Inheriting God

Your mother may not only make you nervous, she may also make you religious.

I’ve wanted to write about this topic for a while now. With the “Heaven is for Real” movie newly released, it seems a perfect time for this discussion.

The nascent field of behavioral epigenetics suggests that your mother’s experiences—even her diet—may have an effect on your temperament and predispositions. Previously, genetic changes were thought to occur only when the fetus was developing. But discoveries over the past decade by geneticist Moshe Szyf and neurobiologist Michael Meaney show that the experience of our parents and grandparents, and those ancestors before them, may be imprinted on the genetic material that’s passed along to offspring.

For example, if your grandfather was traumatized by war as a child or by an abusive, alcoholic parent, the fear he felt may have “scarred” his DNA. Not only could he have been an anxious adult, but he could have passed on a predisposition towards anxiety. While his DNA remained unchanged, a chemical known as a “methyl group” could have attached to his genes, turning on or off certain behavioral and psychological traits.

Interesting, eh?

Szyf and Meaney’s research answers the question, “Why do two people behave differently?” What causes one to be an optimist and the other a pessimist, for example?

But it also seems that there are additional implications of these studies. What makes one person predisposed to skepticism and another blindly devout? Is the tendency to fear authority imprinted on our genes? Could grandma’s childhood stress from a punishing, puritanical God or parent be imprinted on our genes? What about memories? Is it possible that déjà vu is an ancestor’s memory?

I don’t have the answers, but this new research certainly suggests that these genetic add-ons might hold the answer to why one sibling believes and another does not. It also might help us understand why a four-year-old boy has knowledge that his mom miscarried another child before he was born.

Then again, perhaps he just overheard his parents talking.

At the very least, I suspect this research holds a key as to why some folks have tendencies to blindly believe while others seem to have skeptical natures.  I will end here, short of suggesting that the devout may also be “cured.”

What are your thoughts on the genetic possibilities of belief?


23 responses to “Inheriting God

  1. As always, a post to give us lots to think about! Thank you, Debbie! AS for genetic disposition, my mother was not a religious person but my father was. Growing up, I was very much into “spiritual” thinking. Fortunately, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more factual, logical and into scientific thinking. Education really is the key.

  2. Thank you for a very interesting topic. I hadn’t heard of a methyl group. This could explain a lot. I love science. I will add to my list to read about the findings of Moshe Szyf and Michael Meaney.

    Off topic, I saw a short video clip of Billy Graham’s son claiming on TV that “God is real!” I thought, if there were any evidence for that in the least, no one would need to claim it so. Has anyone claimed “gravity is real!” after Isaac Newton?

  3. Both of my parents are quite religious and they come from very different backgrounds. I know as a small child, I did not feel any real connection to religion. As a teen I tried to make it work because I thought it would help me through a really tough period of time, but it didn’t do anything for me. My sister is a little more on the fence about it and has tried harder than I have to make it work, but she usually only does to try to satisfy our mom. So I am not sure what to think about the DNA theory. One thing about the little boy in the book/movie and his “memories” is that perhaps he heard people talking as a baby and those memories are what he was “seeing.” My oldest son (now 18) was very verbal very early. There were times when he was not quite 2 when he was speaking of things that happened when he was 4-6 months old. I was confused by this but then I wondered if most toddlers remember things from infancy but are not very good at expressing them verbally. For instance, my husband was going through some stuff in a closet and our son saw this phone (he was 22 months at the time). He said “Make that red light turn on, remember that?” He hadn’t seen the phone since he was 4 months old when we moved because it had been packed away all that time. So he either remembered the little red light on the phone, or he made a very good guess that the black phone in the dark closet had a little red light on it. I guess my point is that I just wonder if that little boy could have heard things when they thought he was too young to remember.

