Faith: Nature or Nurture? Is it a choice? Can people change?

I was watching CNN today as I was eating my lunch (black beans and saffron rice with piccadillo and spinach salad – awesome) and they were playing a rerun of an Anderson Cooper special on Christianity and faith. One portion of the show touched on recent findings that a person’s capacity for faith and spirituality may be genetically related. The story was based on the idea proposed by Dean Hamer in his book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes. I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t but I did check out a couple reviews of it (Scientific American and Washington Post).

It turns out that Hamer’s science is a little dodgy as it is full of caveats and contradictions and has yet to stand up to the rigors of peer-review. Maybe he should have done a bit more work before publishing, but that’s not really my point. Whether or not Hamer’s work is grounded in what we like to think of as “reality,” it brings up some interesting questions for discussion. And since the blog has been spookily quiet for about two days, I thought I might stir the pot a little (I’m sure you’ve all realized by now that I enjoy stirring it up). If you are game, follow me down this rabbit hole and we’ll see where it comes out.

If it turns out that Hamer is on to something and our capacity for spirituality and faith or even religion is genetically related, what are the implications? Would there be a “wrong” genetic/faith make-up? What would that be? If someone had the “wrong” genetic tendencies, can they change? Should they? Would this affect whether or not religious belief is a choice? What are the implications if it is a choice? Or if it isn’t? Would one choice be socially sanctioned as good and right and receive special rights, benefits, or … privilege? Would another choice be seen as bad, dangerous, or fragmenting to human identity and be denied rights or seen as grounds for discrimination? If one’s religio-spiritual identity is not based on choice, but is rather genetically or in some other way predetermined, should that identity reflect how one is treated in society? What if we found that there was a complicated combination of genetics, environment, personal experience, and free will that fed into one’s religio-spiritual identity? Is it possible that one’s identity in and of itself is morally neutral but what is important is how it is lived? Would the group with the identity that is socially sanctioned get to determine amongst themselves the fate, rights, or even the “rightness” of the identity that is not socially sanctioned? Would it offend anyone if they did?

If you are confused as to where I’m going with this, you might take a look at some of the other work Dean Hamer has done to make a name for himself and how that might relate to all these questions. It might also be worth reading a few posts back to this and this. Don’t forget to check out comments as this is a discussion oriented blog, that’s where the “fun” stuff happens.