I don’t like cilantro. It’s not merely a matter of personal taste, either. I’m one of about 20% of Americans who lack a certain enzyme in our saliva, the result of which is that the popular herb tastes like soap to us. I come across articles about this from time to time, and naturally, they’re always framed so that this particular distaste for cilantro comes off as an abnormality in need of an explanation. This is entirely appropriate: not because the enzyme is missing rather than present, but because having the enzyme is statistically normal. Most people have it, and only a modest minority lack it. If cilantro were generally disliked and about 20% of people had an unusual enzyme that made it taste good to them, these articles would, no doubt, be framed in the opposite way.
It’s curious what happens when the subject of these genetic explanation stories changes from herbs to religion. I came across yet another article the other day seeking to explain religious belief on the basis of genetics.
“Science has shown us clearly that one level of belief in God and overall spirituality is shaped not only by a mix of family environment and upbringing–which is not surprising–but also by our genes. Twin studies conducted around the world in the U.S., the Netherlands and Australia as well as ours in the U.K. show a 40 to 50 percent genetic component to belief in God.”
There’s not much I can say about the merits of the studies themselves since I didn’t read them. The article itself doesn’t make a good case, but that’s par-for-the-course in popular reporting of scientific studies. What struck me as curious about this article and the others like it is how they are almost always framed. It is always religious belief that is in need of an explanation; it is always that “faith is caused by our genes” or “belief in God has a genetic component.” I have yet to come across an article that says, “atheism is, in part, caused by one’s genetic background.”
The reason this is peculiar is that, statistically speaking, atheism is the abnormality. It’s always been a relatively small minority of humans who do not believe in any kind of God or gods. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen an article explain that, for example, one of the reasons atheists do not believe is that they lack a genetic background that enables them to experience spirituality. It would not only be just as fair to describe the results of this study in these terms, but it would be expected due to the weight of human experience falling mostly on the religious side. And yet, the usual framing is analogous to saying “although cilantro tastes like soap to many people, science has clearly shown us that some people possess an enzyme that makes its flavor pleasant.” Such a statement is just as accurate as the usual framing—but it would be strange to encounter it very often given the weight of human experience.
Whether belief or lack of belief in God has a genetic component is immaterial to whether these beliefs are true or false. Likewise, if these studies are accurate (and that is a significant “if”), then it is just as accurate to say that belief is (partially) caused by genetics as it is to say that unbelief is (partially) caused by genetics. Communication requires that it be framed some way, after all. Nevertheless, our framing often reveals our personal biases, and this ubiquitous frame suggests a ubiquitous bias behind it as well.