Field of Science

How your genes can affect your response to religion

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries a signal across nerve junctions. You might know of it because of its links to Parkinson's disease, but it's actually pretty widespread in the brain and does a number of interesting things.

Variants of one particular molecular receptor for dopamine, the D4 receptor, seem to have interesting links with risk taking and novelty seeking. But the links are not at all straightforward, and recent research suggests that what it actually does is tweak your susceptibility to environmental influences.

Joni Sasaki, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wanted to know if this could help explain the mixed responses to religious priming that have been reported before. As regular readers of this blog will know, giving people subliminal religious prompts seems to make them more prosocial, but the effect doesn't seem clear cut.

So what Sasaki and colleagues did was to run a straightforward religious priming experiment. The subjects (all undergraduates) had to unscramble words to form sentences. Half the subjects were given sentences that had a religious theme, the other other had non-religious sentences. The idea is to get people thinking about religion without realising what they are doing.

Afterwards, they measured their subjects willingness to volunteer for a bunch of actual organizations and clubs around the college.

The top line results were similar to other studies. Overall, religious people were no more willing to volunteer than the non-religious, but people who had been primed with religion were more willing to volunteer - regardless of whether or not they were religious themselves.

But not everybody responded to the priming. As the graphic shows, the response depended on the variant of the D4 gene. People with one particular variation (2-/7-repeat allele) got a really big prosocial boost from the religious prime. People with the other variant were pretty prosocial without the prime, and their prosociality actually decreased with priming!

All this goes to show that the relationship between genetics and religion is not at all straightforward (something I've touched on before. This particular gene variant seems to make people more susceptible to environmental influences - whether religious or otherwise.

If you looked at these people in a religious environment, then you would say that this is a gene 'for' religion. Put these same people in a non-religious environment, and you would say that is a gene 'against' religion!
Sasaki, J., Kim, H., Mojaverian, T., Kelley, L., Park, I., & Janusonis, S. (2011). Religion priming differentially increases prosocial behavior among variants of the dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) gene Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsr089

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Here's a thought: it seems that the gene tends to make people "fit in" to whatever environment their in. If they're in a religious setting, then it makes one lean towards religiosity. If its in a secular setting, it makes one lean towards secularism.

    I wonder about running the same experiment on some other characteristic besides religiosity.

  2. Like being taken in a pyramid scheme!

  3. I'm thinking that it does something simpler.

    If you are non-religious, you might have negative feelings toward religions. Because many associate religions with volunteering, that may account for the people who volunteer less when primed.

  4. Hi Tom!
    This is Jeannie, just wondering... if we share more than the 99% genes with the great apes, did they have the religious sense? It is notning about sci fi, take a look about the social behaivor that Fosey and Goodal shows in their literature... what happen if -just by chance- they have this gene and we use the God´s Helmet in a Washoe or Koko... Think it over.

  5. Tom, I had trouble understanding the last part of this post.

    What does this mean:
    "The top line results were similar to other studies."

    What "top line"? In the graph? What "other studies"?

    I take it that paragraph has nothing to do with the graph.

    I thought you might want to clarify that.

    Also, you wrote,

    "people who had been primed with religion were more willing to volunteer - regardless of whether or not they were religious themselves."

    But the graph shows that priming improves sociability in both DRD4 variants. But you don't tell us how they classified participants as "religious" in the study nor about the DRD4 distribution percent among religious or non-religious.

    Also, how does "This particular gene variant seems to make people more susceptible to environmental influences" -- it seems this study only shows that the 2-/7 variant only makes people susceptible to religious priming -- I saw no hint of other susceptibility to environmental influences. Lack of that gene (looking at the confidence interval bars) does nothing to priming -- lacking the gene does *not* drive a prime person to be less social as your last paragraph implies.

    All I see this study saying is that "Presence of a certain D4 Dopamine receptor variant increases the probability of vulnerability to religious priming."

    Could you help clarify my confusion. Thanks.

  6. Fillipo, yes, it's probably something like that. there's a lot of research done on this particular gene. It used to be thought that certain variants code for conflict, or for addiction. But this is some evidence (there is other) that it's linked to different kind of behaviours in different circumstances.

  7. Jean, well strictly speaking we're talking alleles (i.e. gene variations) here, not genes. Humans share almost all the same genes, but we have different versions of those genes. Chimpanzees and humans share 96% of genes, but those 4% are quite important!

  8. Sabio, 'top line' meaning 'headline'. Prob should just say headline :)

    What the graph shows is two variants on the gene. The variant the left is linked to a high response to priming.

    Religious and non-religious had the same genetic makeup (roughly speaking - really you need hundreds of people to pick up that kind of nuance).

    But the point is not that this gene variant leads to religion, but more that there is a gene that could be linked to religion in the right environmental context. That's because it's linked to conforming to social pressure. So you could maybe find that it's linked to religion in a religious society, and non-religion in a non-religious society.

    Now, I don't know if it is. But this is an example of why those studies that find a 'genetic' basis to religion are often misinterpreted. Yes, there is a genetic contribution to religion, but not the same genes in different environmental contexts, if that makes sense?

  9. I think the quality you are talking about is Obsession. Altered dopamine responsiveness in disorders such as Sydenham's Chorea and Tourette's syndrome are highly associated with obsessive behavior.
    The object of the obsession is situational. Religion and atheism are only two options- there's money and politics and love and sports, etc.


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