Religion: Is God in Our Genes?


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Other struggling cultures have similarly translated godly law into earthly order and in doing so helped ensure their survival. The earliest Christians established a rough institutional structure that allowed them to transmit their ideas within a generation of Christ's death, and as a result succeeded in living through the Roman persecution; the Jews of the Diaspora moved as a cultural whole through the nations of Europe, finding niches wherever they could but maintaining their identity and kinship by observing the same rites. "All religions become a bit secular," says Wilson. "In order to survive, you have to organize yourselves into a culture."

The downside to all this is that often religious groups gather not into congregations but into camps--and sometimes they're armed camps. In a culture of Crusades, Holocausts and jihads, where in the world is the survival advantage of religious wars or terrorism? One facile explanation has always been herd culling--an adaptive way of keeping populations down so that resources aren't depleted. But there's little evolutionary upside to wiping out an entire population of breeding-age males, as countries trying to recover from wars repeatedly learn. Why then do we so often let the sweetness of religion curdle into combat?

The simple answer might be that just because we're given a gift, we don't necessarily always use it wisely. Fire can either light your village or burn down the one next door, depending on your inclination. "Religions represent an attempt to harness innate spirituality for organizational purposes--not always good," says Macquarie University's Davies. And while spiritual contemplation is intuitive, says Washington University's Cloninger, religion is dogmatic; dogma in the wrong hands has always been a risky thing.

Still, for every place in the world that's suffering from religious strife, there are many more where spirituality is doing its uplifting and civilizing work. A God who would equip us with the genes and the smarts to cooperate in such a clever way is a God who ought to be appealing even to religious purists. Nonetheless, sticking points do remain that prevent genetic theory from going down smoothly. One that's particularly troublesome is the question of why Hamer's God gene--or any of the others that may eventually be discovered--is distributed so unevenly among us. Why are some of us spiritual virtuosos, while others can't play a note? Isn't it one of the central tenets of religion that grace is available to everybody? At least a few scientists shrug at the question. "Some get religion, and some don't," says Virginia Commonwealth University's Eaves.

But this seeming inequity may be an important part of the spiritual journey. It would be easy for God simply to program us for reverence; it's more meaningful when the door is opened but you've got to walk through on your own--however hard those steps may be for some. "I have never had a Big Bang conversion experience," says the Jewish Theological Seminary's Gillman. "My sense is that slowly and gradually, out of a rich experience of the world, one builds a faith."

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