THE GOD GENE

How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes

By Dean Hamer. Doubleday. 241 pp. $24.95

SPIRIT AND FLESH

Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church

By James M. Ault, Jr. Knopf. 435 pp. $27.95

Scratch the surface of most books about religion, no matter how scholarly the prose or credentialed the author, and you can find a partisan argument about whether religion is good or bad, whether it should be encouraged or done away with, whether it is or isn't the opiate described by Marx or the neurosis discussed by Freud. With religion, these conclusions (or prejudices) are so deeply held that many authors frankly admit which team they're batting for, rejecting any pose of scientific disinterest. There are exceptions: One can get to the end of Jon Butler's Awash in a Sea of Faith or Michael Alexander's Jazz Age Jews with no idea of what the author personally thinks about religion -- and each book is so good that one doesn't care. But it's just one of the successes of James Ault's Spirit and Flesh that his open affection for churchgoing enhances, not undermines, his scholarship. Ault's approach would be instructive to Dean Hamer, whose The God Gene would be much better if the author did not try to present a personal mistrust of religion as settled fact.

A molecular biologist at the National Cancer Institute, Hamer used survey data to identify people who were highly "self-transcendent." According to Hamer, such individuals have a propensity for mystical experience; transpersonal identification, or concern with such questions as "Do you feel a sense of unity with all the things around you?"; and self-forgetfulness -- focusing so intently that one loses track of time, falling in love to the point of ego obliteration and so forth. People with such traits, he avers, are to a great degree spiritual people. If one could find a gene for self-transcendence, it would likely be a gene for spiritual affinity too, a gene found in the DNA of Buddhist monks, Wicca priestesses and others who seek undisclosed meaning in the world.

With a minimum of jargon, Hamer ably narrates his quest to identify a gene that strongly correlates with self-transcendence: It is the VMAT2 gene, he concludes, which makes a protein that packages monoamines, mood alterers such as dopamine and serotonin. He is not at all surprised to find that the body chemistry responsible for depression and elation is also at work in producing mystical highs and transcendent states.

Hamer's research is immediately suspect to anyone who doubts that a survey can effectively measure spirituality. But he's cautious about the surveys, never claiming too much, and so his slow accretion of evidence ultimately proves persuasive. While his results will have to be tested by other scientists and the wisdom of time, it seems plausible that he has discovered a genetic basis for a certain kind of person. If Hamer is right, that yoga guy and that Hare Krishna girl are not just products of their environment, of VW vans or easy access to late Beatles records; spirituality is in their blood. Studies of twins and other siblings have already proved that nurturance could not fully account for personality traits, and Hamer's findings about VMAT2 are consonant with that growing body of evidence.

Not content with an important scientific contribution, Hamer overreaches. He argues that heritable spirituality is desirable, in contrast to culturally produced forms of organized religion. In other words, New Age exploring, good; Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism, bad. At times, he seems close to saying that the former is good because it is innate, while organized religion is artificial, decadent, post-lapsarian. "Religion is based on memes, traditions of culture that are passed on not by DNA but by learning, instruction, and imitation," Hamer writes. "As a result, memes may or may not be beneficial to the people who hold them."

True enough -- or, rather, truistic enough. But it's mere cover for Hamer's grand project, which is to save humanity. "Are we condemned to endlessly repeat the sad mistakes of the past? I believe that understanding the difference between spirituality and religion gives us another tool in offering hope for the future."

This grandstanding would be tolerable were it not based on some faulty assumptions about what people are like. Hamer is enamored of William James, whom he quotes at length. James famously believed that religion (what Hamer would call spirituality) is what man does in his solitude. It's our alone time with God. That suits Hamer's preferences. But as even James's admirers have noted for decades, the great psychologist's anthropology was a bit flawed. Religion has always been a primarily communal affair; even the anti-ecclesial Reformation did not want to do away with the church but rather to make it small and local. The persistence of group worship should make us wonder about a biological basis for group religion, not just for individual spirituality. Anthropologists no less committed than Hamer is to Darwin and the scientific method have wondered just that, and they have discovered reasons why people cluster together, in worship as in all else. Of these complexities of religion, beneficial as well as malignant, Hamer pretends ignorance.

Not so James Ault, whose book, a unique contribution to the study of American religion, is based on three years spent in the mid-1980s with Shawmut River, a small fundamentalist Baptist church near Worcester, Mass. His research initially provided the material for the 1987 documentary "Born Again"; Ault's book version, which is deeper, richer and more complete, took almost 20 years to write. Ault's portrait of Pastor Frank and his flock -- Phil, Jean, Aunt Margaret, Granny Gund and the rest -- is the best single-volume explanation of why American fundamentalist Christianity thrives among certain people, what needs it fulfills and why it will not die out.

Ault thoroughly documents all the troubling aspects of the fundamentalists' theology. Their biblical literalism can sound frighteningly doctrinaire; their commitment to convert others strikes many as intolerant; and their embrace of traditional roles is disparaging of gays and seems to deny women's equality. But Ault finds that fundamentalists can be quite flexible and forgiving in practice. (They condemn divorce but find ample reasons to forgive the divorced men and women everywhere in the pews). The women required to "submit" to their husbands frequently exercise power through their control of kinship networks and, as Ault mercilessly documents, the gossip that determines men's reputations.

Ault is not the first to provide a close reading of fundamentalist culture: Marie Griffith, Mark Noll and Randall Balmer are among those who have tilled this soil and produced a fruitful yield. Still, Ault's book is a welcome addition. A trained anthropologist and a born writer, he is particularly good at showing the cultural underpinnings of fundamentalists' political conservatism. Since fundamentalist churches, especially independent ones such as Heritage Baptist, which is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or any other denomination, tend to be small communities built around extended families, they depend more than most Americans on close kinship networks. They rely on each other for car repair and child care; they barter services and exchange favors -- in part to save money but in part to avoid contact with the "unsaved" masses. Their conservative politics derive less from cruel censoriousness than from a desire to preserve old-fashioned "family values" in a modern world -- the same modern world that liberals decry in their own way, opposing Wal-Mart stores, omnipresent advertising and globalization. Fundamentalists treasure the reciprocal relationships on which their close communities thrive, and they rightly suspect, for example, that if government provided daycare, church members would be less likely to provide it for each other.

Ault is a political liberal who forgives none of the fundamentalists' hypocrisies; he can be scathing in detailing the ineffectiveness of their schools and their dismissal of secular learning. But his book honors the late historian John Boswell's command not to judge but to record and explain. His three years of fieldwork -- one year is the scholarly norm -- have paid off. His prose is clear and effective, and, though long, the book never feels slack. There are shocking surprises, such as the pregnancy of the teen you'd least expect. Ault even gets away with a first-person subplot about how the fundamentalists forced him to confront a Christianity that, as the son of a Methodist bishop, he thought he had left behind. Following that story to its resolution is one added pleasure in a book as rewarding to the beach reader as to the graduate student. *

Mark Oppenheimer is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture."

Ukrainians pray during a mass conducted by Pope John Paul II in Kiev (June 25, 2001).