Loved into Existence, Part 2: Science Consistent with Christian Belief

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Dr. Morse gave this speech April 23, 2011, at Hong Kong Baptist University, at a conference of Western and Chinese scholars, entitled “The Family and Sexual Ethics: Christian Foundations and Public Values.” China is experiencing numerous problems due to family breakdown, including the one child policy, high divorce rates, and an imbalanced sex ratio. This conference was convened because many in China, even in the Academy of Science and in government,  are interested in what Christianity has to say about marriage, family, sexuality and society.  The conference papers will be translated into Chinese and published in book form.

Click here to read Part 1, featured on Catholic Lane August 4, 2011

How science is consistent with the ancient Christian teachings

Now after all this theology and philosophy, you may be astonished by my next move. I am going to show that science now substantiates many of the important claims that Christianity has been making since the beginning.  Let me begin with the most basic. The human person is meant for love.

The human person is meant for love: sexual attachment

Since we have been talking about sex, let’s start with that. Men and women attach to each other, through the sexual act.  Men secrete vasopressin, which creates a feeling of bonding. This hormone is sometimes called the “monogamy hormone,” because higher levels of it are associated with greater loyalty in some kinds of animals. This hormone helps to counteract the male tendency to pursue multiple sex partners. [1]

When women are being sexual, we secrete a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone creates feelings of attachment, relaxation and contentment.  Our levels of oxytocin surge during sexual activity, childbirth and nursing. The title of one of the early papers on this subject tells the story, “The Role of Oxytocin Reflexes in Three Interpersonal Reproductive Acts: Coitus, Birth and Breastfeeding.”[2]  A woman’s body responds to these community-building acts. The flood of oxytocin increases her desire for further touch with both her mate and her child. The hormone itself connects her to her child and her child’s father. We tend to attach to the man we are being sexual with.  We also secrete oxytocin when we are nursing our babies. The sexual act itself creates an “involuntary chemical commitment.”

Becoming “one flesh” is not so easily undone as getting a divorce from our husbands or moving out from our boyfriends. We often experience significant attachments to our sex partners, long after reason would have told us to “move on. You could say this is nature’s way of creating a family. Or you could say that this is God’s way of writing our need and capacity for love into the human body itself.

The human person is meant for love: infant attachment

Let’s turn now to the most universal of all human experiences: infancy. The human infant is born helpless and dependent. It is worth noticing that this is not true of all animals. Some species are born more or less ready for life: snakes hatch and slither away from their parents. But human infants have a long period of dependency before they are prepared for adult life.

Children who are abandoned by their families often end up in orphanages. Their experience reveals some things about human development we might otherwise overlook. Children who are deprived of human contact during infancy sometimes fail to gain weight, or to develop. This “failure to thrive” syndrome is well documented. Some scientists now believe that the presence of a nurturing figure stimulates the growth hormones.[3] All the bodily, material needs of the child are met in these orphanages. The child is kept warm and dry. The child is fed, perhaps by having a bottle propped into the crib. The child contracts no identifiable illness. Yet the child fails to thrive, and may even die. The widely accepted explanation is that the children die from lack of human contact. [4]

Their plight is reminiscent of the monkeys that are deprived of their mothers. The baby monkeys who just get food and no mommy develop some weird behaviors, head-banging, rocking and other forms of self-stimulation. Orphanage babies sometimes do this too. [5]

The human child’s brain is not fully developed before birth: if it were, the infant’s head would be too big to make it down the birth cannel without harming the mother. So the brain continues to develop after birth.

The brain has three basic parts, the reptilian brain or the brain stem, the cerebral cortex and the limbic brain. The brain stem governs basic biological functions and runs pretty much on auto-pilot. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that does algebra and balances check books and plays chess. The limbic brain governs the person’s ability to be in relationship, to intuit people’s emotions, and read people’s faces.

And it is the limbic brain that develops in the first year after birth, by being in a relationship with the mother. The limbric brain is unique to mammals, and allows us to have the kind of social life that is unique to animals whose young are born alive, and dependent. The limbic brain is the part of our physiology that controls our bodily responses to other people. This is the part of the brain allows us to respond to touch, proximity, and other people’s emotions.

