The God Gene
In one brain study intending to look at the potential neurological differences between religious believers and atheists, participants were asked to look at distorted photos containing both real and nonreal elements. The study found that religious believers were more likely to see things that were there, but they also saw things that weren’t there.
Not surprisingly, nonbelievers never saw things that weren’t there, but sometimes they missed things that were actually present in the photo. Each group made mistakes, but they made them in directions that were consistent with their religious or non-religious worldviews.
Significantly, however, when nonbelievers were given a drug to increase their dopamine levels, the results were more similar to that of religious believers. One of the things dopamine does is help regulate our sensations, which is also part of the reward system in the brain. In the context of this study, dopamine helped to modify how nonbelievers interpreted their sensory perceptions. In other words, it changed their view of reality. The implication is that perhaps dopamine, or some other neurotransmitter, is crucial for helping a person see the world in a spiritual way or in a non-spiritual way.
The relationship between dopamine and spirituality took another turn in a study conducted by Dr. Dean Hamer, a behavioral geneticist at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Hamer analyzed DNA and personality data from over 1,000 individuals and identified one particular gene as the “God gene,” which was found to correlate with people’s feelings of self-transcendence.
Interestingly, this same gene is involved in producing the VMAT2 receptor, which regulates dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. While some scientists note that the effect of this gene on differences in spiritual beliefs is likely very low—perhaps less than 10% of the effect—Dr. Hamer states that the God gene does not imply it is the only (or even dominant) factor in making someone spiritual or religious, but it does seem to be involved in the spiritual development process. With this gene, it is reasonable to conclude that religious belief (or nonbelief) might be more hardwired into the human brain than previously realized.
Of course, how you interpret the so-called God gene will depend on your worldview. For the ardent atheist, the God gene is an indication that religious belief is at least partly a result of genetics and nothing more. For the ardent believer, the God gene is evidence of a Supreme Being's ingenuity and creative design. As always, each group will make the mistake of interpreting data consistent with their religious or non-religious beliefs.