The god gene — or is it a meme?

By Ken Perrott 24/01/2011

Is humanity doomed to a future of religious fundamentalism? Some recent internet articles appear to suggest it is.

The prediction is based on the established fact that the birth rate for members of fundamental religions is much higher than for the non-religious, or the members of the more main line churches. Similarly some Europeans worry about Islamic immigration because Muslims also have a relatively high birth rate. They fear a future involving a majority Islamic religion in their countries.

A recent scientific paper written by economist Robert Rowthorn promoted some of this speculation (Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. [See full text]). This presented a model based on the assumption of a “religious gene,” or at least a gene which “predisposed humans towards religion.” While they acknowledge that such predisposition is unlikely to  be determined by a single gene this simplification was required to make the analysis possible. And they argue that the general conclusions can be applied to the normally expected multi-gene situation.

Together with the fact that birth rates for many conservative, religious groups are much higher than for the non–religious population this model predicts that the human species will evolve to a situation where conservative, fundamentalist religions predominate.

What a horrible prospect. But is it at all realistic?

No religion gene

Many commenter have pointed out that there is no gene for religion. That religion is a cultural phenomenon – not biological. However, there may be an intermediate aspect. Perhaps certain personalities predispose an individual to be religious and maybe these are genetically determined and could be selected for by the reproduction policies of religious groups.

But there are several problems with this concept. Genetic determination is neither direct or simple. Even biological traits can be influenced by environmental  effects on gene expression. And evolution  by natural selection may very well dispose a population to having a distribution of complex characteristics like personality. The realities of interaction between individuals in human societies probably favours such an outcome where single personality types would not dominate.

“Religion” meaningless

There is another reason why I don’t like the whole idea of “religious genes” and genetic or personality determination of religion. That is because the word “religion” tends to be meaningless. Not only because the word covers a “multitude of sins” as it were. But because it really doesn’t describe the relevant aspects of people who belong to a religion.

Pascal Boyer explains this idea very well in his recent book The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion. (It’s well worth reading and I will be posting a review soon).

While “religion” may describe particular institutions and dogma it doesn’t describe the underlying reasons why people belong to such groups. Therefore scientific study of these phenomena requires breaking below the surface and investigating religious behaviors, rituals and relationships. The study of “religion” itself would ignore the real underlying and important features. It would be the study of dogma and church history. The story religious officials use to explain their origins.

So Boyer advocates the anthropological, evolutionary and cognitive investigation of behaviors, relationships and rituals. Not Churches and dogma. This helps explain the natural origins of “supernatural beliefs,” ideas of spirits, ghosts and gods. It explains them in terms of our cognitive and intuitional structures as well as their evolution. Similarly we can see the natural origins of “religious” behaviors quite divorced from modern church dogmas. Even in conflict with those dogmas. (For instance even in modern churches the lay parishioner probably has a more natural concept of the god being worshiped than the theologians or ministers teaching an advanced theological dogma. This often leads to conflicts between parishioners and church leaders over interpretation of dogma).

Natural religious beliefs and behaviours

So the natural religious beliefs and behaviors may have little to do with religion in the established form. They may not even require the sort of beliefs and rituals required by churches. Again there is a tension between the natural beliefs and the theological teachings and dogma.

In fact the evolved intuitions and cognitive structures, and personalities,  may be manifested in other than religious ways. We can, for instance, find purpose, community and uplifting ideas in political parties, sport groups and other social activities as well as in religion.

The evolved characteristics which may make some people more prone to “magical thinking” could be manifested in religious beliefs. Equally they could be manifested in activities like dramatic acting, stage personalities, etc. Perhaps even in the creativity of practicing atheist scientists. (Didn’t Einstein imagine riding a sunbeam?) Certainly conservative, masochistic and faithful followers may be just as happy in a political party as a church.

So I reject the idea that fundamentalist and conservative religion is transmitted to children genetically and that higher fertility of these groups will inevitable lead to our species evolving into a basically fundamentalist and conservative one. Nevertheless, there are other ways in which religious belief is transmitted inter-generationally. And that is be memes.

People have often observed that religion is inherited. But that is via the culture. And especially the family culture. It’s no wonder that a child which is protected form other ideas, perhaps home educated or educated in a faith school, is likely to inherit its parents religion. (Probably also their politics and football teams). So perhaps the cultural mechanism, specifically the hierarchical family culture, provides a mechanism for encouraging the spread of religion by simple spread of adherents through birth.

