The “God Gene.”

This week’s Time Magazine features a cover article discussing whether scientists have located at least one gene that seems to be more prevalent in people who rate themselves as more spiritual; that is, who can experience what they call “self-transcendence.”  This is described as having three parts:

[…] self-forgetfulness, or the ability to get entirely lost in an experience; transpersonal identification, or a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe; and mysticism, or an openness to things not literally provable.

To me, this doesn’t indicate more than the ability to elicit certain sensations by an act of will.  I can trigger “self-transcendence” given a few minutes of deep concentration; it doesn’t mean there’s anything external causing it or accepting the credit for it.  I would bet that those individuals who “scored” higher in the self-transcendence category would also test high in the ability to hypnotize themselves.

Take for example what many people have done in their youth:  decided (with or without the help of friends) that their house was haunted or someone was watching them through the window and/or trying to break in.  It was fun to scare yourself that way, and you could manage to work yourself up into such a tizzy that every creak and groan of the house’s foundation sounded just like an intruder.  For especially susceptible people, it would take a long time for them to work their way back out of that hysteria and remember that there really wasn’t anything to be afraid of. 

I think a belief in a god or the supernatural in general is the same phenomenon.  Someone suggests the idea to you, and you work on pretending it so thoroughly that you can trigger these sensations of transcendence in your own brain.  The problem is, people then mistake it for an external trigger when it was actually all done internally by a now-forgotten or disguised act of will.

The article goes on to posit that such a tendency towards mysticism may have evolved as a beneficial attribute, one that bolstered “social organization” and therefore survival of the species.  (And wouldn’t it be ironic to have hard-core fundamentalists buy into evolution for that very reason?)  Of course, they also admit that such social organization through religion is, as often as not, a destructive force rather than a beneficial one.  I think it probably evolved as a combination of factors:  a need for reassurance that could only be sustained with the help of like-minded groups, and a need to enforce certain moral behaviors on a population that wasn’t willing to cooperate any other way.  Inasmuch as it made humans more social, it was probably a survival trait to some extent, but humans are fully capable of coming together to kill each other just as easily as they concoct a mass belief.  It’s a mixed bag, and therefore as neutral as any other aspect of our genetic makeup.

All of this, in my opinion, says a lot about our psychological and physiological makeup as a species, but does nothing to support the existence of an actual supernatural entity.  Just because we might “need” a god doesn’t mean he’s actually there.

25 thoughts on “The “God Gene.”

  1. Les (and I’d hope anyone who’s read my various comments here and there on the site) knows the last thing i’d do is try and prosetylize anyone. so, i want to make that distinction to you, Geekmom, just so you know it’s not my intent.

    perhaps one of the more damning things we Christians have done is to confuse faith with ignorance. and when it comes down to any sort of real faith consisting of more than “i believe. period”, ne’re the twain shall meet.

    any “thoughtful” person who’s paid attention to more than the world they inhabit from waking to sleep who believes in God comes across one, final conflict at some point—beit a religious crisis, a book that moves them in a direction they didn’t intend to go—whatever. at that point, the person has to make a choice: grapple with the scientific data or remain ignorant, thinking that the latter state of mind is some sort of bliss.

    it isn’t.

    we christians like to come up with al sorts of pat phrases to “prove” the existence of God. it’s fairly easy to see that this has failed, and rather miserably. and i couldn’t agree more with what you said here: “Just because we might “need

  2. At the risk of speaking for atheists as a whole, I’ll just say that most of us appreciate any believer who can own up to having doubts from time to time.

    Just as there are many things about the Universe that we atheists can’t offer a good explanation for there are also many aspects of the varying religious worldviews that should give pause to any believer who actually thinks about what he or she believes rather than just blindly following along. I honestly have no problem with a believer saying, “Yeah, that’s always bothered me too and I can’t really explain it reasonably, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more out there.”

    My mother believes in God though she can’t really explain to you why. She just feels that he/she/it is out there and that everything happens for a reason. When she looks back over her life she can see a pattern in her past that points her to the belief that someone or something is out there making shit happen even if she can’t tell why at the time, but in retrospect it seems clear to her and it seems to be a positive thing as near as she can tell so she believes. Beyond that she’s not a religious person in terms of being a member of a particular denomination or attending church regularly. If she prays, its not in any formal sense.

