Is Morality Natural? Hitchens, God, and the Nature of Morality

altAfter a hiatus due to a move across country my weekly feature on science and religion returns with guest author Paul. J. Zak and his work on the science of morality, especially interpersonal trust and love. Paul J. Zak’s book The Moral Molecule: Vampire Economics and New Science of Good and Evil will be published by Dutton in 2012.  Follow him on Twitter @pauljzak


Strident anti-theist Christopher Hitchens recently announced he will begin chemotherapy for esophageal cancer. The five-year survival rate for esophageal cancer is only five percent so things look quite grim. Hitchens has famously compared the three major monotheistic religions, with their top-down “thou-shalts” and “thou-shalt nots” to totalitarian political regimes. He logically deduced that these religions, like totalitarianism, must be responsible for much of the evil in the world. Hitchen’s presumption in this argument is that people are inherently evil. If this is true, paradoxically we may need a God to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Work from my lab ( over the past ten years has identified a brain chemical that causes people to engage in moral behaviors in the laboratory. This research has shown that most people, most of the time are moral, not evil. It even reveals the biochemical soup that leads to immorality.

Oops, how can one be “moral” in a lab? We test morality the old-fashioned way, tempting people whose privacy is guaranteed with virtue or vice by putting cold hard cash on the table. In our experiments, participants can either keep the cash, or under a specified set of rules, share it with another participant. A dilemma arises because they cannot see or talk to this other person. And, in some experiments, if the other person doesn’t like the cash offer, she or he can choose to burn the money and both people lose.

What would you do? Try to get away with being stingy or be generous?

Many people are, in fact, generous. But why? Especially when no one, not even the experimenters, are watching. By taking blood samples before and after these monetary decisions, we showed that when a person entrusts money to a stranger, the stranger’s brain releases a biochemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin motivates sharing resources with others. Our brains evolved to share.

That makes sense. We are social creatures, and sharing with others is a necessary part of being part of a social group. But outside the lab we typically share because cooperation goes around and comes back to us. We share with our family and friends and we expect them to share with us, too.

But in our experiments, people made a single decision involving money with a stranger. Nothing at all could come back to them. And yet nearly all of them choose to share. Indeed, helping complete strangers comes naturally to us. I got off a cross-country flight yesterday and innumerable other passengers held doors for me, helped me with my luggage, engaged in conversation and generally made my travel more pleasant. They are not friends, and there is little chance I’ll ever see any of them again.  I did the same. On my last flight, I sat next to a couple on a trip for their 50th wedding anniversary and bought them drinks to celebrate. I did not do this because I fear God’s wrath or was seeking to earn my way into heaven. It just seemed, well…nice.

Oxytocin makes us nice. In other experiments, I’ve infused oxytocin into the brains of hundreds of human volunteers. (This is safe, your brain makes oxytocin so I’m just increasing what is already there.) In these experiments, those getting oxytocin are demonstrable more generous with money than people given a placebo. And, they do not mind leaving the lab with less money–we asked about this and they had a c’est la vie attitude. The money involved was in the $30-$50 range, so it was not going to make them rich, but on the other hand these are hungry college students who are getting poked and prodded for two hours. They take the sharing decision seriously.

Oxytocin provides a reflection of what our actions would feel like if we were on the receiving end. It put us into the other person’s shoes. Since we tend to avoid pain, oxytocin makes us more sensitive to the pain others might feel. If we believe that our actions will produce pain in others, we typically avoid the action because it causes us pain. In this sense, morality is self-serving mechanistically, even if it produces virtue socially.

Oxytocin, and the larger brain circuit that it engages, allows us to crowd-source our actions. Because most of what is considered moral has to do with our behavior towards others, this ancient molecule keeps us focused on others. My experiments have revealed that oxytocin is the “moral molecule.”

So where is God in all this? Belief in God is not necessary for morality. But, I cannot disprove that an omniscient God created the universe in such a way that we would evolve oxytocin as the moral molecule. I have no way to test this so I must leave this in the “inconclusive” pile. Call it a matter of faith.

