Where do we get our religious practices and beliefs? From our family? Our community? From our private moods and insights? Researchers have been sorting out some answers. The emotional aspect of religion, our spirituality, is strongly influenced by the genes we inherit. Our particular religious affiliation, on the other hand, depends more on our social environment.
Psychiatrist Robert Cloninger of Washington University explained one study 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.
Similar conclusions appeared in “Personality, Spirituality and Religion” by Eric D. Rose and Julie J. Exline in the Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality (2012).
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.
“…[T]he prevalent assumption that people become religious solely through environmental influence” is also the basis for atheist arguments that if people were only better informed about science, they would know enough not to be duped by religious myths.
But research shows that a person’s spiritual convictions and emotions won’t be dispelled so easily, rooted as they are our in basic temperament.