Choosing Your Religion

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2008-08-06-0whlogo.jpgI try on religions the way other people try on jeans. I started young. In elementary school, I was always game when a sleepover ended with an invitation to tag along for morning services in a church or synagogue. While my friends squirmed, I sat absorbing every detail. I envied the way everyone seemed to know when to sit, stand, or kneel, as well as the tunes to all the psalms.

Sunday mornings during college, while most of the campus slept off a hangover, I sat in a pew with a Catholic or Baptist friend nursing mine with a Diet Coke and wishing I could take communion. Those wafers fascinated me (the communal wine glass, however, grossed me out). And I was always disappointed that I'd yet to see Baptists speak in tongues.

After college, I got more eclectic. I saw psychics. I consulted mediums. I went to Quaker meetings. I read up on Buddhism. I meditated. I did yoga. My parents, who aren't religious, wondered whether I was suffering from some childhood trauma--and at times I did feel a little off center. But the older I got, the more I realized I wasn't the only one. In my spiritual quest, I'd seen and met lots of people looking for...something. There was a 3-month waiting list for one of the mediums I consulted. The Quaker meetings were brimming with people from other faiths--curious about the less dogmatic approach of services sans priest or rabbi. (Quaker meetings have no leader; they're silent unless someone feels moved to speak.) And my yoga classes were always packed with people in search of something more than a workout.

Take it from Billy Graham and material-girl-turned-mystic Madonna: Many of us feel a need to believe in something larger than ourselves. And now researchers are beginning to uncover the biology behind this urge. Scientists say that some people may have a gene that makes them more spiritual, and they are discovering that religious feelings may come from specific areas of the brain.

To me, the news is as welcome as an unexpected invitation to Kwanzaa dinner or to a winter solstice bonfire. It means that I have no reason to be embarrassed by my try-anything approach to spirituality. In fact, there's a good chance it's something I was simply born with, like my double-jointed elbows and overly sensitive taste buds.

The God Gene

It turns out that spirituality seekers like myself probably carry--embedded in our DNA along with the gene that determines whether we can roll our tongues and all the others that make us not only human but unique individuals--a particular version of a gene called VMAT2. Genes come in different flavors, which is why all of us have colored irises but some are brown and others blue or green. The VMAT2 gene comes in two forms--one of which, it seems, makes people more likely to seek out transcendent experiences (Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia doesn't count). Some call it the "God gene."

The link between VMAT2 and spirituality is the discovery of Dean Hamer, Ph.D., a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, who came upon the microscopic miracle worker quite unexpectedly. Hamer's job is to track down the links between behavior, personality, and the risk for diseases such as cancer and AIDS. One of his recent projects was to study the genetic basis of cigarette addiction. He gave some college students a personality test called the Temperament and Character Inventory. Then he took blood samples from the students and analyzed their DNA. His conclusion: There may well be a gene that makes some people more prone to getting hooked on smoking.

Mission accomplished. But not long after Hamer finished that study, he ran into the psychiatrist who'd designed the personality test, Robert Cloninger, M.D., of Washington University in St. Louis. In casual conversation, Dr. Cloninger made a comment that caught Hamer's attention. "He said, 'More people pray every day than have sex,'" Hamer recalls. (It's true: Surveys show that 59 percent of Americans have a daily prayer habit, while only 5 percent can say the same for nooky.) Hamer was intrigued. The sex drive is our most bottom-line biological urge--without it, we wouldn't be here. So if people pray more than they get laid, does that mean that religion could be just as basic a human need?

Conveniently, the personality test he'd given the college students contained questions designed to measure "self transcendence"--that is, the ability to get lost in an experience and feel connected to something larger. Hamer looked again at the DNA samples and the questionnaires and found that the most spiritual people tended to have a particular version of VMAT2. Why? Hamer has a theory. VMAT2 controls feel-good brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, which keep us upbeat and motivated to seek out pleasure, like from coconut panna cotta and back rubs. Hamer thinks this same family of chemicals may also prime us for religious experiences--their levels fly off the charts when people take hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or Ecstasy. So, Hamer reasons, maybe people with the spiritual version of VMAT2 are feeling a natural form of that out-of-this-world high.

But many biologists say linking a character trait to a single gene is too simplistic. And Hamer himself acknowledges that the God gene isn't the end of the story. About 50 percent of us have it, he estimates, based on his study's findings, yet 91 percent of Americans believe in God or some universal spirit, according to a recent CBS News poll. Which goes to show that any number of things--from the midnight Masses your parents dragged you to as a child to the summer you spent trekking the Appalachian Trail--can influence your spiritual beliefs. Okay, so having the "religious version" of VMAT2 may not mean you're destined to sell all your worldly goods and head to Kathmandu. But Hamer claims you're a lot more likely to browse the religion aisle at Barnes & Noble than someone with the other version.

Zapped into Zen

But what does it mean to be spiritual, anyway? What exactly is going on in your head when you finger a rosary or chant om shanti in yoga class? Michael Persinger, Ph.D., coordinator of the behavioral neuroscience program at Laurentian University in Ontario has been studying just that.