As social creatures we emulate those who have lived successful lives. Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, Krishna, and Mother Teresa can all be considered moral exemplars. We study them because they reveal how to live a virtuous life. A life that is fully connected to, and in service of, others.

I believe an example of such virtue (the virtue of compassion) is the report by Ross Douthat of the New York Times that a number of Christians are praying for Christopher Hitchen’s recovery. While those praying may be driven by their faith in God, they are certainly showing themselves to be virtuous and may have even raised Hitchens’ oxytocin level. Uncharacteristically, when asked about people praying for him, Hitchens said he was grateful.

"Coming from a very different (European) country I would agree with you about your assessment ..."

The Need for More Progressive Christian ..."
"Dr. Chris - I hope the practice pulls people in and gives them a sense ..."

The Spirituality of Food Justice
"More times than not, when responding to natural disasters, the death of loved ones or ..."

As the Flood Waters Recede
"Hard-hitting, and real. A great combination of insight into personal situations and views of the ..."

Redefining Pro-Life

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Les

    > when asked about people praying for him,
    > Hitchens said he was grateful.

    I appreciate it when someone gives me a present even if it is something I consider worthless because it is a token of caring. It would be churlish not to acknowledge the kind thought.

    A donation to the American Cancer Society is a better present for Mr. Hitchens. It would benefit both the man and mankind. He would get
    the glow of knowing someone cares. At the same time, the next tiny step of progress would be funded.

  • 423446

    423446 beers on the wall.

  • 2437848

    2437848 beers on the wall.

  • 1590726

    1590726 beers on the wall.

  • 3677503

    3677503 beers on the wall. sck was here

  • a3666437

    3666437 beers on the wall. sck was here

  • curacao honeymoon

    It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  • rent cabin

    This was a really nice post.

  • pandora beads

    I’m impressed, I must say.

  • roofing lancaster

    It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  • doors york

    That is a great point to bring up. Thanks for the post.

  • Marcela Maruska

    I gotta favorite this internet site it seems extremely helpful very useful

  • Cell Phone Accessories

    I saw this really great post today.

  • collection agency debt

    Great report assited me hugely considerably! Bookmarked the webpage, extremely fascinating topics almost everywhere i study here! I definitely enjoy the information, thanks a ton.

  • bath remodeling lancaster

    I am often blogging and i really appreciate your content. The article has really peaked my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and keep checking for new information.

  • restaurant lancaster pa

    very nice post, i certainly love this website, keep on it

  • roofing york pa

    Aw, this was a really nice post. In thought I want to write like this – taking time and actual effort to make a very good article is very rare…

  • presentation coaching

    Thanks for spending the time to discuss this, I really feel strongly about it and love reading more on this topic. If doable, as you turn into an expert, would you mind updating your blog with more details?

  • things to do lancaster pa

    Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

  • cloud computing white paper

    More people need to read this and understand this aspect of the story. I cant believe you’re not more popular.

  • screened gazebo

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet.

  • miami ink

    Thank you for all of the effort on this web page. My daughter enjoys getting into investigations and it’s really easy to see why. Almost all hear all of the dynamic mode you provide advantageous items on the web site and even foster participation from some others on the concern plus my child is in fact being taught so much. Enjoy the rest of the year. You are always performing a very good job.

  • antacid tablets

    I should verify with you here, which isn’t something I normally do! I take pleasure in studying a website that may make individuals think. Also, thanks for permitting me to comment!

  • computer denver

    Nice post. I learn something more challenging on different blogs everyday. Thanks for sharing.

  • indiana mortgage rates

    Would you be eager about exchanging hyperlinks?

  • sheds

    One of my favorite posts.

  • shaker furniture

    Thanks for the great info.

  • residential mailing list

    I was very pleased to find this website. I wanted to thank you for your time for this excellent post!!

  • concrete contractors pennsylvania

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet.

