Is a belief in God hard-wired into the human brain? For thousands of years, humans have found solace in religion, though the nature of what people believe varies widely by culture. The archeological and historical evidence seems to indicate that religion is an integral part of the human experience.
It’s only more recently, with advances in genetics and neurology, that scientists have been able to take a more biology-focused approach to answering this question. Studies of identical twins have found a genetic component to religious belief: Identical twins, who share the same genetic makeup, are much more likely to have the same belief system as their sibling [source: ABC News].
But when it comes to explaining those genetically influenced beliefs, researchers make a crucial distinction between spirituality and religion. Humans do have a predisposition toward the spiritual: To various degrees, our brains search for a larger meaning in the world around us, and belief in a higher, all-knowing power can fill this need. Specific religious practices and teachings, on the other hand, are a product of environment and upbringing.
Molecular biologist Gene Hamer, author of the "The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes," isolated the specific gene that makes humans more likely to be spiritual. The presence or absence of this gene can explain why some people feel drawn to spiritual matters, searching for a higher being or transcendent moment that makes them feel at one with the universe. While such tendencies may be innate, spirituality is not solely a product of genetics; it can deepen and become more profound with practice (such as prayer or meditation) [source: Beliefnet].
There is also some evidence that religious belief can actually change the way the brain operates. A study found that people who believe in God not only made fewer errors when taking a test, they also felt less anxious when they did make a mistake. Religious belief, it seems, has a calming effect on the brain [source: Science Daily].
Two children grew up in a devoutly religious household. Their parents took them to church, they prayed regularly and attended a private school supporting their beliefs. Yet one grew up to be a priest and the other leads the town's atheist discussion group. What could make two children, raised identically, follow such different religious paths? It's the age-old nature vs. nurture question, and as this hypothetical story indicates, a growing body of research points to the conclusion that religion may just fall on the side of nature.
Time magazine posed the question "Is God in Our Genes?" on its October 2004 cover after molecular biologist Dean Hamer published a book titled "The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes." The answer, according to the accompanying article, seems to be yes. After using a personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory to measure levels of self-transcendence in 1,000 men and women, Hamer found a direct correlation between individuals' levels of spirituality and a variation in a gene known as VMAT2. Though Hamer was quick to point out that spirituality is not the same thing as religion, those people who experience transcendence tend to be more likely to pursue religion than those who don't [source: Kluger, et al].
Separate studies following identical and fraternal twins lend credence to Hamer's theory. These studies indicate genetics may be responsible for roughly 40 percent of a person's religiousness [source: McKee]. In one study, the identical twins were twice as likely as the fraternal twins to share feelings about spirituality with their siblings, indicating a genetic connection. In an interesting turn of events, though, the shared beliefs about spirituality did not translate into shared religious practices, perhaps because that aspect of spirituality is shaped more by environment and culture than by genetics (the nurture part coming into play) [source: Kluger].
Yet another detail that seems to support a genetic influence on spirituality is the fact that religious people often have other character traits in common like getting along well with others, being hard workers and being punctual. Of course, there's always the chicken or the egg conundrum, and one could argue whether those traits show up as a result of religion or are simply coincidental. The real question, though, is whether the guy at the Pearly Gates will let you in when you explain it was your genes' fault you didn't make it to church.Muslim Pilgrimage To Mecca. (Abid Katib/Getty Images)
Neurotheology is a field that looks at the connections between activity in our brains and religious experiences. Scientists have looked at the responses in our brains to certain words and found that words with religious connotations raised emotional activity in the temporal lobes of the brains of people with epilepsy [source: BBC]. This suggests that this particular part of the brain is somehow connected to religious experiences.
An American doctor, Andrew Newberg, used special imaging to monitor the brain activity of Tibetan monks while they were meditating. He recorded increased activity in the frontal lobe, which is concerned with concentration. At the same time, the area of the brain that deals with practical spatial matters, the parietal lobe, registered reduced activity. This indicates that the separation between the self and the rest of the world loses some definition during meditation, leading perhaps to a sense of joining with a deity [source: Paulson]. A comparable experiment with nuns who were deep in prayer produced similar results.
Understanding connections between brain activity and religious beliefs is one thing, but Michael Persinger's "God Helmet" is supposed to create religious feelings by manipulating the brain. He claims it can make us feel and experience God by altering regular brain activity with electrodes. The "helmet" introduces electric pulses that cause the left temporal lobe of the brain to interpret whatever the right side of the brain senses as real. When you wear the helmet, you're not sure what the sensed presence is, but you feel something is there. In an experiment, most people who wore the "God Helmet" reported that they definitely felt (although did not see) something near to them [source: BBC].
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