    I doubt I could come up with an argument that would convince her there really isn’t anything out there to believe in no matter how rational I happen to be able to make it because her belief is a product of her interpretation of her life and what she has experienced. And I’m OK with that because she’s not hurting anyone with her belief or trying to impose her worldview on anyone else and it brings her a sense of comfort and as such there’s nothing to be gained in convincing her otherwise.

    A lot of Christians seem to think that atheists share a similar desire to convert others over to our worldview and the truth is most of us aren’t concerned with doing any such thing. There’s rarely any gain in it for us to make it worth the bother.

  3. Carey, your Christian friends should consider themselves lucky to have you as a friend,  and the “sharpening instrument” idea is scriptural: Prov. 27:17. 

    It can be hard to find people who will openly discuss atheism because atheism is unpopular, and atheists have no obvious reason to form groups. Christianity, on the other hand, is so popular it is assumed as the default religion unless another one is expressed.  There are no atheist bars, no campus “Safe-Zones” for atheists, and it is safe to publically condemn atheists in the strongest terms.

    This is why, as Andy Rooney says, “Closet atheism is rampant in America.”  It is also the reason why, for years after I no longer believed in god, I did not admit it to myself let alone discuss it with others. 

    I agree with you – this site is refreshing!  And so are you, for your honesty.

  4. Props to you for understanding what you believe instead of just believing it.
    As an anthropologist, I end up taking a lot of things on a belief basis.  As much as the theorists like to pretend they use the scientific method, it degrades a bit when you can’t have things like controls and tests.  But you bet your sweet bippy I question myself all the way and I think it’s the only way you can really understand something.  (Of course, I might also argue that science is based on belief as well…but then we get into a big philosophical mess.)
    About the article, I would be curious to read their reasoning.  My understanding, based on experience, is that things like faith are mainly learned. It seems absurd to me that they have found a gene for it.  How much are they attributing to the gene—are they treating it like the determining factor or as something that makes you more likely to have faith?  Perhaps the correlation is just coincidence?
    All questions, sorry…

  5. I think I fit into the scheme best as Agnostic…though I do hold alot of Christian and Catholic beliefs.  I also feel however that God won’t look out for me if I don’t look out for myself (that’s scriptural too, but try telling it to most Christians).  I don’t go to any form of Organized Religion anymore, as I felt it was a poor expression of faith because it’s used as a control mechanism so much of the time.  Plus all the hypocrites at every Church I’ve been to always pissed me off.  I still believe there’s a God somewhere, and I’m pretty sure my ‘soul’ is safe; but that’s about it these days.  Meh.

  6. Have they proved if there is a “Bush is God” gene yet? Because that would answer a whole new set of questions.

  7. Shit, elwed beat me to it. I was going to say “how is it beneficial for us to ‘need’ god? Doesn’t that trump the free will argument? If mankind is wired for belief by god, I would find that despicable. If it occured for another reason, that makes only too much sense.

  8. Carey, welcome, and thanks for your very thoughtful post!  (I find your choice of screen name interesting:  are you by any chance Mother Carey? wink)

    I myself discovered, over the course of many years, that I had to make a conscious effort to believe in God, and when my attention wavered “He” just disappeared, lock, stock and barrel.  I could switch easily between belief and non-belief, and my life was exactly the same no matter what.  So I drew the conclusion that any existence of a deity was all in my head, and was created through an act of will, and to be honest, I had better things to do with my brain than to spend any time focusing on God.  (It was more important for me to remember telephone numbers and doctor’s appointments.)

    Shana, another part of the Time article quoted someone as saying, “Spirituality is intensely personal; religion is institutional.”  Which makes sense to me.

