Is There a Biological Basis for Belief? A Follow Up

Is There a Biological Basis for Belief? A Follow Up

It was bound to happen. I knew controversy would ensue when I answered the following question:

Is it possible for beliefs to get passed onto offspring biologically, i.e., through DNA? Or, [in other words], when we learn something and hold it as a belief, does that belief become somehow mapped in our bio-structure such that it gets passed to our offspring?

Basically, I argued that recent scientific advances suggest there very well may be a genetic basis for spiritual beliefs and it is not unreasonable to think these types of beliefs may impact epigenetic modification of DNA and, consequently, gene expression. Interestingly, epigenetic changes to DNA are heritable. And this opens up the possibility that our beliefs can be passed on to our children through both cultural and genetic transmission.

I also argued that if there is a genetic basis for belief, it might explain Scripture passages such as Ephesians 1:3–6 and election doctrines.

It isn’t surprising that a number of people disagreed with my take on this issue. Here are some of the objections (in no particular order):

Objection 1

“If there is any truth to beliefs being passed on biologically, then I am an extreme mutant. No one in my family worshiped God and there were even Satanists in the mix. So…I kind of doubt the biological basis for belief. However, I do believe God wired us in a way to be worshipful people. The question is: WHAT are we worshipping.”

Objection 2

“Did Kenneth Samples see this before you posted it?

A ‘belief’ is what philosophers call a ‘propositional attitude’ (where ‘propositions’ are ‘truth bearers’; they are true or false). As best I can tell, none of the cited evidence seems to lend any credence to the idea that beliefs are inheritable. That one’s spiritual feelings (or an enhanced degree thereof) are inheritable hardly implies that beliefs are! Likewise, that ‘the amount of pup licking/grooming and arched-back nursing’ or other animal behaviors can have a genetic basis hardly implies beliefs do! This is really out there, [in my humble opinion]. Also, from what I understand, the doctrine of election (at least of the Calvinist variety) stems from God’s regenerating the heart at a point in time. So for this reason, among others I could list, I don’t think we want to say election is employed through biological circumstances we’re born with.”

Objection 3

“The big biological question for me is: How hard is it to override genetic dispositions? Drugs and the environment might be so strong that the genetics involved may be minimal or else biologically we become mere robots. I think that a follow-up article for you and/or Mr. Samples would be to discuss the spiritual aspect of changing ones beliefs.”

Objection 4

“The only way to prove that this is a preselection by God for the sake of election is to take a random sampling of the population of children and see if this DNA is active or not and then wait about 15 years to see who gets saved and retest. Besides, wanting to know God and knowing Him are two completely different things. I am not convinced that the effect of the gene is necessarily a done-deal precursor to salvation. We see people every day who claim to be Christians that are obviously not walking with Him.

If we were to look back in my ancestry to see if there was anyone who walked with God, I doubt we would find very many. At least one thing God impressed on me at one time was that He was starting a new thing with [me and my husband]. We have had to fight and slug it out to get beyond our backgrounds.”

Objection 5

“Obviously [this is] a complex and easily-muddled issue. We must remember that Romans 1 clearly shows God will hold unbelievers to be ‘without excuse,’ since His existence and character are revealed through what He has made. Funny thing…the Creator when speaking here didn’t mention genetics or even remotely allude to other biological factors for ‘beliefs’ that are purported to be outside of our control.

Also, it’s necessary to examine Jesus’ own language when He talked about having saving faith or ‘belief’ in Him (see John 3 and John 5 for example). Acting in true faith in Christ, which results in being born again, according to Jesus, results from the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit coupled with a voluntary human decision. So while one might be able to scientifically argue a certain genetic predisposition to believe in God, one can never make a biblical case for the idea that belief (for or against) is genetically predetermined. True, saving faith falls under the purview of miracle and free choice, regardless of whether you are a ‘Calvinist.’

By the way, if a person is an atheist, and his or her genes say they are predisposed to be an atheist, then can they be saved?

Another way to ask the same question: do nucleo-peptide chain configurations determine how the Holy Spirit is able to act? Hmmm?”

My Response

Just to get this out of the way, I did discuss the ideas in the original article with Kenneth Samples. However, I do assume all responsibility for its contents. Any errors are mine.

