Why God doesn’t go away
March 27th, 2013
09:41 AM ET

Why God doesn’t go away

By Paul J. Zak, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Paul J. Zak is a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of 'The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity.' The views expressed are his own.

I carried a lot of crosses as a Catholic altar boy. I also learned to mumble phrases in Latin and breathed in enough incense to choke an elephant. There is something serene about being behind a ritual. It lets you observe and reflect. And wonder why in the world people show up.

Roughly six percent of Americans report that they are atheists or agnostics according to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll.  But, that means that over 90 percent believe in a God. Pew also reports that 80 percent profess a religious affiliation and half of those with a religious affiliation regularly attend church. So what motivates 120 million Americans to attend a church, synagogue or temple?

I began running experiments searching for a biochemical basis for moral behaviors in 2001 and found in a decade's worth of research that the molecule oxytocin motivated people to return kindness when they were shown kindness. Given my Catholic background and later skepticism that only Catholics would get into heaven (if such a thing exists), in my experiments I only asked college participants the most cursory questions about their religious beliefs. Guess what? Few college students are religious at all – and I found no difference in oxytocin functioning or prosocial behaviors between believers and nonbelievers.

Then the "weenie alert" went off in my scientist brain – I could learn so much more about the role of religion in moral behaviors if I got off campus. Free roaming humans are more religious than college students and I could study them in their natural habitat rather than in the sterile confines of my lab. Presuming, of course, religious people would let me study them.

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After several meetings to gain permission, I went to a Christian church and took blood from volunteers before and after a Sunday service. I also took blood at a folk dance because many ancient religious rituals (and some current ones) involve coordinated movements. Then, I trekked deep into the rainforest of Papua New Guinea and took blood samples from indigenous peoples decked out in leaves and feathers as they did a centuries-old tribal dance.

In all these rituals, a majority of participants released oxytocin. Those who released oxytocin reported that they felt closer to their communities and said they would volunteer to help other community members. We did not find that the change in oxytocin was associated with an increased sense of connection to God or some "ultimate reality." In fact, there was no discernible difference between nonreligious and religious rituals at stimulating oxytocin release. A rugby team I studied produced as much oxytocin during their warm-up as did evangelical Christians who worshipped and sang in my lab.

The effect of ritual even worked for this skeptical scientist. Due to several equipment failures, I was embedded in my village in Papua New Guinea for several days with nothing to do. Quite quickly the villagers brought me into their daily rituals and I felt like I had joined their community and formed attachments to its members.  I still feel this way.

So why do people show up at church? Because people show up at church. Rituals build community by releasing oxytocin making rituals "sticky." An older woman in our folk dance sample told me she attended because dancing reduced her chronic pain. I asked her if this was due to the exercise or the people. After a pause, she said "both." Our data support her intuition.

Research from other scholars has shown that regular churchgoers are generally happier and healthier. Why? Oxytocin reduces stress responses and having more relationships make us happy. Churches also give attendants a chance to help others, another activity that increases one's satisfaction with life.

Sure, you don't need God, or church, to be happy or healthy. But the desire to park bottoms in pews has led churches in the U.S. to be effective community builders.  Humans need community and even reminders to be a bit less selfish and help others by studying ancient texts. Perhaps the saying "God is love" has it backwards. When we love others, we embody Godliness.

The proportion of atheists and agnostics may keep on growing, but as long as churches use rituals to bring people together, God is unlikely to go away.

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Topics: Religion

soundoff (635 Responses)
  1. Bible Clown©

    Most people are "practical atheists." No matter what they might say, they know they will never be called to account for their thefts and cheats by some "higher power." A Christian will never forgive, and they will tell any lie they please, and they will even put on masks and come to burn your house at night. Excuse me for not being impressed with their holy talk.

    April 1, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Reply
  2. Bible Clown©

    " But funny thing was, Buddha died. Mohammed died. Only Christ rose from the dead." Really? You saw it happen? How about when Mohamed rode a flying camel with a human head? Wasn't that as good as coming back from the dead? These are fairy tales. People don't come back to life.

    April 1, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  3. Bill

    It,s totally a personal thing.If religion makes You happy Good .And if not That,s Your business.Personally I don,t care.I,m more interested in how You actually live Your life .Not what You say You are.Theres a lot of Priests who stood in front of a lot of persons talking religion but whom in their personal lives let everyone down.Need I say more?

    April 1, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  4. Henk

    The religious figment of "God" will disappear in the far future, when intelligent self-consciousness becomes prevalent.
    Knowledge and intellectual honesty will need Courage to bring worldwide Affection at least among all mammals.

    April 2, 2013 at 6:25 am | Reply


    April 2, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Reply
    • mesa

      Get rid of the "F" in that statement and you'll understand the truth.


      Hey I can't tell you what to believe in, it's up to you!

