Religion, Secularism, and DNA

Creation by Michaelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Creation by Michaelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

All humans share one odd characteristic not found in other species. When it comes to God, we are all believers. Most say they believe God exists. Others say they believe a god does not exist. And the rest say they believe god may exist. In the absence of any tangible proof, each of us has built our own unique belief system about "god" based upon faith and intuition. Which of us have gotten it right and which of us have not? And, who among us is qualified to judge?

Those in the largest group of believers are inclined to follow an organized religion either as a formal member or in some other individualistic fashion. Widespread religious affiliation within this group is well documented. The American Religious Identification Survey, for example, reported 85% of the US population identified themselves with a religion while 15% declared they were atheist, agnostic, or not a member of a religion. This study is consistent with others indicating secularism is clearly in the minority.

The Hand of God extended to Adam
The Hand of God extended to Adam

Why?

The reality of broad religious tendencies among humans has researchers asking some interesting social and behavioral questions:

  1. What genetically inherited traits make religious participation appealing?
  2. Why is there a significant disparity between those who are inclined to embrace age-old religious tenets and those who choose not to believe in god without having rational proof? And,
  3. Will these genetically inherited traits increase or wane in the future and how will this affect the ratio of religious and non-religious in the world’s population?

Dr. Robert Rowthorn, a professor of Economics at the University of Cambridge, has provided some interesting clues in a paper titled "Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model." By constructing a model of evolution, Dr. Rowthorn demonstrates how both religious and secular tendencies can be expected to spread based, not on convictions or ideology, but on the ability of DNA to take advantage of prevailing cultural factors. His analysis suggests future contests for converts might not depend solely on ideals regardless of how rational some may think they are.

Predisposition

Professor Rowthorn coined the phrase "religiosity gene" to encompass all genetic traits, like obedience and conservatism, that might contribute to a tendency to be religious. When individuals who have inherited these genetic traits interact with external factors, like education and environment, they are predisposed to accept and participate in a religion. In contrast, the absence of the "religiosity gene", or a non-religious allele, would make a person inclined to be more secular and more likely to display religious indifference.

Children of parents who both have the religious allele are more likely to be religious then if one, or both parents, did not have it. Also, children of parents who both have the religious allele might also inherit a secular allele. Similarly, children from two secular parents may end up with the religiosity allele. Italics are meant to emphasize predisposition is not predestination.

In addition, global religious and secular populations are constantly in a state of flux. Cultural, environmental, and social factors cause continuous migration between both groups. Religious practitioners defect to a secular lifestyle and non-believers convert to religious practices. The rate of defections and conversions not only affects the size of each set, they eventually spread the religious and the secular allele throughout both segments.

Muslims satisfying their religious obligation to vistit Mecca
Muslims satisfying their religious obligation to vistit Mecca

Fertility

Previous research plays a major role in Professor Rowthorn’s project. While he focuses on DNA and heredity, normally topics for genetic theorists, his mathematical model explores how fertility, a purely cultural and social factor familiar to economists, affects the distribution of the religiosity gene. Other studies with controls to eliminate education, income, and biological bias, have found a correlation between fertility and regular church attendance. For example, more orthodox sects like the Amish and Muslims are reproducing at a rate four times greater than the average secular woman. Based upon such research, Dr. Rowthorn’s model uses significantly higher reproduction rates for religious followers compared to non-church goers in the secular population.

Catholics gather in St. Peter's Square to hear the Pope speak
Catholics gather in St. Peter's Square to hear the Pope speak

Migration and Conversions

In our real world, when defections from religions occur, individuals raised to be religious and likely to be carrying the religiosity allele abandon their faith and bring the religiosity allele into the secular population. Their offspring will likely inherit the religiosity allele but they will probably adopt a secular lifestyle like their parents. Hence, the more fertile religious group will add members to the less fertile secular population. When new members enlarge the size of the group, they also increase the density of the religiosity genes within it.

The Most Likely Trend

His conclusions provide us with a deeper understanding of the world. Higher fertility within active religious groups will lead to a global populace almost universally inclined to be religious. In fact, based upon current fertility rates, the religiosity gene will stabilize close to 100% within a few generations. While there may not be a large decline in secular adherents, nearly all will have the religious allele. Although DNA does not dictate destiny, it does interact with social upbringing to influence an individual’s inclination to be religious. Reproduction rates, on the other hand, are a cultural component known to rise significantly among those who engage in religious practices. The relationship between genetics and fertility is leading to a worldwide propensity favoring the spread of religious lifestyles.

