01/03/2012 09:21 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

Is God in Our Genes?

When I was 13, I decided that I wanted to become religious. My childhood had been a smorgasbord of a religious upbringing, with an Episcopalian mother and a Jewish father. But the idea of God was appealing -- a higher power to have a faith in, someone to pray to when need be. I decided I would have a Bat Mitzvah.

I loved debating Torah interpretation and learning Hebrew -- a language that seemed to drip with history and culture. But when the ceremony was done, I realized I hadn't truly progressed in my belief system. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't bring myself to believe in God. I began to wonder why. After all, I knew plenty of people who seemed to have no trouble with it. Was it my upbringing? Had I started too late?

Recently though, I've been reading some very interesting studies about religion in correlation with genetics -- specifically geneticist Dean Hamer's The God Gene. As I understand it, his hypothesis states that there may be a gene (specifically the VMAT2 gene sequence) that could predispose one towards spirituality. Now of course, this does not mean that one is either genetically hardwired to be a member of the Catholic Church or not. It simply means that one may have a genetic predisposition to certain qualities that enable one to be more spiritual. There are three qualities that have been specifically identified as possible pre-dispositions in correlation with this gene. These are "self-forgetfulness" (the ability to become completely absorbed in something), "transpersonal identification" (the ability to feel connected to something larger than yourself), and "mysticism" (the ability to believe in things that may not be completely provable).

Now you may inherit one of these qualities or all three, but according to this study, the more you have the more, likely you are to be spiritual. While it seems Hamer believes pretty firmly in the genetic basis, I think nurture plays a role as well -- if you've been told your whole life there is a God, you are probably more likely to believe in one. It will certainly be interesting in years to come to see how the argument of nature vs. nurture progresses.

Overall, this hypothesis makes a lot of sense to me, as someone who has just never been able to grasp the concept of a higher being. However, it also raises some questions. There is plenty of controversy, both religious and scientific, and the validity of this study may be something only time, additional testing, and expanding knowledge will tell.

For me, though, it brings about another question. Why would a gene like this have developed in the first place? Well, we do know that religious/spiritual people tend to live longer on average. They display less signs of depression and anxiety, have lower blood pressure, and just generally display better health than non-believers. To me, this says that believing in something larger than yourself is better for mental health, and more and more we are learning about the beneficial effects of positive mental health on physical health. I also wonder if this spirituality had an evolutionary advantage in the sense of building community -- a belief in a higher power unites people, brings them together. Community is important for providing protection, as well as for mental health purposes.

But perhaps the most important question of all is, would the confirmation of the "God Gene" discredit religion? I may not be a believer, and I can be skeptical of organized religion and the corruption that sometimes follows it, but I do think that it can be good for people to have that capacity of spirituality. I love science, but I don't think there always needs to be such a divide between it and religion. If being spiritual can make people healthier and bring them together, then it wouldn't matter if God was in our genes or up in the sky, it would be the act of believing at all that was important.