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Is the Capacity for Spirituality Determined by Brain Chemistry?

Geneticist's Book 'The God Gene' Is Disputed by Scientists, Embraced by Some Religious Leaders

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2004; Page B09

Dean H. Hamer has received much criticism for his new book, "The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes."

Evangelicals reject the idea that faith might be reduced to chemical reactions in the brain. Humanists refuse to accept that religion is inherent in people's makeup. And some scientists have criticized Hamer's methodology and what they believe is a futile effort to find empirical proof of religious experience.



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But Hamer, a behavioral geneticist at the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, stands by research he says shows that spirituality -- the feeling of transcendence -- is part of our nature. And he believes that a universal penchant for spiritual fulfillment explains the growing popularity of nontraditional religion in this country and the presence of hundreds of religions throughout the world.

"We think that all human beings have an innate capacity for spirituality and that that desire to reach out beyond oneself, which is at the heart of spirituality, is part of the human makeup," Hamer, 53, said in an interview at his Northwest Washington townhouse. "The research suggests some people have a bit more of that capacity than others, but it's present to some degree in everybody."

"The God Gene," published in September and featured in Time magazine's Oct. 25 cover story, is a sequel to "Living With Our Genes," a 1998 book in which Hamer examined the genetic basis of such behavioral traits as anxiety, thrill-seeking and homosexuality. Hamer said his previous research, most notably his work on anxiety, encouraged him to look into the genetic propensity for religious belief.

What he found was that the brain chemicals associated with anxiety and other emotions, including joy and sadness, appeared to be in play in the deep meditative states of Zen practitioners and the prayerful repose of Roman Catholic nuns -- not to mention the mystical trances brought on by users of peyote and other mind-altering drugs.

At least one gene, which goes by the name VMAT2, controls the flow to the brain of chemicals that play a key role in emotions and consciousness. This is the "God gene" of the book's title, and Hamer acknowledges that it's a misnomer. There probably are dozens or hundreds more genes, yet to be identified, involved in the universal propensity for transcendence, he said.

Furthermore, the scientific linkage of a gene with chemicals that affect happiness or sadness does not answer the question "Is there a God?" but rather "Why do we believe in God?"

"Our genes can predispose us to believe. But they don't tell us what to believe in," said Hamer, whose current research involves HIV/AIDS.

Critics in the scientific community argue that Hamer's conclusions are simplistic and speculative, relying too much on anecdotal evidence and too little on testing of the VMAT2 gene to determine other possible connections to behavior. They also wonder whether his findings can be replicated, a necessity in scientific research.

"The field of behavioral genetics is littered with failed links between particular genes and personality traits," said Carl Zimmer, a science author who reviewed the book in last month's Scientific American.

Some religious leaders welcome the idea of a genetic basis for spirituality and say it validates long-held teachings.

"I wondered for a long time why [the concept of] a genetic implant hasn't been put in print or been part of a conversation in the broad theological community," said Bishop John B. Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Chane associates Hamer's findings with the Apostle Paul's statement, "There are a variety of gifts but the same spirit."

Chane also welcomes the notion of genetic universality as a new, deeper way of promoting understanding among people of different faiths -- particularly Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which trace their beginnings to the same father, Abraham.


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