Why Atheism Fails: The Myth of Moral Molecules



Today I would like to discuss moral molecules, this idea that our morality came to us from oxytocin molecules. I would like to introduce you to Professor Paul Zak who authored the book The Moral Molecule. He is a neuroeconomist, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. In this book he claims that morality can be traced to oxytocin. He self-describes as Dr.Love, he hugs everyone he meets. In his TED talk he claimed he found the molecule behind why we’re moral. Many people are calling this ‘the most amazing molecule in the world’, ‘hug hormone’ etc. 

     What is oxytocin? Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus, a region in the base of the brain. In humans, oxytocin acts primarily on the breasts and uterus. It helps in the lactation, milk ejection and breastfeeding. It also causes contraction of the smooth muscle of the uterus. Oxytocin secretion is increased during labor, facilitating the delivery of the baby. Those facts were well established. 

     Now, here comes Professor Zak and argues that oxytocin is also the moral molecule, giving us our morality. Needless to say, many atheists are celebrating this, saying,`Hey, you don’t need God for morality, it is oxytocin which gave us moral values’. Let us see what is going on here. 

My interest in molecular biology 

Now, I love molecular biology. It fascinated me when I was in medical school. The first class I attended in the medical school was biochemistry. It is the study of the structure, composition, and chemical reactions of substances in living systems. I used to carry with me the Harper’s Illustrated Biochemistry. It introduced me to a stunning landscape of molecular universe. Proteins, Aminoacids, hormones, carbohydrates, Citric acid cycle, glycolysis, nucleic acids, DNA organization, RNA synthesis, hormones like insulin and oxytocin. All biological processes are regulated by these micromolecules. As our knowledge progressed, the research in biochemistry and neuroscience also extended into human morality. 


     Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in our brain which allow for the transmission of information between nerve cells. When people pray or meditate, some neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA are increased. Dopamine is one of the most important neurotransmitters for positive emotions and the reward system. In one study on people doing meditation, dopamine levels increased after meditation. Another study showed meditation practice increased the release of GABA. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and it decreased the sensory input resulting in more concentration. Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a neurotransmitter which leads to hallucinations, visions and euphoria. It has been called ‘the spiritual molecule’. 


     An fMRI study was conducted in 2010 at Northwestern University. It showed in people who observed the suffering of others, there is a greater response in the anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral insula. These areas are brain regions associated with emotions. People who showed empathy towards others who are not similar to them showed increased activity in the frontal lobe. 


    Studies show that people who forgive use the holistic processes of the brain to identify the agent of injury, to regain the balance of emotions which aid in the healing process. 


     Many studies were done to find the root causes of altruism. An fMRI scan was performed on 20 students while they looked at different pictures. Some pictures were designed to elicit feelings of compassion and some to trigger feelings of pride. When the students felt compassion, their midbrain was activated, which is a region that is activated during pain and perception of others’ pain. 

    In another study, 22 students were asked to imagine helping someone by decreasing their pain. They took fMRI scans when the students were helping other people who are in pain. The scans showed increased activity in the basal ganglia, which is involved in reward pathways stimulated by dopamine.  Studies done on oxytocin showed that it is important in creating loving bonds leading to intimate relationships and altruism. Oxytocin level goes up when the mother is breastfeeding her infant, this enhances the intimacy between the mother and infant. Oxytocin also increases in both men and women during romantic relationships. It increases the trust, co-operation, intimacy and altruism. 

Sharp Shooter Fallacy 

     Professor Paul Zak focused his research on oxytocin and morality. He is a neuroeconomist, taking neuroscience into economics. He earned the nickname ‘vampire economist’ because he goes to field studies with blood collection tubes. He goes to weddings where he collects blood samples from the bride, bridge groom, their parents, relatives and friends. He measures their oxytocin level before and after the exchange of wedding vows. He finds out that oxytocin level increased as people paid attention to the wedding process. He also distributes oxytocin nasal sprays. When people spray oxytocin into their nostrils, they become more cozy, comfortable and pleasant to other people, trust goes up, compassion goes up, bonds are formed, relationships are cemented. 

    Professor Paul Zak now declares, ‘I found the moral molecule’ and goes around giving TED talks and writing op-eds about how he found the secrets of human morality. Atheists like Michael Shermer wasted no time to recruit his work as an evidence for the absence of God, the moral law giver.  