  9. The strongest human motivation is fantasy. Facts are boring. Consider the O.J. trial. We have a 50% divorce rate. We don’t marry the woman (or man) we see, we marry a fantasy of what we would like to believe they are, then reality sets in. Since humans are social animals, it figures that we would find some way to make our spiritual fantasy into an institution. Voila: a church (syangogue, mosque, etc) It is then a simple matter of developing a myth to support our positions, as have all religions on this planet. cheese

  10. I like that quote, Geek Mom.  It reminds me of the theories developed to try and define religion—that religion (the institution) acts to conserve itself while the individual (spirituality) acts to subvert it.  The result is that relgion largely stays the same, esp the big points, but has small idiosychrasies that slowly change the religion over time and allow for a wide range of individuals to participate (and for a lot of contradictions…)

    Ok, re-reading this, I couldn’t be without my cynical comment:  perhaps they are looking for a gene so they can peg the fundies (I mean, that’s a population bottleneck if ever there was) and hmm…perhaps the next step is electric dog collars for the ignorant?  Forget GM for mega atheletes, super models, and braniacs—now it’s gonna be, make sure my child isn’t a fundie!
    Cause, dude, I would totally go for that.
    wink

  11. Shana, I like that too—how the individual works to subvert the institution of religion.  Actually, come to think of it, the individual usually works to subvert just about every social structure, doesn’t he?  Those pesky individuals. grin

    There are so many genetic traits and expressions we can’t control.  For example, even though I never dressed her in pink, as soon as my oldest could walk and I let her pick something in a store, she toddled STRAIGHT for the pink Hello Kitty purses on the shelf.  Go figure. 

    (Love your avatar, by the way!)

  12. Ermm, the pink color thing may not necessarily be genetic. In the 1800-1900, pink is considered a boy’s color while blue a color for girls. In fact the sailor suit made in early 1900s was pink in color and I do not believe there were any girls in the navy at that time. However, both colors could be used without much of a stigma.

    The first recorded instance of a stigma or a gender preference for a color could be argued to be linked to Nazi Germany, where a pink triangle is used to mark homosexuals thus suggesting a possible feminine attribute to the color. And gradually from WWII onwards pink become more associated with females and blue with boys.

  13. I’ve been struck (all of my thinking life) by the one central fact concerning all those who claim not to believe in any ‘supernatural’ or ‘supreme being.’

    One of the first, if not the very first, things I was taught in gradeschool science class is that there can not be ANY effect without there being some cause for that effect.

    Apply that very simple, very true principle of science to religous belief.

    Obviously, there is something that has caused, & continues to cause rational, intelligent people to ‘believe’ in something greater than themselves.

    Human beings really exist. The universe really exists. Science teaches that something, or someone, MUST have caused this condition, of existence, to occur.

    Only an irrational person would claim that people, or the universe, does not exist.

    Yet, isn’t that exactly what the ‘no god can exist, because I say so’ school of thought is about? Doesn’t it really deny the existance of every proof, every thought, every hope & every dream of humankind?

    Really, if there is no god, who taught us that we are anything but animals? Who says I can’t do anything, just as I please? You? You’ve already proven that you’re not rational, because according to the so-called ‘atheist,’ the entire universe is an accident!

    Yet, science says that that is not possible, that for the universe to exist, it was NECESSARY for SOMETHING, or SOMEONE to cause it to come into existance.

    The universe exists: Deny it if you wish, but the most basic scientific principle requires that
    the ‘cause’ precedes the effect.

    If you really don’t want to believe, (personally, I’m convinced it is a matter of desire) then, for your own sanity, you had better figure out how the universe & everything in it, with all it’s inticate designs, can violate the most principles of science, & still make your computer work!

  14. All that work creating a new thread and Theolefarmer missed it.

    I’m sure others will respond to your inquiries but I have some questions for you:

    Yet, isn’t that exactly what the ‘no god can exist, because I say so’ school of thought is about? Doesn’t it really deny the existance of every proof, every thought, every hope & every dream of humankind?

    You have proof?  Actual proof of God’s existence?  Out with it man!

    Really, if there is no god, who taught us that we are anything but animals? Who says I can’t do anything, just as I please? You? You’ve already proven that you’re not rational, because according to the so-called ‘atheist,’ the entire universe is an accident!

    Who taught you that you’re not an animal?  (Actually you are but you know what I mean.)  Who tells you that you can’t do as you please?  Does God tell you?  Which so-called atheist told you the universe was an accident?  We need his name and number to make sure he makes it to the next secret meeting.

    If you really don’t want to believe, (personally, I’m convinced it is a matter of desire) then, for your own sanity, you had better figure out how the universe & everything in it, with all it’s inticate designs, can violate the most principles of science, & still make your computer work!

