The God Gene, Neuroscience, And the Soul

by Jonathan Morrow

We are living in the biotech century and genetic information has taken center stage. Humanity will benefit from mapping the human genome (completed in 2003), and we should applaud that progress.[i] But the focus on genetics has some unfortunate by-products. One example is The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes by Dean Hamer. In this book Hamer explores the impact of genetics on belief in God. The specific gene in question, that everyone has some version of, is VMAT2. Hamer claims that this gene accounts for the spirituality that emerges in some people but not others.

To be fair, Hamer admitted his title was overstated in a later interview and that there “probably is no single gene.” [ii] But if he knew this going in, then why not change the title of the book? Admissions such as these after the fact never make it on the cover of magazines to correct public misconceptions. The implication to be drawn from his title is that the God question can be reduced to a genetic roll of the dice. Some believe and some don’t and it is not a matter of evidence or truth.

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None of Hamer’s work was subjected to peer review by other geneticists or published in any scientific journals. And the study, upon which the book was based, was never repeated. While The God Gene became a New York Times best seller and made the cover of Time magazine, the book’s main conclusion has been shown to be completely overstated and unreliable. The Human Genome Project director, Francis Collins, states plainly, “There is no gene for spirituality.” In an interview, Collins suggested a more appropriate title for Hamer’s book, 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. But then he added, “that probably wouldn’t sell many books though.”[iii]

So we can dismiss Hamer’s “God gene,” but what about future discoveries? Collins gives us wisdom on what to make of future genetic link discoveries and the implications of those discoveries for certain behaviors, diseases, or belief in God…


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