January 21, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

The Hound of Heaven is in the genes

We’ve all experienced it. We’ve all felt a need to find someone or something beyond ourselves, beyond our daily life and the world we can see. Even when we’ve denied it, belief in some kind of supernatural order has lurked in the backs of our minds.

This urge has been called the Hound of Heaven, among other things. The Church calls it the inevitable desire of God’s creatures to return to their maker, a natural attraction to transcendence that helps us to grow in faith and grace.

Well, guess what. It turns out that our tendency toward the spiritual is not a sign of God’s image within our human person, but rather, a chemical phenomenon! And, not only that, it’s a genetic factor.

According to an article in The Indianapolis Star, a man named Dean Hamer, who is a behavioral geneticist at the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, says so. He’s written a book called, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes. Our tax dollars at work!

Hamer claims his research shows that chemicals at work in the brain associated with anxiety or other emotions seem to affect people differently. (This requires research?)

So, when he got around to studying religious belief, he found that believers in mystical religion, such as contemplative nuns, tend to be more contented than most people and even joyful when deep in meditative states. Apparently, they’re the ones with a really potent God gene.

Of course, Hamer claims the same benefits for people who smoke peyote or take mind-altering drugs, which might lead one to believe that religion in that sense is truly the opium of the masses. Anyway, his point is that it’s the spiritual gene in such persons that leads them to contentment.

Hamer says this inclination to transcendence accounts for the modern American interest in non-traditional religions, as well as the great number of religions worldwide. If we follow this line of reasoning, we can conclude that the God gene must contain an element of dilettantism, i.e. flitting from one joyful transcendence to the next. So, if you don’t get anything out of the tradition you’re in, try Zen or, maybe, sniffing glue.

Of course, scientists and humanists don’t like Hamer’s arguments because they won’t admit that spiritual matters have any empirical validity. In other words, religious belief doesn’t prove the existence of a God. Hamer gets around this by saying, “Our genes can predispose us to believe. But they don’t tell us what to believe in.”

On the other hand, some religious leaders see a possible genetic predisposition to believe in God as a good thing. For them, it verifies the idea that our need for God is inborn. But others, applying it to human qualities such as criminal behavior, don’t believe that such genetic mandates would allow for the possibility of free will.

Personally, I find all this fascinating. I am forever impressed with the human obsession to analyze obscure bits of knowledge, or what passes for knowledge. Only the existence of free will could allow such pursuits, and only free will will save us from our often-muddied conclusions about them. God’s little joke, I guess.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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