Religion: Is God in Our Genes?


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Other researchers have taken the science in a different direction, looking not for the genes that code for spirituality but for how that spirituality plays out in the brain. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has used several types of imaging systems to watch the brains of subjects as they meditate or pray. By measuring blood flow, he determines which regions are responsible for the feelings the volunteers experience. The deeper that people descend into meditation or prayer, Newberg found, the more active the frontal lobe and the limbic system become. The frontal lobe is the seat of concentration and attention; the limbic system is where powerful feelings, including rapture, are processed. More revealing is the fact that at the same time these regions flash to life, another important region--the parietal lobe at the back of the brain--goes dim. It's this lobe that orients the individual in time and space. Take it off-line, and the boundaries of the self fall away, creating the feeling of being at one with the universe. Combine that with what's going on in the other two lobes, and you can put together a profound religious experience.

Even to some within the religious community, this does not come as news. "In India in Buddha's time, there were philosophers who said there was no soul; the mind was just chemistry," says Thurman. "The Buddha disagreed with their extreme materialism but also rejected the 'absolute soul' theologians." Michael Persinger, professor of behavioral neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., puts the chemistry argument more bluntly. "God," he says, "is an artifact of the brain."

Even if such spiritual deconstructionism is true, some scientists--to say nothing of most theologians--think it takes you only so far, particularly when it comes to trying to determine the very existence of God. Simply understanding the optics and wiring of the eyes, after all, doesn't mean there's no inherent magnificence in the Rembrandts they allow us to see. If human beings were indeed divinely assembled, why wouldn't our list of parts include a genetic chip that would enable us to contemplate our maker?

"Of course, concepts of God reside in the brain. They certainly don't reside in the toe," says Lindon Eaves, director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "The question is, To what is this wiring responsive? Why is it there?"

Says Paul Davies, professor of natural philosophy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia: "I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that if you explain something, you explain it away. I don't see that at all with religious experience."

Those religious believers who are comfortable with the idea that God genes are the work of God should have little trouble making the next leap: that not only are the genes there but they are central to our survival, one of the hinges upon which the very evolution of the human species turned. It's an argument that's not terribly hard to make.

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