Culture At Large

What if religion could be "biologized"?

Andy Rau

You've probably seen variants of this question in popular magazines and books over the years: is there a "God gene" that explains why human beings tend toward belief in the supernatural? Can the human impulse to search for the divine be traced to a specific, biological imperative?

Perhaps it's slightly heavy reading for the day after a long holiday weekend, but there's an interesting piece at Search Magazine which thoroughly examines the quest to determine religion's biological roots. The big question behind all this, of course, is what (if anything) such a discovery would mean for believers. Here's a rundown of the opposing viewpoints, from the article:

For many, the suggestion that religiosity has its basis in biological mechanisms implies its falsity. Daniel Dennett would certainly agree. Most of the prominent cognitivists, including Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and Stewart Guthrie, avoid this argument, but readers generally take them to be hostile toward religious belief. Jesuit theologian John Haught, whose own work champions a science friendly Christianity, concludes that “if Boyer and others are giving us the ultimate and adequate explanation of religion, then of course we should acknowledge that our piety is pure fiction.”

Perhaps this is not necessarily true. Cognitivist Justin Barrett identifies as an evangelical Christian and has been an organizer for the youth ministry Young Life. “Why wouldn’t God,” he speculates in an interview, “design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” His book

Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, a summary of cognitivist research, spends its concluding chapters suggesting that these theories make a naturalist case against atheism: “Belief in God comes naturally. Disbelief requires human intervention.” When the research is presented this way, believers receive it much more eagerly than either Dennett or Haught might expect. A review of Barrett’s book in Meridian, a Mormon magazine, expressed enthusiasm for his rhetorical openness to theism: “Neither coercion nor brainwashing nor special persuasive techniques need be invoked in order to account for widespread human belief in God or gods.”

What's your take? If it were shown that religious belief was a biological impulse—a mechanical function of our genetics—would that make you reconsider your faith? Would such a revelation kill your faith in Christianity (and all other religions)... or would it not shake your faith? Why?

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Faith