House Call

Is there a “God gene”?

Fact or Fancy?

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Q: Is there a “God gene”?

A:To answer appropriately, we’ll review the apparent origin of the concept by summarizing the major themes and hypotheses that geneticist Dean Hamer used in his 2004 book The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes.*

Hamer posits that high-level consciousness and spirituality are affected by brain chemicals (monoamines) that are linked to the gene called vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2). The book’s content and the author’s own comments betray the title’s truthfulness. Hamer admits that this concept is “a gross oversimplification.” His hypothesis is that spirituality is an instinct, is influenced by our genes, and that VMAT2 is a minor one of many such influencers.    

VMAT2, he postulates, contributes to the sensation associated with mystical experiences, such as “feeling you are in the presence of God.” His definition of spirituality is akin to the charismatic description of “being in the spirit,” and he uses the self-transcendence construct as its basis. The varying levels of monoamine neurotransmitters influenced by VMAT2 make it more or less likely that one would “feel” spiritual. His book was based on his study of 1,000 individuals but was neither peer-reviewed (scrutinized by other scientists for validity) nor replicated.

Research among twins suggests that genes may play a role in human “self-transcendence” or “self-forgetful experience, identification with nature, and spiritual acceptance.” Self-transcendence has between 24 and 85 percent hereditary overlap, while the effects of upbringing and environment were weaker. Specific religious belief, such as believing in the Creator God of the Bible, displayed no hereditary basis. Religion is therefore hypothesized to be sociocultural rather than genetic.

Because the enjoyment we get from any activity is modulated by brain neurochemicals, VMAT2 may influence a person’s enjoyment of religious activities. There’s no credible scientific evidence that manipulating this gene interferes with one’s capacity to believe in, know, love, or commit to God.

In summary, the “God gene” is an idea that human spirituality has an innate genetic component. Characterizing VMAT2 as the God gene is unfounded. VMAT2 does not make people believe in God. Hamer’s hypothesis is that humans inherit a predisposition to be spiritual—to reach out and look for a higher being.

The Bible teaches that all humans have a spiritual nature and that God’s Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are His (see Rom. 8:16). So our “spirituality” is as much who we are as is our “physicality.” Given that our complex physiology and biochemistry cannot be reduced to the effect of one gene, the notion of imposing this ‘God gene’ idea on our spiritual nature is unthinkable!

VMAT2 may not be “the” God gene or even “a” God gene. Nonetheless, God is the Creator of genetics and monoamines and VMAT2. The wonder of genetics itself reveals the handiwork of a wise, powerful, and gracious Creator in whom we live and move and have our very being (see Acts 17:28). We’re not to be fearful or deceived. God invites us to know Him personally, and Jesus, whom He sent to give us abundant and eternal life.

* Dean H. Hamer, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired Into Our Genes (New York: Knopf Doubleday Pub. Group, 2004).

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel