DON EATON TOLD ME he was born wondering about the universe. But he traced his first conscious memory of this passion back to his twelfth birthday, when he received a telescope.
“It was a little five-inch telescope. And I remember the first time I took it out the back door and actually saw Saturn, with the rings on it,” he said. The immensity of space—of God—overwhelmed him. “And even at twelve years old I was thinking, How can you capture spirit? This is way too big for words and thoughts, it’s just all mystery.”
Don was in his fifties when I spoke with him. His face was weathered, and laugh lines framed his wire-rim glasses. His goatee was flecked with gray. Don’s smile came easily, quietly, the smile of a man who knows a secret, which he would be glad to tell you if only you asked. And his lineage had a mystical strain. His father served as a minister in the United Church of Christ.
“My father’s ministry was more a ministry of asking the question rather than coming up with answers,” Don told me.“I’d go to him with a question about spiritual matters and he would say, ‘That’s too small a question.’ Whenever I’d ask him for the answer, he’d say, ‘Well, my take on it is this, but you’ve got to come up with your own faith, because if you believe what other people tell you, you have their faith, not your faith.’ ”
The spiritual wanderlust, it seemed, was passed down from one generation to another. For Don, the search culminated one afternoon in 1980, after lunch, when he was driving along the freeway near Board-man, Oregon, in his 1976 Datsun. It was ugly landscape, rocks and dirt. Don was an itinerant musician and activist. He had recently completed a three-week tour of Oregon high schools, a thankless job where he had been playing his guitar and lecturing about peace and justice to groups of cynical teenagers. He was thirty-three years old, married, underpaid, and on a perpetual search for spiritual answers. At that sweaty, fretful moment, his future seemed as bleak as the landscape.
“I was hot and tired and bored. And I was going,‘Oh, man, I’ve got another four-hour drive to get home.’ I was just thinking, maybe I should get a job with benefits and a regular paycheck. I was feeling really discouraged. And suddenly this thing just happened.”
Don poured these musings into a handheld tape recorder.When he traveled, he made audio letters for his friends, which back in 1980 was cheaper than a long-distance phone call. Gradually, the brown ocean of earth before him began to glow, as if someone had turned up the “brightness” knob on his television set. Then, in an instant, the world exploded into pixels of light. His hands began to shake, his breath became shallow. Don clicked the recorder off and veered to the side of the road. A few moments later, he reached for the tape recorder again. This is his account, and as far as I know, this is the only mystical experience narrated live.
“I guess I’ve just had the kind of experience that Saul must have had on the road to Damascus. All of a sudden, just out of nowhere, I just got a sweeping experience of the Holy Spirit, I guess. That sounds kind of strange coming from me, because I don’t talk like this very often, but I was just moving along and Whammo!
“I went all goose bumps and all the hairs on my arms and legs just started standing on end and I was just kind of full of electricity. Not exactly a voice or anything like that, but kind of a bright, shining message came through to me that said . . .‘Yes, you do understand me, and here is some more understanding,’ which is just . . . I’m starting to cry again . . . which is just an amazingly joyful experience for me.”1
After the vision faded, Don leapt from the car and, crazily, a man possessed, started hurling rocks at the ground, one on top of another, splitting them open.
“They looked like gold to me,” Don told me twenty-five years after the experience that still makes his skin tingle. “Everything, everything, was beautiful. There was nothing that wasn’t full of light—it was that kind of ecstasy. And later, I was reading the Gospel of Thomas, and I came to the phrase,‘Kneel down, break open the rock, you will find me there.’2 That’s exactly what happened to me. I literally broke open rocks, and they were full of light and beauty and everything was infused with God. I just burst into tears.”
Don paused, gathering his composure. Then this guitar player in Oregon echoed the words of mystics through the ages.
“It was the actual experience of unity with everything else. It was the classic drop of water in the ocean. But the thing that occurred to me that was miraculous was, I felt the ocean in the drop, not just the drop in the ocean. I felt I was God-stuff—that I was made up of the same stuff that God was made up of, and the only difference is God knew that, and I didn’t.”
I heard familiar themes in Don’s experience: in the moments before the event, a soft brokenness, or sometimes a dark night of the soul; during the experience, the light and the voice, the joy and the unity with all things around him; and after the light ebbed, a radical shift in how he viewed the world that persists to this day. By now, I had heard so many stories like this that I could almost write the script.