This is the part of the brain that makes a hug feel good. It is this part of the brain that makes watching a movie in a crowded theater a different, more intense experience than watching it at home by yourself. The close contact with all those other people makes the scary parts scarier, the funny parts funnier, and the exciting parts more thrilling. The responses of the limbic brain make physical contact with other people a healing experience. This is why bringing pets into nursing homes and hospitals can help sick people get better.  The sick people pet the animals, and talk to the trainers. Both those forms of contact can help people feel better.

The limbic brain allows us to “read” other people’s feelings. Our brains are capable of responding to the emotions of other mammals. We can look at each other and sense whether another person is angry, happy or fearful. These basic facial expressions are remarkably invariant across cultures. We can read many of the same cues among other mammals. [6] This is why we prefer mammals for pets.

Here is the part that is really important for the baby, and his relationship to his mother. The human brain is so large compared with the rest of our bodies that it is not fully developed before birth. If our brains were fully developed in utero, our heads would be too big to make it out of the birth canal without killing our mothers. Much of the development of the limbic brain takes place after birth. The limbic brain develops in response to being in a relationship with the mother.

We can see the physiological impact of the relationship between and infant and his mother by looking at other mammals, as well as at the behavior of humans. Infant mammals have a predictable pattern of reactions to separation from their mothers. The babies first go through a “protest” phase, and then a “despair” phase, after a prolonged separation. Each of these phases can be easily observed. And the physiological attributes associated with these phases can be readily measured. [7]

In the “protest phase,” the youngsters cry out, run around and search for their missing mommy. A scientist or lab technician can measure more subtle, but hardly surprising responses. The baby’s heart rate increases. So does his body temperature. His little body produces elevated levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, and elevated levels of catecholamine, an adrenaline-like hormone that increases alertness.

The baby can not sustain this heightened level of alertness and tension indefinitely. If the mother is absent long enough, the infant enters the “despair” phase. He stops running around crying for his mommy. He may slouch, huddle himself and look sad. The scientist observer discovers that the infant’s heart rate and body temperature decrease. His consumption of oxygen decreases, his immune system is impaired, his sleep rhythms change.

His little body produces less growth hormones. This is why children raised in orphanages or who have prolonged hospital stays lose weight, and fail to grow, no matter what their caloric intake. This is the physiological source of the “failure to thrive” syndrome, also called “hospitalism” by its discoverer, Rene Spitz. [8]

The good news is that most people can be reasonably good parents, just by doing the ordinary things that literally, come naturally. Rocking the baby, feeding the baby, looking at the baby, imitating their little noises, bouncing them on your knee, all these things help develop the limbic system of the brain.

A relationship is in part, a physiological event. In the process of rocking the baby, feeding the baby, looking at the baby, responding to the baby, the mother is helping the baby’s limbric brain to continue its development. This is probably why the problems of the little orphanage children are so persistent. These kids are completely deprived of either a mother or even a mother substitute. They are not only psychologically damaged, but their brain development has been hampered as well.

In fact, some physicians have defined a new syndrome to describe the complex of symptoms these kids have. The doctors call it “institutional autism.” [9] When an infant is born, he or she is looking for someone: their mother. When the mother returns the child’s gaze, she is helping the child to make sense of the world. She is also helping the brain itself to develop. The brain begins to make the neural connections that allow the child to make the human connections with others. But if the child is looking out into the world and no one looks back at him or her, the brain does not develop properly

In other words, the human infant’s physical and mental well-being depends upon their being loved.  Hence, my claim: science is consistent with the ancient Christian teaching that the human person is indeed meant for love.

Or consider another possible disastrous outcome for the badly neglected child: attachment disorder. When infants experience an episode of neediness, they cannot solve their problem themselves. They cry out for help. In the ordinary course of an ordinary child’s life, someone comes to help them, to feed them, to hold them, to change their diaper, to play with them. Every time the mother does this, she is building up the child’s internal and unspoken sense that the world is a safe place, that he deserves to live, and that he can safely entrust himself to others.

But for the badly neglected child, no one comes. The orphan cries out, no one comes. The child of a drug addicted or otherwise preoccupied mother cries out, no one comes. Eventually, these children stop crying. They stop asking for help. They turn inward on themselves. They trust no one.

