President's Column: God, Gays, and Genes

By August Berkshire

august headWhy is it that whenever the Religious Right gets power, they always go after gays and women first? Is it because their faith is basically a fertility cult, and so all sex must be procreative and women must be submissive?

If there is a genetic component to being susceptible to believing in gods, then this might explain why very religious people tend to have more children than atheists.

Scientists, who are mostly atheists, do not study “god” – there is nothing tangible to study. Instead, they study god-belief. One of the main questions they ask is whether the propensity for god-belief evolved as a primary trait or a secondary trait.

A primary trait is something necessary, such as the fact that blood carries oxygen. A secondary trait is one that is not necessary, such as the color of blood. Our blood could be green and, as long as it carried oxygen and carbon dioxide, that would be fine.

One good hypothesis for god-belief is that it is a secondary trait. The primary trait is what is called “agency detection” – the evolutionarily beneficial trait of looking for intelligent agents that cause natural phenomena.

Imagine you are in the woods and you hear a noise behind you. It is beneficial if you assume the noise is being caused by an intelligent agent, such as an enemy or a bear, and you turn around to check. If you guess right, you get a chance to defend yourself or run away. If you guess wrong, if it’s just the wind, you haven’t expended much time or energy. But if you don’t turn around, you might quickly find yourself out of the gene pool!

From this simple, primary trait of agency detection, we may have developed a secondary trait of hyperactive agency detection – “detecting” imaginary, invisible beings as the source of the natural world.

If god-belief were a primary trait, it would not be so easy to abandon. Think of your sexual orientation. This is a primary trait that is virtually impossible to change. Now think if you are attracted to people of a certain hair color. This is a secondary trait, and might well be changed if you have a good experience with someone of another hair color. After all, there is no correlation between hair color (a secondary trait) and fertility or companionship (primary traits).

So, the bad news is that we may have a hard-wired tendency to believe in gods. The good news, as 1970s feminists used to say, is that biology is not destiny. We can prevent a natural tendency to get pregnant by using condoms and the Pill, and we can prevent god-belief with a good dose of critical thinking.

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