But there is something else, which is why I relate this story. From the very beginning, Don seemed wired to search out God, to place the eternal questions above all others. It was an urgent and sensory thing for him, and it was obvious to everyone else—his family, his wife, even the friend to whom he later described his experience.
“And I said, ‘Man, I don’t know why I was blessed to have this experience, because it’s certainly nothing that I did. I was just driving along the road,’ ” Don recalled. “And my friend just looked at me and said,‘I don’t believe that for a second.’ I said,‘What do you mean?’And he said, ‘You have been knocking on the door one way or another as long as I’ve known you.You’ve been on a spiritual pilgrimage, you’ve been on a deep quest. I think the experience happened to you because you’ve been priming the pump for years.’ ”
The question for me is, why did Don Eaton embark on a spiritual search from the time he was a boy? Why did he look through the telescope and see spirit, while others see the Big Dipper? Did he experience unusual transcendence because he pursued it—and if so, why did he want to pursue it in the first place?
Then there are the other mystics I interviewed. Sophy Burnham jumped with both feet into Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and meditation, before going to the mountains of Machu Picchu. What drove her? And why did she hear the thunder of the universe, while the other tourists heard a history lecture about the fortress? Why did Arjun Patel see Buddha’s eyes when he meditated, while his friend sitting a few inches away did not?
When I asked Arjun this question, he shrugged in genuine puzzlement.
“I don’t know why it happened to me,” he said. “But I’m pretty convinced it has nothing to do with me being a special person. The only qualification was that I was a human being.”
Yes and no. Arjun was pursuing a spiritual life with more verve than the average college freshman. Realistically, not many eighteen-year-old men meditate every day. An internal rudder steered him that way.
You need not visit an ashram in India to recognize that some people are more spiritually inclined than others. The question is, why are some people spiritual virtuosos and others spiritual duds? Here the evidence is just emerging, but the research suggests that spirituality is genetically “soft-wired,” like intelligence or a gregarious personality.
The search for those religious genes has barely begun.We are a long way from building a neuroscience of religiosity. But the concrete has been laid and you can begin to see the superstructure of this new edifice. I will begin, then, with the foundational work: the notion that spirituality runs in the family.
A Knack for God
A few years ago, shortly after I had joined National Public Radio, my mother went to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to hear the National Symphony. She was freshening up in the ladies’ room when in walked Nina Totenberg, NPR’s Supreme Court correspondent and one of the most famous of my colleagues. My mother identified herself and said, “Oh, Ms. Totenberg, I do so admire your work.”
The next day, Nina dropped by my desk.
“Barbara,” Nina said in her operatic voice, “I met your mother yesterday. She’s so . . . spiritual-looking.”
Nina was right. My mother is spiritual. To my mother, events and even physical objects have eternal significance. They are Plato’s forms that are only a shadow of the real, unseen world. As a devout Christian Scientist, Mom relies on prayer for everything from finding a lost ear-ring to recovering from the flu. Although I am no longer a Christian Scientist, I seem to have inherited her transcendent view of the world. And although no one would describe me as “spiritual-looking,” I did for a few seconds peer, as she did, at the misty border of another dimension, and emerged, as she did, fundamentally changed. Of course, it is entirely possible that Mom did a very good job of training me to be spiritual—nurture at work. But I have often wondered, what about nature? Could genes be at play?
It makes sense that some of Mom’s spirituality landed in my genes, since half my genetic coding comes from her. I decided to try to measure how much our sensibilities overlapped. I called psychiatrist Robert Cloninger at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. Cloninger has developed what has become the gold standard of personality tests.3 His paper-and-pencil questionnaire measures, among other things, “self-transcendence,” or an inclination toward spirituality. That includes one’s belief, or disbelief, in phenomena such as mystical experience, or a belief in miracles, the supernatural, and a force greater than oneself directing one’s life.
The four dozen or so spirituality questions are embedded in 240 questions, so you cannot really know which ones are aimed at measuring one’s propensity toward God beliefs or, say, optimism. After my mother and I took the test, separately, we found that our answers about spirituality were identical. I was impressed. Of course, that does not prove anything. But it is suggestive.
Certainly, I wondered whether this was a rigorous enough instrument. And one night at dinner, my husband—a political scientist and an expert on South Asia—asked the obvious.
“Is anyone concerned that self-reporting questionnaires are notoriously unreliable?” he asked. “If I wrote an article about India and said, ‘I interviewed the Indian government and they said they were into peace and disarmament, that they had no desire to threaten Pakistan with nuclear weapons’—if that was the extent of my research, people would question its validity.”
