Science Explains Belief In God Through Genetics

Let’s look at “Life’s Extremes: Atheists vs. Believers”, a piece on Live Science (the home of unexpurgated university press releases; hat tip to HotAir).

The article is itself slight—it begins by informing us that holidays is derived from holy days—but gains some traction by summarizing the work of Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and author of How God Changes Your Brain.andrew newberg

Inherent brain biology as determined by genetics could play a role [in belief]. Some findings: A proposed “god gene” could predispose gene carriers to transcendental experiences, while those people with a more prominent brain fold called the paracingulate sulcus might be better able to separate real events from imagination.

“Clearly there are bits and pieces of our biology that make us prone to religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs,” said Newberg. “As with all characteristics of human beings, there’s a bit of a bell curve, with some finding it very easy to believe in these things and others finding it very hard.”

Paracingulate sulcus forsooth! Newberg’s fundamental error is in supposing that religious belief is predicated on imaginary events. This is ludicrously false in fact. Most belief arises from mundane cultural influences: parents instructing their children in the tenets of their faith and so forth. A not insignificant minority of religious come to it by way of direct reason and argument. Few among the religious admit to miraculous experiences.

But at least Newberg admits tacitly what has long been suspected: that many (academically trained) non-religious feel themselves not just superior in belief but suspect themselves biologically removed from ordinary folk. Article commenter James Scott summed up the attitude tersely, if in poor English:

May the non religious percentage continue to grow so we can get rid of these stupid deluded believes. [sic] and build a better World for Everyone.

Just as most people in the “bell curve” have near normal intelligence and only the very, very few are possessed of genius, all but the most advanced among us have ordinary paracingulate sulci. A minority, perhaps that 15% who on surveys claim to be non-religious, have more prominent brain folds. Perhaps—think of it!—some have evolved beyond the need for God: their God genes have mutated into Galileo genes. But that name won’t do: Galileo lived and died a devout Catholic.

Newberg’s hypothesis is, of course, logically possible. It could be that a gene or genes, perchance only activated under proper environmental conditions (such as found inside a university classroom), allow one to escape from the tyranny—and comfort—of belief. But in order to be damning of religion, these genes would have to be so powerful a rein on thought that those with Schwarzeneggerian paracingulate sulci would find it impossible to believe in God, no matter what evidence or argument is put to them.

If Newberg’s mutation merely makes it less likely but not impossible for his homo sapiens superior to be religious, then what has he proved? Genes which give one a certain proclivity are not proof of God’s existence or of God’s non-existence. They are not proof of the impossibility of the miraculous, for no such proof exists. They are not proof that one should or should not believe in God. They are not proof that atheism is a superior mode of living. Newberg’s “God gene”, in short, is not proof of much: to lump all religious experience is already a mistake, so widely varied have these practices been.

Which leads us to the second thrust of Newberg’s research:

Imaging studies have revealed that the brain’s frontal lobes, which are activated during prayer, increase in activity and thickness in people. The thalamus, a key relay that integrates sensory information, also showed changes in people who prayed for as little as 12 minutes a day for two months, Newberg explained.

“There’s this saying, ‘the neurons that fire together wire together,'” said Newberg. “The more you believe in it, the more that belief becomes your reality.”

Prayer thickens frontal lobes and alters thalami. Why? Is prayer, unlike ordinary thought, possessed of a supernatural property that rewards its practitioners with thicker lobes and thingy-er thalami? If not supernatural, then why doesn’t ordinary pondering thicken and change? If ordinary pondering thickens and changes too, then what does prayer have to do with it?

It might be so, ceteris paribus, that “neurons that fire together wire together” but the implication “The more you believe in it, the more that belief becomes your reality” is either false or trivial. Saul would have gained nothing from his trip to Damascus if his neurons were bound together so tightly to prevent his “reality” from changing. The same goes for, say, once-believer-but-now-atheist Richard Dawkins. How did he circumvent his brain’s wiring? And if St. Paul could, why can’t everybody alter their reality? There is more than enough observational evidence of conversions (one way or another) coming late in life to suggest everybody can rebel against their brain’s iron control.

Newberg’s proposition is also trivial in the sense that it posits what we already know: that, say, the more one studies mathematics the better at math they get; or the more history one studies, the more history ones remembers, and so forth.

