By John Lee Pendall
Yes, there appears to be a God Gene, but we know him better as Gene Simmons.
Coincidentally, I’m not a fan of Gene Simmons either. Also “the God Gene” is a bit of a misnomer. You can tell someone in the media came up with it. (Wait, I’m the media. Oh… my… God Gene!) Anyway, the genes (plural) are related to VMAT1 (Monoamine Vesicular Transporter). It’s like a city bus that serotonin and dopamine take to work.
Like anything else, there’s no one gene, neurotransmitter or part of the brain responsible for religion and spirituality. It’s a system; everything’s a system. This really long and boring study lays it all out in the open. Its methodology for measuring depression could have been better, and it could have had a bigger experimental group, but it took 30 years to complete, which is cool.
What the study basically showed is that people with fucked up serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin systems tend to be drawn to spirituality more than other people.
If people have certain genes related to VMAT1, then they’ll probably find spirituality even more meaningful and rewarding.
My dad always says that religion was created as a way to control people, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think the elite came to use it for that purpose, but I’ve never felt like that’s why our species invented it.
We’re spiritual animals. If someone isn’t spiritual, then they usually find something else to fill that spirit void, whether it be science, drugs, McDonald’s, sex, or all of the above at the same time. What this study shows is that we need to fill our lives with things that make us feel happy, comforted, connected and occasionally awed.
People (like me) who have neurochemical imbalances find it harder to obtain meaning and pleasure from ordinary life. The bonds don’t feel as bonded, the rewards as rewarding, and happiness is often elusive. For some of us, spirituality really tickles our MVAT1 genes. It fills up the bus’s tank, so our brains finally give us the happy juice we need.
That’s also why a lot of people are really defensive about their spirituality. We always say that people get addicted to drugs or certain behavior, but that’s not quite right. We get addicted to the neurotransmitters that those drugs and behaviors flood our brains with. The drug or action is just a catalyst.
When we question someone’s spirituality, we’re threatening to take their drug away.
Without it, they’ll go into withdrawals, aka, an existential crisis or major depression episode. Of course, nobody wants that, so people fight for their beliefs.
Not everyone’s like that, though. People who are born into their faith fight for it because they’ve been brainwashed. Their beliefs are no different than ordinary facts, like saying, “The Earth is flat.” Haha, gotcha. The problem is that, if we’re born into a view like, “The Earth is flat,” then we might spend too much time worrying about falling off the edge. Spiritual growth and maturity is traveling around the globe and seeing that there is no edge, you’re not going to fall off into space (even though, technically, we’re all falling through space right now).
Personally, I usually choose to go to bed. I get bored easily because, even though I’m spiritual, I don’t have a spiritual community around me. I can’t knock on my neighbor’s door and ask, “Hey, I’m in the mood for some spellcraft, wanna join?” or, “Hey, let’s smoke some ceremonial pot and ponder our past lives.”
So, despite how spiritual I am, I’m still not going to get my oxytocin if I can’t be spiritual with others. “But the internet—” Pffft, fuck the internet (he says ironically). My online friendships are meaningful, but there’s a difference between chatting in messenger and being in the same room with someone, and our nervous system knows that there’s a difference. That’s why, despite how connected we are, loneliness is on the rise.
There’s also a difference between connecting with someone over music, movies, books, family, etc. and connecting with them spiritually—at least if your brain is broken like mine is. One minute of company with someone I feel spiritually compatible with is enough to erase months and months of sorrow. In one minute, my entire outlook can change. Suddenly, it’s a beautiful world again.
I can’t do that alone. Without spiritual friends, my moods just continue as they are—usually shitty. A song can’t unloop itself. Something either has to press the button, or it’ll just keep going until the battery runs out.
The overall point here is that we’re spiritual because it feels good, and I think that’s great.
Why can’t we just be honest? We’re hedonists, even the most spiritual among us are hedonists. We live for pleasure, we live for our serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin fix and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s power and independence in knowing that about ourselves and our institutions.
Bad things start to happen when we cloak our religion, spirituality or philosophy in otherworldliness. It’s not otherworldly. It’s in our blood, it’s part of our roots. I went with Paganism because it was the faith of my ancestors; it’s my heritage. It makes me feel more, well, human. Thanks to Autism, I’ve spent a huge portion of my life feeling like an alien. But no, this is my world, my home. What I can’t know for myself, my blood knows on my behalf.
It feels good to know that, and feeling good is the foundation of our lives. Even ascetic practices, like starving yourself or sleeping on nails, can feel good to someone on a spiritual level because they believe that punishing the body cleanses the spirit, and they’re not totally crazy. Sometimes we have to endure pain to feel good. Sometimes we have to go without something to get something better.
Spirituality gives some people the joy they need to keep going. It still saves me from nihilism each day. Almost every waking moment I spend alone is a battle with the Void, with the overall meaninglessness and insignificance of living a fleeting life in a vast, uncaring universe. If I gave into that, then my life just wouldn’t be worth living anymore.
So, instead I raise my middle finger high and harness the power of the four winds. I worship the ones I love, I fight oppression, and I try to see the spirit and majesty present in all things.
If we choose to be cynical enough to call spirituality stupid and crazy, then I can safely say that losing my mind was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it taught me what this study shows: I can’t be happy with ordinary, and it’s okay if you’re not happy with it either.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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