Gene Expression

“Hard-wired” for God

Both Jason Rosenhouse and Rand Simberg have offered in the past few days that they have never exhibited an inclination to accept theism. Jason wonders:

I have very clear memories of attending Sunday school as a kid, and spending most of that time thinking my teachers were putting me on. Do I lack something that other people have? Are there genes that predispose people to belief or non-belief?

There certainly are such genes involved in predisposition to religiousness. There is non-trivial heritability toward religious zeal. By heritability I mean the proportion of popuation level variation in a trait than can be explained by variation in the genes. This is a subtle point: just because a constellation of genes may affect the propensity toward religiosity, that does not imply that there were selection for religious belief. Rather, it maybe that religion is a phenomenon which is a byproduct of normal human psychological processes. And just as humans exhibit variation on a whole host of psychological characteristics, so any trait which emerges as a side effect of said traits shall also exhibit variation.

Imagine if you will a value which measures receptivity toward religious teachings and beliefs:

Religious receptivity

Now, imagine the following prediction equation:

Religious receptivity = Social intelligenceX(deviation from population norm) + Agency detectionX(deviation from population norm) Analytic intelligenceX(deviation from population norm)….

i-d4437d3179333a620f0ba595ad58a315-religionreceptivity.jpgA whole host of psychological tendencies, all heritable, may result in a propensity toward religious belief, or, a lack of such propensity. This model can explain why levels of avowed belief vary between societies: quantitative traits exhibit a high level of environmental variance. In other words, in addition to the genetic factors environmental context matters. Some people may simply be unable to sincerely accept theism, while others may need a “helping hand” from social pressure. Similarly, there maybe individuals who simpy are compelled to believe by an inner compass which will brook no rational argument.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    January 17, 2007

    “Similarly, there maybe individuals who simpy are compelled to believe by an inner compass which will brook no rational argument.”

    GREAT! So that “god” thing is curable then? Can we eradicate killing for God or Allah in how many generations?

  2. #2 razib
    January 17, 2007

    GREAT! So that “god” thing is curable then? Can we eradicate killing for God or Allah in how many generations?

    if religious receptivity is like heat generated by work in an engine, then you might have to take some cylinders out….

  3. #3 Joe Blow
    January 17, 2007

    The paradox is that many religious reformers were skeptics of prevailing attitudes. Moses, Jesus, Akhenaten, Mohammed, you name it. Most of these guys apparently tried to simplify things to some kind of basic universalism and eliminate obsolete practices. So from one point of view, these “prophets” were also “atheists.”

    I don’t exactly consider myself an atheist or a believer any particular brand of religion. When I was a young adolescent, I thought sunday school types were idiots and tried to figure out exactly what “faith” could really be. After time, exposure to all kinds of religious doctrines and practices has left me some kind of pantheist who sees merit in each variety. I also see scientism or atheism as just another variety of religion, probably one well suited a certain places and times.

    What are all the “forces” and “laws” of science if not supernatural/noumenal agencies, “responsible” for observable phenomena?

  4. #4 Caledonian
    January 17, 2007

    They’re not supernatural, they are nature.

  5. #5 Spike Gomes
    January 17, 2007

    Here’s something I’ve rather come about to myself in my inquiries into the subject, most importantly the linkage to agency detection and receptivity to the “aesthetic sublime”.

    In a university religion department one meets believers aand atheists of all stripes. If I were creating a graph I’d have to add a third dimension to it of rational facility (how one reasons)as a method of explaining my experience with believers of both low social intelligence and agency detection who nevertheless come to a strong conclusion on the existence of God due to intellectual conclusions that rationalize his existence. In this group I would have to include such varying individuals I have know including a semi-Calvinist theology student and a Quaker anti-war activist, both of whom are fairly distant from explanations of belief that involve the numinous answers coming from agency detection.

    Also in my experience, I have found something of an acid test in determining the level of agency detection even in people like myself who are not influenced by social mores to believe and are too intellectually skeptical to accept what non-rational experience is telling them, and that is reaction to the “aesthetic sublime”.

    I’m a person who’s very sensitive to the sublime. I could not tell you how many times I’ve been moved to tears by a piano concerto, danced for hours to a hypnotic beat until nearly passing out or stared at a painting in a museum for almost half an hour, completely rapt in it. While I’m probably at the extreme end of the spectrum in this, I’m fairly convinced that there is a division between those who are “natural” atheists or religionists with whom the question of religious belief seems inheirent and those who wrestle with God (or his abscence).
    Those who are “natural” while often being able to appriciate an aesthetic experience are never the ones to be completely swallowed up by it, to the point where any attempt to qualify the experience simply lacks language. People who are believers due to rational and/or social means who don’t explain religion in agency terms “Our church believes…” or “The bible says…” instead of “I prayed and God told me in my heart…” are what I’m hitting here. Not that these are catagorically discrete at all, though as the graph shows.

    It’s fairly anecdotal I know, but I think it’s worth testing out on a larger scale.

  6. #6 razib
    January 18, 2007

    just to be clear, there are other axes…i simply put 2 up there due to ease of display. in any case, i’ll have to think more on what you say spike….

  7. #7 Ingo Bading
    January 18, 2007

    Spike, this is a very nice phrase: “the aesthetic sublime”. If you look at philosophers, you can find often, that they say, that there is a connection between the aesthetic, the ethic and the epistemological (/rational) sublime. A human being, that is sensitive to one of those areas, may be sensitive to the other of those areas as well, because:

    A *good* deed has also aesthetic components. Often we have a lot of fascination for it. If you’re able to recognize (sublime/metaphysical/ontological) *truth*, may be, you’re better able to do *good* things as well (in family life, society and so on) (to be a trustful monogamous partner, to be a good father/mother, son/daugther, friend and so on). A lot of artists or composers (for example Beethoven) said, that a personal progress in the aesthetic area often is also a personal progress in the ethic area. And you can have this experience as a consumer of high art as well, I think.

    You can leave a concert, a Shakespeare drama and you’re feeling to be a *better* human as well (at least for a while!).

    So, what I like to say is: A good *measure* to differentiate truthfullness/veracity concerning inner sublime experiences is not only to look, what people SAY about that experiences (look at the abundant possibilities of deception and self-deception), but to look, how people ACT in everyday life and in more extreme situations of life.

    And THIS may be one of the main reasons, why we’re so much concerned of the scientific exploring of altruism. Because we may feel: This could have something to do with “sublime ethics” as well.

    One more thesis: “Religiousness” may be at a deeper level the “missing link” of current sociobiological theory. Because religiousness shows the best correlations with fertility in all human cultures.

    And by the way: Why always look at religions and at religous founders, when talking about “religiousness” and why NOT look at the great philosophers and artists??? I think looking at philosophers and artists should be a more scientific way in this area. But then you have to look at non-atheistic philosophers and artists as well. They’re not a minoritiy in the history of philosophy and arts, I think.

  8. #8 razib
    January 18, 2007

    Because religiousness shows the best correlations with fertility in all human cultures.

    does it?

  9. #9 Ingo Bading
    January 19, 2007

    Razib: Does it?

    - For this my best link is a german one, the religious scientist Michael Blume: http://religionswissenschaft.twoday.net/

    But wait, there is (partly) an english version as well:
    http://www.blume-religionswissenschaft.de/pdf/blume2006.pdf

  10. #10 Ingo Bading
    January 19, 2007

    For this my best link is a german one, the religious scientist Michael Blume: http://religionswissenschaft.twoday.net/

    But wait, there is (partly) an english version as well:
    http://www.blume-religionswissenschaft.de/pdf/blume2006.pdf