I also made every attempt to be cautious about drawing hard conclusions about the biological basis for belief as evinced by the language I used in the original piece (for example, “still the intriguing possibility remains”; “may provide support”; “Although there is no indication of this yet”). I agree that the notion of a genetic and epigenetic foundation for our spirituality and beliefs is not a foregone conclusion. But the initial evidence that (1) there might be “god genes”; (2) the discovery that behavior can alter gene expression; and (3) the fact that changes to gene expression can be inherited in the form of epigenetic modifications to DNA makes it hard to rule out the possibility that our genetic make-up plays a role in dictating our spirituality.

Still, I am sympathetic to these thoughtful objections. It seems to me what resides at the heart of most of these concerns is the notion that if there is a biological basis for our beliefs, (and specifically, for our faith) it provides support for physicalism. This philosophical idea states that everything that exists consists only of its physical properties. With respect to the mind/body problem, physicalism maintains there is no mind, only brain. What we attribute to the mind ultimately can be explained through brain physiology and neurochemistry. This position stands in contrast to the biblical view of the mind (and the spirit) as nonphysical. The biblical view is known as dualism.

The studies I described in the previous article are landmark, portending other studies that will undoubtedly continue to show genetic and epigenetic influences on human spirituality. And there are other studies suggesting a genetic contribution to criminal behavior and, consequently, to morality. So whether we like it or not, as Christians we need to have a response to the mounting evidence indicating there is a biological basis to belief (and morality). We can’t simply dismiss these types of results because we perceive them as contrary to our worldview or contradictory to what we think the Bible teaches.

But as I pointed out last time, just because faith has a biological basis doesn’t mean that physicalism triumphs over dualism. A biological basis for belief is fully compatible with a biblical perspective. This compatibility stems from the fact that human beings are both biological and spiritual beings as Scripture passages like Genesis 2:7 imply. The physical and spiritual components of humans are not distinct from each other. That is, human beings are not a “ghost in the machine.” Instead, our biological and spiritual components are intertwined; they are unified.

Consequently, it is reasonable to assume interplay exists between our spiritual and biological natures.  If so, the Holy Spirit can work through either spirit, or biology, or both to draw us to Him and to transform us into His image. A genetic tendency toward belief in God and epigenetic modification of DNA may be two ways God accomplishes these things.

When considering these possibilities, it is also important to guard against genetic reductionism, a view that maintains our genes determine who we are, exclusively. When the assertion is made there is a “god gene” (and that some people have it and others don’t), it is understandable that many would take this claim to indicate an individual’s faith stems from some form of biological determinism. In other words, whether a person believes in or rejects God is completely beyond his or her control. It is all dictated by that individual’s genetic make-up.

But genetic reductionism is not a biologically sound idea in the least. Our genetic make-up does indeed influence who we are. But so do nongenetic factors. In reality an organism is the combination of genes (nature) + environmental factors (nurture) + developmental noise. And from a Christian perspective, human beings are the combination of spirit (the image of God) + genes (nature) + environmental factors (nurture) + developmental noise. So even if an individual lacks the “god gene” and instead exhibits a proclivity toward unbelief, he or she may still wind up embracing the Christian faith because of other influences (both biological and spiritual). It is conceivable that these influences could impact epigenetic modification of DNA (and hence, gene expression) in a way that impacts their beliefs, values, and behavior. And if these changes are heritable, there would be a newfound tendency in their (future) children toward belief. Likewise, someone with the “god gene” could wind up rejecting God because of nongenetic factors.

What about the objection that beliefs are a “propositional attitude?” At first blush, I agree that the notion of propositional attitudes as heritable seems unreasonable and, as I mentioned in the previous article, no evidence exists that beliefs are heritable. But the reversible changes in epigenetic modification of DNA (and hence, gene expression patterns) caused by pup licking in rats1 is provocative. This discovery opens up the possibility that beliefs could impact our genetic make- up and be passed on to our offspring. Could it be some beliefs are so significant, so deeply impactful, that they shape how we view the world and our place in it? I don’t think this possibility is unreasonable.

I knew my original article would generate some controversy. No doubt this article will do the same. I am glad, however, because controversy breeds discussion, and Christians need to think through this issue. In time, there will be an increasing number of studies identifying the biological components of spirituality, belief, morality, etc. I hope these interactions will help prepare Christians to respond effectively to these advances as they happen.

  1. Ian C. G. Weaver, “Epigenetic Programming by Maternal Behavior and Pharmacological Intervention,” Epigenetics 2 no. 1 (January–March 2007): 22–28; Moshe Szyf et al., “Maternal Programming of Steroid Receptor Expression and Phenotype through DNA Methylation in the Rat,” Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 26 (October–December 2005): 139–62.