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12 February 2013

Genes, Religion, and the Social

Having exhausted my backlog of Office Hours episodes, I've started listening to the New Books in Sociology podcast. Yesterday, I got to the interview with Phil Zuckerman, author of Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. Host--or as she oddly insists "hostess"--Annie Sapucaia asked Zuckerman what he thought about the hypothesized "God gene," which he candidly called "bullshit." He explained, saying that everything that humans do is at some level hardwired into our brains; it's the distribution of our predisposition to such behaviors or beliefs that matters, though. Dancing, he said for example, is found in every culture that has ever existed. What varies is how good people are at it. A rare few are exceptionally good at dancing, and a rare few are exceptionally bad at dancing, but the bulk of us fall in the middle. (Zuckerman barely but successfully avoided the term "bell curve.") Religion, he said, is similar. Some express high levels of religiosity, others not as much.

Another explanation occured to me that I'd like to elaborate here. I don't think there is a direct biological drive to religiosity. I do, however, think that there is an indirect genetic connection. Human beings are predisposed genetically to sociability. We experience intrinsic reward to solidarity, cohesiveness, communality, or whatever you want to call it. We are radically social. Religion is society's self-reflective impulse. It is the way that we inarticulately express our collective identities. We learned this from Le Durk over 100 years ago, who wrote that "God is society." Inasmuch as religion is an expression of sociability, religion then becomes a proxy measure of that tendency toward sociability. Essentially, it's a spurious relationship: there is a correlation between our genes and religiosity but only because our genome directs us to be social, and being social often expresses as religion.

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