How can conservative and progressive Christian denominations churches be so different from each other, despite sharing the same sacred text? For the same reason that skin and liver cells can be so different, despite sharing the same DNA.

A common critique leveled against a religion such as Christianity is that it can be used to justify anything, from forgiveness and altruism to intolerance and aggression. The implicit assumption is that if Christians had more integrity, they would be more consistent in their behavior, such as always turning the other cheek and practicing the Golden Rule.

As soon as we begin thinking about religion from an evolutionary perspective, this critique is revealed as silly and wrong-headed. No organism is programmed by its genes to “do X”. Even bacteria have been programed by their genes to “do X in situation 1; do Y in situation 2…”; in other words, to be behaviorally flexible (also called phenotypic plasticity).

The same point can be made for the process of development. Virtually all of the cells in your body share the same DNA, yet they are very different from each other—your skin cells, your liver cells, and so on. How is this possible? Because each specialized cell type expresses only a subset of the genes shared by all cells. The branch of biology that studies patterns of gene expression is called epigenetics.

Image credit: Flickr/calistan

By now it has been shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that most enduring religions are not mindless superstitions but sophisticated systems of belief and practice that adapt human groups to their environments. This is how Emile Durkheim portrayed them over a century ago, but it has taken until now for it to become a scientific consensus.1,2 Since modern religions are a product of cultural evolution (built upon a psychological foundation provided by gene-culture co-evolution), there must be mechanisms of cultural inheritance and expression that are functionally equivalent to genetics and epigenetics.

In a recent study published in the journal Religion, Brain, and Behavior, we took this seriously by comparing sacred texts to genomes and the invocation of selected passages to gene expression.3 Beginning with the first comparison, sacred texts bear an intriguing resemblance genomes. Both are replicated with a high fidelity and even have a hierarchical and segmented structure. The Protestant Christian Bible, for example, is segmented into 66 books, which in turn are divided into chapters and verses.

For a sacred text to influence behavior, it must be invoked in some sense. Passages must be brought to mind and interpreted in a way that relates to the current circumstances of the community of religious believers.

This is what happens during every Sunday sermon, but approaching it more explicitly from a cultural evolutionary perspective can add considerable insight. Accordingly, we explored how Protestant Christian congregations with diametrically opposed beliefs use their shared sacred text.  We needed an unambiguous binary trait to simplify analysis so we chose same-sex marriage as a polarizing issue. We selected three conservative and three progressive churches that were clearly divided on this subject. This included one progressive and one conservative United Methodist church, one progressive and one conservative Baptist church, one progressive Congregationalist church and one conservative Evangelical church. The progressive and conservative UMC churches were located within ten miles of each other in the same small city in upstate New York.

We collected as many sermons from each of these churches as we could find, regardless of what those sermons were about, and counted which books of the Bible each sermon cited.  Just as differences in gene expression are often visualized in the form of “heat maps” (the brighter the color, the more the gene is being expressed), we can create a heat map for the expression of books in the bible by the six churches. The results show a clear “family resemblance” between the three conservative churches (top) and the three progressive churches (bottom), which can be quantified and shown to be highly statistically different from each other.

Pronounced differences also existed at the level of chapters within books and verses within chapters. All things considered, there was very little overlap in the sections of the Bible invoked by the conservative and progressive churches, and this difference was much stronger than denominational differences. For example, the conservative UMC church was more similar to the conservative Baptist and Evangelical churches in other states than the progressive UMC church less than ten miles away in the same city.

Invoking a given passage is only half the story of biblical expression. The other half is how the passage is interpreted. To examine differences in interpretation, we compared the texts from sermons that discussed one of the few verses that was frequently cited by both conservative and liberal churches– John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”). The progressive churches tended to interpret this passage as signifying God’s unconditional love, but the conservative churches tended to provide other interpretations. One went so far as to say that when this passage is interpreted in the context of other passages, it shows that God does not love everyone equally or even at all. When the text from sermons interpreting John 3:16 was run through a word analysis program 4, conservative pastors used a significantly higher frequency of words connoting anger.

Image credit: Boris Rasin/flickr

With our colleague, Taylor Lange, we conducted a similar analysis on another polarizing issue, stewardship vs. exploitation of the earth. We documented similar night-and-day patterns of biblical expression and interpretation to justify the different behavioral prescriptions.

Thus, when differences in Biblical citations are combined with differences in interpretation, the concept of a sacred text as a cultural epigenetic inheritance system, capable of adapting a religious community to a wide range of environmental circumstances, has much to recommend it.

While our study is modest and best regarded as a proof of concept, it can easily be scaled up and expanded in a number of directions. Biblical citations and exegesis are well preserved in the historical record, which means that the “expressed phenotype” of a religion with a formalized sacred text can potentially be measured at any time or place in history, including a fine-grained analysis of contemporary events, such as the response of Christian churches to 9/11 or radicalized Islamic movements.