     Now, first let us look at the scientific argument. Many neuroscientists criticized Paul Zak’s conclusions because we have not completely studied how oxytocin behaves in circumstances like enmity, aggression and violence. Science writer Ed Yong called this Sharp Shooter fallacy. He wrote an excellent article on The Atlantic, titled The Weak Science Behind the Wrongly Named Moral Molecule. Ed Yong says it is misleading to call oxytocin ‘the moral molecule’ because it’s positive influence is built on weak foundations. Yes, oxytocin can build trust and compassion in some people but it also increase envy and discrimination in others. The conclusions are premature because the statistical power of those research studies is weak. 

Ed Yong called this sharpshooter fallacy. It is named after an imaginary Texas gunman. The gunman fires many rounds at the side of a barn, then paints a target around the biggest cluster of holes. Your target is established after the firing, not before it. Ed Yong cites many neuroscientists who questioned the work of Paul Zak. Oxytocin nasal sprays did not improve trust and compassion in all individuals. Ed Yong wrote, 

The problem with oxytocin research is that too many people have been focusing on cataloging what it does (at least in some situations), rather than how it works. Say I’m new to computers and install my first Web browser. Suddenly, I can talk to friends, check train times, and buy books. Web browsers look like a pretty sweet thing. Then I discover Chatroulette and things are not sweet any longer. And none of this tells me anything about the existence of the internet, servers, code, and so on. I know what Web browsers can do, but not how they work”.

     Ed Yong says this hype about oxytocin is dangerous because parents whose children have autism, depression and other psychological problems are running after oxytocin nasal sprays. 

Are animals moral beings? They have oxytocin too. 

So, there are scientific and medical problems in enthroning oxytocin as the queen of morality. Now, let us look at the philosophical and logical issues raised by these claims. Oxytocin is not unique to human beings.It is also present in animals. Animal studies have been done. There are two species of small rodents called prairie voles. One species is monogamous, mating for life. The other species is polygamous, changing partners frequently. The species that is monogamous has more oxytocin. The species that is cheating has less oxytocin. 

     Wait a minute! Can I use the word ‘cheating’ to describe animal behavior? Can dog cheat? Can money be trustworthy? Can elephant violate trust? Are animals moral beings because their behavior is influenced by oxytocin just like our behavior? If we, the human animals, are moral beings because of oxytocin all animals who have oxytocin should also be considered moral beings. 

     If animals are moral beings, we should not be killing them. If dog is a moral being, it is wrong to enslave them? If the chicken is a moral being, it is wrong to kill them and eat them. So, this oxytocin-based morality removes the boundaries between humans and animals. 

Why should be listen to Oxytocin? 

     The second question is why should we listen to oxytocin? Even if we concede that oxytocin induces love for others, it does not follow we ought to follow its influence. Our body is also house for many other hormones and enzymes. High levels of testosterone influences men towards aggressive behavior. Does that justify aggressive behavior? High levels of oxytocin induces love, high levels of testosterone induces aggression. Both are in our body. How can you say love is a virtue and aggression is a vice when both are determined by hormones in our body? The hormones and their actions: they have description, not prescription. They can explain moral behavior, but they cannot prescribe moral behavior. 

     Right now, we have huge protests going on in Hong Kong. People want freedom but the Chinese government, which is officially atheist, does not want to give them freedom. The protestors might say, ‘We have a lot of oxytocin flowing in our bodies. We want freedom’. The Communist leaders would say, “Why should we listen to oxytocin flowing in your bodies? We would rather listen to testosterone flowing in our bodies which is leading us to aggression and oppression.” So, oxytocin and testosterone they can not prescribe moral imperatives. They open the door to moral relativism. Why are we making moral judgments? If our morality depends on oxytocin, we cannot make moral judgments. 

    Professor Paul Zak wrote, “Research that I have done over the past decade suggests that a chemical messenger called oxytocin accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and why women tend to be nicer and more generous than men. In our blood and in the brain, oxytocin appears to be the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large.” 

     The good professor says some people are generous because they have lots of oxytocin, some people cheat and steal because they don’t have much oxytocin, women are more generous than men because they have more oxytocin. If this is true, there is no such thing as evil. 

     Sandeep Dhaliwal was a Sikh police officer, so admired by his community in Houston, Texas. He stopped a driver for a parole violation. After speaking with the driver the officer turned around to walk back to his patrol car. The driver got out of his vehicle, shot the officer twice from behind in the head, killed him, got into his vehicle and left the scene. Is that not evil? The killer killed because the only problem is that he does not have enough oxytocin in his body? Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were sent to prison for assaulting dozens and dozens of women. 

Why are we calling them criminals? They should be called patients. Why are you sending them to prison? They should be sent to the doctor. 