Note: I haven’t read How God Changes Your Brain nor Newberg’s opus Principles of Neurotheology (principles?). So it always remains a danger that the reporter misrepresented Newberg’s hypotheses. But given the content on his website, this does not appear to be a danger.


  1. This is fascinating stuff.

    Are the brains of people believing in a single god different from the brains of people believe in in a single god which is actually three gods, or the other way around? And what about the brains of people believing in lots of gods? Get different gods different parts of the brain when believing is taking place?

  2. In strict Darwinian terms, it would appear that not believing in a God, god (goddess), or gods (goddesses) is really the harmful mutation, given the apparent effect of the god-believing gene on procreation.

  3. “…people who prayed for as little as 12 minutes a day…”

    12 minutes is a short amount of time for prayer? I don’t think Father Mulcahy even managed that, and he prayed at the drop of a hat.

  4. This study might not prove anything about belief in God but it might possibly provide insight into why so many with paracingulate sulci are far too certain of conclusions to which they arrive – thus proving J. Woolley’s theorem.

    @ Katie. Is it possible your are confusing guilt with worry?

  5. Newburg is in serious need of two kinds of help: help with elementary statistics and the notion of causality.

    Elementary statistics.

    Anyone who talks about “a bit of a bell curve” in the propensity for religious belief has problems. Most people talk about three different positions – theism, atheism and agnosticism. It’s impossible to imagine that these three positions can be represented along one dimension by a bell curve. Or are we to assume that there are three quite different dimensions involved and three different bell curves? But even then, why a bell curve?

    Does it make any sense to suggest that the intensity of the conviction that ‘atheism’ can be represented by a bell curve with a mean and a standard deviation in the same way that IQ scores can be represented? Atheists and theists seem to be ‘states’ more like ‘marriage’ or ‘pregnancy’. You can’t be a little bit pregnant or a little bit of a theist.


    Brain imaging studies can be helpful. If we insert a probe into a subject’s brain the probe will elicit specific responses. The subject when asked “what are you thinking, feeling, seeing?” Can answer, “I see the color blue” or, “I’m having thoughts about god” or “I see a unicorn” or “I’m thinking about astrology,” or “I’m wondering about phlogiston.”

    Clearly, under the appropriate conditions we can conclude that the part of the subject’s brain touched by the probe elicits different, specific responses. That, however, tells us nothing about a ‘god gene’ a ‘blue gene’ or ‘the astonishing new possibility of the unicorn gene’.

    Moving up past genes, dendrites, neurons and the paracingulate sulcus I think we can conclude that none of these structures tell us anything about the reality of ‘blue, god or unicorns’. That we can have ideas about such things we’ve known for centuries. Most people are convinced, and sensibly so, that these ideas are based somewhere – in our brain and are represented by brain processes. Needless to say we don’t know as much as we would like to know about the brain processes involved.

    Newberg’s notion of causality is seriously deficient. That I have the idea of ‘god’ or ‘blue’ or ‘unicorn’ or for that matter ‘phlogiston’ wandering around in my brain says nothing about the world external to my brain. It, for example, does not suggest that there are unicorns or phlogiston.

    Therefore we can conclude that my new series of books beginning with “Principles of Neuroastrology”, to be followed next week by “Principles of Neurophlogiston” while exciting and well written are not actually about anything.

  6. “You can’t be a little bit pregnant or a little bit of a theist.”

    Thus anyone simply with doubts is deluded. Wonder where that leaves the agnostics.

  7. Where are the agnostics? On the outside looking in. Not in the foxhole, per se.

    Outside is an especially lonely place to be this time of year, when hymns of joy fill the air and the God of Peace and Goodwill Towards Man is worshiped and celebrated throughout the land. The Season has a Reason, but the uber-rational don’t get it. And not because their brains are defective — it’s their hearts.

    But the door is always open. Come on in; you are welcome inside whenever you feel ready.

  8. @David

    These hypotheses are predictions about the result of counting the number of gods.

    Atheism: the number of gods is exactly zero
    Theism: the number of gods is equal to or bigger than one
    Agnosticism: I do not make a statement about the number of gods.

    No need for a bell curve here, just plain and simple natural numbers. And it shows why agnosticism is a rubbish theory, as theories go.

  9. I don’t know the man, but it seems likely that this is Newburg’s way of dismissing and feeling superior to religious people without going to the effort to actually understand them so he can argue a case against them. Just a lazy man’s raitonale for atheism.

    I could be wrong, of course; maybe he’s just a hopeless jerk.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *