scilogs Biology of Religion

Religiosity - partly inherited by Genes

from Michael Blume, 21. May 2009, 23:30
Of course, we don't have specific Genes inheriting the specific musics of Jazz and Beethoven or the languages of French and Chinese. But there is no scientific doubt that we have the genetically heritable traits of musicality and the abilities to speak - which then have to be acquired and formed into concrete, cultural forms in order to confer their benefits. And the same is true of religiosity and religions...

Religious behaviors are partly inherited by genes.

How do we know?

For one, religious behavior is a human universal - it is observable among people in all human societies known to us (since at least the middle paleolithic). Even totalitarian, atheistic regimes have not been able to wipe out religiosity - instead, they developped quasi-religious behavior themselves (as by ritually venerating deceased leaders, simulating omnipresence by pictures and monuments etc.). Of course, there's great individual and sociocultural variation in religious behavior, some people abstaining from it consciously and others never having had the chance to acquire much of it - exactly as we observe it with music and language. You can lose interest in all of these heritable traits, but if you didn't even learn to develop them as a kid, you'll seldom get an expert as an adult.

And second, we have a whole bunch of Twin Studies as presented by Thomas Bouchard and Laura Koenigs, which are measuring observable differences between genetic Twins reared together and apart. And they discover percentages of heritability of many human traits as Intelligence, Musicality - and Religiosity (40 - 60%).  

If you think about it, that's the finding we would expect. Through evolution, religiosity became a part of human nature. And the process is going on, as in all free societies, religious people tend to have (on average) more offspring than their secular neighbours of the same educational and income classes.

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Biology of Religion: Religiosity Genes (again) confirmed by (another) Twin Study
Biology of Religion: Atheists a dying breed as nature 'favours faithful' - Sunday Times Jan 02 2011 - Jonathan Leake - Full Draft Version
Biology of Religion: Charles Darwin about the Evolution of Religiosity and Religion(s)
Biology of Religion: Religions and Fertility in the US - GSS-Data


  1. Emad Sayed interesting
    02.06.2009 | 20:13

    thank you Dr. Michale for this great article .. i think i am about to addict this topic
    i believe that when god created us, he planted in our souls the curiosity of finding him , we "Humans" have tried to reach to God by all means , some people found God in Money , others found their god in power .
    this is part of our nature and part of our genome

  2. Michael Blume Thank you & Yes!
    03.06.2009 | 08:46

    Dear Emad,

    thank you for the encouraging response!

    And yes, you are right, religiosity is part of our nature (as is musicality and speech) - and we are at the same able and obliged to reflect how to use it.

    And in a certain sense, it's not just humanity, but the whole universe, from whose evolution the perception of God, prayer and ritual is emerging.

    So, one thing is for sure: There's absolutely no reason for religious people to fear science and reason. There might be timely misconceptions on either side and so there's a need of constant exploration and debate, but in the end, nobody has to fear contradictions between the belief in the Creator and the scientific observation of his creation.

    So, thank you very much for your posting, Emad!

  3. Raffy Tima Very Interesting Indeed
    12.06.2009 | 19:19

    Finally had time to read you blog, and its quite interesting.
    Indeed, religiosity much like every aspect of human existence has evolved and has taken root into our very being. But i think above all else, religiosity is an acknowledgement that there is a power out there greater than our own. Ever since our ancestors gazed at the sun, they have acknowledged that there is a being responsible for that miracle of light, a cognizance that we have inherited up to now because even with the advances in science, life and the universe is just so complex to explain and yet so simple to understand that there must be a higher being responsible for all of this.

  4. Michael Blume @ Raffy: Thank you!
    12.06.2009 | 19:36

    Yes, I agree with your observations. The thrilling thing is, that the quite natural-based belief in a supernatural power evolves into distinct and quite succesfull, cultural forms.

    I hope that science could help to a better understanding between believers and nonbelievers and between the different religions and worldviews. And besides that, we Humans seem to be very curious - we just "want" to know. :-) Up to now, the scientific findings and the German book ("Gott, Gene und Gehirn") have found encouraging interest. I wondered if this would be the same abroad. So, thank you very much for your nice and encouraging remarks!

    Best greetings, dear Raffy, to the wonderful Philippines!


  5. Corneel evolution?
    18.06.2009 | 12:31

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for an interesting blogpost. However, I'd like to point out an inconsistency in your logic. (sorry about that ;-).

    You mention that the heritability for religiosity is high. In other words: there is lots of genetic variation. Then, later on, you say that religious people tend to have more offspring than their secular neighbours, suggesting that religiosity confers some sort of evolutionary advantage. However, if the latter is true, you expect exactly the opposite: a very low heritability, since all genetic variation would be exhausted, and you are only left with highly religious people. From the heritability data, I would conclude that religiosity is NOT evolutionary important, but some sort of side effect of selection on other behaviour. Any ideas?

  6. Michael Blume Thanks & Of course! :-)
    18.06.2009 | 13:11

    Hi Corneel,

    thanks for the insightful question!

    Yes, we have had the debate in Germany several times, although I understood the heritability rates not as exceedingly high (see Bouchard & Koenig linked). But the reproductive effect indeed is so massive that the question "Why are there nonbelievers around?" has become a focus of debate. At the moment, there are two main lines of reasonings related to the topic here (which have not to be exclusive, as is so often the case):

    1. Religiosity as a trait is pretty young, i.e. discernible ritual burials among Sapiens and Neanderthalensis have been found since the middle paleolithic (120.000 yrs., maybe 160.000 yrs.). And above that: the selective pressure on the reproductive side might today be higher than ever before, as new inventions as state-welfare, state-education, pension plans instead of children etc. are making marriage, children and religious affiliation to a costly matter of choice for more and more people as never before. According to this reasoning, the rather young evolution of religiosity has just gained dynamics, and the outswamping of skeptics is just on the way.

    2. Others point out, referring to the same environmental and cultural changes, that it is not quite clear that religiosity would have worked always in the way "the much, the better". The usual situation could have favoured the bell-shaped behavior that we (still?) observe among modern Homo Sapiens: Minorities of dedicated believers and sceptics, who are each ready to face costs and even discrimination for their cause and a big middle ground of opportunistis able to swing to the socially winning sides (look i.e. at the differences in church membership and religious practice between Eastern Germany and Western Germany, one regime having discriminated religious behavior, the other supporting it. Those Eastern Germans who remained in Church are often those very strict and active.). And if we look at todays religious group-structures among hunters and gatherers we see just that: some people eagerly actively seeking religious behaviors and experiences i.e. in Shamanistic roles, some others more skeptic or seeking new answers (although not atheistic in the modern sense) and a majority floating in-between. If we look at a constant task of religious communities then and today, to find and augment new answers to environmental change, groups of too much leniency or rigidity might have been at a disadvantage, favouring bell-shaped compositions.

    For a variety of reasons I tend to explanation 2, although I wouldn't rule out 1 completely (we sketched both in our German book). As a small contribution to the discussion from the perspective of the scientific study of religion, I hope to have finished a study about skeptics (and possible benefits observable today or in paleolithic environment) at the end of the year.

    So, you see: The debates are raging, and you are very welcome, Corneel!

  7. Corneel evolution of religiosity
    18.06.2009 | 14:02

    Thank you for your detailed response. For what it is worth: My first intuition was that religiosity was not adaptive (Ockham's razor and al that), but I gather from your response that there is a considerable reproductive advantage. That argues against my argument. Darn! I thought I had solved it, haha.

    all the best, Corneel

  8. Michael Blume Reproductive Advantage
    18.06.2009 | 14:20

    Hi Corneel,

    yeah, I completely agree with your kind post and "darn"-experience - as I remember it myself. :-) I got the double hit of having worked with data from the Swiss Census and visited some Amish-regions of the US. Take to that I often work with religious Jews and Muslims, and there was no serious doubt left that religiosity had the potential to augment cooperative and reproductive success. While we assembled more and more data, we were still looking around for a single secular community showing the same resilience and birth rates as Amisch, Hutterites, Mormons, orthodox Jews etc. for just three generations. We found - zero.

    Since then, I have surrendered to the data. :-) There is a brand new, interdisciplinary book to appear in August with lots of empirical stuff about the Biological Evolution of Religiosity, maybe of interest to you or some of your colleagues:

    Best wishes, see ya, Corneel!