A human rights issue

It’s interesting that some theological commentators appear to welcome the religion gene idea (see Believers’ Gene’ May Help Spread Religion, Pastors Agree). However, most religious leaders are also very conscious of the role of memes, of family and church culture in “passing” on religion. And they also think it is very important to utilise this mechanism. Some passionately stress the importance of getting access to the child at its most vulnerable age. Conservative and fundamentalist religions promote religious instruction and religious control of education – even of subjects like science.

So perhaps there are aspects of our culture which are encouraging an increase in the numbers of conservative and fundamentalist religious people. But rather than seeing that as a future danger, as a problem for future generations, I think we should recognise it as a present danger.

Such conservative and fundamentalist religious instruction and control of children amounts to violation of their human rights.  Their education can be retarded and often their development as mature autonomous moral agents is inhibited. Religious dogma also tends to be divisory, especially when fundamentalist. Church members actively think in terms of “them vs us.” Children learn to see themselves as superiour to the schoolmates. Even that some of their fellow class members may be “evil” because of their different religion or beliefs (really the religion or beliefs of their families).

However these conservative and fundamentalist family cultures may not be as effective as they appear in the long run. Promotion of division and social tension  causes a reaction. Secular societies will not always be so amenable to financing faith schools and organisations which promote division.

I think also that education inevitably has an effect. People growing up today have many reasons to accept a good objective education and to interact with people of different beliefs, cultures and ethnicity. Education and growing living standards also help break down the hierarchical family. Women are more able to take advantage of what modern society can offer them and inevitably control their own fertility to make this possible.

So I really don’t think our biological evolution is threatened by a “religion gene.” And while religion is nowhere near dying a natural death I think that social and economic development will also reduce the influence of conservative and fundamentalist hierarchical family cultures.

I hope so anyway.

Similar articles

See also:
Why we are all different (and not all religious)
There’s no such thing as a gene for religion

0 Responses to “The god gene — or is it a meme?”

  • Good post. I do think the modern environment will lead to some genetic changes. These days, it’s not about survival, and all about choice. Some people – the extrinsically motivated – chose career etc over kids. Since this basic aspect of personality probably does have a genetic component, it seems to me that humanity as a who will gradually shift to being more intrinsically motivated.

    Anyway, my main reason for posting a comment is to say thanks for the heads up on that book by Boyer. Looks very interesting!

  • Thanks Tom. I guess you will already know about Boyer’s other book.

    I apologize – I meant to also link to your articles on this so will correct that now.

  • great post, Ken. I think your comments about education and the greater interaction of with people from different backgrounds is important. Jeremy Rifkin’s book “The Empathic Civilization” talks about how human beings are empathizing with larger and larger groups. Hopefully this will be accompanied by a lesser acceptance of (at least) the most fundamentalist and dangerous religions.
    I hope so anyway.

  • I had wondered more if the ‘god gene’ (sic) is to do with a more basic human instinct to identify patterns. Being able to associate or link events (e.g. signs that animals are proximate and can be hunted) would be to be evolutionary stable.

    In ancient cultures, the desire to avoid bad things (famines, disease, thunder) would led (one presumes) to seeking similar patterns. And with that, comes the ability to assuage the causes of such bad things. (Which is possibly why sports-people will have lucky socks, or students a lucky pen).

    Religion as a meme could easily feed off that. Good things happen when the causes (supernatural of course in this era) are pleased with us. Bad things happen when they re displeased. Religion provides a ritualised means to stack the balance sheet with the good stuff.

    But Michael is also correct- education & scientific explanation erodes faith. While fundies tend out-breed, the defection rate from faith would also need to be calculated. At one level, it must be more efficient (cost less resources) for society to deconvert fundies, than for fundies to keep breeding.

  • I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a gene that predisposed us to believe in God (as in there’s something bigger out there than us), but that’s quite different from a religion gene. Religions have a lot of layers, whether that be dogma or just plain old culture and habits.

    There is zero chance of two isolated people producing an identical religion like Catholicism or Islam just out of their own thoughts. The corollary is that any religion must be a cultural learning.

    Regardless of culture or religion we all seem to think our way is best. Human nature I guess – your implication throughout this article that fundamental religion is wrong is just such an example.

    None-the-less I think the initial suggestion that one culture or religion is outbreeding another is spot on. Not much we can do it about it without fundamentally changing our own culture.

  • When it comes to the nature vs nurture type arguments, my interpretation is that most behaviours arise from an, often complex, combination of the two. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there were perhaps combinations of genes that made one “more susceptible” to religion, but I would also suggest that environment and experience have a significant contribution, probably more so than genes (though I have no specific evidence to support this claim).

  • I’d agree Michael, though I’d probably use “open” or “inclined” rather than “susceptible”!