Finding Faith in DNA
Kandil, Caitlin Yoshiko, Moment
Why do some people believe in God, while others don't? Is it a person's choice, the result of upbringing or simply divine will? Theologians have grappled with this question for centuries, but over the last few years, scientists have jumped into the age-old debate to offer an entirely new explanation: genes.
One of the most attention-grabbing efforts to link spirituality and genetics was put forth by geneticist Dean Hamer in his 2004 book, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes. According to Hamer's hypothesis, spirituality is a "biological mechanism" that is imprinted on our DNA. "We have a genetic predisposition for spiritual belief that is expressed in response to, and shaped by, personal experience and the cultural environment," writes Hamer, who years earlier claimed to find the genetic basis of male homosexuality. Although other scientists have put forth this idea in the past, Hamer became the first to identify the gene where God may reside--VMAT2, an acronym for vesicular monoamine transporter 2.
The idea of a God gene echoes long-standing religious debates about whether a person's level of faith is determined by free will or destiny. In Judaism, discussions about hashgachah pratit, or divine providence, are the subject of rabbinic literature and Jewish philosophy, and ask to what extent God interferes in the details of a person's life. In other words, is a person's religious behavior guided by her own choices, or by some immutable force, be it God or DNA?
The Bible also alludes to this in Genesis, when God promises Abraham that his descendants would always have a special relationship with Him by virtue of their bloodline. Rather than a gene, however, God says that a "seed" will be passed "throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant." This pact gave birth to the idea of the "chosen people," a group whose progeny would have a preordained--and inherited--closeness to God. But Moshe Tendler, an Orthodox rabbi and professor of biology and medical ethics at Yeshiva University, dismisses the notion that God is in the genes. "I attribute religiosity to the working mind of man searching to answer the mystery of life," he says.
The God gene has also come under scrutiny within the scientific community. Hamer's study has yet to be replicated (true of much research in the field of behavioral genetics) and has not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Although he coined the phrase "the God gene," Hamer himself admits the term is problematic. VMAT2, he explains, only accounts for one percent of all genetic variance. "That means that most of the inherited effects on self-transcendence can't be explained by VMAT2," he writes. …