Scientists admit this is the chink in the armor. Indeed, the test itself implied this weakness. Question 230 is: “I have lied a lot on this questionnaire. True or false.” But at this point, it is their best methodology. The self-transcendence questionnaire has become, for now at least, the basis for not only statistical twin research but genetic analysis as well.
A few days later, I told Nathan Gillespie about the identical results my mother and I had scored on the spirituality test. Gillespie is a researcher at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics in Richmond, and he has been thinking about the interplay between genes and spirituality for some years now.
“Spiritual beliefs tend to clump in families,” he replied. “That’s one of the questions we’re interested in: What makes some individuals more spiritual than others? Why does spirituality aggregate in families? Why does the apple fall not very far from the tree?”
To unravel that mystery, scientists look to twins—in particular, identical twins, who come from the same embryo and share virtually all their genetic makeup. (Recent studies suggest that there are tiny variations in the DNA of identical twins, but they are minuscule.)
Of course, social environment or upbringing clearly plays a part in one’s spiritual yearnings. Moreover, researchers believe that which religion a person practices has almost nothing to do with DNA, and everything to do with parenting and culture. A person joins a Southern Baptist church not because there’s a Baptist gene but because he grew up in Mississippi going to his parents’ Baptist church. The same is true of the Hindu girl in New Delhi and the Shia Muslim boy in Tehran.4 Still, how intensely a person believes in Jesus or Vishnu or Allah is guided at least in part by his or her genes.
Let me pause here, because the words that I have so blithely written represent a tectonic shift for me, and perhaps for anyone raised in a particular religion. While religions make claims to doctrinal truth, genetics points to the capacity in each of us to experience transcendence, to envision and connect with another dimension. Genetics—and science in general—cannot referee between Christianity and Islam, or Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. It cannot determine winners and losers. It can explain the mechanics of satellite transmission but it cannot say whether ABC or NBC has better content.
This is not to say that the scales fell from my eyes and I suddenly saw that all religions are one and the differences can be handled in footnotes. Far from it. Rather, I realized that I needed humility as I thought about what faith I embraced. This was dangerous territory for me as a Christian, but I could not shake off the feeling that there might be many vectors to Truth.
The Case of Identical Twins
Let’s say there are two families, the Joneses and the Smiths. The Jones boys are identical twins; they share virtually 100 percent of their DNA. The Smith girls are just sisters; they share 50 percent of their genes. If DNA had nothing to do with the children’s spirituality, their religious intensity would be determined only by their upbringing and the events that happened to them—a run-in with a particularly vicious nun in Catholic school (which turns one person against faith), or an inspiring Pentecostal service (which turns another on to it).
If, on the other hand, genes do play a role, then you would expect to see the spiritual inclinations of the Jones boys matching each other more closely than do those of the Smith girls, because the Jones boys share twice as much of their genetic makeup. It doesn’t work to test this on an individual scale, but when scientists persuaded hundreds or thousands of twins to participate in a study, a clear trend did emerge. In study after study, researchers found that between 37 and 50 percent of the variation in spirituality appears to be explained by genes.5
To tease out the contribution of upbringing and life events (nurture) from one’s genetic wiring (nature), scientists have looked at a tiny subset of identical twins: those separated at birth. For those twins, environment (or nurture) cannot influence the siblings to be more like each other, since they were raised in different families and did not share the same environment.
Unfortunately for me, twin researchers didn’t include a category in their database for “identical twins separated at birth with strikingly similar spiritual intensity.” But fortunately for me, Nancy Segal, who heads the Twins Studies Center at California State University, Fullerton, happened to know Debbie Mehlman and Sharon Poset.
In 1952, when they were one week old, the twin sisters left a New Jersey hospital with different adopted families. For more than four decades, neither one knew that a genetic carbon copy existed somewhere in the world.
Debbie’s family moved to Connecticut, where she married and lives today. Sharon eventually moved to Kentucky. Only when they were forty-five years old did Debbie’s adoptive mother reveal that she had an identical twin.
In retrospect, it made sense, Debbie told me. “We both always felt there was something missing.”
Debbie hired a private investigator, and two months later, she and her sister, Sharon, met at the airport in Hartford. Coincidentally, the two had selected black skirts and beige tops for their meeting. Their accents fell into an identical New Jersey twang. Each had an odd habit of crossing her eyes to suggest irony.
