"I think it is important to distinguish religion in terms of things like going to church and following a creed. That tends to be very much influenced by the patterns of your parents," said Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis and co-designer of a test used in psychiatry to assess character and spirituality. "Spirituality, meanwhile, has to do with a way of feeling and thinking, which tends to lead to an acceptance of the role of a higher intelligence. Studies show there are specific receptors in the brain that influence a person's ability to get into that mode of thought."
If hardwiring for spirituality exists, is it there for a reason? Some argue it's there for a very important purpose -- survival.
"There is logic behind why humans may have evolved with a religious predisposition in their genes -- it has health, pro-social behaviors and psychological advantages," argues Harold Koenig (no relation to Laura Koenig), a psychologist and co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University. "Hope, optimism helps people to survive despite difficult life circumstances."
Koenig's center has conducted more than 25 studies over the past 20 years looking at the relationship between religion and physical and mental health. He says the work has shown a clear link between good health and spirituality, except in less common cases where unwell people feel they have been 'punished' by God.
Assuming religion does carry a health benefit, as Harold Koenig's studies suggest, then, he says, it makes sense that evolution would favor a genetic disposition for spirituality. Dean Hamer, a geneticist at the U.S. National Cancer Institute has made similar arguments in his book, "The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes."
But these researchers also stress that genetics certainly don't act alone when it comes to influencing a person's level of faith. In fact, as people age and approach the possibility of death, or when individuals, such as alleged hostage victim Smith and shooting suspect Nichols are facing an extreme fate, Harold Koenig argues that outside circumstances inevitably start to play a stronger role.
"When you're confronted with issues that take away control of your own life, environmental factors will be stronger," he said. "Genes are still at play, but for the moment they take the back seat."