Spirituality and Genes

How do we acquire our religious practices and beliefs? From our family? Our community? From our private moods and insights? Researchers have been sorting out 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” also forms the basis for non-theists’ arguments that if people were only better informed about science, they would know enough not to be duped by religious myths.

But research suggests that people’s spiritual inclinations won’t be dispelled so easily, rooted as they are in their inherited temperament.

 

Non-Theists, God’s Love, and Evolution

One of the benefits that believers gain from religion is the feeling that their deity cares for them. Mainstream Christians, Jews, Moslems generally believe either that god loves them and intervenes actively on their behalf or that god keeps a distance but always has a plan for them. One way or the other, believers believe that a higher being is paying attention and is nudging them down the best path.

God's love image

The promise of monotheism (gracewalkministries.blogspot.com)

Non-theists see this perception as superstition. They think it is the result of projecting our human situation on to the universe and imagining an active agent behind the good or terrible things that happen in life. But is there, for the non-theist, any equivalent in a godless universe to this reassurance that is rooted in a higher power? Is there any way that non-theists can find a benevolence, a grand-scale inclination towards the good, in evolution’s transformations?

On the face of it, no. Atheists, naturalists, secular humanists may find the universe inspiring and beautiful, but they don’t make any claims that it cares about individuals in any way. Natural selection is nothing other a mechanism that favors survivors. When it comes to the place of humans in the cosmos, according to the non-theist, what we see is what we get: individuals are on their own except to the extent that they connect with each other to make life less difficult and more meaningful. There is no entity above us that is deliberately hurting or helping us.

chimps hugging

The  roots of love (hypersyl.com)

But there might be an exception. Our capacity to love is a product of evolution. Its roots lie in the maternal and parental bonding that was vital in raising offspring who required years of nurturing and protection. Today, love is no longer moored just in the survival needs of children. It morphs into attachments that range from caring for other people to “loving” certain foods or clothes. So while we can’t say that evolution loves us, we can say that our emotions of caring, of passionate commitment, of feeling cared for, have a source in evolution.

Critics might argue that attributing our capacity for love to the process of evolution is as illusory as imagining a powerful being in the sky. It is only another example of our unwittingly projecting ourselves on to events outside us, another step closer to personifying evolution as a purposeful “Mother Evolution” of some sort.
But I think this risk is exaggerated. We feel all kinds of emotions about nature–calmness at a quiet lake, anxiety about intense wind and rain, awe at the stars, fascination with the formation of our planet–without always making up tales of superior beings operating behind the scenes. As for love, while reminding ourselves that only we humans (and perhaps some animals) do it, we can appreciate, and even feel a gratitude of sorts, that the process that brought our species here brought love along with it.
vet and dog

The flowering of human caring (vetmed.ucdavis.edu)