“We did so many things alike, people were clutching their chests,” Sharon recalled.
As they pieced their stories together, they realized they shared a number of twists in life: from similar haircuts throughout their teens (not so interesting), to majoring in sociology (a little more intriguing), to raising one child each, both of whom joined AmeriCorps. But it was their spiritual journey that drew my attention. Debbie was Jewish, Sharon was an evangelical Christian, and both had always been drawn to God.
Sharon grew up Catholic; her parents and her other (nonbiological) sister displayed little enthusiasm for the faith.
“The sister I grew up with would go to church and wait in the parking lot and grab a bulletin so my parents would think she had gone to church,” Sharon recalled.“But I always wanted to go to church. I got my Holy Communion. I was fascinated with it.”
Eventually, Sharon became a born-again Christian, and she now works at an 8,000-member “megachurch.” Like Debbie—who teaches in her synagogue and is learning Hebrew—her faith is the center and circumference of her life.
Debbie, too, wondered about her early religious faith.
“I have a mother who’s like,‘Oh, I had a headache once during Yom Kippur so I never fast.’And that drove me nuts as a kid!” Debbie laughed.
As in Sharon’s case, Debbie was mystified that her nonbiological sister showed little interest in synagogue.“My [nonbiological] sister and I grew up in the same house, and I used to think, How come it means something to me and it doesn’t mean anything to her?”
The answer, she believes, lies in their genes. “When we went to school in the sixties, everything was nurture,” Debbie said. “It was all ‘environment, environment, environment,’ and I used to figure, Oh, my mother must just be weird, I must be like my dad, and try to rationalize. And then Sharon and I met, and it’s like,Well, there goes environment out the window.”
I put the question to Nancy Segal: Is it all genes?
“Nothing is all genes,” Segal said, “but I think it’s genes to a large degree. The content is fashioned largely by the culture, but how they’re doing things, how they’re going about living their lives, is very similar. And that has to be something genetically influenced, because they were raised in different places.”
Once the twin researchers believed they had established a link between genes and spirituality, it was inevitable that geneticists would try to find which genes made for a Sigmund Freud and which ones led to Saint John of the Cross. This line of inquiry is in its infancy, with relatively few studies, in part because scientists find it easier to win grants to study schizophrenia than spirituality. When the spirituality studies are conducted, it is usually on the sly, with data gleaned from existing smoking or alcohol-abuse studies. This is how Dean Hamer claimed he stumbled—oh so controversially—upon the “God gene.”
The God Gene at NIH
If you want to conduct a spirituality test on very high-end subjects, look no further than Bethesda, Maryland. Dean Hamer and Francis Collins are both leading geneticists at the National Institutes of Health. They both love the scientific method. Where they part company is God; specifically, whether one’s inclination toward God boils down to genetic coding or something more.
“Genetics has become so much more powerful,” Dean Hamer told me. Hamer is a Harvard Ph.D. who works at NIH’s National Cancer Institute. “Things that seemed utterly mysterious, like the pattern of dots on the wings of a butterfly, have now been reduced to individual genes acting at specific times during development. So the idea that something as complicated as ‘why people pray’ might be studied, has gone from a complete fantasy to something that scientists can think about in a serious way.”
Hamer is author of The God Gene,6 a book that has many scientists pulling out their hair in frustration, since they felt the study was shallow, sensational, and published without scrutiny by other scientists. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at his four-story brownstone near Logan Circle, a once scary, now fabulously expensive neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Hamer opened his door, shushing aside two barking dogs. He wore a black T-shirt, tan shorts, and Birkenstock sandals. He looked like a professional soccer player, trim and compact, with salt-and-pepper hair, neat features, and cocky eyes. He was a man that any woman, and some men, would notice at a cocktail party.
We walked up the spiral staircase to the third floor. A framed copy of the Time magazine cover featuring The God Gene hung on the wall. A dozen copies of his book were scattered on tables and chairs. We gravitated toward a tiny room of rich grays—gray walls, gray chairs, a small round glass table.
Hamer was a practiced interviewee—engaging, modest, with the charming verbal patter of a springtime shower. He has written that he is a “materialist,” which means he believes that much of people’s behavior can be reduced to physics and chemistry. What, then, drew him to look for God in the genes?
