Tech & Science

Religious People Live Healthier, Longer Lives—While Atheists Collect Mutant Genes

12_22_Carol singers
Religion can encourage people to socialise. The Jarfalla chamber choir and Vaxholm Boys Quintet from Stockholm, Sweden perform Christmas songs at York Minster, UK, December 9, 2016. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Religious people tend to live healthier, longer lives than atheists.This trend has puzzled academics for some time, but social scientists may have discovered the reason why.

Research published in Evolutionary Psychological Science has linked a rise in atheism to increasingly prevalent mutant genes.

Lead author Edward Dutton from the Ulster Institute for Social Research explained the research to Newsweek. He says: “Maybe the positive relationship between religiousness and health is not causal—it's not that being religious makes you less stressed so less ill. Rather, religious people are a genetically normal remnant population from preindustrial times, and the rest of us are mutants who'd have died as children back then.”

Mutant atheist genes

Changing societal norms are reflected in our genetics. According to natural selection, behaviors across a species will work to improve its survival chances. Social deviations, therefore, are sometimes associated with unfit genetic mutations.

Since the industrial revolution, the hold of natural selection on humanity has weakened. “We developed better and better medical care, easier access to healthy food and better living conditions. Child mortality collapsed down to a tiny level and more and more people with more and more mutant genes have survived into adulthood and had children,” Dutton says.

Atheism—which was once a deviation from the norm—is becoming more and more common. As it becomes normal, the burden of associated unfit genes could grow.

Dutton and colleagues tested for left-handedness among religious people and atheists. Left-handedness is a good marker of a high mutational load. They found higher levels of left-handedness in atheists than in followers of most major religions.

Religion as a function for human survival

Explaining the behavior behind these results, Dutton says: “Religiousness makes you more pro-social, and you become more religious when you're stressed. Religious people would have been sexually selected for because their pro-social, moral, unstressed nature would be attractive.”

The authors argue that certain kinds of religious belief involving the worship of moral gods can thrive as societies develop. “Once groups become relatively complex—developing farming and then cities—you find yourself dealing with strangers more and more,” Dutton says.

Holding similar moral beliefs gives individuals an incentive to mingle—and reproduce—with new people. This creates large “ethnocentric” groups, bound by religion, who come to dominate others. “They win the wars and kill off the other groups,” Dutton explains.

As selection against mutation becomes less intense, the indirect selection for religiousness also becomes less frequent. “Precisely because it was selected for so long it is associated with all the 'normal' instincts which were selected for in the past,” Dutton tells Newsweek. “Accordingly, while the religious are outbreeding the non-religious—but, their percentage of the population is shrinking because selection is so weak.”

Belief, intelligence and health

Earlier this year, Dutton and colleagues identified a link between intelligence and atheism. He predicts that, in the end, intelligence and atheism will be both undone by a gradual return to natural selection.

Dutton explains: “We will be taken over by a more religious society which is more ethnocentric than us. In that our intelligence is decreasing, I suspect civilization will go backwards, Natural selection will return and we will become more religious once more. This seems to be a rule of history.”

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