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FIRST-PERSON: Voters used their brains

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–If you were among the millions of Americans who voted your moral/religious values in the Nov. 2 election, you voted what was in your heart.

And you voted with your brain.

And your biology.

Yes, your biology. Haven’t you heard? Our biological makeup includes brains that are hardwired for God.

On Election Day, even The New York Times acknowledged the possibility of a biological link to God by carrying an article about a new book, “The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes” by molecular geneticist Dean Hamer of the National Institutes of Health.

Yes, this is the same Dean Hamer who first reported on a “gay gene” during the 1990s -– to which Christian ethicist C. Ben Mitchell reacted, “… even if researchers found a so-called ‘gay gene,’ that would not change the immorality of homosexuality. Science cannot do moral work. That is, science does not have the power to determine what’s right and wrong.” If, for example, a genetic link to alcoholism is proven, Mitchell noted that it would “make it more urgent to avoid taking the first drink.”

Back to biology and the brain. In his new book, Hamer identifies the gene “VMAT2” as the “God gene.”

The inside flap of his book states in part, “… spiritual belief may offer an evolutionary advantage by providing humans with a sense of purpose and the courage and will to overcome hardship and loss. And, as a growing body of evidence suggests, belief also increases our chances of reproductive survival by helping to reduce stress, prevent disease, and extend life. Hamer shows that new discoveries in behavioral genetics and neurobiology indicate that humans inherit a set of predispositions that make their brains ready and eager to embrace a higher power. By analyzing the genetic makeup of over a thousand people of different ages and backgrounds, and comparing their DNA samples against a scale that measures spirituality, Hamer actually identified a specific ‘God gene’ that appears to influence spirituality.”

I suppose you saw that reference to evolution. Yes, it would be better if the statement were balanced: “… spiritual belief may offer an evolutionary – or God-given – advantage….”

But it’s encouraging that Hamer is thinking about such things.

He isn’t the first.

The Neanderthals (the beings who once coexisted with us humans) provided “history’s first-known glimmering of metaphysical hope,” judging by gravesites unearthed across Europe and Asia, Anthony Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili (now deceased) and Vince Ruase wrote in their 2001 book, “Why God Won’t Go Away.”

Neanderthals “apparently became the earth’s first living creatures to bury their dead with ceremonies,” placing tools, weapons, clothing and other supplies in graves, reflecting “a system of belief that assured them that in some sense, death could be survived,” the authors noted.

The PBS series “Nova” explored the “Secrets of the Mind” during its Oct. 23, 2001, through the reflections of V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego. Ramachandran, in the latter moments of the broadcast, addressed what the Nova narrator described as “one of his most intriguing and controversial theories. Could there be a specialized area of the brain that drives human beings to seek religion?”

Ramachandran allowed that “it’s possible there are parts of the temporal lobes [of the brain] whose activity is somehow conducive to religious belief. Now this seems unlikely, but it might be true.” He acknowledged that “belief in religion is widespread. Every tribe, every society has some form of religious worship. And maybe the reason it evolved, if it did evolve, is that it is conducive to the stability of society, and this may be easiest if you believe in some sort of supreme being.”

A much less charitable view of the brain’s religious function was taken by Matthew Alper in his 2001 book, “The ‘God’ Part of the Brain.”

Religion is “a genetically inherited trait” that will “emerge in any given society,” Alper aknowledged. But, he asserted, “Religion acts as a constricting force, constantly trying to obstruct the flow of any information it might construe as a threat to its own obsolete theology.”

In light of “the potentially hazardous nature of this impulse” — one that can lead to “acts of aggression, hostility, and war” — Alper embarked on an unusual discussion: “… should we use future advances in the genetic sciences to eradicate the gene responsible for generating such divisive behaviors? Should we seek to strike religiosity from human consciousness forevermore?” Alper then backtracked a bit: “Considering the dangers of genetic tampering, I, for one, would not encourage such a drastic strategy. At the same time, I have heard others speak of the possibility of surgically removing one’s ‘God’ part of the brain as yet another option to countering its hazardous excesses, a procedure that has been whimsically referred to as a ‘Godectomy.’”

This biology/brain/God discussion is serious.

For a moment, let’s factor in a touch of Scripture, such as the familiar words of Genesis 1: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Or the words of Romans 1: “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities -– his eternal power and divine nature –- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

If there is a “God gene,” fine.

Still, we’re left with a quest that has life-or-death implications: Which God?

The god of science? Of Hollywood? Of the nightly news? Of the almighty dollar? Of the philosophical sages of the ages?

Or the God of the Bible. Of this God, I, for one, am continually stirred over how His Holy Spirit has transformed my life.
To read more, go to Art Toalston’s column, titled “New birth,” at http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=17467. Toalston is editor of Baptist Press.