Religion: Is God in Our Genes?


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Is Hamer really guilty of such simplification? Could claims for a so-called God gene be merely the thin end of a secular wedge, one that risks prying spirituality away from God altogether? Or, assuming the gene exists at all, could it somehow be embraced by both science and religion, in the same way some evolutionists and creationists--at least the less radicalized ones--accept the idea of a divinely created universe in which evolving life is simply part of the larger plan? Hamer, for one, hopes so. "My findings are agnostic on the existence of God," he says. "If there's a God, there's a God. Just knowing what brain chemicals are involved in acknowledging that is not going to change the fact."

Whatever the merits of Hamer's work, he is clearly the heir of a millenniums-long search for the wellsprings of spirituality. People have been wrestling with the roots of faith since faith itself was first codified into Scripture. "[God has] set eternity in the hearts of men," says the Book of Ecclesiastes, "yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."

To theologians in the 3rd century B.C., when Ecclesiastes is thought to have been written, that passage spoke to the idea that while all of us are divinely inspired to look for God, none of us are remotely capable of fully comprehending what we are seeking. Scientists in the 21st century may not disagree, provided that "hearts of men" is replaced with "genes of men." The key for those researchers is finding those genes.

Hamer began looking in 1998, when he was conducting a survey on smoking and addiction for the National Cancer Institute. As part of his study, he recruited more than 1,000 men and women, who agreed to take a standardized, 240-question personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI). Among the traits the TCI measures is one known as self-transcendence, which consists of three other traits: 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. Put them all together, and you come as close as science can to measuring what it feels like to be spiritual. "This allows us to have the kind of experience described as religious ecstasy," says Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and the designer of the self-transcendence portion of the TCI.

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