Professor explores the God gene

Gary Panetta

Why do so many people believe in God?

St. Augustine thought he knew the answer.

“You have created us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”

But since the Darwinian revolution and the human genome project, biologists increasingly have suggested another answer: Natural selection and genetics have hard-wired us for religious belief.

After all, we attribute everything else — from a propensity to heart attacks and smoking to obesity and cancer — to our DNA. Why not religious faith, too?

Enter Bradley University religion professor Robert C. Fuller. He’s spent a lifetime studying religious belief from psychological, sociological and historical points of view. But in a new book, “Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Religious Experience,” Fuller has turned his attention to another dimension, one that’s being debated with increasing controversy: the biological.

“The shift has been to be more biologically based — to look at inherited genetic tendencies,” Fuller said one recent afternoon in his office at Bradley Hall. “We’re starting to study everything from sexuality to criminal behavior to performance in schools from a genetic basis. Well, it was time to say, why not bring this kind of thinking to religion?”

Several studies inspired Fuller. One by molecular biologist Dean Hamer purports to have located a so-called “God-gene” that produces feelings of self-forgetfulness and transcendence sometimes associated with mystical experiences. Other scientists have used brain imaging machines to study what happens inside the heads of people who undergo self-described mystical experiences. And evolutionary biologist — and outspoken atheist — Richard Dawkins has used the apparent biological underpinnings of spiritual experiences to debunk the credibility of religion in general.

But Fuller doesn’t share the skepticism of Dawkins or others who think that religion is simply a product of our wayward genes and nothing more.

“There are two ways of approaching this,” Fuller said. “One is that all religious experience is bogus — all religion is a misinterpretation of weird brain physiology. It’s not real. It’s just that the brain does odd things and it’s interpreted religiously. But the other one is that God is around us all the time but waiting for us to have the right receptivity to God. These are equally interesting takes. I think we are a long way from knowing what the answer is.”

In the meantime, Fuller suggests some interesting insights into how natural selection and genetics may have shaped or even created the very human disposition to believe in some kind of higher power. For example, take the power of religion to unite people into groups.

Unlike other creatures, human beings are fairly vulnerable, Fuller observes. They are smaller and weaker than many other animals. They can’t run very quickly. They are easily overpowered.

Yet human beings have survived, Fuller said, partly by organizing into groups — that is, by subordinating self-interest to group interest. Among factors that encourage group solidarity is religion. In the struggle for existence, human beings with religious tendencies — and therefore who are more amenable to cooperative behavior — would be more likely to survive and pass down their genes than human beings without these tendencies.

“You can begin to see in India how belief in karma and reincarnation gives carrots and sticks to inducing people to behave in certain ways — fearing bad karma and bad reincarnation, hoping to produce good karma and good reincarnation,” Fuller said. “The concepts of heaven and hell in the West serve similar functions.”

Human beings, of course, are not absolutely determined by biology. Natural selection may predispose us toward group identity and religious belief, but the complex forms of group identity and religious belief that have existed over time find their roots elsewhere: in vagaries of culture, history and individual psychology.

Still, Fuller maintains, it would be unwise to ignore what he calls a “biological substrate” that encourages us to think in group terms — sometimes in constructive ways, and sometimes in destructive ways.

Religion has helped favor human survival in another way, Fuller said. Human beings are innovators as well as adapters; we envision new ways of being in addition to merely conforming to what is. Innovation is driven by a specific feeling — the feeling of wonder, which arises when we experience the unexpected. Wonder leads us to reflect on why things are the way they are, and to create new visions of the world.

Along with group identity, wonder is part and parcel of religion — sometimes giving rise to religious experiences, sometimes encouraged by religion itself.

So it’s not surprising to find figures in contemporary times such as naturalist John Muir or environmentalist Rachel Carson whose efforts to change things for the better are inspired by elusive, mystical experiences — in this case, with the natural world. Such people have always sensed something within or behind nature, something that hard-headed science, with its passion for the factual and quantifiable, can’t grasp.

Yet however untouchable, such deeper intuitions about life — and the power of these intuitions to make us see the world in completely new ways — have led to much of what passes as progress on earth, including scientific progress.

“I’m trying to point out that a part of human adaptation is creating new possibilities — envisioning a world that we can bring about,” Fuller said. “Humans can form hypotheses, possibilities, and our new vision of what is possible can be enacted. So we can change reality through our ideas and ideals, our vision of possibility.”

Gary Panetta can be reached at (309) 686-3132 or