In the worst case scenario, the seriously attachment disordered child never develops a conscience. We often think of conscience development as the process of children learning right from wrong. But that is actually one of the last steps in a very complex process. Children don’t begin with abstract concepts. Moral development starts with something as simple as “My mother will punish me if she sees me doing X.” Then, “my mother will punish me if she finds out after the fact that I have done X.”  The process advances to “My mother won’t like it if I do X.”  And then, “My mother might find out, and if she finds out, she will be disappointed.” Then “I will be disappointed in myself if I do X.” And finally, “I’m not the kind of person who even thinks about doing X.”   At this stage, the person has a fully mature conscience. They have internalized the voice of the parent. No one needs to try to control them. They control themselves.

But for this process to get started, the child must have a loving adult present in their lives, someone whose good opinion matters to them. The conscience is the voice of the loving parent, a voice the child internalized long before he or she was capable of giving reasons or explanations for anything.

And the child without a conscience, the attachment disordered child, is a social problem. This is a child who only responds to threats and punishments, carrots and sticks.  The parent can never turn his or her back on such a child. Of course, as the child gets older, you cannot watch him or her constantly. A four year old, you can pick up and carry out of trouble. For a fourteen year old, you cannot. These are children who will lie, cheat and steal if they can get away with it. As they age, they become more and more scary, and more and more expensive to supervise. Ultimately, these are the sociopaths of society, the remorseless criminals.

Society depends on people having consciences. The system of economic markets depends on people keeping their promises and contracts, and cooperating with each other. The market is one giant system of mutual cooperation.

That is why it is no exaggeration to say that the economic order requires love. The love of the parents for the infant motivates them to give far more than they receive directly in return.  The parents make the generous first move required to begin the process of mutual cooperation. Infants grow into children who are willing to give in return, to cooperate, to restrain themselves, to trust. Without the vast majority of people having these skills, the market order is not likely to last long.

The economic realm, which appears to be comprised of impersonal exchanges of material objects among strangers, is actually based upon love.[10]

Unmarried families are a financial burden to the state.

The break-up of families, or the failure to form families, also leads to an expansion of state expenditure. Children from disrupted families do worse than the children of intact married couple households in virtually every way.[11] Children are more likely to have physical and mental health problems. Even accounting for income, fatherless boys are more likely to be aggressive[12] and to ultimately become incarcerated. [13] A recent British study offers tantalizing hints about the possibility that the children of single mothers are more likely to become schizophrenic. [14] And an extensive study of family structure in Sweden took account of the mental illness history of the parents, as well as socio-economic status. Yet even in the most generous welfare state in the world, with very accepting attitudes toward unmarried parenthood, the children of single parents faced double the risk of psychiatric disease, suicide attempts, and substance abuse.[15] All these issues are expensive to the taxpayer, through health care, special education services, mental health services, substance abuse recovery, or the criminal justice system.

All of these social pathologies are expensive to the taxpayer and painful to the individuals. A couple of recent studies calculated the taxpayer costs of family breakdown. One American study, prepared by the National Fatherhood Institute, announces its conclusion in its title: “The One Hundred Billion Dollar Man.”[16]  This is their estimate of the taxpayer costs of fatherless. Another study, by the Institute for American Values, using slightly different methodology, concludes that the total annual cost of fatherlessness to federal, state and local taxpayers amounted to $112 billion.[17]  At the time this study was done, this amount, $112 billion, was the equivalent of the GDP of New Zealand.

Speaking of New Zealand, the taxpayer cost of family breakdown there has been calculated to be around $1 Billion, or about $300 per year per taxpayer.[18] Likewise, in the UK, family failure costs the government about £41.74 billion. This means failed relationships cost each current UK taxpayer £1,364 a year.[19] In Canada, family breakdown costs the government about $7 Billion per year.[20]

These observations support the wisdom of the ancient Christian teaching that sex and childbearing belong within marriage. The alternatives to marriage are expensive to the taxpayer, as well as being a source of great unhappiness for individuals.

Family breakdown burdens the government with trivial matters.

The American experience with no-fault divorce illustrates that the dissolution of marriage involves the state in trivial family matters. This section of the talk may be somewhat surprising to a Chinese audience, because your society may very well have different ways of dealing with the problems I am about to discuss. Nevertheless, I think this discussion of the American experience with changing divorce laws will illustrate an important general point.