  9. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Religion and biology
    10.08.2011 | 22:07

    Religion is inherited by genes? Religion is based on human judgment, not on biological engines. How can you reduce human thought,judgment and choice to the action of genes? This is a misuse of evolutionary science, which has no scientific instruments to explore the judgments, ethics and personal choices of human beings. Evolution is concerned solely with biology and is not a universal science as its proponents assert.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

  10. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Reply to Michael Blume
    27.08.2011 | 17:06

    1 - The premise that biology is the source, the cause and the Etiology of Religion is false and contradctory.

    2 - There is no observable causal link in the somatic and psychosomatic structure of human beings and the human cognitive powers.

    3 - The premise is based on a confused understanding of the word "biology".

    4 - The premise is also based on evolutionary principles drawn from Charles Darwin's "The Descent of Man" and not on observable data in the somatic, psychosomatic and cognitive structure of the human beings.

    5 - There is no observable data in the human embryo that indicates an evolutionary origin - and any conclusion affirming this is drawn from the biology of non-human mammalian species.

    6 - The Human Embryo is specifically human, self-contained and equipped with exemplars of its somatic, psychosomatic and cognitive powers from the moment of conception.

    7 - Religion has its origin and cause in the Human Intellect, based on a reasoned judgment of objective and observable realities.

    I am prepared to defend these aruments in the public arena.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, BevbrASKA

  11. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Reply to John Jacob Lyons & Michael Bloom
    29.08.2011 | 16:03

    The reason The Biology ofv Religion" is a faux" science because it is based on a false reading of Darwin's "The Descent of Man". "The Descent of Man" is a flawed work because it applies data from non-human mammalian species to Homo Sapiens lacking scientific rigor. "The Descent of Man" is Darwin's revenge against God for the death of his daughter which he saw as the result of the truth of Survival of the Species. "The Descent is not a true scientific work.

    Father Clifford stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

  12. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Reply to J.A. Le Fevre
    01.09.2011 | 05:38

    When in a few weeks or months, the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and perhaps Time and Newsweek, have headlines that a priest has accused certain biologists of pseudoscience and scientific stoppiness in applying Darwin's principle of Natural Selection, how will you defend yourself in the public arena? Don't you realize that if your basic premise is true, it negates your science, or are you so lacking in logical skills that you cannot see that?

    You have taken the classical view of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas on the reasoning power of the human intellect, but by your reasoning deny it to every other member of the human species. Why are your minds the only exceptions to your premise that mind is controleld by mindless biology? Your premise does not stand the test of simple logic.

    Perhaps there is safety in numbers and from my reading of the Comments and conversation SciLog and other websites, I gather that you "Biologists of Religion" are rather large number and that your professional reputations are at stake if your Biology of Religion is proved false. But where has intellectual honest gone, and how far will you carry on this farce until someone in your ranks says, "Enough!"

    Your basic premise is false and that can be demonstrated by simple logic, and all the books in the world with titles like "The Fracture of an Illlusion: Science and the Dissolution of Religion", or "Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors", or "The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior, or "The Biology of Religion: A Darwinian Gospel" do not and cannot prove that your basic premise is true. You are builing a House of Cards that can be blown away by simple logic and it will not be long before the whole scientific community will recognize that the emperor has no clothes.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

  13. Michael Blume @Father Stevens
    01.09.2011 | 09:59

    Unfortunately, the existence of religious fundamentalists attacking not only serious scientists but also fellow believers is nothing close to news ready for the headlines...

    Evolutionary studies have long been surpassed the reductionist positions you seem to expect. By attacking science and scientists without true knowledge of the matter, you are doing your faith and your church no favor.

  14. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Reply to Michael Blume
    08.09.2011 | 01:52

    I am a priest, a theologian and a scientist, and I see you and your colleagues widening the gap between religion and science. I am not attacking serious scientists because no true scientist could fail to see the contradiction in the very concept of a "Biology of Religion". An "Anthropology of Religion", perhaps, but not your designation, Michael.

    As a matter of fact, it is you who are undermining your Faith and your Church because your basic premise seems to be that religion is an illusion, a fantasy created by genes and "adaptive behavior",
    and other nonesense. Apply this to your own religion and what do you come up with?

    I am not dealing with true scientists, I am dealing with a group of minor minds dabbling in the internal workings of the human psyche with no talent for genuine research and just an "old fellows" sense of comradeship energizing their fellowship. No true scientist could fail to see the contradiction in the very title of your science.