    You’ve figured out all of this and haven’t shared it or published a paper?  Shame on you.

    As I said, I just had some questions.  I’m sure others will be along to address your concerns.  In the meantime I hope that Smee finds you at peace.

  15. i think you have to be careful with words like ‘cause’ and ‘irrational’ when you’re discussing God. especially with those who don’t subscribe to God.

    being that i am a christian, believe me when i say i can see where you mean to come from, but words can bite hard. i’m not suggesting political corectness here, but one must understand the basic tenant of where the atheist comes from.

    there is a historical precedent which forgoes any arguments that a christian can make. and that precedent has set forth precisely the ‘cause and effect’ chain of events that have brought people who do not believe in God to the place that they are at. it doesn’t matter who did it, and that we had no part in it. the simple fact remains that Christianity at large has many, many crimes with which it must answer for, and, to date, this hasn’t by and large happened. we continue to move forward as if nothing in our history happened. as if we never did these heinous crimes.

    and i’ll go so far as to say that it is our example that will sway the person who’s pondering the question of God as much (if not more) than mere scientific data. and i’m not talking about some southern baptist, fundamentalist idealism of never smoking, drinking or cursing, either.

    i’m talking about consistent, dyed-in-the-wool faith that governs our actions as a community, as well as individuals.

    i’m not attacking you, olefarmer, but the fact is that the atheist, agnostic, absurdist, deist or any other set of beliefs are on trial here. God himself is not on trial here.

    Christians, if anyone, are the ones on trial.

    we’ve had more than optimum chances to make our case. God forgives. people seldom do. God forgets. people seldom do. if anyone can blame folks for not forgetting, then the bigger picture isn’t being seen.

    it’s like Geekmom stated in her original post: just because we might need a god doesn’t mean he’s there. and, subsequently, just because cause begats effect really, scientifically speaking, does not beg for a god to be in place. it begs a cause—not a god.

    Faith begs a God. that’s what Christians live by. Faith. science can point, yes, but if one digs deep within the Bible, it’s apparent God himself wills that he not be seen. he’s interested in confounding those of us who would believe. he’s interested in us coming to look for him. he’s not, i don’t believe, all too interested in scientific data. he’d rather be loved than analyzed. and that says something. it says something heavy, heavy about choice.

    it is a choice. deeply personal.

  16. “i’m not attacking you, olefarmer, but the fact is that the atheist, agnostic, absurdist, deist or any other set of beliefs are on trial here.”

    set of beliefs are ***NOT*** on trial is what i meant.

  17. Apply that very simple, very true principle of science to religous belief.

    Y’all spot the two fallacies in the above?

    The rest of the post isn’t even a complete first cause argument. Theoldfarmer, what caused god?

    A suggestion to the general audience. Rather than doing a Groundhog Day on the same old arguments, I hereby suggest that we start a reference thread for each one of them in the forums. Any poster making one of these arguments can then be invited to the pertinent forum thread(s).

  18. [The post above is actually from Elwed—sometimes we have trouble keeping our accounts apart on the same laptop …]

    Faith begs a God. that’s what Christians live by. Faith. science can point, yes, but if one digs deep within the Bible, it’s apparent God himself wills that he not be seen. he’s interested in confounding those of us who would believe. he’s interested in us coming to look for him. he’s not, i don’t believe, all too interested in scientific data. he’d rather be loved than analyzed. and that says something. it says something heavy, heavy about choice.

    Carey, I really like that.  I can see how from a believer’s point of view, that’s something powerful, a Mystery into which one is initiated.

    Of course, from my point of view as an atheist, the reasoning that “God doesn’t want to be seen,” that he defies explanation, that he doesn’t want to be analyzed, and that he won’t actually show up in your life unless you look for him (i.e. you create him), all seem to me to be excuses for the overwhelming indications that he DOESN’T exist.  The simpler explanation for the fact that he doesn’t show up and doesn’t make sense is that it’s a fallible, flawed construct of the human mind, not a supposedly perfect entity.