In 1968, California removed the “fault” basis for divorce. The old rule had been that a couple could get a divorce, only in the case of some “marital fault,” usually desertion, adultery or cruelty.  “No-fault” divorce means that one person can get a divorce for any reason, or no reason.

Presented to the public as a great expansion of personal liberty, no-fault divorce has led to an increase in the power of the government over individual private lives.  That is because no-fault divorce frequently means unilateral divorce: one party wants a divorce against the wishes of the other, who wants to stay married. Therefore, the divorce has to be enforced. The coercive machinery of the state is wheeled into action to separate the reluctantly divorced party from the joint assets of the marriage, typically the home and the children.

Family courts tell fathers how much money they have to spend on their children, and how much time they get to spend with them. Courts tell mothers whether they can move away from their children’s father. Courts rule on whether the father’s attendance at a Little League game, a public event that anyone can attend, counts toward his visitation time. Courts rule on which parent gets to spend Christmas Day with the children, down to and including the precise time of day they must turn the child over to the other parent. I have ever heard of a judge deciding what dress a teenage girl should wear to a dance. The estranged parents could not agree.

Involving the family court in the minutiae of family life is hardly the behavior of an efficient modern state. In America at least, there is no other agent of the government that we permit to intervene in people’s private business, so intimately, so frequently, and so routinely. The activities of the family courts amount to an blurring of the boundaries between public and private life. People under the jurisdiction of the family courts can have virtually all of their private lives subject to its scrutiny. [21]

Thus, the social experiment of no-fault divorce, which was accepted as an expansion of personal liberty has resulted in an unprecedented intrusion of the state into the private lives of ordinary, law-abiding citizens.

These observations too, support the wisdom of the ancient Christian teaching that sex and childbearing belong within marriage. The social experiment of no-fault divorce, which was accepted as an expansion of personal liberty has resulted in an unprecedented intrusion of the state into the private lives of ordinary, law-abiding citizens.

Even the phenomenon of teen pregnancy can be better understood when viewed through the Christian lens. We believe the human person is meant for love. This helps us understand that many out of wedlock teen pregnancies are not really “unplanned.”  In fact, some girls get pregnant precisely because they want to be loved. The sexual experience is for them, not so much a result of lust, but of the desire to be loved by their boyfriends. Some girls get pregnant because they believe that their babies will fill an empty hole in their hearts with love.

Conclusion: What we ought to do

This is what we believe: God loves each of us into existence, and wants us to participate in His creative process through love.

I hope that this analysis helps you understand the Christian teaching about many policy areas that are now considered controversial. Why sex outside of marriage is so often so deeply disappointing, even if it is safely contracepted. How marriage itself prepares the couple for parenthood. Why marriage is properly permanent and exclusive. Why conception outside the womb is an act of injustice. Why Christians consider abortion a heinous crime.

These beliefs impose obligations on us, obligations which sometimes feel onerous. Those of you who are not Christian may sometimes look upon us with scepticism: is it really possible to live the way Christians advocate?  And even for those of us who are Christian, living the lifestyle may seem daunting.

All too often, we know what we are supposed to do and to think, but we cannot completely explain why.  Living up to the challenge of the full Christian teaching will be very difficult, if we do not understand the reason for that teaching.  In the United States at least, I can say for sure that a great many Christians do not meet the challenge. This is partly because they do not fully understand the depth and beauty of the reasoning behind it.

At the center of the universe, is a deep abiding love. We are called to be part of it. We are not ashamed to believe this. We invite everyone to accept the challenge to live as if we are loved into existence.


[1] The Alchemy of Love and Lust, by Theresa L. Crenshaw, (New York: Simon and Schuster, Pocket Books, 1997), pg. 94; 102-106.  Matt Ridley, Nature via Nurture:Genes, Experience and What Makes us Human, (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), pg. 42-46.

[2] Niles Newton, “The Role of the Oxytocin Reflexes in Three Interpersonal Reproductive Acts,” Clinical psychoneuroendocrinology in reproduction, L. Carenza, P. Pancheri, and L. Zichells,eds. (New York: Academic Press, 1978) pp. 411-18. (Cited in Crenshaw, pg.97.)