Persinger believes that when we sense ourselves in the company of a divine presence, be it Jesus Christ, Yahweh, or Allah, a part of the brain called the right temporal lobe is firing on all cylinders. This brain area, located just above the right ear, is where we process noise--everything from the comforting hiss of a Starbucks espresso machine on Monday morning to the jarring screech of a siren coming up behind you on the highway. This is the brain area that helps us enjoy a Mozart symphony or the latest Strokes hit. It's also an area that's subject to seizures--experiences that can cause intense hallucinations. Is it coincidence, Persinger asked himself, that saints and visionaries tend to hear the voice of God--from Moses, who had that famous run-in with the Almighty at the burning bush, to Saint Paul, who converted to Christianity after Jesus spoke to him on the road to Damascus? He didn't think so. Persinger wondered whether the temporal lobe might be the brain area that's activated when we feel a holy being is nearby--and possibly even communicating with us.

To test his theory, Persinger designed a bizarre-looking cap studded with wire coils. Blindfolded volunteers don the headdress and enter a dark room. Then Persinger turns on the juice. The helmet creates a mild electromagnetic field that penetrates deep inside the wearer's right temporal lobe. This field interferes with the normal electrical impulses of local brain cells, coaxing them to fire instead in patterns that Persinger has specially calibrated to stimulate spiritual experiences. And within minutes, 80 percent of people sense a presence in the room with them, usually just over their left shoulder (the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa). Sounds creepy, but most people actually enjoy it--so much so that they ask to do it again. But Persinger won't let them. "I don't want it to become an entertainment machine," he says.

What does it all mean? Persinger thinks the brain chemicals controlled by Hamer's God gene are especially active in the right temporal lobe. In time, he expects the various strands of research--on genes, brain chemicals, and specific God-activated brain areas--collectively to confirm that spirituality is centered in the right half of the brain.

The Power of Prayer

So if there is a spiritual drive, and it's as strong as the ones that compel us to gorge on Taco Bell and flirt with handsome strangers, then what's it for? One possibility: Just as our instincts to eat and to have sex sustain our species (our genes' main task), perhaps those of us who have faith also have an advantage in the survival-of-the-fittest game.

Studies show that being religious may improve your health. For example, people who read the Bible or pray daily and who attend religious services at least weekly are 40 percent less likely to have a common type of high blood pressure, according to a 1998 study by Harold G. Koenig, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center. People who worship more than once a week also have better-­functioning immune systems, according to a 2004 study by Susan Lutgendorf, a psychologist at the University of Iowa. And a 1998 study of depressed elderly people found that those who had a strong internal faith recovered 70 percent faster.

If religion doesn't actually make you healthier, it might help steer you toward the straight and narrow, which will keep you safer. According to Dr. Koenig, a leading researcher in the field, people who belong to a church or other religious community are less likely to do risky things like smoke cigarettes. Meanwhile, social contacts--pancake breakfast in the church basement, anyone?--help people cope with stress. And perhaps most of all, faith encourages optimism, which has been shown time and again to help people live longer and better.

No Need For A Creed

But what if praying comes about as naturally to you as reciting the periodic table? No worries. It's not as if there's some particular creed or religion that leads to a healthier life. Meditation will do the trick just fine. The physical benefits of meditation are well known--like prayer, it bolsters the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and over time can improve stress-related conditions, including insomnia, arthritis, and heart disease. Nonbelievers, rejoice! And new research is turning up more and unexpected health benefits to meditation.

For one thing, it seems to make people smarter. A recent study showed that the brain area responsible for planning, decision making, and other high-level activities doesn't deteriorate with age in longtime meditators. And even newer research suggests that meditators may be getting the same mental and physical pick-me-up that we normally get from sleep. Bruce O'Hara, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky, has discovered that meditation gives people a huge performance boost: 40 minutes in the lotus position is the equivalent of drinking 4 to 5 cups of coffee. In his latest research, which isn't yet published, he got a clue as to why. O'Hara recorded meditators' brain waves with an EEG (electroencephalogram) machine and found that their brain cells were firing in unison, much the way they do during deep slumber. "Meditation could be restorative in the same way as sleep," he says. So if you're bleary the morning after a boozy girls' night out, you might try some deep breathing before operating heavy machinery.

I find all this very reassuring. My theory about myself is this: I think I've got the God gene. (I can't know for sure; although testing for the gene is pretty straightforward, no one's doing it commercially right now.) But since I didn't grow up following a particular religion, I have no ready outlet for my spiritual drive. Which explains, I guess, the hodgepodge of alternatives I've dabbled in--the psychics, mediums, and all the rest. Still, through meditation, yoga, and guest appearances at Passover seders, Easter sermons, and Ramadan feasts, I satisfy my spiritual cravings--and likely stay mentally and physically balanced. It's a bit messy, a little unorthodox--but for me, it's religion.

Percentage of world population that is religious: 84

Most popular religion worldwide: Christianity, 2 billion adherents

Second most popular religion worldwide: Islam, 1.2 billion adherents

Percentage of Americans who attend religious services weekly: 43

Number of Americans who pray at least once a week: 9 out of 10

Percentage of Republicans who say religion is very important: 70

Percentage of Democrats who say religion is very important: 69

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