Is God Just a Human Invention? - Video Interview and Book Excerpt with Sean McDowell
- Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Finally, perhaps the idea that humans invented God to meet their desires is precisely backward. Perhaps the reason humans have a desire for the divine is because something or someone exists that will satisfy them. C. S. Lewis powerfully articulates this point: "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire, which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only arouse it, to suggest the real thing."7
The "God Gene" and Neuroscience
We are living in the biotech century and genetic information has taken center stage. Humanity will benefit from mapping the human genome (completed in 2003), and we should applaud that progress.8 But the focus on genetics has some unfortunate byproducts. One example is The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes by Dean Hamer. In this book Hamer explores the impact of genetics on belief in God. The specific gene in question, that everyone has some version of, is VMAT2. Hamer claims that this gene accounts for the spirituality that emerges in some people but not others.
To be fair, Hamer admitted his title was overstated in a later interview and that there "probably is no single gene."9 But if he knew this going in, then why not change the title of the book? Admissions such as these after the fact never make it on the cover of magazines to correct public misconceptions. The implication to be drawn from his title is that the God question can be reduced to a genetic roll of the dice. Some believe and some don't and it is not a matter of evidence or truth.
None of Hamer's work was subjected to peer review by other geneticists or published in any scientific journals. And the study, upon which the book was based, was never repeated. While The God Gene became a New York Times best-seller and made the cover of Time magazine, the book's main conclusion has been shown to be completely overstated and unreliable. The Human Genome Project director, Francis Collins, states plainly, "There is no gene for spirituality." In an interview, Collins suggested a more appropriate title for Hamer's book, The Identification of a Gene Variant Which, While Not Yet Subjected to a Replication Study, May Contribute About One Percent or Less of a Parameter Called Self-Transcendence on a Personality Test. But then he added,"that probably wouldn't sell many books though."10
So we can dismiss Hamer's "God gene," but what about future discoveries? Collins gives us wisdom on what to make of future genetic link discoveries and the implications of those discoveries for certain behaviors, diseases, or belief in God:
There is an inescapable component of heritability to many human behavioral traits. For virtually none of them is heredity ever close to predictive. Environment, particularly childhood experiences, and the prominent role of individual free choices have a profound effect on us. Scientists will discover an increasing level of molecular detail about inherited factors that undergird our personalities, but that should not lead us to overestimate their quantitative contribution. Yes, we have all been dealt a particular set of genetic cards, and the cards will eventually be revealed. But how we play the hand is up to us.11
Similarly, we need to temper our conclusions in neuroscience in the same way Collins encourages in regard to genetics. Neuroscience is a critical field of study that promises to be fruitful in many ways. Much has been made of religious experiences being manipulated, whether through electrodes hooked up to the brain or by taking certain drugs.* But philosopher Keith Ward discusses the inherent limitations associated with neuroscience:
What neuroscience can do, then, is to clarify the physical basis in the brain of human beliefs and feelings… What neuroscience cannot do is prove that religious belief or behavior is nothing more than the by-product of brain behavior or of our naturally evolved cognitive processes. The question of truth remains primary. . . . Brain processes come up with truths and falsehoods. But brain processes alone cannot distinguish between them. What can? People with brains can, and they do so by using their brains, not being controlled by them! 12
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