  • enclosed utility trailers

    I’m experiencing a problem with your rss feed . Don’t know why I am not able to subscribe to it. Is there anybody getting an identical rss problem? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thanks

  • Best Credit Cards

    You lost me, friend. I mean, I imagine I get what youre saying. I have an understanding of what you’re saying, but you just seem to have ignored that you will find some other folks within the world who see this matter for what it truly is and might not agree with you. You may perhaps be turning away alot of people who may have been supporters of your site.

  • hershey park hotels

    You made some respectable points there. I looked on the internet for the issue and found most people will associate with with your website.

  • roofing new york

    There are actually lots of particulars like that to take into consideration. That could be a nice point to bring up.

  • supply chain strategy

    I must examine with you here, which isn’t something I often do! I enjoy reading a blog that will make people think. Additionally, thanks for permitting me to remark!

  • ul labels

    This really answered the drawback, thanks!

  • pc repair columbus ohio

    Awesome job on this post.

  • car audio

    What are you stating, man? I realize everyones got their own thoughts and opinions, but really? Listen, your web site is interesting. I like the effort you put into it, specially with the vids and the pics. But, come on. Theres gotta be a better way to say this, a way that doesnt make it seem like everybody here is stupid!

  • debt collection agency

    It’s acceptable time to create some plans for that future and it will be time to be happy. I’ve study this publish considering the fact that I could truthfully I wish to suggest you some intriguing things or techniques. Certainly you’ll be able to compose next posts discussing this article. I need to study even more factors regarding this!

  • buy arginine

    It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic however you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  • wiccan jewelry

    Hello – I must say, I’m impressed with your site. I had no trouble navigating through all the tabs and information was very easy to access. I found what I wanted in no time at all. Pretty awesome. Would appreciate it if you add forums or something, it would be a perfect way for your clients to interact. Great job


    Wow! This could be one particular of the most helpful blogs We have ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Fantastic. I am also a specialist in this topic therefore I can understand your effort.

  • brake tool set

    I want to show thanks to you for rescuing me from this issue. Just after looking through the the net and seeing opinions which were not productive, I was thinking my life was gone. Being alive without the answers to the problems you have solved as a result of your entire review is a critical case, as well as ones which could have badly damaged my entire career if I hadn’t noticed your web blog. Your personal ability and kindness in playing with all things was important. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if I had not come across such a point like this. I am able to at this time look ahead to my future. Thanks a lot so much for this impressive and result oriented guide. I won’t hesitate to propose the blog to any person who desires guidance about this topic.

  • law firms in lancaster pa

    I really relate to that post. Thanks for the info.

  • Potenzmittel Deutschland

    Hello – I must say, I’m impressed with your site. I had no trouble navigating through all the tabs and information was very easy to access. I found what I wanted in no time at all. Pretty awesome. Would appreciate it if you add forums or something, it would be a perfect way for your clients to interact. Great job

  • it services san francisco

    I’m experiencing a difficulty with your rss feed . Don’t know why I am not able to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting equivalent rss problem? Anybody who is aware of kindly respond. Thanks

  • computer repair boston

    I have to check with you here, which isn’t one thing I normally do! I take pleasure in studying a blog that will make folks think. Also, thanks for permitting me to comment!

  • contract electronics manufacturing

    I don’t suppose I’ve never learned anything like this before. So good to see an individual with some unique thoughts on this subject. I really thank you for starting it. This website is something that is wanted on the internet, somebody with a little bit originality.

  • sunny beach bulgaria holiday

    It’s out of the question.

  • it consulting nyc

    After researching just a few of the blog posts on your web site now, and I really like your approach of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark web site checklist and can be checking again soon. Pls check out my site as well and let me know what you think.

  • used arcade games

    It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  • team building training

    Once I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now every time a comment is added I get four emails with the identical comment. Is there any method you may take away me from that service? Thanks!

  • know your pan number

    Amaze! Thank you! I constantly wished to produce in my internet site a thing like that. Can I take element of the publish to my blog?

