On my recent trip I took along Dean Hamer’s book The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes. Since he apologizes for the title as not of his choosing, I will not comment on it, except to say that it was a factor that led me to not read the book sooner. I thought it would be predictable where his line of reasoning would go, based on the title, and so I write this as someone who was pleasantly surprised by the book’s content. He is not attempting to suggest that there is in fact a single “God gene”, but merely exploring the role of genes in spirituality and religion.
Hamer’s book is based on one particular discovery the author was involved in relating to a genetic difference and its effect on brain chemistry relevant to spirituality, as well as the results of various twin studies in this area. He offers a nice balance between nature and nurture (and, while recognizing that there are genetic and social roots to these, he leaves room for the idea of ‘personal preference’). Among the most striking information in the book is that there is an inverse correlation between mystical and religious tendencies (p.21). There is also strong evidence that, while parents may influence whether or not their children do such things as attend church, there is little ability on the part of parents to influence whether their children are spiritual (pp.49,51,176-177). Religion and spirituality are clearly independent factors, even though this doesn’t entirely support the contemporary dichotomy that some make between the two. As Hamer himself writes, “Whatever the genes are for spirituality, they don’t have any effect on how often people go to church.”
Given that the author clearly doesn’t know much about religions in general (there is a reference to Islam on p.210 that is about as inaccurate as is conceivably possible), the book is not bad. There are some interesting references to DNA research on the Jews and on caste in India – although the evidence that is at odds with the traditional Biblical account is not actually mentioned. What is included is nonetheless important and fascinating.At the Sibiu conference I attended only one paper dealt with Neurotheology, but it was an interesting one. The author spoke about the thalamus and compared it to the ‘bridal chamber’ of the mind/soul mentioned by the mystics. It was interesting to see how someone objected to the suggestion that spiritual experiences might have something to do with the brain. The same person also objected to the theologian in question’s use of the term “making love” in relation to the mystical experience of God. Anyone who knows the writings of the mystics, or who has had a mystical experience themselves, will know that such language is in fact apt. And given the similarities, and given that religious experiences, whatever else they may be, are experiences, how could they possibly not have a connection to the brain?
It is now possible to identify genes such as VMAT2, which codes for a monoamine transporter and the two versions of which (A and C) correspond to a significant extent to one’s sense (or not) of self-transcendence – this is the key research Hamer was involved in on this subject, and which he describes in the book. Although I am (mostly) being facetious, I would humbly suggest that the presence of A rather than C in one’s DNA at this point be called “The Dawkins Disability”. After all, religion seems to be present from the origin of self-awareness, and although religion and spirituality are themselves not directly correlated, religion tends to arise and perpetuate ideas that are born out of spirituality – major religious figures were in most cases individuals who had mystical or other sorts of religious experiences. Perhaps it would be fitting to name the presence of a particular gene variation that fails to provide for such experiences after a person who illustrates precisely the sort of lack of self-transcendence this gene causes.
At any rate, for anyone interested in the relationship between religion and science, and between mysticism and neuroscience in particular, I would definitely recommend this book.