    When you can prove to me that you are more that little boys playing scientific games with each other, I will begin to take you seriously.

    You are like little boys playing with matches and lighting fires you cannot put out. This is not science, and I really don't know what to call it.

    Father Clifford Stevens

  15. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Reply to Michael Blume
    09.09.2011 | 18:09

    And Dr. Michael Blume - I will also make another outrageous statement, since you (and Richard Dawkins seem to believe that the existence of God is not a scientific question. I can help anyone to discover the existence of God with their own minds in about fifteen minutes and I can do it in a theatre filled with, say,500 people. The existence of God is almost self-evident when you use the right science. You are men of one science and that is the problem, you can;t break out of he narrow boundaries of your own science. And I will appear on any stage, any place in the world, with yourself or Dr. Dawkins and put you to shame in the presence of a theatre full of people.

    Of course, the existence of God is NOT self-evidence, but it can be demonstrated on solid scientific principles.

    I would like to do this for you in Carnegie Hall in New York, or Albert Hall in London, if you can make the arrangements. And I would be delighted if Dr. Dawkins were present.

    Father Clifford Stevens

  16. Father Clifford Stevens 751041 Reply to J.A. Le Fevre, John Jacob Lyons & Michael Blume
    13.09.2011 | 14:52

    Darwinism in Crisis by Clifford Stevens

    The almost two century bulwark of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory is bursting at the seams these days by a challenhe from the very religion it had consigned to the depths of non-entity or tried to link to the adaptive behavior of ants, bees and wass in the chain of evolution,or simply dismissed as a harmless fantasy of childlike minds.

    The challene has come from a century or more of Thomistic studies, which has produced remariable investigations of human nature that challenge most of the scientific pre-suppositions of Darwin's "The Descent of Man" and its basic tenet that human beings are defined by their biology.

    What has been shown to be totally inaccurate in the Darwinian corpus is the evolutionary model that has been standard for 150 years: human beings are totally defined by their biology and even the so-called "higher powers", the intellectual and volitional powers are merely outgrowths and producs of the biological powers of the human organism.

    Thomistic scholars, in a series of studies beginning in the early 20th century, have published indepth studies in a multitude of articles, monographs and doctoral theses, providing a more accurate model 0f the powers, habits and behavior of human beibgs, with an exhaustive analysis of these powers and a more definitive description of what human nature is really all about.

    In science, a theory is simply a model of the data revealed by the observation and analysis of a scientific subject, in this case, the observation and analysis of the human organism. What is revealed by the Thomistic studies, is that the evolutionary model of human nature is not an accurate model since it does not take into account the nature, scope and range of the human intellectual and volitional powers and degrades them to merely effects of biological intervention.

    With the publication of Robert Brennan's "Thomistic Psychology" in 1941, the culmination of half a century of Thomistic explorations into the natue of human beings, Thomistic studies took a giant step forward in the exploration of what is distinctly and specifically human, and came up with a definition of Homo Sapiens that radially contradicted the Darwinian model: human beings are creatures of the earth, with an array of biological, somatic, psychosomatic, intllectual and volitional powers that radically contradict the Darwinian model.

    Brennan's classic work was followed by studies in specialiized journals in Europe, the United States and Canada, culminating in the major work on St. Thomas Aquinas in the 20th century: "L'Initiation a Saint Thomas d'Aquin: Sa personne et son oeuvre" by Jean Torrell, O.P.. The challenge to Darwin's "The Descent of Man" was obvious in the new model presented to the scientific community on the nature of human beings in their earthly existence.

    The most profound effect that these studies hav had is in the Darwinian specialty called "A Biology of Religion", whose major thesis is that religion is the productof the biological powers of the human organism and that the intellectual and volitionary powers are mere illusions, created by various adaptive behaviors in evolutionary history.

    The Thomistic model has found remarkable scientific validity in the recent mappings of the Human Genome and in an explosion of detailed studies of the human embryo, giving a scientific basis for the Thomistic model and a wealth of new evidence in support of the Thomistic view.

    1. The Darwinian Mode.
    2. The Thomistic Model.
    3. The Human Genome.
    4. The Embryonic Sciences.
    5. Conclusions.

    To be continued.

    Father Clifford Stevens
    Boys Town, Nebraska

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