between the two is that unlike spirituality which relies primarily on genes for its transmission from generation to generation, religion is passed on mainly by memes. The term memes is borrowed from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and it refers to the self-replicating units of culture and ideas that are passed on through the means of writing, speech, ritual, and imitation.

Hamer admitted that spirituality is a complex human characteristic that does not rely on the genes alone. He argued that both the genetics and the environment (society, culture, and history) play significant roles in shaping one’s spiritual experiences – the amalgamation of nature and nurture. This complex human characteristic is not unique to spirituality, nevertheless, as there are numerous instances of animal traits which are the products of the interconnection of nature and nurture. As such, Hamer proposed that the biological mechanism which entails spiritual encounters is akin to a birdsong. Each species of bird has unique genes that produce a song specific for its own species. Thus, a sparrow sings the song of a sparrow, not of other bird species, because it is dictated by the sparrow’s genetic code. Interestingly, scientists show that the song of a sparrow has different varieties (or “dialects”), suggesting that environmental cue is also important. To sum up, if we illustrate it with a building construction, we can say that the genes set the foundation of the building, while the environment shapes and finalizes it; or to quote Hamer, “A rich tapestry in which nature is the warp and nurture is the woof.” In the context of religion, this implies that there are genes that can predispose someone to believe (of which Hamer called them the “God genes”), but not what to believe in; this requires the assistance of the environment (perhaps this is then the reason why there are various kinds of religion present in the society).

In the next attempt to prove the hypothesis of the genetic influence to spirituality, Hamer presented the fivefold way as follow.

1. Measurement
For the first task, Hamer set out to quantify spirituality in terms of psychometric measurements; since measurements serve as a basis for a scientist to verify a hypothesis. In this case, Hamer uses the “self-transcendence” numerical scale developed by the psychologist Robert Cloninger, which is defined as the ability to see beyond oneself independent of religious traditions. These individuals are able to see themselves and the entire world as one great totality (the sense of unity), and are also capable of viewing the similarities and interconnectedness of things. Thus, scientists use the scale to judge the intensity of one’s spiritual experience; those who scored high on the scale are regarded as being very spiritual.

2. Heritability
In this section, Hamer establishes the link between spirituality and heritability through twin studies. Twin studies allow researchers to deduce the degree of genetic/environment involvement in a trait development through comparison of the similarities and differences between identical twins and non-identical twins. Hamer showed that there is a strong contribution by the genes to spirituality.

3. Identification of a specific gene
Following from the second section, Hamer pinpointed a gene associated with the self-transcendence scale called VMAT2, which encodes for the vesicular monoamine transporter 2. This transporter is important as it controls the transport of neurotransmitters, specifically monoamines (e.g. serotonin and dopamine), which is believed to contribute to the genetic variation in spirituality. Indeed, psychoactive drugs, which are sometimes regarded to yield spiritual or religious experiences, act through this transporter.

As mentioned earlier, spirituality is defined by the complex interplay between genes and environment, and that there is likely more than one gene involved. Thus, Hamer contended that VMAT2 might only play a small role, but at least we now know that VMAT2 sheds light on the mechanism by which religious phenomena are embedded in the brain.

4. Brain mechanism
The function of VMAT2 protein on the brain is further explored in this section, whereby Hamer explained how the VMAT2 transporter acts as a controller for monoamines, and how this functionality can lead to consciousness alteration. The effect can manifest in different ways, sometimes can result in mystical experiences, or the self-transcendence itself. Citing from the Bible, Hamer used Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as one example of this mystical experience (Acts 9:3-9).

5. Selective advantage
Hamer went on to examine the telos (ultimate purpose) of the God genes in light of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, i.e. whether subscription to spirituality can promote the survival of human species. Hamer argued that the key to answer the question lies within the sense of optimism that spirituality provides, in which it can be the driving force for someone to keep on living despite the despair over death, as well to promote better health and faster recovery from illness. It is not surprising then that spirituality becomes a durable part of the fabric of life.

Having laid down all the key ideas of the God genes, which Hamer claimed as a promising candidate for answering the nature of religious faith, let us now turn on to the other end of the spectrum to examine the subject in the light of Reformed theology.