      August 2, 2017 at 9:25 pm | Reply
  6. John Hanson

    We all seek god when a family member is in danger or we are about to die

    April 3, 2013 at 3:45 am | Reply
  7. Child of God

    For God so loved the world that He gave His Only Son, Jesus Christ, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16. That is why He doesn't go away. He loves humans, and He wants to save us.
    Nevertheless, mark it down, that if you believe there is no afterlife, you are deceiving yourself. God made us, and it is enough to look at the perfection of a beautiful spring flower or the majesty of the human body and to know that He exists. However, there will be a day when all of us will stand before the throne of God.
    God is so good that he even gave this author the breath to live and the power to learn how to write, even though he is so disrespectful towards his own Creator.
    Jesus Christ is coming back! This world will have an end to all the misery and disasters that humans have brough upon themselves anyway! Yet, in all this misery, Jesus came and died on a cross for me and you. Now, He is alive and ready to come back. Are you ready? He is not going away...He is coming again very soon!

    April 3, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  8. Rain Maker

    Our answers about the existence of God is based on the environment and people we grew up around. But most atheist are making it sound like they traveled the galaxies and came back with an answer. Don't be so certain about an answer you have only heard arguments for and against. Since you can't go back in time and look at the Creator or talk to the people who brought the message to us, Compare book and find contradictions that is the only way to gain some certainty. If the only books you read are filled with contradictions from one chapter to another then of course God would sound like a Disney character. Remember that submission brings certainty. That is true for anything. Car, electronics etc etc.

    April 5, 2013 at 7:22 am | Reply
  9. thinkright5

    Nowhere in Catholicism does it say that "only Catholics" will go to heaven. Catholicism says all those who believe in Jesus will go to heaven. You'd think a scientist, who apparently looks for evidence before stating something, would read the Catechism to find such a basic answer. How many more people use misinformation to leave their religion"?

    April 5, 2013 at 11:33 am | Reply
  10. there'shope

    Well,let's just say that the HOLY BIBLE is true and that JESUS is the son of GOD and that he did die for all of us,to pay for all of our sins,and that he talked more about HELL in the bible than he did Heaven,and that if you believe in him and accept him as your personal savior your soul will spend eternity with him in HEAVEN,well i'm just saying if it is true,there's going to be a lot of people in trouble,anyway I myself don't believe in atheist.

    April 5, 2013 at 11:35 am | Reply
  11. muguKubwa

    Interesting research. ha...no heaven! what is your definition of heaven ..... there lies the problem. So there is a need for Humans to perform rituals religion sports festivals ..... wonder what is in our DNA that needs/demands this stimulation.

    April 5, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  12. Peter

    While this piece has nothing to do with God, the author has a right to his opinion...

    April 6, 2013 at 9:55 am | Reply
  13. there'shope

    My definition of Heaven is spending eternity with CHRIST,where ever that may be, human life is spiritual,GOD is spirit,when a person or person's sincerely seek GOD with all their inner being and read the bible with a open heart,then GOD will reveal himself to a person's conscience, convicting them.only then can someone become BORN AGAIN, spiritually. At that moment the spirit of GOD will indwell that person,then their spiritual blinders are taken off of their eyes. GOD then becomes more real than anything else in the world, seen or unseen.The wind blows,you feel it,you can't see it,but you know it's real.No matter how many people make fun or hate GOD, it still does not stop the FACT that he love us all, who are we to think that we can become so educated that we think we know more than our CREATOR. I would hate to chance after death standing before a holy GOD without CHRIST as my savior and advocate. Just keep an open mind,after all GOD is the one who made us, and remember it's all about FAITH.

    April 6, 2013 at 10:15 am | Reply
  14. Jonathan

    It's been well-known for many years that chemicals in the brain play a central role in how we feel. If you see a good movie and are happy about it, then these various "happy" chemicals are there. But it would be absurd to say that this means that the movie itself had no merit. In fact, despite the role of the chemicals, it is perfectly sensible to say that one's happy BECAUSE it was a good movie, BECAUSE of the great acting, drama, clever story and dialogue, etc. Yes, one could also say that one's happy because of the chemicals, but a real experience with actual merit triggered it.

    But this story starts with the assumption that God obviously doesn't exist, and therefore if people believe in God, it must be because of the chemicals. Experiments showing that those chemicals are released are fairly useless because we already know they're there. The question is whether there's something of merit behind the release of those chemicals. Now, one can have an honest argument about God's existence, but the implied logic of this article...e.g., saying that the existence of "happy" brain chemicals in God-believing people proves that God is an illusion... just doesn't cut it.

    April 6, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  15. johnnyvistar

    My only issue with religion is this:

    its all based on written texts.

    Texts that were written mostly by primitive men who cannot see anything beyond their lifetime. What would they be writing had they been transported to 2013, I often wondered.

    I wish the deities and gods would help us by at least giving evidences of their existence – or at least send their representatives from up high or down below – and say to us "Here we are, believe us we do exist". Because many innocent people are killed everyday, some blown to pieces by their jealous believers and it will never stop in the name of religion.

    April 6, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Reply
    • there'shope

      johnnyvistar, i'm not trying to sound arrogant when i say this, but GOD is not a religion, going to heaven has nothing to do with denomination period. It's a free gift, already paid in full, by the SON of GOD, please read my earlier post, i just ask you to search with a open mind and all your HEART, and see what you learn about GOD. I know i myself am a living example, you have a great day and be safe.

      April 7, 2013 at 10:31 am | Reply
  16. there'shope

    GOD is trinity, GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON and GOD the HOLY SPIRIT, this is silly but i'll use an egg for example, there's the shell, the yoak, and the white part, 3 part's all in one, that's the way GOD is, 3 in 1, as i stated earlier,when a person accept's by FAITH, JESUS CHRIST as their personal savior, the SPIRIT of GOD indwell's that person for ever, the SPIRIT then reveal's TRUTH about the SCRIPTURE and what is written, you see, the SPIRIT who indwells GOD'S children is the same SPIRIT who revealed to the ancient writers what to write.This is nothing against anyone, but if someone doesn't have the SPIRIT,then the TRUTH cannot be revealed to that person or person's. GOD could easily appear before you, but he wants you to sincerely seek him with all you heart, if anyone, i said anyone, will do that, you will be surprised at what you learn. Remember FAITH is what pleases GOD.

    April 7, 2013 at 10:18 am | Reply
  17. milton

    Professor Zak

    I am sorry that your previous experience with the church as an altar boy was not inspiring at all, we all have our shares of such experiences but allow such event to affect our reasoning and judgment especially when we are in positions of influence.

    Professor, "The Moral Molecule" hypothesis is a well-articulated doctrine and I want to thank you for your commendable research, however it fails the empirical test and its validity.
    Your choice of research or sample choice error of input is quite significant.

    A man is made up of the flesh, spirit and soul, your sample is predominantly flesh, and you have failed to test the validity of your hypothesis by testing "the spirit and soul"

    Secondly, people don’t show up to church just to show up, the come in agreement to attend church.

    Professor, when people seek the face of God they, do so to have fellowship, with God and one another. (Appointment) not rituals.
    Not to forget also professor, it is quite inappropriate to limit the roles of an altar boy as being limited carrying crosses, I think this children attend to great matters in the House of God.

    April 8, 2013 at 4:25 am | Reply
  18. tensai13

    "Why god doesn't go away"? god was never there in the first place.

    April 8, 2013 at 8:34 pm | Reply
  19. Robert

    A better question is how many nobel prize winning scientists believe in God. Or how many people with abnormally high IQs are religious. I'll give you a clue. Almost none in either category. As long as there are ignorant, frightened people, there will be religion, sadly.

    April 9, 2013 at 2:48 am | Reply
    • there'shope

      GOD is not a religion, he's a personal relationship through his son JESUS CHRIST, people who have that relationship are not frightened of anything, we know the outcome when physical life ends, some of the smartest people on earth as you call these noble prize winning scientists, or people with high IQ's, would not have that knowledge without the GOD of the universe giving it to them, I could call you ignorant for not believing, but i'm not going too, you are just spiritually blinded, i know you don't care but (Psalms 14:1 says Only A FOOL WOULD SAY IN HIS HEART THERE IS NO GOD) (ROMANS 1:19 & 20 says .....FOR THE TRUTH ABOUT GOD IS KNOWN TO YOU INSTINCTIVELY,GOD HAS PUT THIS KNOWLEDGE IN YOUR HEART,FROM THE TIME THE WORLD WAS CREATED ,PEOPLE HAVE SEEN THE EARTH AND SKY AND ALL THAT GOD HAS MADE,YOU CAN CLEARLY SEE HIS INVISIBLE QUALITIES....HIS EXTERNAL POWER AND DIVINE NATURE...SO YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE WHATSOEVER FOR NOT KNOWING GOD).....i didn't say that GOD did.... so when you or anyone else reads this,the spirit of GOD will speak to your conscience and convict you, please turn to him before it's to late.....a person clearly hasn't lived yet until they know they are ready to die, there's no such thing as an atheist.

      April 9, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Reply
  20. 51POST

    hey dude, you are very wrong. why?
    1) You were catholic
    2) What you use to believe are religion not true relationship
    3) You should get to know Jesus the only way, truth and life. No maria or saints.
    4) How you exist anyway? Who creates oxygen? Don't tell some scientist. Earth form before scientist ok.
    Do a research on Jesus in every little details. See what will happen to your life.

    April 10, 2013 at 4:39 am | Reply
    • there'shope

      Hey DUDE, who's this last post aimed at? And give it to me in plain English... when CHRIST died on the cross for all mankind he did not say, Baptist are saved this way, catholics are saved this way, Methodists this way and so forth, ROMANS 10:13 says whoever calls on the LORD shall be saved, and that's just what it means, no one can forgive you of sin but CHRIST himself.........END OF STORY

      April 10, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Reply
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