Looking around the oak dining room table at every holiday family dinner, you’ll find one empty seat as we all grab hands, tilt heads and listen to my Uncle Steve recite a prayer.

Illustration by Megan Mulholland

My Grandfather Albert — a man who refused to surrender to the nickname of Grandpa or Pops — would be in the kitchen pacing. You’d find him snacking on parts of the turkey, muttering under his breath and refusing to listen or take part in any prayer.

Albert grew up in Kosice, Slovakia in the confines of a strict Catholic family. He was taught that the Holy Spirit guided his life, that a child would go to hell if not baptized and that he must only marry a woman who was Catholic. He had little in the way of exposure to other brands of Christianity, and yet, from an unusually early age, he rejected this faith entirely. My Grandfather Albert is an atheist.

He rejected religious doctrine as unnatural, as if science created him this way, as if he were born totally unable to believe in any form of faith. Despite his culture, background, family and environment — all factors influencing one’s spirituality — Albert could not attach any part of his life to ideas he viewed as “whimsical.”

So why, out of generations of Catholics, does my grandfather stand alone in his family by rejecting these beliefs? Are the feelings of his discomfort when questioning faith linked to a biological, genetic, tangible difference between him and the rest of the family?

Putting religion up against science, Molecular Geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer would say yes. He argues that genes can predispose humans to be more susceptible to believe in spirituality.

Psychologist Robert Cloninger quantified the tendency toward spirituality through one’s level of self-transcendence. Self-transcendence is the interest people have in searching for something greater in this world, beyond their own personal experience. This can be viewed as a desire for many things like compassion, art, creativity, expression, spirituality.

Hamer analyzed over 1,000 individuals on Cloninger’s self-transcendence scale and observed that the gene VMAT2 played a primary role in individual’s acceptance of spirituality and drive to find something greater than the tangible world. The gene VMAT2 controls mood-regulating chemicals called monoamines in the brain. These chemicals include serotonin, which is often considered a contributor to human happiness or wellbeing level, dopamine, which is considered to affect reward-motivated behavior, and norepinephrine, which is a neurotransmitter released from the heart involving sympathetic hormones.

The research doesn’t aim to debunk spirituality as complex, distinct phenomenon that is created by an individual’s heavy and lengthy cultural background. But a small part of accepting this environmentally molded spirituality that is taught to you may be affected by the way you were born and the genes you have. Just as each of us is born with a unique gene sequence, Albert’s might have had a variation that changed his ability to become someone his family believed he should have been.

Some may argue Albert’s individuality was linked to how his family presented Catholicism to him. Too strict, too oppressive, too defined, so that it caused him to reject it and accept the opposite — a spirituality free lifestyle. Or, if you find Hamer and Cloninger’s line of thinking attractive, Albert, and every one of us, is born on a spectrum of susceptibility to accepting a religion, taught to us or not.

Religion is complicated. And that complexity is intensified when religious beliefs commingle with scientific findings. But as I grapple with the truth behind what religion to grasp or reject in life, I pause and linger over Hamer and Cloninger’s claim. I can be at peace while contemplating that the concept of “being religious” may not be in my control entirely. It may be the biological science of my body and beyond some of my own means.

Or that may just be VMAT2 speaking for me.

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