    To a believer, having faith in something against all rational, concrete evidence is a strength.  I suppose it’s a matter of perspective.  If I have faith in my being Mary, Queen of Scots despite all evidence to the contrary, I expect people would feel sorry for me.  We romanticize “blind faith,” and indeed, it can produce some beautiful things (as well as some truly ugly ones).  But I would much rather have a discussion with someone who acknowledges his or her leap of faith as opposed to someone who is trying to pretend that there’s scientific evidence for it.

    Farmer:

    One of the first, if not the very first, things I was taught in gradeschool science class is that there can not be ANY effect without there being some cause for that effect.

    Apply that very simple, very true principle of science to religous belief.

    Uh, actually, no.  Just because there has to be a cause doesn’t mean it has to be a god.  Look up the expression post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Next?

    Yet, isn’t that exactly what the ‘no god can exist, because I say so’ school of thought is about? Doesn’t it really deny the existance of every proof, every thought, every hope & every dream of humankind?

    Tell me, Farmer, do you believe in Zeus?  In Kali?  In Cerridwen?  If not, explain to me why not, using your rationale above.

    Really, if there is no god, who taught us that we are anything but animals? Who says I can’t do anything, just as I please? You?

    Yep.  It really is that simple.  Imagine the first caveman killing another one, and a third one saying, “Hey, dude, don’t do that.”  And a fourth one saying, “Yeah, that’s wrong, don’t kill.”  You don’t need to invent a god for that.  (Unless, of course, the only way you’ll obey a moral code like that is if you’re FORCED into it by an imaginary super-parent and the threat of eternal damnation.  NOW who’s the animal?)

    Sorry, Elwed.  Punxsutawney Phil will be on his way out shortly.  grin

  19. Thanks for dropping in, Theoldfarmer.  Your common-sense argument has two fundamental problems and a few that are less basic. 

    First, as GeekMom said, what caused god?  You just move the string back a little further to a position that must be even more uncomfortable for someone wanting to believe in god.  Did God have parents?  Or was He an evolutionary accident?

    Did something as complex and wonderful as god just suddenly spring into existence?  Or does he exist, as the old hymn says, “Age to age, everlasting?”

    And if God has existed forever, why not the universe?  Isn’t it just our familiar, lifespan-occluded perspective that demands that everything have a beginning?  And that leads us right back to God’s beginning.

    The second major problem is the notion that “Science” (capital letter essential) says that everything has to have a beginning.  Not true.  A lot of scientific work involves looking for causes for things, true; but there is no “scientific principle” that everything has to have a cause. 

    In fact, there IS a scientific field of study which suggests that some events do not have causes: quantum mechanics. 

    When I hear people talk as if they understood quantum mechanics, I always want to ask what advanced degrees they hold in mathematics and physics, because I don’t understand it on the level of being able to work with it.  I’ve read a couple books on the subject by Richard Feinmann and that guy in the wheelchair but, uh…

    But the basic idea is pretty simple: at the quantum (unfamiliar, atomic and sub-atomic) level, randomness does indeed become significant.  And sub-atomic movements and changes do result in observable, familiar-scale events.  The reason scientists support quantum mechanics is that it is predictive: it works.  We (meaning “they, the extremely brainy) can predict certain effects based on quantum mechanics, and even make consumer products like your computer using them.  So a person like me, whose understanding of QM is pretty cursory to say the least, can see that in principle it is understood and verifiable.

    So anyway, if the whole universe were compacted into a singularity of some kind, a shift of quantum state might spread through the whole universe (no time,  remember?) in a way we would describe as “instantaneous.”  Bang!  And no cause.

    Here’s another discussion of the ‘First-cause’ argument.

  20. First, as GeekMom said

    Ah, it was actually me – an unfortunate accident predicated on a shared laptop on the coffee table and GM finally creating an account for herself.

  21. I was waiting to see if this guy would show up again before bothering to respond, but you guys have covered most of the major points I would have made anyway.

  22. If the god gene does not exist then apparently some of us who have had spirituality dumped on us without asking for it need to look elsewhere for the answers. I am a successful businessman who, by all relatives, friends and associates is considered a rational realist, non-religious but spiritual.

    Four years ago I had two weird spiritual experiences or alterations in consciousness that have caused me to be unusually preoccupied with spirituality. These spiritual interactions portrayed the same scenario that I had at the age of 15 when I had a near death experience.

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