Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Genetic Roots of Religious Belief

Robert Winston sets out some interesting thoughts on how religious belief may be a part of our genetic make-up, and how religion may have helped early human societies to suvive better than non-religious societies. He also mentions some smallscale qualitative research amongst identical twins (conducted by Thomas Bouchard) which suggests that the religious impulse is driven more by genetic make-up than by environment.

Winston refers to the difference between "extrinsic" and "intrinsic" religious practice, a distinction first mooted by Harvard psycholgist Gordon Allport in the 1950's. "Extrinsic" religion, Allport proposed, is practised primarily to further an individual's social goals; "intrinsic" religion is an ordering principle of life. Not surprisingly, the fomer is associated with higher levels of guilt and shame, whilst the more spiritual "intrinsics" appear to have lower levels of stress.

Bouchard's research with the identical twins (aside from being purely qualitative) seems to me to raise more questions than it answers. For if the religious impule is indeed genetically useful - rather than, as Richard Dawkins seems to suggest, an "evolutionary disaster area" - it is so primarily at the level of the group, rather than the individual. This would suggest it would be handed down the generations through social interaction, tradition and education, rather than through an individual's genes. Yet the identical twin study suggests that the generational handing down of the religious impulse is genetic more than environmental.

Aside from that, these ideas about religion seem commonsensical enough. Indeed, our own Claude de Bigny has written in similar terms about the prehistorical and future functions of religion, if with a characteristically de Bignyesque twist.

Link to the full article in today's Guardian: Guardian Unlimited The Guardian Robert Winston: Why do we believe in God?

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