Q.
Q.

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18 comments

NathanielZhu profile image

NathanielZhu 5 years ago from Virginia Beach

Great article.

I like the paragraph of genetic predisposition. I wrote an article just about that except with bird migration.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

Thanks, Nathaniel, for stopping in and dropping a comment. I'm glad you like the piece. I will give your article a read as soon as I can. Q.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida

We're back to the old nurture and nature arguments here. I have trouble with the genetic predisposition theory and hold to the idea that offspring raised in a religious environment are pre-disposed to accept religion than those who are not. As for fertility -- kind of a misnomer in these circumstances. It is the religious beliefs which forbid birth control that account for the higher birth rate, not fertility.

This is a fascinating article, but I simply can't accept the "hard wired" approach to human behavior. Thanks for an interesting read. Lynda


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

Hello, Lynda. Thanks so much for your comments.

Although you say you take exception, what I said appears to agree with the three points you make. Perhaps I failed to express some things clearly or you misunderstood me.

You said, “I …hold to the idea that offspring raised in a religious environment are pre-disposed to accept religion than those who are not.”

I said, “When individuals who have inherited these genetic traits interact with external factors, like education and environment, they are predisposed to accept and participate in a religion.” When talking about members in the secular population who carry the religiosity allele, I said, “Their offspring will likely inherit the religiosity allele but they will probably adopt a secular lifestyle like their parents.” It sounds like we are both saying the same thing.

You said, “As for fertility -- kind of a misnomer in these circumstances. It is the religious beliefs which forbid birth control that account for the higher birth rate, not fertility.”

I said, “Other studies with controls to eliminate education, income, and biological bias, have found a correlation between fertility and regular church attendance. For example, more orthodox sects like the Amish and Muslims are reproducing at a rate four times greater than the average secular woman.” I used “fertility” for its primary definition “producing abundantly” rather than its secondary definition “ability to produce.” The former relates to reproduction rates and the latter to egg and sperm production. I believe economist also use the word for its primary meaning. The reasons for the higher reproduction rates are not relevant in this context.

Finally, you said, “I simply can't accept the ’hard wired’ approach to human behavior.”

And I said, “Italics are meant to emphasize predisposition is not predestination... Religious practitioners defect to a secular lifestyle and non-believers convert to religious practices… Although DNA does not dictate destiny, it does interact with social upbringing to influence an individual’s inclination to be religious.” Once again we appear to agree. I don’t find anything stating or implying humans are “hard wired” to practice religion.

Thanks, Lynda. I welcome and truly value your comments. I’m also happy, in this instance, I think we agree. Q.


lmmartin profile image

lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida

Okay. If you're happy, I'm happy. Nature versus nurture is a long-standing debate, and one that will continue for eternity, I think. I lean toward nurture as the primary influence, but will leave the argument to minds greater than mine. Still, an interesting article (as yours always are.)


someonewhoknows profile image

someonewhoknows 5 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

I noticed you have something that looks like a Zodiac wheel ,except it has twelve different religions signs

Maurice Cotterell -Author,Electical Engineer and scientist discovered a connection between Sun activity and peoples attitudes as well as traveling north to south - south to north - east to west - west to east as many people do everyday traveling caused by what is usually associated only with "Jet lag"

Personallity profiles and "Birth signs of the horiscope or "Sun" signs of the Zodiac.also depend on the positions of the planets in relationship to each other.

http://divinecosmos.com/index.php/start-here/books...

http://www.mauricecotterell.com/gravity1.html

http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/ciencia/ciencia_...

http://hollowvision.com/beyond/maurice-cotterell-s...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RXxCvv9cbY


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 5 years ago from New York Author

@ Lynda: Welcome back. I’m for everybody being happy.

@someone: The image in the last paragraph represents multi-faith co-operation around the world. Something I think we should all strive to achieve. Thanks for contributing the links. The sun may indeed be another one of the many factors influencing human behavior. I always suspected the moon affected more than just tides and werewolves. I appreciate your stopping by and your taking the time to comment.

Q.