Formalized sacred texts such as the Bible or Quran are the cultural equivalent of an epigenetic system because only the expression of the passages, and not the passages themselves, are allowed to change. However, the cultural equivalent of genetic evolution (the addition and subtraction of the passages) took place at an earlier stage of their history and to some extent still, to the extent that religions accumulate supplemental texts in addition to their core text. During the Protestant Reformation, even the core text of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles was reduced.

While the sacred texts of organized religions are exceptionally amenable to this kind of analysis, all human cultures have something that is equivalent: an inventory of myths, parables, proverbs, and commandments that are transmitted with relatively high fidelity across generations, which are selectively invoked and interpreted to motivate appropriate behavior in specific environmental circumstances. The elements of a cultural genome need not be regarded as sacred; often it is enough merely to be apropos, as when proverbs are invoked in modern life. Why some elements come to be regarded as sacred, in either a religious or a secular context (such as a Constitution or legal code), is an important area of future inquiry.

Returning to the common critique that “anything can be justified by the Bible”, once we see this as an asset for a cultural epigenetic system, we can reach a conclusion that is more constructive than blaming religious believers for being hypocritical. If we want religious groups to behave peaceably toward other groups, we need to provide environmental conditions that favor cooperative social strategies over aggressive social strategies. If we can accomplish that goal, then all groups with flexible cultural epigenetic systems—not just religious groups—will experience peace on earth and goodwill to all humans.


    1. Wilson, D. S., Hartberg, Y., MacDonald, I., Lanman, J. A., & Whitehouse, H. (2016). The nature of religious diversity: a cultural ecosystem approach. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1–20.
    2. Sosis, R., Schjoedt, U., Bulbulia, J., & Wildman, W. J. (2017). Wilson’s 15-year-old cathedral. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 7(May), 95–97.
    3. Hartberg, Y. M., & Wilson, D. S. (2016). Sacred text as cultural genome: an inheritance mechanism and method for studying cultural evolution. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1–13.
    4. Pennebaker, J. W., Francis, M. E., & Booth, R. J. (2001). Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count: LIWC 2001. Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum.
David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .


  • Ralph Haygood says:

    Intriguing, but you’ve hardly shown that religious believers aren’t hypocritical, even within the scope of your study. Religious believers such as the fundamentalist christianists who raised me and, I suspect, most of the “conservatives” in your study profess to believe that the whole Bible is The Word of God, equally authoritative and “inerrant” or the like. That they do indeed ignore parts of it is inconsistent with that profession or, in common parlance, hypocritical. (Some believers of an unusually logical bent take refuge in the contortions of dispensationalism, which is akin to the ramifying epicycles and deferents with which Ptolemaic astronomers sought to “save the appearances”.)

    • Thomas E Moore says:

      I wonder if biological genes can be shown to exhibit a similar degree of hypocritical expression in the interests of “flexibility”. That would be interesting, if so…

  • Professor Ferrel Christensen says:

    Sad to say, this article is carefully written but irrelevant to its own thesis. The divide between literalist and non-literalist Christians has no analogy in different functions of the same DNA. It has EVERYTHING to do with the evolved capacity for self-deceit (hence tolerance for cognitive dissonance), the tendency to believe a pre-packaged system of thought (evolved so children wouldn’t have to learn about reality from scratch), the evolved fear of death and the need for life to have purpose (the latter evidently a spandrel stemming from humans being highly social), and an accident of history, namely the scientific revolution in astronomy, geology and biology contradicting the inherited scriptures. There was NO divide between conservative and progressive religionists (as opposed to other religious divides) until the latter events occurred–and THEN differences regarding the first factor and other individual personality differences allowed for a split, while the second and third factors along with the first have kept the progressives from embracing full anti-theism. Duh.

  • Rory Short says:

    An interesting analysis based on the use of sacred texts. What about religious people who do not accept sacred texts as the final word in any situation? Silent Meeting Quakers are such people.

  • Dan Hoyer says:

    Excellent piece, very readable (and, in my opinion, compelling) summary of denominational differences as epigenetic expression. This does seem to beg the question, though, of what might cause these ‘epigenetic’ differences in the first place?

    I understand context and circumstance (broadly conceived) can promote one type of expression over another in genes—whether having lighter or darker skin in different climates, etc. Also that random variation has a role. But how might you model this in the case of, say, the conservative and progressive Church from the same small NY town, where ‘context’ would presumably be fairly close? What would be driving the ‘epigenetic slant’ towards or away from a progressive expression of Biblical passages there (might you control for the congregationalists wealth, age, colour, sex, education, employment, etc)? In any case, I’m curious to see how this type of analysis progresses!

  • Rich Howard says:

    The greater use of Paul and the other non gospel books by conservative churches does not surprise me. The lessons of love that we all see Christians breaking are all Jesus proclamations. Paul and the other books are where church and Christian unity are the lessons.
    The biology that best describes church behavior is tribal identity: both for protection of tribe and for denial of evidence.

Leave a Reply to Rory Short Cancel Reply