Thursday, May 05, 2005

The God Gene

I picked up the fascinating slim volume the God Gene. The author makes a case for a genetic basis of spiritual belief, citing twin studies showing that personality qualities such as self-transcendence have genetic concordance. He also discusses research into identifying the genes potentially responsible for this, and identifies one gene involved in monoamine metabolism. This is significant because the monoamines are involved in a number of processes from mood regulation to hallucinations during psychedelic drug experiences. The author, Dean Hamer, presents a number of fascinating research findings that I will share in an upcoming blog entry. For starters, I will share an interesting experience that happened to me while reading this book.

One evening, I was dining at the local culinary institute’s casual tavern. I was sitting at the bar, enjoying a meal by myself, reading the God Gene. This book has a bright yellow cover with the “God” emblazoned on it. I thought to myself about leaving the dust jacket in the car, and then dismissed the idea as irrelevant. While eating and reading, a thoughtful patron struck up a conversation with me regarding the book. While I was talking with him and sharing that it deals with the genetic basis of spiritual beliefs and the genetic and brain structures involved with spirituality, another man walked by and asked me a question. He said “I heard that since God is a man, and all men masturbate, then God must masturbate; is that true?” Astonished and perplexed by his question, I said “I wouldn’t presume to know.” This man had been drinking with a group of middle-aged folks who appeared to be part of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle club (perhaps a Vermont version of the Hell’s Angels at retirement age!). He repeated the question, and now it was obvious he was trying to get a reaction out of me. It was clear he was approaching me in response to what he read on the dust jacket of the book I had with me. The thoughtful man I had been talking with, started a conversation with this man. They talked for a while, and I returned to my dinner. Whatever they spoke about served to agitate the motorcycle man. He asked me what the book was about. I told him it was scientific research into the genetic basis of spirituality. I think all that he heard was I was some sort of religious freak. He started on a tirade, making sweeping generalizations about people like me, and my audacity to come into a public place and to provoke people with my book. At one point, he attempted to grab the book out of my hand. He was seething with anger. He was standing behind me, and had that combination of a measure of psychological suffering, alcohol, and a target for release. I feared if I got out of my seat to face him, he would resort to violence. Instead, I stayed put, watched my breath, and contained my own angry impulses over the indignation of being falsely accused like this, and patently misunderstood. As I learned later, this man’s daughter had been involved with a Christian cult in Island Pond Vermont, and he had been hurt by what he understood as religious freaks. In that moment of intoxication and opportunity, he misperceived my book as representing that which he feared and reviled. The irony is that he acted from the same psychological world of black and white generalizations that cults depend upon. It was not possible to reason with him, so I chose avoidance instead. This experience shook me up quite a bit. The nature of belief systems fascinates me, and I will certainly write future blog entries about this topic.

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