Sembj profile image

Sembj 5 years ago

Quilligrapher - as always, your article was most interesting and thought provoking. I have always thought the notion and evidence of genes "predisposing" some of us towards certain tendencies quite convincing. Sometime in the future, I intend arguing, not originally, that most of us are predisposed to want to experience life at different levels of consciousness!


fucsia profile image

fucsia 5 years ago

Your article is very interesting. The argument is delicate and fascinating.


Talisker profile image

Talisker 4 years ago from UK

A very interesting way of looking at it. I like the way you've presented your argument in a clear progressive way. I do think certain personality types are more embracing of religious ideas. They stem perhaps from a particular genetic make-up.

I'm glad I read this!


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 4 years ago from New York Author

Talisker, I appreciate your taking the time to comment. As for explaining the overwhelming adherence to ancient doctrines, it remains both interesting and unproven. Thank you for contributing.

Q.


Alan 4 years ago

"Fertility" is a termed that describes a person's ABILITY to reproduce. Many factors such as contraception and abstinance can intervene in the number offspring a woman may produce. The correct term for the number of offspring that live to reproduce is a measure of fecundity. I believe that the author here really means that religous folks are more fecund, not more fertile.

Language is pwerful, so we need to use the correct terms!


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 4 years ago from New York Author

My thanks, Alan, for suggesting “the author here really means that religous folks are more fecund, not more fertile.” I happen to agree with your claim language is powerful and terms need to be used correctly.

However, the noun “fertility” in this piece is consistent with Webster’s first definition for the adjective “fertile”, i.e. having to do with producing plentifully: PRODUCTIVE (read: events), rather then with the second definition that refers to being capable of developing or reproducing (read: ability). In addition, the use in this article is consistent with “fertility rate” common in economic analysis. It is defined as “a measure of fertility in a specified population over a specified period of time, particularly the general fertility rate, the number of live births in a defined subset during a year per 1000 women of childbearing age.” Here, too, “fertility” relates to actual events and not to innate ability.

Thanks again, Alan, for stopping by. Your comments are greatly appreciated.

Q.


jimagain profile image

jimagain 3 years ago from Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Great comments. Thanks for pointing out the fact we're all believers when it comes to God or, in the case of the secular, 'god'. I have traced the 'unreligiosity gene' all the way back to the garden of Eden. It appears we inherited it from Adam.

Those caught in the undertow of their own thinking of an irrelevant 'god' seem the most predisposed to live stuck in Genesis 3, "ye shall be as gods' knowing good and evil." and in this I find a reflection, in no small measure of irony, of the 'godless' man. After all, who needs 'god' when you can be your own! Unfortunately this is often mistaken for intelligent thought.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 3 years ago from New York Author

I appreciate your stopping by and leaving a comment, Jimagain. I understand your viewpoint but add a note of caution. Remember that a “religiosity gene” does not actually exist. Rather, Professor Rowthorn coined the phrase "religiosity gene" to encompass all of the genetic traits, like obedience and conservatism, that might contribute to a tendency to be religious. An “unreligiosity gene” could be considered a theoretically opposite deposition that might contribute to an indifference to religion. His genetic model could explain, in some way, why 85% of the world’s population admits to having a religious belief system.

Thank you again for contributing to the discussion.

Q.


jimagain profile image

jimagain 3 years ago from Hattiesburg, Mississippi

No surprise. While a conceptual argument, it has allegorical weight and therefore a useful construct. I believe that while men are accountable and these matters are an exercise of their own volition; there is a genetic link all the way back to Adam that has continued repercussions; genetically, psychologically, and behaviorally.

As always, I enjoy your comments as well as your Hubs!


savvydating profile image

savvydating 18 months ago

Fascinating study....and a very well written piece by you. I've wondered why some people have a propensity toward religion. I am talking here about the people who actually embrace religion, not those who figure there's "probably" a god out there. As for the fertility study, I have a bit of trouble with that----only because Muslims and the Amish, as well as Mormons, are "required" to reproduce in order to secure the religion. However, that does not mean the offspring have this religious gene.....or does it? I suppose that is the question. Voting up. You really are an exceptional writer. Your pieces are always thought provoking.


Quilligrapher profile image

Quilligrapher 18 months ago from New York Author

@savvydating: How kind of you to visit my hub. Thank you for contributing your opinions as well.

While the “religiosity gene” may not exist, the term is useful for representing all inherited traits that may contribute to the human tendency to be religious. By combining perspectives based on both genetics and fertility rates, we may glean some insight into how belief systems spread. I am so grateful that you stopped here and left a comment. Q.

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