What do left-handed people and those with schizophrenia have in common? It may not be the first thing that springs to mind, but it's religion, or rather a lack thereof, according to a new study.
In the study, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science, scientists discovered an interesting connection between atheism and certain genetic traits, including left-handedness, schizophrenia, and autism. It all comes down to the DNA and something they refer to as “mutational load”. Essentially, people who identify as religious tend to have fewer genetic mutations. They are, therefore, less likely than their non-religious peers to be left-handed or have a genetic condition such as autism and schizophrenia.
Lead author Edward Dutton of the Ulster Institute for Social Research, UK told The Telegraph that this association exists because in pre-industrial societies religiousness was treated like any other genetic attribute. If an individual believed in a single moral god, it would have implied they were also emotionally stable, mentally healthy, and socially adept – three things you most likely want in a prospective partner. This meant that believers were more likely to reach adulthood and go on to have children than non-believers in the pre-industrial world. It is likely that people who identify as religious today descend from highly religious pre-industrial folk.
For the study, researchers examined religious and paranormal belief in 612 volunteers and compared the strength of these beliefs against the presence of four mutational loads (poor general health, autism, fluctuating asymmetry, and left-handedness). The results suggest that relationship between people who are left-handed (like Mozart, Marie Curie, and Barack Obama) and atheism is “weak but significant”, the researchers say, whereas the link between autism and non-religion are more robust.
And while you might expect self-declared atheists to be less inclined to believe in paranormal activity, the results suggest the opposite. The study reveals a positive correlation between paranormal belief and each type of mutational load.
Both these findings reflect trends in Western societies. We are becoming less religious in the typical sense – non-religious (or "nones") now make up 48.6 percent of the British population and in the US atheism grew from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. For millennials, the figure is much higher (35 percent). Meanwhile, a belief in the paranormal has risen. A 2013 Harris poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe in ghosts and a 2014 YouGov poll found that one in three Brits believes the same.