First, concerning the nature of religion, John Calvin asserted that the sense of divinity/seed of religion (sensus divinitatis) is naturally inscribed in the mind of every human being, so that no one can take refuge in the excuse of ignorance[3]. The scriptural basis for Calvin’s notion of sensus divinitatis is Romans 1:18-20, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

It is clear from Romans 1:18-20 that since we are creatures made in God’s image, God’s inescapable revelation of himself (his knowledge) is ingrained in our mind. As K. Scott Oliphint pointed out, the knowledge exists universally, clearly, and infallibly regardless of our response; whether we choose to obey him or rebel against him[4]. The a priori knowledge of God lives within us despite our sinful nature, therefore, no man can pretend ignorance. However, because of our unrighteousness, as Paul put it in Romans 1:18, we chose to suppress the truth instead. Indeed, Calvin showed that idolatry is the definite proof of the indwelling of God’s knowledge, but has been suppressed by the sinful nature of men. Romans 1:21-23 summed this sobering fact well, “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” In the context of religion, therefore, we can say that religion is not men’s meaningless invention but is a proof of God’s revelation of his knowledge. The fact that there are various religions in the society indicates the manifestation of our diverse responses towards the sensus divinitatis itself. As Rev. Dr. Stephen Tong explained, “Religion is men’s internal response towards God’s general revelation.”[5] It is clear that this notion of religious faith is diametrically opposite to the earlier definition of religion proposed by the unbelievers, such as Tylor, whereby religion is merely a refuge for intellectual laziness (the God-of-the-gaps idea).

Our naturally inborn ability to know God is free of human’s efforts, i.e. it is not something we acquired through reasoning, learning, imagination, or scientific methodologies. What needs to be emphasized further from Romans 1:18-20 is that the sensus divinitatis is not merely knowledge of a supreme being or an unknown deity, but is knowledge of a true God, including his character and attributes (e.g. omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.).

Men’s attempt to rebel against God by suppressing the sensus divinitatis can be clearly observed when we survey the history of philosophy. Take an example of Immanuel Kant, an eminent philosopher since the Enlightenment era, who is famous for his demarcation of the “phenomenal” realm and the “noumenal” realm in his Critique of Pure Reason. Kant argued that the noumenal realm surpasses our experience, and cannot be known. He further classified God as part of the noumenal realm, and argued that as we cannot have knowledge of God. In other words, our ideas of God are only a matter of faith. Knowledge and faith are two distinct entities, thus Kant’s famous dictum, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” While Kant’s idea of the “phenomenal” and the “noumenal” realms seems plausible, thorough analysis will reveal a number of limitations. However, we will not delve into exposing the weaknesses with Kant’s thought here. It is sufficient to point out that Kant’s proposition is a clear example of men’s suppression of the sensus divinitatis implanted by God. His ideas manifested itself in the form of idolatry, in this case, the idolatry of reason.

Once we grasp the concepts of sensus divinitatis well, it becomes obvious that spirituality or religious faith is not a product of the genetic makeup of a person, which is subsequently moulded by the environment (culture, society, etc.) to predispose someone to believe in the supernatural as proposed by Hamer.

Hamer’s ideas of the God genes received a number of criticisms from the scientific community. For example, Carl Zimmer criticized, “Hamer did not try to rule out the possibility that natural selection has not favored self-transcendence, but some other function of VMAT2, such as protecting the brain from neurotoxins. Nor does Hamer rule out the possibility that the God gene offers no evolutionary benefit at all.”[6] In addition, the notion of religion as favored by natural selection (because it provides an innate sense of optimism) is questionable because if we examine the history of religion carefully, we can see that people (especially the Eastern counterparts) worship the supernatural for various reasons, such as due to insecurity, anxiety, the fear of death, etc. How does the theory of evolution account for this pessimistic outlook? Should not those negative emotions be disfavored by natural selection, because they do not promote health or provide psychological benefits for the adherents?

It is clear that Hamer’s ideas lack rigorous scientific foundation, however, what we are even more interested for the purpose of this article is to examine the philosophical aspect of Hamer’s proposal. As outlined below, we can see that holding on to Hamer’s propositions can actually be insidious to our Christian faith.

