are We free to choose our religion?

Source: Amazing. By Alfonso Jiménez Sánchez (02/04/2012)


¿Somos libres para decidir nuestra religiosidad?

Does the religion we profess, and the spirituality that we have, are a cultural creation passed down from generation to generation, or our genes make us as we are?

A concept commonly accepted by most is that we are determined by genes belonging to one group within a scale that ranges from pragmatism to idealism, from skepticism to credulity, and from materialism to spirituality.

However to believe in one or the other god is a cultural issue which is acquired by our mental development in a particular environment.

The characteristics of each god and religion are a product of the culture of each people and each period, but the predisposition to have a greater or lesser spirituality is conditioned by our genes (Hamer, The gene of god, 2006).

First, we know what we are talking about differentiating the two words. Religion is the set of beliefs and dogmas about a god; spirituality is associated with sensitivity, with little interest in the material and inclination toward the spiritual (see RAE). Everyday experience teaches us that a religious person can have a deep spirituality, or keep it very low, and, in the same way, a person who does not believe in any religion can have a high or no spirituality. As would a castizo, “there are people pa tó”.

While there is a clear difference between these two concepts, it is also evident that a very religious person has a high spirituality, and vice versa; this association of religion and spirituality allow me to around in this article with the term religiosity. In the same way gives a high correlation between materialism and atheism. These relationships do not prevent, however, can occur, although more rarely, atheists, spiritual believers and materialists.

If the religiosity was determined by our genes, we should find a behavior more or less religious-spiritual related to some diseases caused by alterations of the brain or our genes.

Crespi and Badcock, 2008, Kanazawa, 2008, and many others suggest that schizophrenics, who are hipermentalísticos and paranoid, they may be more predisposed to religiosity and to see the hand of god behind the natural phenomena, while, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the autistic would be less religious due to their hipomentalismo. The clinical experience with schizophrenic patients and psychotic confirms completely this idea. The psychotic is more worried by religious questions, and in general found meanings “hidden” (supernatural) to situations that to others are natural.

A phenomenon that occurs with a certain frequency, known as apofenia, consists in perceiving the existence of patterns, such as faces or figures, or connections between events, where they are not. That way it gives sense or meaning to something that lacks it.

All the people we have, to a greater or lesser extent, a tendency to seek (and find) patterns in a variety of situations (faces or animals in the form of clouds, of mountains, of stains on the walls, etc If in Google maps satellite you put the coordinates +50 ° 0′ 43″, -110 ° 6′ 52″ you will get a mountain of Canada with the indian face (including the feathers).

In addition to viewing what is not there, we may be evolutionarily designed to infer intentions behind natural phenomena, as the consequence of sobreinterpretar erroneously intentionality –be paranoid to phenomena perfectly natural (e.g. an unexpected noise in the forest)– is less costly in evolutionary terms that the consequence of not infer an intention wrongly and being attacked by predators and enemies when they least expect it (Haselton & Nettle, 2006). Therefore, natural selection would lead us to be a little paranoid because potentially it could save our life and we may be religious because we are paranoid and we see the “hand of god” behind phenomena perfectly natural. Recent theories in evolution suggests that religiosity is not in itself an adaptation but a byproduct of other adaptations psychological.

In his interesting book “The god of everyone” (Alliance edt., 2011), the professor Francisco Mora describes some studies carried out on well-known characters ultrarreligiosos analyzing the biography and his own writings in which they described multiple visions, hallucinations, and delusions, and their interpretations of the supernatural. It seems very likely that the high religiosity of these people were influenced by diseases such as epilepsy of Paul of Tarsus, the schizophrenia of Francis of Assisi, or the well-documented temporal lobe epilepsy of Teresa of Avila, whose symptoms were counted by herself.

This tendency to detect phenomena or images non-existent can be seen strongly accentuated by the effect of certain pathologies, such as those already mentioned, or the consumption of drugs, such as amphetamines, in which you can see images that no one else can see. According to the professor of physiology, Francisco Mora, the apofenia can explain phenomena considered paranormal, as well as phenomena of perception of religious content, such as the apparitions of saints, or the virgin, or of god himself.

According to this author, view images non-existent should not be considered extraordinary; what is extraordinary is that the visions and thoughts that arise in the mind as a result of a pathological state are interpreted as supernatural.

The title of his latest book, “The god of everyone”, summarizes the idea that there is no universal god, but that each creates in his own mind a god suitable to their culture and their needs. For some millennia the people were fighting and the wars were at the turn of every dispute or every crazy for power, and so god created for Moses was a god warrior, warrior, angry, cruel, implacable, he was asked to destroy the enemy, a god that when something is not liked sent fire, pests or floods to get rid of evil.

What causes our brain to make us be more or less prone to religiosity? It seems that this trend is caused by the neurotransmitter dopamine.

According to the neuropsychiatrist Peter Brugger, the apofenia is the result of an activity excessively high of the dopaminergic system. Recently, Sazaki and others found in various studies that people with gene variants of the detector of the dopamine DRD4 that you do have greater sensitivity, have a greater response to certain environmental stimuli and are more spiritual.

From these jobs, Fred Previc has developed a theory in which it considers that the high levels of dopamine in the brain may be associated with the so-called religious experiences, and lead to a person to be an ardent follower of a religion. According to his theory, the excess of dopamine can lead a person to interpret an anomalous experience, but as natural, as something of a mystical nature or spiritual, and find patterns in the non-existent causality to the point of getting to convince themselves that they were predestined by a supernatural force and become a fanatic defender of their god. In this same line, several recent works describe an increase in dopamine levels during the meditation and in some trances.

In an interesting work (Newberg 2012) described an experiment which showed on a screen, words and faces are not too clear to religious people and non-believers. The result was that the religious were more likely to see them where the non-believers did not. However, when the more skeptical they were injected with dopamine were able to see the figures coded that before did not see.

Recent neurological studies lead, therefore, to determine that we are spiritual or materialistic, whether believers or atheists, depending on whether our genes make us have a greater or lesser amount of dopamine in our brain. High dopamine causes a greater religiosity and gullibility, and this is innate, while the belief in one or another god, it solely depends on where we were born, therefore of the culture that we have received, and this is a human creation.


This article participates in the Awards Nikola Tesla scientific dissemination.

Alfonso Jiménez Sánchez, Doctor in Biology from the University of Seville, specialising in Genetics. He has been a professor/researcher in the universities of Seville, Stanford (California, USA), Córdoba, Leicester (U. K.), Badajoz. Professor of Genetics since 1988.

References and bibliography:

-Hamer D. , The gene of god. Edit. The field of books, 2006

-Mora, F. The god of every one. Alianza edit., 2011

-Newberg AB. Is there any difference between the brain of an atheist and the brain of a religious person? Scientific American January 16 :51, 2012

Crespi B, & Badcock C (2008). Psychosis and autism as diametrical disorders of the social brain. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 31 (3) PMID: 18578904

Kanazawa, S. (2008). Are schizophrenics more religious? Do they have more daughters? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31 (03) DOI:10.1017/S0140525X08004330

Haselton, M., & Nettle, D. (2006). The Paranoid Optimist: An Integrative Evolutionary Model of Cognitive Biases Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10 (1), 47-66 DOI: 10.1207/s15327957pspr1001_3

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