Religious fanatics are born that way, according to the latest scientific research, which links a person’s level of religious devotion to the existence of a so-called “god gene” in the body.
But the findings of Dr Dean Hamer, director of the gene structure and regulation unit of the National Cancer Institute in the US – who also claimed it was likely that Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed carried the gene – were strongly criticised last night by church representatives. They said the idea of certain people having a predisposition to faith displayed a failure to understand it.
Dr Hamer, who attracted controversy in 1993 when he claimed to have found a DNA sequence linked to male homosexuality, said the presence of the gene VMAT2, termed the “god gene”, explains why some people are spiritually inclined while others have no interest in such matters at all.
The research also claims that being brought up in a religious environment had little effect on belief.
The findings are based on a study of 2,000 DNA samples and interviews with volunteers, who answered 226 questions that aimed to find out how spiritually in tune they felt with the universe.
Dr Hamer said his research, published in the book The God Gene: How Faith is Hard-Wired into Our Genes, showed the greater the volunteers’ ability to believe in a higher spiritual being, the more likely they were to have the VMAT2 gene.
Dr Hamer, a molecular geneticist, said: “Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus all shared a series of mystical experiences or alterations in consciousness, and thus probably carried the gene.
“This means that the tendency to be spiritual is part of genetic make-up. This is not a thing that is strictly handed down from parents to children. It could skip a generation – it’s like intelligence.”
The same experiment carried out on twins showed those with the gene consisting of a vesicular monoamine transporter regulating the flow of mood-altering chemicals to the brain were more likely to develop religious beliefs.
Dr Donald Bruce, director of the Church of Scotland’s society, religious and technology project, said last night that Dr Hamer admitted to him at the Future of Life conference in California in February 2003 that the term “god gene” was primarily a stunt to boost sales.
“We were both on the advisory board at the conference and I asked him if he thought the book’s title was irresponsible. Dr Hamer agreed the words ‘god gene’ as well as the book’s title were misleading.
“I regard his claims as scientifically ridiculous. There is absolutely no such thing as a god gene. The whole point is that God makes himself available to all equally.”
Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, said: “Religion is not specifically restricted to one era, race or continent, and the fact that it is so all-encompassing and widespread tends to suggest it is not specifically related to our physical make-up.”