[3] This syndrome is known as the Kaspar Hauser syndrome, or psychosocial dwarfism. See Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry/VI, Vol.2, Sixth Edition, Harold I Kaplan, M.D. and Benjamin J. Sadock, M.D., Editors, (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.) See Chapter 40, and sections 43.3, 47.3.

[4] See Ibid, Section 43.3, “Reactive Attachment Disorder of Infancy or Early Childhood.” The locus classicus is the work of John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment, (New York: Basic Books, 1969). Also, Mary Ainsworth, Mary Blehar, Everett Waters and Sally Wall, Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1978).

[5] Deborah Blum, Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 2002), especially pg. 214, where John Bowlby tells Harry Harlow, “Harry, I don’t know what your problem is. I have seen more psychopathy in those single cages than I’ve seen anywhere on the face of the earth.”  The monkeys were sucking themselves, rocking back and forth, cuddling their own bodies. “You’ve got some crazy animals.”

[6]A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 2001), pp. 39-40.

[7]A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 2001), pp. 77-78;  Deborah Blum, Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 2002), Chapter 8, “The Baby in the Box.”

[8] A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 2001), pp. 79-80.

[9]Ronald S. Federici, Help for the Hopless Child: A Guide for Families (With Special Discussion for Assessing and Treating the Post-Institutionalized Child), Second Edition, (Alexandria VA: Ronald Federici and Associates: 2003).

[10] Jennifer Roback Morse, Love and Economics (San Marcos, CA: Ruth Institute Books, 2009) pg 57.

[11]For useful summaries, see “Do Moms and Dads Matter? Evidence from the Social Sciences on Family Structure and the Best Interests of the Child,” Maggie Gallagher and Joshua Baker, Margins, 4:161-180, 2004; “Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children and What Can We Do About It?” Kristen Anderson Moore, Susan M. Jekielek and Carol Emig,  Child Trends Research Brief, June 2002; Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World, Jennifer Roback Morse, (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 2005).

[12]“Household Family Structure and Children’s Aggressive Behavior: A Longitudinal Study of Urban Elementary School Children,  Nancy Vaden-Kiernan, Nicholas S. Ialongo, Jane Pearson and Sheppard Kellan, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 23(5) 553-568, (1995)

[13]“Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Cynthia C. Harper and Sara S. McLanahan, Journal of Research on Adolescence, 14(3) 369-397 (2004).

[14]“Schizophrenia much more likely in children of single parents,” Sarah Hall, UK Guardian, November 2, 2006.

[15]“Mortality, severe morbidity and injury in children living with single parents in Sweden: a population-based study,” Gunilla Ringback Weitoft, Anders Hjern, Bengt Haglund, Mans Rosen, The Lancet, 361(9354) (January 25, 2003).

[16] “The One Hundred Billion Dollar Man: The Annual Public Costs of Father Absence,” Steven L. Nock, Christopher J. Einolf, (Washington D.C.: National Fatherhood Initiative, 2008).

[17] “The Taxpayer Cost of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States,” Benjamin Scafidi, (New York: Georgia Family council and Institute for American Values, 2008).

[18] “The Value of Family: Fiscal Benefits of Marriage And Reducing Family Breakdown in New Zealand,” Report to Family First, New Zealand, October 2008, available on-line: http://www.familyfirst.org.nz/files/docs/nz%20report%20executive%20summary.pdf

[19] David Wong, “Counting the Cost of Family Failure: 2011 Update; (Cambridge: Relationship Institute, 2011.) available on-line: http://www.relationshipsfoundation.org/Web/OnlineStore/Product.aspx?ID=132

[20] “Private Choices, Public Costs: How Failing Families Affect Us All,” Rebecca Walberg and Andrea Mrozek, (Ottawa: Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, 2009) Available on-line: http://www.imfcanada.org/article_files/Cost%20of%20Family%20Breakdown%20finalHR.pdf

[21]Taken Into Custody: The War Against Fathers, Marriage and the Family, Stephen Baskerville, (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House Publishing, 2007).

Jennifer Roback Morse Ph.D. is Founder and President of the Ruth Institute, a global non-profit organization, dedicated to creating a Christ-like solution to family breakdown. Visit at Ruth Institute or on Facebook.