Reasons to Believe

Does Oxytocin Cause Spiritual Experiences?

Why do people believe in God?

In 1998, Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, and sociologist Frank Sulloway sought to answer this “Why?” question. Surveying 10,000 individuals from the United States, Shermer and Sulloway learned that nearly 30 percent said the beauty, design, and complexity of the universe justified belief in God, and nearly 20 percent said they were convinced of God’s existence because they experienced God in everyday life.

In many ways, this finding isn’t surprising—if Christianity is true. Both the Old and New Testaments teach that God has made himself known through creation. This revelation would be reflected in the beauty, design, and complexity of the natural realm. Scripture also teaches that the Holy Spirit draws nonbelievers to Christ and intervenes in the lives of believers.

In other words, according to this survey many people hold to belief in God for both rational and experiential reasons.

Still, a number of skeptics argue that belief in God is a biological phenomenon, exclusively. They maintain that people who believe in God delude themselves into thinking that they hold their belief for rational reasons. Skeptics argue that belief in God instead has to do more with our biology than anything else.

In 2005, human geneticist Dean Hamer created quite a stir when he published The God Gene. In this book, he claims to have discovered an association between the VMAT2 gene and self-transcendence, a composite of three psychological attributes that presumably reflect an individual’s propensity toward spirituality. As a result of his research, Hamer dubbed VMAT2 “the God gene.” (The VMAT2 gene encodes a membrane-embedded protein that transports monoamines, such as serotonin and dopamine, from the cytosol of nerve cells into synaptic vesicles.) Hamer claims this discovery helps explain why spirituality is heritable and suggests there is a genetic and hence strictly biological basis for why some people believe in God and why others don’t. In other words, our spirituality is biologically determined.

Added to this claim is recent work by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).1 These investigators claim that when men are administered oxytocin, they develop a heightened orientation toward spirituality and enhanced positive experiences during religious practices, such as meditation. (They define spirituality as the feeling of being connected to other living things and to a higher power.) These responses to oxytocin occurred for both believers and nonbelievers alike and most closely correlate to variants of two genes that encode proteins involved in the release of oxytocin from the hypothalamus and its transmission between neurons. In other words, the subjects’ responses to oxytocin had more to do with their genetics than their beliefs about God’s existence. The researchers conclude that the growing evidence indicates that “humans—and perhaps some more than others—are biologically and cognitively predisposed to be receptive to spiritual experiences.”2

Prior to this study, neuroscientists had indirect evidence that oxytocin release impacted spirituality. For example, researchers observed that people who had transformative religious experiences had elevated levels of oxytocin in their blood. But thanks to this latest study, a causal connection between oxytocin release and spiritual experience has been established.

Oxytocin’s Physical Effects

Oxytocin is a peptide produced by the hypothalamus. This compound serves as a hormone when released into the bloodstream and a neurotransmitter when released into the forebrain.

Oxytocin has been nicknamed the “love hormone” and the “cuddle chemical.” Exposure to oxytocin enhances empathy and trust. Exposure also reduces self-focus and elicits altruistic responses. To put it another way, oxytocin exposure promotes social bonding.

This compound is also released during childbirth and breast-feeding, helping mothers and infants to bond. It is also released during sex, promoting a connection between lovers.3

Does Oxytocin’s Role in Spiritual Experiences Invalidate the Christian Faith?

Does oxytocin’s role in spiritual experiences invalidate the Christian faith? Hardly. In fact, this discovery and previous work identifying the role oxytocin plays in social bonding, mother-infant bonding, and bonding between mates makes perfect sense within a Christian worldview.

In his book The Biology of Sin, neuroscientist Matthew Stanford presents a model that helps make sense of these types of discoveries.4 Stanford points out that Scripture teaches that human beings are created as both material and immaterial beings, possessing a physical body and nonphysical mind and spirit. Instead of being a “ghost in the machine,” our material and immaterial natures are intertwined, interacting with each other. It is through our bodies (including our brain) that we interact with the physical world around us. The activities of our brain influence the activities of our mind (where our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are housed), and vice versa. It is through our spirit that we have union with God. Spiritual transformation can influence our brain’s activities and how we think, and how and what we think can influence our spirit.

If God created human beings to (1) be in a relationship with him, (2) form monogamous relationships with the opposite sex, (3) multiply and fill the earth, and (4) be in community with one another, wouldn’t it make sense that he would have created biological mechanisms to ensure bonding between members of a community, between mother and child, between husband and wife, and between each of us and God? Oxytocin appears to be just such a mechanism. Having a biological mechanism that promotes bonding between members of a community, between mothers and children, and between husbands and wives makes added sense when considering how difficult these relationships are. Oxytocin’s influence ensures that parents won’t abandon their children when they become a burden. It helps marriages remain intact during challenging times in the relationship.

But what about the observation that some people seem to have a greater biological propensity for spiritual experiences than others? Doesn’t that seem unfair? Does that mean that God created some people to respond to him and others not to?

This question assumes that the only basis for belief is spiritual experience. There are rational reasons to think God exists. Scholars have developed compelling philosophical and scientific arguments for God’s existence. There is historical and archaeological evidence that supports the credibility of the Old and New Testaments. A powerful case can be made for the historicity of Christ, including his death and resurrection. Scripture also teaches that God has written his law on our hearts. We know there is an inherent right and wrong, and we are well aware that we don’t conform to that standard. In other words, even if we don’t have a propensity for spiritual experiences at all, we still have the capacity to recognize the truth of the Christian faith and our desperate need for forgiveness. Whether we have spiritual experiences or not, we all have the ability to understand and respond to the gospel.

Scripture teaches that each person possesses a unique set of gifts. Each of us has distinct strengths and weaknesses. Scripture also teaches that when we come together, each of our gifts contributes to the community, and our collective strengths and weaknesses complement each other. If what Scripture teaches on this point is true, wouldn’t we expect God to create humans (as a population) with biological variability? I know many Christians for whom the life of the mind is far more important to their faith than spiritual experiences. I also know many Christians for whom religious experiences are central to their faith. Both types of people play critical roles in the church. To put it another way, our Creator may have had good reasons for designing humans with varying biological propensities to spirituality.

One final point: Skeptics need to be careful when they assert that oxytocin release into the forebrain causes spiritual experiences and ultimately conclude that belief is a biological phenomenon. The knife cuts both ways. If belief in God has a strictly biological basis, that means so does atheism. In other words, atheists can’t claim that they reject belief in God for rational reasons, or because they have superior intellect. In their model, they are just as much victims of their biology as they claim Christians are.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Patty Van Cappellen et al., “Effects of Oxytocin Administration on Spirituality and Emotional Responses to Meditation,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 11 (June 2016): 1579–87, doi:10.1093/scan/nsw078.
  2. Ibid.
  3. This observation prompted the headline “Having Sex Makes Men More Likely to Believe in God.” It is tempting to inquire if the converse is true.
  4. Matthew Stanford, The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope, and Healing for Those Who Feel Trapped (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 15–19.

Subjects: Science & Faith, Uncategorized