Nevertheless science has shown us clearly that one level of belief in God and overall spirituality is shaped not only by a mix of family environment and upbringing--which is not surprising--but also by our genes. Twin studies conducted around the world in the U.S., the Netherlands and Australia as well as ours in the U.K. show a 40 to 50 percent genetic component to belief in God.
What is striking is that these findings of a genetic basis for belief are consistent even across countries like the U.S. and the U.K., with their huge differences in beliefs and church attendance. For example, in the latest surveys in the U.S., when asked, 61 percent of white Americans say they firmly (ie. without any doubt) believe in God, compared with only 17 percent of firm believers in similar populations in the U.K.--greater than a threefold difference. The opposite scenario of non-belief is also true--only a tiny 3 percent of the U.S. population report being firmly atheist compared with 18 percent in the U.K. As well as belief, participation follows separate trends in the two countries. Some form of weekly church attendance is now nearly three times higher in the U.S. than the U.K.
Skeptics among you might say that the twin studies showing similarity for belief are just reflecting some cultural or family influence that wasn't properly corrected for in the study design. However in one study of adopted twins, the researchers looked at religious belief in a number of adopted twins raised apart. They found exactly the same result--greater similarity in identical twin pairs, even if raised apart. The conclusion is unavoidable: faith is definitely influenced by genes.
To uncover in more detail exactly what part of belief or religion was genetic, an unlikely research partnership was formed between two academic twin experts--Nick Martin, an extrovert atheist Australian, and Lindon Eaves, a British lay preacher originally from Birmingham.
In an attempt to separate the '3 Bs'--belonging, behaving, and believing, the three elements that make up religiosity--they asked a range of questions attempting to get a handle on individual differences in spirituality. They defined this as "the capacity to reach out beyond oneself and discover or make meaning of experience through broadened perspectives and behavior." The scale is based on three main factors: self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification and mysticism. Questions in the test they designed included:
- "I believe that all life depends on some spiritual order or power that cannot be completely explained"--true or false?
- "Often when I look at an ordinary thing, something wonderful happens--I get the feeling that I am seeing it fresh for the first time"--true or false?
They estimated the heritability of spirituality to be around 40 to 50 percent, which is quite high considering how tricky it is to measure. Other U.S. studies using even more detailed questions in larger numbers have found similar or even stronger genetic influences. These studies demonstrate our variable but innate inherited sense of spirituality, which affects how we perceive the world, ourselves and the universe. This is independent of our formal religious beliefs and practices and, strangely, largely independent of family influence.
The positive feedback and inner reward we get from these spiritual or religious thoughts could also account for some differences. One individual during prayer or meditation may feel a rush of immense joy and fulfillment from the reward centers of the brain (in the hypothalamus), and someone else may feel only the uncomfortable chair and be worrying about the shopping list. While the spiritual side is important for some, others find great comfort in religious practice and attendance.
Studies show that for twins living at home, there is no clear genetic influence or different from their parents in their practice. However, genes start to play a role, once the twins leave the nest.
Elizabeth and Caroline were identical twins who came from an academic middle-class English family with an atheist father and agnostic mother. The sisters were very similar in appearance and character, both admitted to being stubborn, although Elizabeth was the naughtier of the two. At primary school, they both became interested in Christianity and much to their father's surprise and displeasure they were baptized and prayed regularly. Their parents split up soon after and their father left home. They went through the normal teenage tantrums and slowly lost interest in organized religion and prayer.
After school they went to different universities. Caroline quickly rediscovered her faith; she became an even more committed Christian and joined student societies and church groups. Elizabeth began discussions with an Islamic group, initially arguing against religion, read the Quran to dismiss it and then found herself being drawn to and then converted to Islam. Both married and had two kids--Caroline with an English Anglican husband, and Elizabeth with a Pakistani Muslim (from then on she wore the veil--hijab--in public).
As she now says: "I strongly believe that Islam is the one true faith and Christianity is wrong. I endured many taunts and bigotry about my style of dress and beliefs and was often frightened to go outside. I once had to witness my 3-year-old disabled son being spat at." Caroline is similarly strongly opposed to her sister's Islamic views and "her lack of belief in Jesus being the Messiah really upsets me." She has had an easier time socially, but misses being close to her sister and having a drink with her. She says: "I will never forget the fact that she very pointedly refused to sing hyms at my big day--a Christian wedding." Both twins admit being saddened that neither could bear to act as a guardian of the other's children because of their faith, although ironically they have much more in common genetically with each other's children than other aunts and share the some proportion of genes with them.
