Spirituality, studies suggest, is in our genes. Not religion, mind you; that’s more a matter of upbringing. But our inclination towards spiritual thoughts and feelings is in our DNA.
Atheists might find this conclusion and the research behind it to be both a help and a hindrance when they assert their disbelief in deities. On the one hand, it helps to have research showing that the feeling, the mood, of spirituality is innate and is independent of a church’s insistence on a god. On the other hand, the same research hands religious believers the argument that science has discovered yet another sign of “the God in each of us.”
How research about the genetic basis for spirituality is interpreted depends in part on how people define the difference between religion and spirituality. The distinctions drawn by the researchers themselves vary slightly but follow similar lines.
One review is included in “Personality, Spirituality and Religion” by Eric D. Rose and Julie J. Exline in the Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality (2012). Here is how the authors summarize the relationship between religious behavior (including thought and emotion) and genetics.
One major theme to emerge from the study of behavioral genetics and religion is that internal and personal aspects of religious life (e.g. belief) are more influenced by genetics and less influenced by shared environment than are external and impersonal aspects of religious life (e.g. religious affiliation…). It has been suggested that genetics exert greater influence on internal aspects of religious life because religious beliefs express internal wants, needs, and wishes….Behavioral genetics has forced reevaluation of the prevalent assumption that people become religious solely through environmental influence.
Rose and Exline draw the distinction between the internal and external aspects of religion. The former is belief, the emotional component of religion, part of one’s basic temperament, and it is genetically-based. Such an inclination towards non-material concerns (values, purposes) may or may not encompass the supernatural, including gods.
A similar view was explained by psychiatrist Robert Cloninger of Washington University in St. Louis in a 2005 ABC News story, “Twin Research Links Genetics and Adult Spirituality”:
I think it is important to distinguish religion in terms of things like going to church and following a creed. That tends to be very much influenced by the patterns of your parents. Spirituality, meanwhile, has to do with a way of feeling and thinking, which tends to lead to an acceptance of the role of a higher intelligence. Studies show there are specific receptors in the brain that influence a person’s ability to get into that mode of thought.
Such a description of these spirituality-friendly receptors in the brain could be good news for atheists of both the stronger (“God does not exist”) and weaker (“I have no belief in a god”) schools. The reality of such receptors strengthens the position that the thinking and feeling that find a higher intelligence are genetically rooted, that therefore god is not as real as the church would argue, that a person who doesn’t believe in god but feels spiritual in other ways is quite normal.
But I can also see how this genetic research could work to the disadvantage of atheists. The religiously devout can argue that research confirms that God planted the seeds of spirituality in all of us so that individuals could find their own way to God with the help of the church.
For myself, I find this research not so surprising. As the summaries suggest, spiritual tendencies are aspects of the basic components of how a person feels and thinks. I can see my own spirituality as having grown out of my uncertainty about whether I’m living my life as well as I could, along with my long-standing curiosity about scientific information. Spirituality is not something to be required or rejected but is the capacity in us to look beyond ourselves, in the direction of either religion or science, so that we can see ourselves more clearly.