“When I was a young adolescent, I thought for a while that I might want to be a priest or a minister,” he laughed. “But that’s because I was such a troubled child and had such a huge case of attention deficit disorder that I just wanted some way to get out of all the trouble I was in at the time. So for me it was probably not so much a deep sense of spirituality as a deep curiosity, combined with a willingness to do stuff that you’re not really supposed to do in science. That’s why I studied the gay gene, that’s why I studied personality. These are things that normal scientists are afraid to do, and I’m just, like, Heck, why not?”7
“So you’re still that troublemaking adolescent,” I observed.
“I’m still that troublemaking adolescent. But now I do it with a DNA extraction kit and scientific tools.”
Hamer described his study, which he conducted on his own time, using data collected for his work as a cancer specialist at the National Institutes of Health. He recruited about a thousand people, whom he asked to give a DNA sample and fill out the Cloninger “self-transcendence” test, the same one I had sprung on my mother.
Once Hamer knew which people scored high on spirituality and which scored high on cool rationalism, he looked for variations in their DNA.
Hamer found that the most spiritual people had one small difference in their DNA that was not present in the less spiritual people. The variation was located in a gene called VMAT2, which regulates dopamine and serotonin, both chemicals that affect the way people perceive the world and the way they feel about it.
“Everybody has the so-called God gene, the VMAT2 gene,” Hamer said. “But they have very slightly different versions of it. So it’s like different flavors of ice cream, some people like chocolate, some people like vanilla. Some people have the more spiritual version of the VMAT2 gene, others have the less spiritual version.”
Did this gene alone account for all of the difference in spirituality between two people? No. Half of it? Wrong again. The discovery, it turns out, was somewhat more modest: VMAT2 accounted for less than one percent of the difference in spirituality between two people. It raises the temperature from, say, 45 to 46 degrees, not from freezing to the boiling point. In other words, this is not the DNA equivalent of the Almighty who fills heaven and earth. It’s more like Pan, or Persephone, or the Furies: one small gene in a pantheon of genes.
“Clearly this is not the gene that makes people spiritual,” Hamer conceded, adding that he regretted the title of his book (although that title has surely accounted for robust sales). “There probably is no single gene. It’s one of many different genes and factors that are involved. As a biochemist, I don’t expect to solve the mystery of spirituality with one genetic analysis. But I do hope that it will inspire other scientists to get involved in this area.”
I asked him if his research had influenced his view of God.
“When I started out, I was a typical scientist, completely skeptical of anything religious—you know, ‘the opiate of the masses.’ As I was researching the book, I made it a habit to do various spiritual or religious things. I went to religious services every Sunday. I spent a week in a Buddhist retreat in Japan, studying Zen. And the more I did this, the more I realized that, yeah, this really is a very powerful thing.
“But it hasn’t affected whether I think there’s a ‘God’ or not,” he continued.“I don’t see any compelling evidence that there is. I have no disproof, either, so I’m your classic agnostic.”
This rooting around for God in the genes reminded me of an acquaintance of mine, a neurosurgeon who loved carving tumors out of people’s brains. The surgery is so interesting, he would say to me, but he never mentioned whether the patient lived or died unless I asked him. As I talked to Hamer, I recognized the same sentiment: whether or not God exists didn’t really matter to him; he had no dog in that fight. I wanted to hear from a scientist who did.
More Than Molecules
Francis Collins and I sat in his spacious, sun-drenched office at NIH overlooking a canopy of trees. Collins headed the federal government’s Human Genome Project and wrote The Language of God.8 He was a towering man with a tame mop of gray hair and large features that fell automatically into a smile. On this blistering-hot day he wore black jeans and a blue T-shirt with an American flag spanning his chest. It was the Friday afternoon before the July Fourth weekend in 2006. The employees had the afternoon off; most of his colleagues had left, but Collins talked with me for more than an hour.
“There is no gene for spirituality,” he told me. “There may be a lot of genes that play some role in the development of a personality” inclined toward God, he said, but “there are so many other things at work.”
Dean Hamer’s book evidently vexed him. Collins ticked off the flaws. Hamer had declined to publish the findings in a peer-reviewed journal, opting instead to go straight to the public with a popular book. That meant his research did not endure rigorous scientific review and challenge. Collins continued: The findings have not been replicated, meaning that the “spiritual” properties of the VMAT2 could be a statistical fluke. The entire project rested on self-reported questionnaires, he noted. And finally, he said, the “God gene” seemed to account for a tiny difference in self-transcendence.
