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The Origin of Religion and Spirituality

Jeanette Bates's picture


            The relationship between religion and science is always changing and is always complicated. In the past, religion dictated science, such that everything scientific had to relate back to religious ceremony and practice. These days, if science is influenced too much by religion, then it is considered biased and is taken less seriously. More recently, it seems that religion and spirituality might actually be the result of something that was always considered a part of the field of science: genes. The reason for why we believe in God might be a factor of our genes and how they influence how our brains think about God, religion, and spirituality. In this paper, I will look at how religion might be biological, and if it is, what that could mean for religion.

            Religion has been around for a long time, but how or why it started is a mystery; its origins are often explained by religion itself. However, scientists have recently begun to explain it as something that came from an evolutionary process; it may even have been a necessity for survival. Professor Boyer of Washington University believes that it is unnatural for our brain to not believe in God (2). Generally speaking, there is a growing belief that religion is “hardwired” into our brains because it was something that was naturally selected for (5). This is probably the case because religion has helped intensify emotional commitment to the group through ritual and encourage self-restraint through the fear of divine punishment (5). Group loyalty would ensure group survival and self-restraint could help ensure an individual’s survival. Furthermore, religion also encourages altruism, and it is often the case that those who are more altruistic are able to pass on certain traits to the next generation, traits that would encourage future generations to be religious as well (5). Because religion encourages good social habits and good behavior, it seems that it was an evolutionary advantage to be religious, and the more religious someone was, the more likely they were able to pass down that trait to their offspring. Many generations later, this trait would be something that is set within the brain structure, even to the point where it is ‘against our natural cognitive dispositions’ to not be religious (2). It seems that religion is something that developed through human evolution; it is a trait that can be passed on through the generations.

            Both atheists and the religious feel somewhat concerned by the fact that religion may be an advantageous evolutionary trait (4, 5). Atheists are concerned because if it is something that is essential for survival, then it is hard to say that it is unnecessary. The religious are concerned because it implies that there may be no God. Since our brains evolved to accommodate religion and religion may not have come from another source, such as God (5), it seems as if a god can’t exist. I don’t think that either atheists or the religious should be concerned. First of all, the fact that religion is an evolved advantage says nothing about the existence of God. If our bodies can evolve, our mind should be able to do so do as well, and there is always the possibility that there is a god that influences this. On the atheist side of things, even though religion was advantageous in the past, that doesn’t guarantee that it is the most advantageous thing now; whether or not something is useful fluctuates over time. So ultimately, the ‘religious trait’ says nothing about the existence of God or the necessity of religion in today’s world. To me, all this says is that religion, like so many things, is built into the structure of our brains. How our brain is wired will probably influence how religious we are, but this neither proves nor disproves the idea of God.

Since religion and spirituality seem to be traits, it would make sense if there were genes connected to them. In fact, there are a few sources that claim that religion and spirituality are connected to genes, and these genes turn the parts of the brain that are associated with a religious experience on and off (3). There is no doubt that there are people who are more receptive or less receptive to religion (4). This fact might be entirely a result of our genes (3). There is, in fact, a gene called VMAT2 that may control how spiritual a person is. People who carry this gene are more likely to believe in a greater spiritual force (1). Like every other complicated trait, however, religiosity is probably connected to a number of different genes and gene combinations; there is not just one gene that controls all of our spirituality (3). Furthermore, though our genes tell us to believe in something, they don’t tell us what to believe in (3). These genes simply give us the capability to believe strongly in something. We could just as easily believe in science as we could in religion-and any religion at that. What VMAT2 does is control our monoamine production, monoamines being things like serotonin and dopamine. Those who have a VMAT2 gene that tells them to produce a lot of things like dopamine, end up having frequent self-transcendence or self-forgetfulness experiences in the brain, experiences that are connected with spirituality (4). Though the gene clearly influences the brain in a way that would determine one’s ability to be spiritual, how that person wants to be spiritual is up to the person, not the gene.