  • attorneys for veterans

    I like your way of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back soon.

  • used cars lancaster pa

    After examining a couple of of the weblog posts on your website now, and I really like your method of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark website record and will probably be checking again soon. Pls take a look at my website as nicely and let me know what you think.

  • Christmas Gifts For Men

    What you said made a lot of sense. But, think about this, what if you added a little content? I mean, I dont want to tell you how to run your blog, but what if you added something to maybe get peoples attention? Just like a video or a picture or two to get people excited about what youve got to say. In my opinion, it would make your blog come to life a little bit.

  • Susanna Dunks

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  • Heidi Hadef

    19. Fantastic beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your website, how can i subscribe for a blog web site? The account helped me a acceptable deal. I had been a little bit acquainted of this your broadcast offered bright clear idea

  • lawn care lancaster pa

    This was a really nice post.

  • computer companies jacksonville

    Nice post. I study something on different blogs everyday. It should always be stimulating to read content material from different writers and practice just a little something from their blog.

  • Earnest Schoener

    Excellent stuff from you, man. Ive study your things before and youre just also awesome. I love what youve got here, love what youre stating and the way you say it. You make it entertaining and you still manage to hold it intelligent. I cant wait to study more from you. That is really a fantastic weblog.

  •;u=46290 deck railing, best deck railing, good deck rialing

    What you said made a lot of sense. But, think about this, what if you added a little content? I mean, I dont want to tell you how to run your blog, but what if you added something to maybe get peoples attention? Just like a video or a picture or two to get people excited about what youve got to say. In my opinion, it would make your blog come to life a little bit.

  • moncler women

    Fantastic post nonetheless wanted to ask any time you could write a litte much more about this subject? I??d be very grateful if you should could elaborate a little more. Thanks!

  • Indonesia Furniture

    301 Moved Permanently Oh my goodness! an incredible article dude. Thank you However I am experiencing subject with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting equivalent rss drawback? Anyone who is aware of kindly respond. Regards, Indonesia Furniture

  • Unqiue Content

    I have to point out my respect for your kindness in support of men and women that have the need for assistance with your study. Your very own commitment to passing the message throughout had been pretty beneficial and has really empowered women much like me to achieve their ambitions. Your new useful recommendations implies this much to me and even more to my colleagues. With thanks; from all of us.


    I am usually to running a blog and i actually admire your content. The article has really peaks my interest. I’m going to bookmark your web site and keep checking for new information.

  • Curtis Chivalette

    Some genuinely interesting details you have written.Helped me a lot, just what I was searching for : D.

  • отдых болгария цены

    I think, that you are not right. I am assured.

  • papel

    Hi There! our family loves your lovely write-up thank you and pls stick at it

  • Francis Meirick

    I think other website owners should take this web site as an example , very clean and great user pleasant design and style .

  • Backlinks

    Hi there! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this website? I’m getting sick and tired of WordPress because I’ve had problems with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  • canada goose parka

    You made the right points certainly, there. I have done a search on the subject and located the majority go along with a person. But it is human nature for most in order to argue. But regardless of what. They’re within the community.

  • Viva Nishiyama

    Awesome blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any ideas? Thanks a lot!

  • Chateau Canada Goose Parka

    Hey there, everyone used to compose wonderful, but the very last many threads were somewhat boring?- I pass up the wonderful articles. Previous a lot of blog posts are just a touch from trail! turn on!

  • basketball drills

    Heya i am for the primary time here. I found this board and I in finding It truly useful & it helped me out much. I am hoping to present something back and help others like you aided me.

  • Severe Acne Treatment

    I found your blog site on google and verify a couple of of your early posts. Continue to keep up the very good operate. I just further up your RSS feed to my MSN Information Reader. Looking for ahead to reading more from you afterward!…

  • Sam Mctighe

    I relish, cause I found just what I used to be having a look for. You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

  • Lorrine Basora

    This site is really a walk-via for the entire information you wished about this and didn’t know who to ask. Glimpse here, and you’ll undoubtedly uncover it.

