A Cambridge University researcher suggests an answer, concluding that people with strong religious convictions may pass a “predisposition toward religion” onto their children, thereby spread religion genetically.
“People who carry a certain ‘religiosity’ gene are more likely than average to become or remain religious,” writes economics professor Robert Rowthorn in a 2011 study, “Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model,” published in Proceedings B, the flagship biological research journal of the Royal Society.
Human genomes are believed to contain somewhere between 20,000 to 25,000 genes, and researchers are continually discovering the ways in which certain genes impact human behavior.
Citing past research that pointed to the discovery of the so-called “God gene” VMAT2 which increases a person’s chance of being religious, Rowthorn’s theory that people of strong faith carry a “believers’ gene” in their DNA contends that they also tend to have more children, which contributes to perpetuation and spread of religious beliefs.
But, after staring at a short article about the study last month in the local newspaper, I have to admit I was a bit off balance from its implications. I wondered if I had such a gene, and if whether having it or not was a blessing or a curse.
How do I know whether I have that gene or those I encounter do? Do those who attend Eucharistic adoration at my parish have it? How about others whose children appear unruly during Mass, who continually look at their watch or who duck out of Mass early? Were those who do not attend Mass regularly born without it?
If I have that gene, does it somehow go dormant or does it switch to the off position when I’m having a bad day, am overly critical or snapping at someone?
Whether there is such a “religiosity” gene, I finally decided that the discussion of it should not distract me from the fact that there is a difference between a gene and faith. Faith is not something surgically planted in our body, like a pacemaker or computer chip. Ultimately, faith is relational.
St. Paul makes clear that faith alone without action, without connection to God and others, without it being incarnational, enfleshed is empty. “If I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13.2). Faith simply implanted by a gene, then, if not active in our life, dies.
Faith, nurtured by a living relationship with God and our connection with others, does grow through our active expressions of love to those around us, allowing us to “share in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
New titles, released by St. Anthony Messenger Press Books and Servant Books, speak of faith not predetermined by our DNA, but a relationship with God and those around us: Staying Faithful Today To God, Ourselves, One Another, by Father Alfred McBride, suggests practical ways to maintain and renew our commitments; Spirituality You Can Live With: Stronger Faith in 30 Days, by Chris Padgett, offers a guide to building habits in holiness; and, Living the Sacraments: Grace Into Action, by Bert Ghezzi, focuses how we can tap into the supernatural energy of the sacraments.
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(CNS illustration of early stage human embryo by Emily Thompson)