1.    The proposal disregards the sensus divinitatis from God
This is clear as described earlier. If we truly hold the Bible’s words as the only supreme authority, we have to reject Hamer’s notion of the God genes.

2.    The ideas promote the philosophy of reductionism
While Hamer did not state his approach to the matter of religious faith as conforming to reductionism, implicit in his ideas is a strong inclination towards the philosophy. The ultimate aim of reductionism is to reduce all human behavior to physics (thus the ‘physicalism’ view). This might then lead people into justifying that religion is ultimately a self-deception; it is nothing more than a genetic program, and that the spiritual experience is the result of the firing of electrochemical currents through the network of neurons.

Let us think the matter critically and ask, “Is it really the case that spiritual experiences can be boiled down to physical and chemical entities, as Hamer suggested?” Are we, ultimately, going to agree with Francis Crick that, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules?”[7]

It is unequivocal that methodological reductionism (a division of reductionism which attempts to explain a phenomenon in terms of its simpler components) has been proven effective in science, especially in mathematics whereby it has served as mankind’s great tool to compress complex natural phenomena (e.g. motion of the planets) into elegant equations. However, there is always a limit to reductionism, in particular, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, understanding the individual parts of a system will not necessarily allow us to understand the system as an integrated whole. In the case of mathematics compression, for instance, the Incompleteness Theorem by Kurt Gödel has destroyed the dream of reducing mathematics to a mere set of axioms.

We have to be critical when we are confronted with the reductionists’ assertions, being able to distinguish which statement is based on a pure fact and which one merely originates from their personal belief. In respond to Richard Dawkins’ comment earlier, John Lennox said, “The universe certainly is a collection of atoms, and human beings do propagate DNA. Both of these statements are statements of science. But immediately we add the words ‘nothing but’, the statements go beyond science and become expressions of materialistic or naturalistic belief. The question is, do the statements remain true when we add those tell-tale words? Is there really nothing more to the universe and life than that?”[8] It is clear that the reductionists’ way of thinking, while seemingly scientific, appears to require greater faith in itself to support their philosophy. As Christians, we may use the reduction approach to understand a complex natural system easier, however, we are not reductionists.

3.    The ideas support the notion that “science can explain everything”
It is important to recognize that underlying all secular scientific investigations is the claim of total comprehension of all universal phenomena in the form of testable explanations; perhaps because of their materialistic notion that since matter and energy are all that is, then everything must be able to be explained by studying the behavior of matter itself. For instance, Peter Atkins, an eminent Professor of Chemistry, once claimed, “There is nothing that the scientific method cannot illuminate and elucidate.”[9] Another famous quote from Bertrand Russell regarding the matter, “Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.”[10] Therefore, when Hamer asked the fundamental questions regarding religious faith (which underlies his intention in writing the book), at the back of his mind is the belief that scientific reasoning will always be able to provide the answers. Anything that is not scientifically justified is then automatically ruled out; as Sir Arthur Eddington contended, “What my net can’t catch isn’t fish.”[11]

It is obvious that there is a limit to science. Sir Peter Medawar sums the matter clearly, “The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; ‘What is the point of living?’ ”[12] Indeed, answering these enquiries by the means of scientific investigation alone is preposterously mistaken because science is not designed for this purpose in the first place. Even if science claims to be capable of providing an answer to everything, we know for sure that it will not be able to answer the reason for its own explanation. To quote the philosopher Richard Swinburne, “I am postulating a God to explain why science explains; I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains.”[13] We can even go further than this by borrowing Van Til’s ideas on presuppositionalism, in which we always presuppose God in order to be able to talk about anything in the first place.

4.    The proposal substitutes God with the Darwin’s theory of evolution as the starting point to our knowledge
The famous 1973 essay by Theodosius Dobzhansky, an evolutionary biologist and Orthodox Christian, claimed “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. Indeed, it is evident how Hamer in his book attempted to elucidate the meaning of religion from the perspective of evolutionary biology (i.e. how it is favored by natural selection). Again, it is clear that any explanation that does not fit with the theory of evolution is then automatically ruled out. While Hamer kept emphasizing that he is not interested in the possible existence of God, the logic from his proposal will almost certainly be inclined towards eliminating such option. From the Christian worldview, we know that there is no supposedly neutral ground in any discussion.