“Maybe the right title for the book should have been: The Identification of a Gene Variant Which,While Not Yet Subjected to a Replication Study, May Contribute About One Percent or Less of a Parameter Called Self-Transcendence on a Personality Test.” Collins reflected on that a moment. “That probably wouldn’t sell many books, though.”
But isn’t Hamer on the right path? I asked. Genes have already been identified with diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Why not a gene—or a cluster of genes—to explain spirituality?
“Spirituality is a very different phenomenon.We’re not talking about pathology here. We’re talking about a transcendent experience,” he argued. “You could no more identify a genetic glitch involved in spirituality than you could identify a genetic glitch in the experience of being alive. It is much too complicated and interwoven with every aspect of your personality, of your consciousness, of your sense of who you are, to be able to be pinned down in that very deterministic way.”
I knew that Collins was an evangelical Christian, a statistical fluke in the rarefied scientific atmosphere he traveled in, which must surely affect his approach to the research. I was unsure how to broach this intimate question. He did it for me.
“Take myself,” he said, out of the blue. “I have been a blatant materialist during a significant part of my life, an atheist with no use for God. I am now a very serious believer. My DNA did not change during that time interval. So I can certainly cite from personal experience that it’s nothing about my heredity that changed my view from one end of the spectrum to the other.”
For Collins, the path to God wound not through the shroud of mystery but the light of logic. When he was a twenty-seven-year-old medical student at the University of North Carolina, he said, a woman with terminal cancer asked him whether he believed in God and eternity. He evaded the answer, but the question haunted him.
“I came to the realization that my atheism had been chosen without considering the evidence for or against faith,” he said. “As a physician/ scientist, you’re not supposed to make decisions without looking at the data. So I decided I better learn more about this so I could defend my position—and accidentally converted myself.”
For a “tortured” year, Collins wrestled with God. He was mortified at the prospect of accepting God.Would he have to become a missionary? Would he turn into a dreary, humorless person? He eventually concluded, reluctantly, that God made logical sense to him: Where else would the moral laws that are “written in our hearts” come from? When Collins finally surrendered, it was like a jet breaking through the sound barrier: the turbulence ended.
Ever since, Collins has let his religion inform his science, and his science inform his faith.9 He and his team at NIH have mapped the human genome, identifying more than 30,000 genes in the human body. Genetics, Collins said, has not explained what he sees as the central element that makes humans different from animals: the sense of right and wrong, which often prompts people to sacrifice themselves, not just for friends and family, but also for enemies. It is a drive that, according to Darwin’s theory, would make one’s selfish genes very unhappy. Nor, Collins said, can genes explain the transcendent moment.
Transcendence is like music, he suggested, “where you are transported briefly into this experience that you can’t put into words, which leaves you with this longing, a longing to be part of something but you don’t know what it is. For the atheist, well, that was just your amygdala [in your brain] going off, I guess. But for the believer, it’s a signpost calling you to examine yourself and ask: What’s here more than molecules?”
How to reconcile the ideas of Dean Hamer and Francis Collins? Why does one man begin contemplating ministry and end up agnostic, while the other tracks exactly the opposite course? Why does inquiry lead Hamer down to molecules and Collins up away from them? Why does Hamer’s view of the science seem intriguing, while Collins’s view of the world seems true?
And yet, for all their verbal sparring, I do not think their views of the science are irreconcilable, since both believe that biology must be involved with spiritual feelings. They agree there is a gravel road beneath their feet; the dispute is over where the road leads. Is it a large loop circling back to the same physical spot, or is it a path to a different, spiritual, state? For a moment, let us to stoop down and examine the stones in the road, without worrying about the destination.
Diving for DNA
As scientists began to hunt for genes or brain chemicals that might exist in “spiritual” people, one of the chemicals they quickly trained their sights on was the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the “feel-good” chemical in the brain. It is what makes runners euphoric after a long jog. It is what is so addictive about cocaine and amphetamines.
As neurologist Patrick McNamara at Boston University explained it, a gene will “code for,” or regulate, certain chemical processes—such as the production of dopamine, which then stimulates different parts of the brain. Think of a gene as a dimmer switch for a light: it can turn it on and off, but it can also give some people more or less of a certain trait. McNamara and others say that if there are “spiritual” genes that code for dopamine, then that dopamine would stimulate parts of the brain that could create a spiritual experience, transcendence, or a feeling of God.
