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Whether or not we believe in God, some scientists say, depends in part of the presence of a group of genes known as VMAT2. The real difference these genes make, however, may be how much we enjoy (or don't enjoy) religious activities.

In 2004, the news outlets were abuzz with stories about VMAT2, the newly discovered "God gene." A group of genes that code proteins that influence the production of neurotransmitters in our brains, VMAT2 was also thought, at least by non-scientist news reporters, to explain whether or not people believe in God.

What Is the "God Gene?"

Vesicular monoamine transporter 2, or VMAT2, is not actually a gene. It is a protein made by the brain that is coded by a gene known as SLC18A2. This transporter protein carries neurotransmitters, brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and histamine, from the fluids that surround neurons into the neurons themselves. 

Without this transporter protein, brain cells cannot respond to the neurotransmitters around them. Laboratory studies with animals even suggest that not having the protein, or not having the gene that carries the genetic code for the protein, results in death just a few days after birth.

But with this protein, the brain "lights up" from the effects of the serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and histamine neurotransmitters.

A Natural Amphetamine

The VMAT2 protein attaches to the same sites in the brain as two well-known illicit drugs, dextroamphetamine and dextromethamphetamine. The protein fights depression, dullness, sleepiness, and inactivity in many of the same way as methamphetamines. And people who have more copies of the gene that codes the making of the protein may be more inclined to get a natural high from their belief in God.

The Connection Between the God Gene and Belief in God

The idea that the SLC18A2 gene determined whether or not someone easily believes in God originated in a survey of smokers conducted for the (American) National Cancer Society. Researchers looking at the question of why some smokers find the use of tobacco pleasurable included some questions designed to measure "self-transcendence" in their survey. 

As defined by research psychiatrist and Washington University professor Robert Cloninger, self-transcendence is a group of characteristics related to feelings of connectedness with the greater world and willingness to believe in things that cannot be easily proved. A geneticist named Dean Hamer conducted the survey for the National Cancer Society without initially being particularly interested in self-transcendence. But as Hamer and his colleagues looked at survey data from dozens of pairs of brothers and sisters and in some cases, their DNA tests, it became obvious that self-transcendence, the ability to believe in the great beyond, was hereditary.

Hamer and colleagues didn't find that the genes that code VMAT2 made a huge difference in personality, but they found they make a consistent difference in personality, that people who have more copies of the gene were more likely to possess transcendent beliefs, such as a belief in God.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Benjamin J., Li L., Patterson C., Greenberg B. D., Murphy D. L., Hamer D. H. Population and familial association between the D4 dopamine receptor gene and measures of novelty seeking. Nat. Genet. 1996.12:81-84.
  • Hamer D. The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes. New York: Doubleday
  • 2004.
  • Photo courtesy of David Dennis by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/davidden/1763021592/
  • Photo courtesy of Dave 77459 by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/dave77459/1880010238/

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