Spirituality and Genetics

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, reported recently on studies indicating that spirituality is genetically influenced. Money quote:

Twin studies conducted around the world in the U.S., the Netherlands and Australia as well as ours in the U.K. show a 40 to 50 percent genetic component to belief in God.

This isn't the first time such a link has been shown: D. T. Lykken, T. J. Bouchard, Jr., M. McGue, and A. Tellegen, writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1993 (Vol. 78, No. 4, 649-661,) also found evidence of genetic factors in behavioral traits, including "religious orientation." Working on a large population of twins from Minnesota (no, not the baseball players...) they concluded: 

These findings extend the already large body of evidence that indicates the important influence of genetic factors on virtually all traits that are of interest to applied psychologists. 

And this takes us back also to the hotly-debated 2005 book by Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes. (NB: Spector and the Minnesota twin researchers don't point to a specific gene, as Hamer did.) 

Behavioral genetics is tricky business, and it's important not to overreach. There was criticism of Hamer's work, both scientific (is it replicable? does he over-interpret his data?) and theological. Among the theological skeptics was John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and member of the Royal Society and Canon Theologian at Liverpool Cathedral. Commenting for The Daily Telegraph, he said "The idea of a God gene goes against all my personal theological convictions. You can't cut faith down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking." Hamer insisted, (correctly, I think,) that his thesis was not about the existence of God, but about human capacity to experience what we might describe as spiritual awareness.

Of course, it's possibe to consider these findings from a more scientific perspective. Human beings are adept at perceiving patterns, whether or not they're actually there. (Two easy examples are the way we so easily see a face on the moon, or the way superstitions arise from temporally-but-not-causally related events.) Obviously this deep trait is adaptive—one can imagine the usefulness for hunters of being able to infer from this set of imprints in the mud that a deer walked here. A more ethereal version of the same would be spiritual awareness. One could also posit a strong community-building function to spirituality, regardless of the nature or existence of its referents. 

But is there another way to think thelogically about this?

In Christian tradition we affirm a God who rather fervently wants to be in communion with creation. God continually establishes covenants with erring humankind, and ultimately came to walk with us as a human being, like us in all things but sin. Taking human evolution as a given, and also God's involvement somehow in our creation, (yes, yes, I'm thinking final cause, and not wanting to open that particular can of worms here,) why wouldn't a God who so clearly wants to be known be pleased at the presence in creation of a capacity for knowing God? We have eyes with which we perceive light, ears with which we hear sound, so why not some kind of capacity for knowing God? And if, as Aquinas said, God wills for us what is good for us, why couldn't that capacity have adaptive/survival/evolutionary benefit as well as spiritual mojo? A two-fer?

Like many traits, this one is affected by environment and is present to a differing degree in different individuals, just as some have keener hearing or sharper vision than others. And in some ways we seem to cultivate our perception in our worship spaces. We can see one example in church architecture, which, ideally, is designed to enhance or elicit particular kinds of affective responses that may be related to spiritual self-transcendence. And the particular effect varies—a gothic catheral almost forces one's eyes heavenward, while an intimate contemporary setting draws a community together to feel God in its midst. Music should create an atmosphere of—well, it varies too, right? Reflection, joy, a sense of being loved, insight, etc.?

So a genetic dimension of spirituality? Sure, why not? Some are more attuned or capable than others? Anyone who's ever directed the Spiritual Exercises or discussed experience in prayer shouldn't be surprised by that. But all in all, this seems like good news to me—we are fearfully and wonderfully made, after all, and our species seems to carry in its very genes a capacity for God. 


Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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