  • Suknie Wieczorowe Allegro

    Simply desire to say your article is as astounding. The clearness in your post is simply cool and i can assume you are an expert on this subject. Fine with your permission let me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please continue the rewarding work.

  • стоимость отдыха в болгарии

    The authoritative message :), funny…

  • Lean Bodway

    What i do not understood is if truth be told how you’re now not really much more neatly-liked than you may be now. You’re so intelligent. You understand therefore significantly on the subject of this subject, made me for my part consider it from so many numerous angles. Its like men and women are not interested except it is something to do with Girl gaga! Your own stuffs outstanding. Always maintain it up!

  • Scottie Ambrosini

    Thanks for all your efforts that you have put in this. very interesting information.

  • Domonique Gitzen

    I think this is among the most important info for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But wanna remark on few general things, The website style is wonderful, the articles is really great : D. Good job, cheers

  •'ll-Discover-Only-Two-Outcomes-When-you-invest-in-a-Binary-Option.html Malcolm Domingo

    Great articles and great layout. Your blog post deserves all the positive feedback it has been getting.

  • Outdoor Furniture Manufacturer

    301 Moved Permanently Can I just say what a reduction to seek out somebody who really knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know learn how to bring a problem to mild and make it important. More individuals need to learn this and understand this side of the story. I cant consider youre no more well-liked since you definitely have the gift. Regards, Outdoor Furniture Manufacturer

  • mount athos

    I and my pals have already been reading through the great pointers on your web site while then I had a terrible feeling I never expressed respect to you for those tips. Most of the guys happened to be as a result joyful to study all of them and now have sincerely been taking advantage of them. Appreciation for indeed being really accommodating and for deciding on some very good tips millions of individuals are really desirous to learn about. My very own sincere regret for not expressing appreciation to you earlier.

  • Jean Linley

    I have realized that in video cameras, extraordinary receptors help to focus automatically. The actual sensors of some cams change in in the area of contrast, while others work with a beam with infra-red (IR) light, especially in low lighting. Higher specs cameras occasionally use a combination of both models and may have Face Priority AF where the digicam can ‘See’ a new face and focus only upon that. Many thanks for sharing your opinions on this blog.

  • Fawn Verone

    Thanks for this wonderful article. One more thing to mention is that many digital cameras can come equipped with the zoom lens so that more or less of that scene for being included by simply ‘zooming’ in and out. All these changes in the aim length are usually reflected inside viewfinder and on significant display screen at the back of the actual camera.

  • Carly Gilding

    Somebody necessarily help to make severely posts I’d state. That is the very first time I frequented your website page and up to now? I amazed with the analysis you made to make this actual submit extraordinary. Fantastic activity!

  • Allegro Samochody Ciezarowe

    You are a very intelligent person!

  • Dinah Pacetti

    Hi, have you ever before asked yourself to write about Nintendo or PSP?

  • Thomas

    I generally will not comment in Blogs but your page compelled me to, astonishing perform.

  • Carolina Erle

    I have been reading out some of your stories and i must say pretty nice stuff. I will surely bookmark your blog.

  •;u=135560 Saul Navarrete

    Hey Greg, thanks for sharing your experience with Interface Talent Network and the whole process in general. Glad to know it’s not scam!

  • 3 mobil

    Hello, Neat post. There is a problem with your website in web explorer, could check this¡K IE nonetheless is the marketplace leader and a large section of other folks will pass over your wonderful writing because of this problem.

  • Daren Massi

    Downloading stuff from this web page is as straightforward |as clicking the mouse rather than other blogs which shift me here and there on the pages.

  • Asa Lingardo
  • Sandy Harader

    Any time going to weblogs, it’s my job to find a very good articles such as yours

  • haine online

    I really desire We hadn’t witnessed this kind of when i require a single certain nowadays!