    • I think I would add that some of this does make sense because there must be a signal of some sort when it comes to evolution, right? Maybe these chemicals are what cause change in a species? It seems like there would have to be something that is passed along that it more than just a behavior in order to cause a species to evolve or change. I’m not sure if belief is evolving or going the other way 😉 I was watching a video about elephants and it was suggesting they could have the ability to believe in a higher power because they are self aware. I think that is a stretch, but I do believe they are intelligent and do grieve the loss of loved ones.

    • @Gina Fascinating story about your son. If you were religious, you could have made a lot of money! 🙂 It’s a good question–can we remember things during a preverbal time? Memories are stored as images, too, so that makes sense. As for what we inherit, there is always the chance that one sibling, all siblings or no siblings could inherit certain genes….It’s interesting that both of your parents were religious, and yet you and your sister are not.

  4. Oh, this is fascinating. I’d not heard that experiences might imprint on our genes. We humans sure are a complicated species. I agree with Trishia, however. Education is the key to just about everything. It affects how we think, analyze, interpret, react, and believe. I’ve always contended we should give our children the best possible education, beginning as early as possible and continuing for as long as possible.

  5. Fascinating report. I and my siblings inherited our mother’s bipolar disorder to one degree or another.

  6. Very interesting topic, Deborah. Some believe that not only the effects of our very early lives cause an “imprint” on our older adult DNA, but also the effects of our past lives. I’m interested in reading what others think about this theory.

  7. Debbie, that was a fascinating article. It really shows how very important parenting is — that we should do everything in our power to provide safe, non-stressful environments for child rearing, and I’m not just talking about parents, but the community, too. I found it interesting, but not surprising, about the adoption studies. This compliments the other adoption studies where children developed attachment disorders after being place into orphanages. These disorders often lead to severe mental illness. Are we paying the price for devaluing women and motherhood (and children) throughout history? I’d say yes. Now with the religious conservatives doing everything in their power to undermine women’s reproductive rights, I think studies like this should be at the forefront.

    I’ve also read studies where pregnant mice were subjected to stress throughout gestation, and the pups were born with larger hindbrains, and smaller forebrains — meaning the offspring had the temperament of fight or flight. This also captured my attention from the article:

    ” In one study, he exposed male mice to 10 days of bullying by larger, more aggressive mice. At the end of the experiment, the bullied mice were socially withdrawn.

    To test whether such effects could be transmitted to the next generation, Nestler took another group of bullied mice and bred them with females, but kept them from ever meeting their offspring.

    Despite having no contact with their depressed fathers, the offspring grew up to be hypersensitive to stress. “It was not a subtle effect; the offspring were dramatically more susceptible to developing signs of depression,”

    Excellent post. Thank you!

    • @Victoria Great comment, as usual. Thank you for adding to the topic with your knowledge. I think I might have read that study (or a derivative of it) about stress and the fetus. When I was pregnant with my first kid, a woman at work said that I was so calm that I would have a calm kid. I lucked out. Not so the second time, though! (More stress!)

      I also read some of the other articles about Szyf and Meaney, and their work is so fascinating.

      • Thank you, Debbie. I put that article in my favorites file and will read it several times. It was superb. I will also look into more research by Szyf and Meaney. There was so much more I wanted to add — to highlight from that article. It’s all so fascinating. We really do live in exciting times to be privy to all this research.

        I was under a lot of stress when I was pregnant with Kristin (only had one child), but I was so excited to be pregnant with her, and it kept my mind busy and take my focus off of everything else that was happening. I think it was beneficial. Kristin was a very non-demanding, laid-back child. Thank goodness, because with everything that was going on in my life at the time, I’m not sure I could have handled one who was wired, lol.

      • Debbie, I also wanted to mention that I had problems with some of the terminology used in the article, i.e., “bad mothering”. While they may be able to see ‘bad mothering’ behavior in mice they were studying, they really don’t know if it was bad mothering, meaning it was the mother’s fault, in the past. I mean — think about all the wars our species have been in, or natural disasters, or women being viewed as property, and having few rights. They were pretty much considered slaves. But here’s the biggie in my book: Giving birth. It was the number one cause of death in women — so who took care of those children left without a mother?