“There are genes that help regulate the levels of dopamine in specific areas of the brain: the limbic and prefrontal lobes,” he explained. “And those areas of the brain in turn support all kinds of complex functions. And many of those complex functions in turn would support these more basic capacities related to religiosity, namely positing supernatural agents and engaging in rituals.”
The limbic system of the brain is involved in emotions, such as awe, joy, ecstasy, transcendence, deep sadness—emotions that seem to pour out of mystics. The prefrontal lobes involve more complex thought, reflection, and attention—and researchers have found that these areas play a big role in prayer and meditation.
Therefore, theoretically, a gene that codes for the activation of dopamine could affect spiritual feelings and religious behavior. The question is: Is there any evidence of a link between spirituality and dopamine?
David Comings and his team of genetics researchers at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California, had a hunch that there might be. He speculated that a particular dopamine docking station, or receptor gene, called the DRD4, might have something to do with spirituality.10 The researchers recruited 200 men in California. Some of them were college students, while others were recovering addicts in a nearby treatment program.11 They asked the men to complete Cloninger’s self-transcendence test, and to donate a bit of their DNA. The geneticists knew that dopamine receptors varied from person to person. Comings and his colleagues hypothesized that the gene variation (or “polymorphism”) might affect whether a person believes in God.
That is precisely what they found (although, remember, this is a single study). People with a particular variation of the DRD4 gene scored higher on the self-transcendence scale. To a layperson, that particular gene might seem only modestly important: 3.9 percent of the difference in the men’s spirituality scores could be traced back to that particular receptor.12 However, Comings noted that it is rare for a single gene to account for more than 1.5 percent of variance of any behavioral trait.13 He also noted that the dopamine receptor is present in high concentrations in the frontal lobes of the brain, which is the site of many higher human brain functions.
“One could argue,” he and his colleagues wrote, “that spirituality is the quintessence of higher human brain functions.”14 While the scientists cautioned that this particular gene “is not ‘the gene for spirituality, ’ ” it does seem to contribute to a “significant portion” of the variance, or reason, some people are spiritual and others are not.
There is another frequently mentioned suspect in the God-gene lineup: the serotonin system. The serotonin system has intrigued scientists for years because it dramatically alters moods. For example, the drug Ecstasy creates a high by releasing a wave of serotonin. Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft work more slowly in the system, evening out moods by doing the same thing. And hallucinatory drugs can create a mystical experience worthy of Saint Teresa of Ávila.
In 2003, a group of Swedish scientists led by Jacqueline Borg at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm tried another approach to determine what role, if any, serotonin plays in spiritual experiences. They used brain scanners. They recruited fifteen healthy Swedish men for a spirituality test. The subjects took Cloninger’s self-transcendence test and then sat for a PET (positron emission topography) scan, which took pictures of their brain activity.15 Researchers cannot measure the amount of serotonin in the brain directly, so they used an indirect method: they measured the activity of the chemical’s docking stations or receptors, and in a particular receptor gene called serotonin 5-HT1A.
To do that, the scientists injected a tracer fluid that acts very much like serotonin into each man’s bloodstream. Then they put the men separately into the brain scanner and watched what the fluid did once it arrived in the brain. They were particularly keen on seeing whether the counterfeit serotonin would bind with serotonin receptors. Their hunch was confirmed: they found a strong relationship between each subject’s serotonin levels and his spirituality score.16 Specifically, this genetic dimmer switch seemed to affect which man believed in God, a unifying force, or phenomena that can’t be explained by “objective demonstration,” and which tended to favor a “reductionist and empirical worldview.”
This suggests, the researchers wrote, that “the serotonin system may serve as a biological basis for spiritual experiences,” and that the variation in this gene “may explain why people vary greatly in spiritual zeal.”17
Researchers in this area remind me of Sherlock Holmes, piecing together scenarios with shards of often conflicting evidence. It is evident that something has happened, but exactly how it happened remains a mystery. So it is with scientists exploring spirituality: they know that millions of people genuinely experience transcendence—but what, exactly, is the mechanics of that feeling? Is it genes, or temporal lobes, or a psychological coping mechanism? Or is there a Higher Being, something that few scientists have considered yet, like the dog who didn’t bark?
Does God Play Favorites?
As for scientists like Boston University’s Pat McNamara, he’s thrilled the chase is on.
