British study links spread of faith to `believer gene'

January 14, 2011

LONDON (RNS) A British university study suggests that people of
strong faith can spread religion through a "believers' gene" that is
part of their DNA.

Cambridge University economics professor Robert Rowthorn theorizes a
"predisposition toward religion" in a paper published in "Proceedings of
the Royal Society B," a prestigious journal of Britain's Royal Society
of scientists.

Rowthorn suggests that people with strong religious beliefs tend to
have more children and that this, combined with a genetic predisposition
to believe, can explain the expansion of religion.

The academic cites the World Values Survey in 82 nations from 1981
to 2004, which found that people who attended religious services more
than once a week had an average of 2.5 children; those who never
attended averaged only 1.67.

"The more devout people are," Rowthorn wrote, "the more children
they are likely to have."

This, coupled with a "genetic endowment" that his theory ascribes to
strong believers, could mean the spread of faith across the broad sweep
of the population.

As one example of a rapidly growing religious community, Rowthorn
cited the explosion of the Old Order Amish population in the United
States, from 123,000 in 1991 to 249,000 in 2010.

In practice, Rowthorn said, many people leave their childhood
religions behind, or marry outside them and have less children, thus
slowing the spread of the "believer's gene."

But the genetic disposition remains so strong that "the religiosity
gene will eventually predominate," and a significant increase in
religious believers should still be on the cards, Rowthorn suggests.