Hudson Taylor, in his Lessons in Discipleship, stated clearly, “Christ is either Lord of all, or is not Lord at all.” Indeed, when asked, “Where did God genes come from?” Hamer answered, “At first, that might seem like a question of faith or philosophy rather than science. But the actual answer is quite obvious. They came from our parents, who inherited them from their ancestors. Those ancestors received them from their predecessors, and so on down the evolutionary line to the very beginnings of life on Earth.” Thus, it is clear that, ultimately, secularists will always persuade, directly or indirectly, to ascribe to the notion that everything we see around us is the product of a mindless, unguided, process.8

The topic of evolution remains a primary challenge to Christianity, and the discussion of this topic is so broad that dissecting it here cannot do it justice. However, we can identify at least two fundamental issues or weaknesses with respect to the theory on the origin of man, as K. Scott Oliphint exposed these well in his Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith. First, which should be really obvious, is that any explanation about the past is at best an educated guess, because no human being was alive to observe what really happened. As Richard Dawkins admitted himself in The Selfish Gene, “The account of the origin of life that I shall give is necessarily speculative; by definition, nobody was around to see what happened.” Second, the so-called “missing link” (the transition between the irrational to the rational) between animals and us has not been found (certainly will not be).

Exploring the evolutionary theories in detail would be a worthwhile project in the future, nonetheless, suffice at this stage that we have set the beginning point in thinking critically the two different worldviews. From the Christian perspective, no atheistic scientific theory can account for itself, in other words, it is self-destructive. K. Scott Oliphint argued, “To claim to know something while thinking it to be independent of God (or to deny that there is a God) is to fail to know it for what it really is.”4 Therefore, in the attempt to explain everything without God, science actually ends up explain nothing.

Although Hamer’s ideas are replete with problems, there is a positive lesson that we can extract from them. Indeed, we can even use Hamer’s ideas as part of our defense of Christianity. The approach is similar to the method that Paul employed when he delivered his sermon on Mars Hill to the Athenian audience (Acts 17:22-31). Paul quoted two Greek poets, Epimenides of Crete and Aratus, whose names they are familiar with. Epimenides refers to Zeus as the source of life (“in him we live and move and have our being”), while Aratus notes that “we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28). The purpose of Paul’s quotations is not to confirm the Athenians’ description of God, but to expose their suppression of the belief in the true God. Paul’s sermon is aimed at amending his audience’s twisted beliefs, so that they can redirect their belief back at the true Creator. In this sense, Paul is implicitly saying to his audience that it is in the true God (not Zeus) that “we live and move and have our being.” Thus, we can also employ a similar approach to connect with our secular audience, pointing to them (and Hamer as well) that the evident universal force of spirituality dwelling inside humans is not due to our genetic makeup, but it is the sensus divinitatis implanted by God himself.

There are only two possible kinds of worldview we can choose to conform whenever we exercise the category of reason to understand the world around us; the Christian or the secular worldview (as such, those claiming to be neutral also belong to the latter). Whenever we contemplate over the beauty of nature and the logic that sustains it, there is one who always refers back with reverence to the primary source who permits the existence of nature and logic in the first place, while another who refers to them as being the product of the mindless, blind (unguided) universal force emerged by chance. To which camp, then, do we choose to reside?

Daniel Frank
Pemuda GRII Melbourne

[1] Ivan Strenski, Thinking About Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2006).
[2] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996).
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. For Lewis Battles, 2 vols (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960).
[4] K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).
[5] Stephen Tong, Filsafat Asia.
[6] Carl Zimmer, Faith-Boosting Genes: A search for the genetic basis of spirituality (Scientific American, October 2004).
[7] Francis Crick, Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995).
[8] John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson plc, 2009).
[9] Peter Atkins, On Being: A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011).
[10] Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic including A Free Man’s Worship (London, UK: Routledge, 1986).
[11] Arthur Eddington, The Philosophy of Physical Science (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1939).
[12] Peter Brian Medawar, Advice to a Young Scientist (US: Basic Books, 1979).
[13] Richard Swinburne, Is there a God? (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996).