“There’s going to be a specific biology involved in religiosity,” he predicted expansively. “There’s going to be specific brain systems that are always involved in religiosity. There’s going to be specific neurochemistry. There’s going to be drugs that selectively influence religiosity. There’s going to be a specific cognitive neuroscience of religiosity. And on and on and on! But that doesn’t mean that religiousness is nothing but the biology of religious experience. It just says that religiousness is one of the innate capacities of human beings, like a host of other traits.”
“So maybe there’s a Coder, so to speak?” I asked. “I mean, if there’s a genetic code, is it possible there is a Coder, or a Higher Power, or a Creator?”
“Theoretically, if God wanted to communicate with us, then He, She, or It would create a biology that allows us to communicate,” McNamara stated. “So it makes sense that there is specific biology that allows for that sort of relationship. But the fact that there is a specific biology of religiosity does not rule in—or rule out—God.”
While the findings in this realm are preliminary, they do suggest that some people have a greater propensity to respond to God than others. But, I sputtered, feeling acutely my own spiritual mediocrity, what if there is a God who writes His language in our genes unequally—apportioning to some a bounty of spiritual gifting and to others a meager gruel? Isn’t that a bit of deistic favoritism?
“For some people that could be troubling,” observed Ron Cole-Turner, a bioethicist at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. “It’s not for me, but it could be for some. If you thought God is going to send some people to hell on the basis of a lack of response and the lack of response is hardwired in our genes—that would be troubling.
“But,” he added quickly, “don’t read ‘genetic’ as deterministic. Because genes don’t create hardwired, deterministic outcomes. They create a range of possibilities that might incline you one way or another. It’s by no means determined that if you have a certain gene sequence you are spiritual and if you don’t have a certain gene sequence you can’t be spiritual.”
In other words, nature (genes and biology) plays some role, but so does nurture (one’s environment and life events).What genes do is create a sort of tipping point for spiritual experience. If you are genetically inclined toward spirituality, a relatively small event can flip your Sunday mornings from sitting on the couch watching the Sunday talk shows to sitting in a pew watching a preacher. But if you are born with a genetic predisposition to think religion is complete bunk, then it’s going to take an enormous dose of environment to push you to religion.
It’s a little bit like automatic air-conditioning. For some people, a relatively modest rise in temperature—breaking up with a boyfriend, for example—can flip on the cooler system. Those people are genetically inclined to be spiritual. Others may sweat it out to 90, 95, 100 degrees; only then will their God-switch flip on. And some would rather die of heat than turn to “God.”
Those explanations worked well for psychiatrist Robert Cloninger for many years. Cloninger, who developed the self-transcendence scale, heartily believes that genetics is at play. He has conducted some of the studies himself. He also believes that life events push a person toward or away from spirituality. But the more people he worked with and the more studies he performed, the more he felt he was missing a piece: the soul.
“I realized there were other differences that we didn’t measure with temperament or character or genes, that were really spiritual differences,” Cloninger said. “There was a whole dimension here that was basically unexplained. Like how do you explain free will? You can’t do that from a materialistic standpoint. How do you explain intuitive creations and sudden insights?You can’t do that from algorithmic thinking. How do you explain the gifts of Mozart? I had to move to recognizing that we actually do have a psyche, a soul, and that it does have characteristics, and those characteristics differ from one to another.”
“You seem to be saying,” I said carefully,“that there’s nature, nurture, and then something ...”
“Mystical?” Cloninger laughed as he finished my sentence. “There is. And it’s real.We really do have a soul. And we really can listen to it. And it’s good and it’s intelligent and it’s what makes life worthwhile.”
To those inclined toward God, this makes perfect sense, while others may scratch their heads in puzzlement. As for me, I see this as an invitation to unravel the mystery of soul and body and their relationship to each other. It is a laughably ambitious task, and to even begin, we have to drill down further into the science.We must wade through the synapses and lobes and chemicals in the brain, the stuff of neurology that is so intricately tuned that it takes my breath away in wonder.
Let’s turn, now, to God as chemist. The brain is a cauldron of chemicals that color how we feel and think. Mania and depression, fear and love, all of our moods trace back to chemical reactions. Why not transcendence as well? And if there is a chemistry to spiritual experience, does that imply the hand of a Chemist? These puzzles led me to the ancient practices of Navajos and to the rebellious days of the 1960s. They zeroed in on a particular neurotransmitter that holds a key to spiritual experience. They took me to a type of spirituality that is both instant and measurable synthetic spirituality.