     If someone has diabetes, we say they have insulin deficiency, they should see a doctor and get insulin injections. Insulin is a hormone. Oxytocin is a hormone just like insulin. If someone commits a crime, they should be given oxytocin injections and treated like patients, not criminals. 

     Give some oxytocin injections to Harvey Weinstein, let us give some oxytocin nasal sprays to Bill Cosby. Why are we calling Hitler and Stalin evil? may be they did not have enough oxytocin in their bodies. 

Same old argument 

So, you see, if oxytocin is what drives our morality, moral distinctions become nonsense. Ed Yong concluded his Slate article with the words, “The true moral of the moral molecule may be that ideas that are too cleanly packaged are probably just fragments” They are just fragments. Oxytocin or any other hormone can induce good behavior in our bodies but they cannot be the center of a moral theory. They may describe how morality works but they cannot justify the nature and application of morality. 

     Let me illustrate. Let us say you found a car left on the side of a highway. You went to the car and examined every part of the car. You opened the hood, you understood how the engine works, you open the A/C condenser and you understood how the air conditioner works, you opened the radiators and you understood how the radiator works, you opened the headlights and you understood how the headlights work. They you made this claim. 

My Premise: I can understand how this car works 

My Conclusion: This car came without a Creator. 

     That’s a silly conclusion because your conclusion does not follow from the premises. Yes, you know how the car works, but it does not explain why there is a car, or who created it. It is a category mistake. Atheists commit this mistake in almost every argument they make against God. I can understand how the universe works, so, universe came without a Creator. I’ve found oxytocin, I understand how morality works, so morality came without a moral law giver or God. 

      Theists or Christians are not against molecular biology or neuroscience. We believe our bodies are created by God, we believe we are created in the image of God. If the major premise is God created me, and the minor premise is God, who is a moral being created me as a moral being, the conclusion follows: within me there should be mechanisms which induce me towards moral behavior. 

     Professor Paul Bloom wrote a book entitled Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.Professor Bloom says, “Every normal person has a sense of right and wrong, some appreciation of justice and fairness, some gut feelings that are triggered by kindness and cruelty. (As) Thomas Jefferson put it – the moral sense is ‘as much a part of man as his leg or arm’.” 

     Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend Peter Carr: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.”The morality is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. Jefferson did not know about oxytocin but he knew that morality is built into our being. 

     Dr.Andrew Newberg, M.D. is the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. He is also a Professor in the Departments of Emergency Medicine and Radiology at Thomas Jefferson University. He is pursuing many neuroimaging research projects involved in moral behavior. Based on his experiments in neuroscience he came to conclusions radically different from what atheists would have us believe. 

     Dr.Newberg wrote many best-selling books based on the research. Just look at the titles of his books: 

How God Changes Your Brain

Why God Won’t Go Away

Brain Science and the Biology of Belief 

Born to Believe: God, Science, and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs 

The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience 

     Dr.Newberg says that the moral molecules are neurotransmitters to God. Human beings have spiritual brains – brains that are capable of feeling deeply connected to something greater than themselves. He says that The Ten Commandments are basically a treatise on moral psychology. Dr.Dean Hammer did many experiments in neuroscience exploring the relationship between genes and religiousness. He focused his research on VMAT2 receptor which is involved in dopamine and serotonin secretion. Dopamine and serotonin are high in people with religious experiences. He called the gene God gene. 


     “Could a single molecule -one chemical substance-lie at the very center of our moral lives?” Paul J.Zak starts his Wall Street Journal article with the questionThe answer is no. Because, as I said the scientific foundations of the moral molecule are very weak. Oxytocin should not be even called a moral molecule because it acts differently in different circumstances. 

     Morality needs a firm foundation. Look at HongKong one more time. The Chinese government, which is officially atheist, is suppressing the protesters. The protesters are singing hymns to God and to Jesus. They are demanding their God-given freedom, not oxytocin given freedom. They are saying God created us. God gave us freedom. Who is man to oppress us? Who is man to deny us freedom? 

     So, atheists have been clamoring lately about moral molecules. But their arguments fail both scientifically and logically. Just like the inner structure of a car point us to a car maker, our inner structure point us to our maker, God. This God manifested to us in Lord Jesus Christ. He came to this world, performed great miracles. The greatest miracle of his life was his resurrection from the grave. Now he is a living Savior. 

     Today we pray that you come to this Savior, have your sins forgiven and make him your Lord and God. Let us pray. 

“Dear Lord Jesus. The unbelief of human heart is shocking.  A hormone, a gene, a protein, an enzyme, an atom, some nothingness! Anything but God. We pray that you open the hearts and minds of individuals who are interested to know the truth. If your precious name, we pray, Amen”


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