Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson once declared religious belief to be "the greatest challenge to human sociobiology and its most exciting opportunity to progress as a truly original theoretical discipline." In other words, Wilson admitted that belief in God is a fundamental challenge to the theory of evolution, since evolution cannot explain why this belief could be so widespread, so powerful, and so closely tied to human existence. Now, Dean Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, claims to have found the genetic explanation for belief in God--a "God gene" that provides an evolutionary explanation for faith.
Dean Hamer's work, published as The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes, is certain to attract considerable attention. His argument that belief in God is tied to a mix of factors, but localized in a specific gene, fits the reductionistic mind of the age. Furthermore, Hamer's hypothesis is the natural complement to a purely materialistic worldview.
The evolutionary worldview leads to a specific understanding of the human being, and that understanding is derived directly from pure materialism. The human being is understood to be the product of an evolutionary process that at every point is explained purely in terms of natural factors. Humans are collections of atoms and molecules, and all consciousness, belief, emotion, and moral judgment must be explained by nothing more than biochemical processes within the brain. In other words, the evolutionary mindset must reject the notion of a soul and must insist that all dimensions of consciousness are definable in purely physical terms.
In the physicalist worldview, the entire human experience is explained by genes, chemicals, natural selection, and the environment. In The God Gene, Dean Hamer attempts to explain religion and spirituality in purely physical terms. Yet, before he ever discusses the so-called "God gene," he redefines faith itself. Hamer begins his book with an illustration drawn from Buddhist spirituality, and within the first ten pages he redefines faith as "self-transcendence." As he explains, "Self-transcendence provides a numerical measure of people's capacity to reach out beyond themselves--to see everything in the world as part of one great totality. If I were to describe it in a single word, it might be 'at-one-ness'."
Continuing in a New Age direction, Hamer distinguishes "spirituality" from "religion." Spirituality is tied to his notion of self-transcendence while religion is far more concrete, rational, and particular. As Hamer explains, "the self-transcendence scale tries to separate one's spirituality from one's particular religious beliefs by eschewing questions about belief in a particular God, frequency of prayer, or orthodox religious doctrines or practices." Just in case we missed the point, Hamer adds: "Even individuals who dislike all forms of organized religion may have a strong spiritual capacity and score high on the self-transcendent scale." So . . . the "God gene" doesn't actually have anything directly to do with believing in God, only [he argues] with the capacity to achieve self-transcendence.
Once Hamer makes this argument, he surrenders any sense of integrity in talking about a "God gene." Having redefined his terms, limiting the specific scope of his explanatory thesis to concern for self-transcendence that can be understood in purely secular terms, Hamer undermines his own argument and marketing strategy.
Since Hamer is a research scientist who hopes to maintain some credibility in the scientific community, he must offer several caveats concerning his work. First, Hamer acknowledges that a genetic explanation can go only so far in explaining the totality of religious experience, or even self-transcendence. "The specific gene I have identified is by no means the entire story behind spirituality," Hamer admits. "It plays only a small, if key, role; many other genes and environmental factors also are involved. Nevertheless, the gene is important because it points out the mechanism by which spirituality is manifested in the brain."
Before considering Hamer's genetic argument, what are we to make of his category of self-transcendence? Hamer uses the term to mean "spiritual feelings that are independent of traditional religiousness." These feelings are not tied to belief in any specific God, nor are they tied to traditional practices of devotion or to any doctrinal structure. Instead, self-transcendence "gets to the heart of spiritual belief: the nature of the universe and our place in it." Individuals who experience self-transcendence "tend to see everything, including themselves, as part of one great totality." In other words, they sound like individuals who have graduated from the latest New Age self-help course in spirituality.
A central mechanism of Hamer's argument is a self-transcendence scale devised by psychiatrist Robert Cloninger of Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. Cloninger's instrument for measuring self-transcendence, known as a "TCI inventory," provides Hamer with a way of establishing a research base in which he could study twins in order to determine whether belief in God is a heritable characteristic.