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An article in the New York Times recently explored arguments for the existence of a “God gene” and its potential evolution among humans.

Say what?

It’s not a particularly new idea: archaeologists, anthropologists, and other varieties of social scientists have observed for some time that religion of some sort has developed in just about every known civilization, and at various stages of cultural development. Evolutionary theory would assume the near-universal existence of religion implies that natural selection favors it.

It’s not hard to imagine why: religion has the potential of promoting social cohesion, a moral order, self-restraint, and altruistic behavior. Those who are (genetically?) inclined to adopt their culture’s religious tenets might be more likely to fit in and be successful in passing on their genes.

Many religious folk are likely to take offense at the notion that natural selection could have anything to do with the development of religion. But, I have heard Christian apologists argue for the existence of God by saying that humans have an innate longing for God, ergo, God must exist (and have put the longing in our hearts). I’ve always thought that logic was a bit lame, but one could apply the “God gene theory” in the same way: if humans have a gene that predisposes them to a belief in God, does that imply that God put it there?

I can’t answer that question, though it’s an intriguing thought. A primary objection to the idea is to ask why some people would have the “seek the divine” gene and some people wouldn’t, though a firm Calvinist might contend that’s evidence of predestination.

These days, perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the God gene theory is the underlying assumption that religion functions to promote moral order and “patch up the social fabric.” In the past three decades or so, we’ve been more likely to see religion used in divisive ways. Whether it’s a division within a denominational family, within a country (e.g., the religious right and left in America), or between global cultures, each thinking their religion should reign supreme, humans are quite capable of using religion to rip the social fabric apart.

Does that mean we also have an “evil gene”?

That one’s easier to defend: we call it “original sin.”

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