            Understandably, people may think that if there is a gene for spirituality, then those who don't have it or don’t have it turned on can never be religious (3). This isn’t necessarily true. It is true that there is a genetic component to spirituality, but not all of it is up to the genes. This is shown through the study of identical twins who were raised in completely different places. They have the same exact genetics, but experience completely different environments. That fact ends up affecting how they feel about religion. When asking separately-raised twins about their spirituality, they shared similar feelings (4). They had the same amount of spiritually, even though they were raised differently. However, this was not always the case. There are a few examples of twins that did not agree with one another, showing that genetics can’t always completely determine how someone will feel (4). Furthermore, and more importantly, when these twins were asked about how faithfully they practiced any religion, the numbers did not ‘hold up’ (4), or in other words, how the twins practiced their religion had little to do with their spirituality. The amount of religious practice varied significantly between the twins (4). This states rather clearly that religion has just as much to do with nature as it has to do with nurture. Though the genes may initiate or influence someone’s spiritual nature, it is the environment that brings it out. It is likely that almost everyone has the ability to be religious, they just have to put into the right environmental setting (3). Behavior is both a factor of genetics and environment. Both nature and nurture are necessary influences on the religious part of our brain.

            Is religion in our genes? Considering that it has evolved in humans over time, probably. Is it a factor of nature or nurture? The answer, as with most things, is both. There is definitely a genetic component to religion. How much and what type of monoamines we produce are completely gene dependent, and these monoamines influence our brain, making us have “other worldly” experiences when praying (4). I therefore think that it is safe to say that at least partly, how religious we are is already determined by how our genetics shape the brain and its perception of religion. Nevertheless, there is still a clear nurture component to religion, because how much we practice religion, and what type of religion we end up following, is dependent on our environment and culture (4). And finally, even though religion is in our genes, and is a trait passed down through evolution, that means absolutely nothing about the stasis of God or any other gods. All we know about them is that there are some people who believe in them, and some who don’t. And though there are certain people who are more spiritual or religious than others, that doesn’t mean that if someone isn’t, he or she isn’t a moral or good person. I think that those things are unrelated. A person can make moral decisions independent of spirituality. And finally, though genetics may determine how susceptible I am to religion, what I want to do with that trait is up to me. I can choose how I see the world, and I think that whatever I choose is completely reasonable. It is decision I make in spite of my genes. Or at least that’s what I believe.



1) (2004, November 14) Geneticist claims to have found the 'God gene' in humans.The Washington Times.


2) Alleyne, R. (2009, September 07) Humans 'evolved' to believe in God. Telegraph Media Group Limited.


3) Broadway, B. (2004, November 13) Is the Capacity for Spirituality Determined by Brain Chemistry? Washington Post.


4) Kluger, J., Chu, J., Liston, B.,  Sieger, M., & Williams D. (2004, October 25) Religion: Is God in Our Genes? TIME.


5) Wade, N. (2009, November 15) The Evolution of the God Gene. The New York Times.





Paul Grobstein's picture

religion/spirituality and the brain: old issues and new ones

"I can choose how I see the world, and I think that whatever I choose is completely reasonable."

You got me thinking too.  I like the way you take a subject that tends to provoke differing but equally strong defensive reactions in people and systematically defuse the apparent threats in all directions.  Doing that seems to me to reflect a particular perspective as quoted above.  Now, can you justify that perspective?  Is it a reasonable product of the brain?  Are there ways to defuse defensive reactions to it?  

Tessa J's picture

I think this paper is very

I think this paper is very interesting and it supports my paper on spirituality in many ways. The VMAT2 gene came up a little bit in my research; however, I did not explore it within the context of my paper. I think it is very interesting that there is not only areas of the brain that correlate to spiritual experience, but that there have been genes discovered that underlie one's spiritual predisposition. Yet, I do think it is important to make a distinction between religiosity and spirituality. While I do think there are genes that correlate to spiritual and religious outcomes, I also think that these genes may be distinct from one another. Feelings and experiences of religiosity and spirituality (self-transcendence) I think are very different, although I do believe they are connected on some level. I noticed you freely exchanged the words spiritual and religious throughout your paper, which by no means I would say is wrong. I am just wondering if you believe the origin or source of religious and spiritual experience to be in fact the same? Is the VMAT2 gene for spirituality or religiosity or both? I would argue that spirituality is biological and that religion is one of the ways by which humans have attempted to maintain structure and attribute meaning to this world. In other words, the innate propensity to make meaning of this life - the spiritual drive - initiated the human brain's construction of religion. I would highly disagree with Boyer's comment that the brain is hard-wired to believe in God - for I think the brain is hardwired for spiritual experience and that this in turn leads our brain to create metaphors underlying this so-called spiritual experience.

Clearly your paper really got me thinking about the similarities and differences between religion and spirituality and their connection. I am more inclined to think that spirituality (i.e. self-transcendence) is more biological than religion, yet you brought up the point that religion was pursued as a survival mechanism and a way to portray and pass on desirable traits. In that sense, it is biological. I am definitely interested in exploring this more. Thank you!