Gender, Genetics, and God

By Cathleen Falsani 3-03-2009

"The difference between men and women," the humorist Dave Barry says, "is that, if given the choice between saving the life of an infant or catching a fly ball, a woman will automatically choose to save the infant, without even considering if there's a man on base."

We are, men and women, essentially different.

In 2003, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Washington University in St. Louis boiled down the genetic difference between human males and human females to 78 genes on the single Y chromosome.

The following year, Dean Hamer, a molecular biologist at the National Institutes of Health, published The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes, which proposed a genetic explanation for human spirituality - that people are, essentially, hardwired to seek a "higher power" or believe in God.

A single gene - the vesicular monoamine transporter No. 2 (or VMAT2) - affects brain chemicals that in turn affect people's spirituality, Hamer theorized, and that prayer, meditation, or sitting quietly can actually change the brain and our sense of spiritual experience. While reading through some of the results of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life - an extensive study based on interviews with more than 30,000 adult Americans - I couldn't help but wonder about the connection between gender, genetics, and spirituality.

According to the Pew survey, there is a significant statistical difference between how men and women think about God and relate to religion. For instance, when asked if they believe in God or a "universal spirit," 77 percent of women said they did, whereas only 65 percent of men answered "yes" to the same question.

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