        As of August 21, 2013, the World Health Organization states:

        “Every minute, at least one woman dies from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. For every woman who dies in childbirth, around 20 more suffer injury, infection or disease – approximately 10 million women each year. Maternal deaths are detrimental to social development and wellbeing, as some one million children are left motherless each year. These children are more likely to die within 1-2 years of their mothers’ death.”

        We also have to keep in mind that childbirth was cursed and women punished by the Abrahamic god in Genesis 3:16, so many religious cultures have historically believed it was a woman’s just punishment to suffer, because god said he would greatly increase her sorrow in childbirth for being the first to sin, and that her husband would have the rule over her.

        Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote:
        “Women should stay at home, keep house and bear children. If a woman dies from childbearing, let her die. That is all she is here for.”

        It’s only been, what, around 50 years since women have been able to control how many children they have? And now that’s being undermined by conservative legislation at a frightening rate.

        I thought you might find this article interesting — and quite eye-opening if you haven’t already read it.

        The Disturbing, Shameful History of Childbirth Deaths

  8. Very interesting. Super-long term, I feel like humanity is becoming less warlike and fearful across a wide spectrum, and I wonder if this is part of the reason. 2000 years ago there were just too many ways for your loved ones to die for no reason or by something outside your control; people were mad that life was unfair and their experiences helped shaped the next generation. But these days we have so much more control over those ancient causes of death – war, disease, starvation – and so fewer and fewer people are being scarred by them. Similarly the population is expanding like crazy, generating more and more people born into a world that isn’t as harsh to human life as the past (and also proving that human life can succeed more easily).

    All of this is an extremely positive message, I think. It means that the better you make everyone’s lives around you, the better you really are making the world. It means that even small efforts are rewarded, and literally everyone can make a difference, because positive experiences are compounded and paid forward. Maybe there’s hope for us after all. 🙂

    • @someone That’s an interesting way of looking at things. As we’re born into a world that is less hostile, it changes us, our perceptions and the world we share.


    • Excellent observations!

      “I see a pattern where the randomness of human actions can be directed through probability for an overall cumulative and positive effect. All throughout our society there is a butterfly effect that we are most always oblivious to…I guess my message is to go boldly forth and increase the peace and love and know you are not alone. You may not always be aware of the others choosing to follow this same path as you, but they’re out there, and they’re making a difference.”

      ~ LanceThruster

      [from Deborah Mitchell’s book “Growing Up Godless” – Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.]

  9. What an interesting concept. If in fact traits such as bullying, anxiety, nervousness etc. can be imprinted onto ones DNA either in utero or as a young baby, then can the ability to remove these hitchhikers not be in the near future? This concept explains a lot of my early childhood behavior and even some of my currant traits.

  10. I like the idea of having as much information as possible, study the information and applying necessary behavior where needed. I have little to no data on my adopted sons genetic and birth family information so I chose to pursue the least invasive means of getting DNA information for him. I went through 23 and Me. I first purchased the kit for myself and got the results back. It was quite accurate and very informative. Next I had my wife Tammy do so. Same thing. You spit into a vile and send it. My son was open to spitting into the vile and so we sent that off also. The information was helpful and surprising. We as parents felt our results were healthier than we expected but inline with what we knew. Unfortunately a few results from our son felt overwhelming but manageable given the research and future possibilities. Regardless, learning about the DNA make up helps. One example: My sons birth dad verbalized his experience with acid reflux that correlated with our observations and could lead to cancer. Awesome! Let’s take measures to address that. Same with other issues. We will not let him know any of this information until he is ready, nor will we disclose any of this information with family/friends in that they could disclose this info to him before he is ready. Key element here is that most is nature and some is nurture. What your post and referenced article addresses in correlation to my experience is that the DNA data opens up so many possible scenarios of the puzzle to his genetic past and informing him of his possible habitual behavioral implications. Thank you for the supportive possible data. ; ) love always dayna

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