Sadly their mother, Annie, developed terminal metastatic lung cancer, which had the positive side effect of briefly bring the family back together. The closeness and bonding was short-lived. She admitted: "I was initially bemused and then distressed by their fierce disagreements over faith, which being a self-confessed agnostic I just couldn't relate to. My main hope was to live long enough to see the birth of my two new grandchildren." When, against medical odds, she did, and was still alive nine months later, she had a revelation. "I think I've found God," she told her daughter Caroline as she recounted an epiphany moment she had while out walking. "I felt his presence all around me--a spiritual presence. It's not just because I'm about to die--I'm not afraid of death. But I've changed my mind, there is more to life than just the current one." She died shortly afterward. Annie's genetic predisposition for faith, likely suppressed by her secular surroundings and her dominant atheist husband, may have been the crucial factor that influenced her daughters' uncompromising beliefs.
Where did this religious fervor come from? Neither had religious parents, and it is unlikely that the school alone could have had such an influence. Other twin studies have shown that after leaving home, children with the right predisposition can often switch religions, and that which form they then choose is not down to the genes but to life events or some mysterious unknown force.
This article was excerpted with permission from Identically Different: Why We Can Change Our Genes Copyright © 2012 by Tim Spector. Published in 2013 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. www.overlookpress.com. All rights reserved. Tim Spector is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King's College London and a consultant physician at Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospital. He set up the Twins UK register in 1993, the largest of its kind in the world, which he continues to direct. He has appeared in numerous television documentaries and is often interviewed by the media on his team's research.
"The conclusion is unavoidable: faith is definitely influenced by genes."
Correlation does not imply causation.
"The conclusion is unavoidable: faith is definitely influenced by genes." Is that accurate? Would it be more accurate to say that faith is influenced by epigenetic factors? Genes are stretches of RNA and DNA. The epigenome is all the cellular machinery that controls expression of those genes. It's the epigenome that is affected by lifestyle choices, diet, and seemingly even the way we behave, think, and believe. Epigenetic changes can be passed on to our children.
Self-determination is an interesting thing. A lot of our circumstances are not self-determined. For example, you or your parents don't really have control over a lot of hereditary diseases and conditions like Down Syndrome. But there is self-determination in choosing what you do about it.
Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel. Please read it Popsci.
"... The conclusion is unavoidable: faith is definitely influenced by genes... "
Before you set this gene theory in stone, a glaring omission is in the placing agencies that find homes for these twins.
I would think an agent is not going to purposely send one twin to a Mormon family and another to a Wiccan family.
A Christian mother or agency will fight to get the twins into Christian homes.
A Catholic mother or agency will fight to get the twins into Catholic homes.
A Native American mother or agency will fight to get the twins into Native American homes.
Unless I missed something, I don't think a mother or agency who is spiritually void will push for twins to be placed in religiously devout families. So it seems silly to claim faith is 40% genetic based on this simple study.
I HAVE FAITH THAT THIS USED TO BE AN AMAZING FUC***g WEBSITE AND IT HAS BEEN SO LAME THE LAST COUPLE MONTHS, I HAVE RESORTED TO POLITICS FOR AMUSEMENT...
I honestly believe that feeling the presence of god or oneness with the universe has a strong neurological component and some are more prone to have these feelings than others. There are drugs that induce these feelings of spirituality native cultures throughout the earth have considered them sacred for millennia. But religious people in our government thinks we are incapable of using these sinful drugs without becoming crazed violent criminals because they must be of the devel.
this isnt very science-y persay.
they say there are parts of the brain that are responsible for religious experiences ...
perhaps it could be genetic, that some people are more stimulated in this area of the brain than others.
Fact of the matter is, we all have a religious aspect to us. Yes even Athiests. they do not belive in God, but they believe in the Science and theories. Evolution (for example) could a specific Athiest's doctrine.
There are several documentaries on twin studies that explore the nature vs nurture question. I found those that involve twins separated at birth the most intriguing. Even twins raised in different countries and have had no contact since birth have the exact same laugh, the same mannerisms, disposition, sense of humor etc. How is possible that they are so similar in behavior when non-identical twins who have nearly identical childhood experiences end up so different?
If genes play such an important role in how we behave, why is it so hard to believe it could shape our willingness to believe in the supernatural.
Perhaps some people are uncomfortable with the idea that they are not fully in control of their own behavior.
They compared identical twins that grew up separately, to non-identical twins that grew up together. If the beliefs of their parents was the critical factor, why would the identical twins correlate significantly more often than the non-identical twins?
@democedes, thank you, that made the study much more interesting!
Genetics says it all. Behaviour, belief, ideas and creativity as well as physical makeup. Genes are the blue prints for all that we are. Its not that surprising. Give an example where genes dont come into play.
Depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, multiple personalities, PTSD, ADHD, phobias, compulsive disorders, etc, etc, etc.
Oh yes and don't forget the biggies: Inability to do math, SAD, anger disorders, hating your parents, narcissistic disorder, avoidant disorder, dependent disorder, neglect of a child, etc, etc.
I could list hundreds, but all one has to do is look in the DSM, it's full of fantasy.
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Holy logical fallacies, batman!
Perhaps the militant atheists at Popular "Science" could browse the Internet for some material on causation, correlation, and certainty.