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.

More from CNN: Americans polarized over religion

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. bryan

    why doesn't god go away? good question. probably for the same reason that junk science won't go away.

    March 29, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  2. snowdog

    Amen. God is love. The atheists are very very very small group. Most of the world believes in God.

    March 29, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Reply
    • Naaaaaa

      The article is misleading in one way.
      Yes 6% may SAY they are Atheist but if you count Agnostics as well you get to about 20% of the US pop.
      AND IT'S GROWING every year people wise up to the facts of reality.
      Believe how you would like, but I would, if I believed those stories, not waste money or too much time on it.
      Bottom line, if it makes you happy it can't be THAT bad.

      March 29, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply
      • ogre12

        2012 statistics show American Christians at 73% vs 25.3% for atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated altogether...look it up for yourself hoss.

        March 29, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
    • darkstar

      Most of the world does not believe in your god, and most of the world is simply delusional.

      March 29, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Reply
    • cedar rapids

      'Most of the world believes in God.'
      but not the same god. Which then raises the question....who is right? There are billions out there worshipping the wrong god but continuing to believe they arent

      March 29, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Reply
      • Mike

        Good luck getting an answer on that one. It's so easy with just a shred of common sense to blow religion out of the water. Just have faith they say, what a joke. Just be a sheep is more like it. baaa baaaa

        March 29, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
      • okiejoe

        And happily killing anyone who doesn't believe as they do. God is love?

        March 30, 2013 at 10:14 am |
  3. Josie

    This article confuses ritual with faith. Faith & religion are two different things. You might be the most religious person in the world but have no faith or you might be one of the most faithful with no religion. To simply equate ritual with belief in God is erroneous. To TheEducatedSociety, you make an excellent point! The point of the church is fellowship with others and as you well point out, fellowship can be achieved in other scenarios.

    March 29, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  4. snowdog

    God brings people to church. Not rituals like this author states. I agree with Josie. Just because you go to church every Sunday does not mean you are a Christian. Faith is in your heart when you accept Jesus as Savior. Church does not save you, Jesus does.

    March 29, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Reply
  5. rick

    God is not going away because he created us and this universe. Where is he going to go?

    March 29, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Reply
    • darkstar

      Nowhere, because there is absolutely no evidence that he exists.

      March 29, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Reply
      • Mr. Rogers

        You are right!
        Oxyt. role is well known. It is a chemical. Has nothing to do with religion. Adding catholic spin to the search of scientific meaning at easter time – well who would have thought. SEO content.

        March 30, 2013 at 5:11 am |
      • calvin

        You are the proof He Exists! He is and Always will exist!

        March 30, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  6. ?

    Really how many people really know God its not a religion its a relationship....You are not His Robot therefore everyone has freewill which means He will not force you to love him....And thats why this world is like this....especially people that want to kill innocent kids abortions wars this world has been taken over(satan)anti-christ)politicians)falsephrophets) and will only get worse BUT only those who open there hearts to See who God is and Open there eyes to see His warnings of how the times are getting closer will be able to be prepared .....jesus is the way.....

    March 29, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Please...How many people have been killed and are going to be killed in the name of religion? It's a cancer and should be removed. If you want to believe, that's fine. It should be between you and your imaginary friend. We don't need churces or any DOGMA. Just you and your pal.

      March 29, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  7. Jose

    Explaining religion by reducing it to the release of oxytocin is at best an oversimplification. Even if there were a correlation, the religious experience is complex and involves not only feelings but also belief and reason.

    March 29, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  8. brentumhb

    Maybe God doesn't "go away" because he is real.

    March 29, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Reply
    • darkstar

      Prove it with tangible, ojective evidence.

      March 29, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Reply
      • frespech

        2013 years ago an event occurred which changed the beliefs of millions of people since. We even base our references in time on that event. Before Christ and after. Now you might believe that as unsubstantiated, but I accept that as fact Jesus did exist, he died for the inherited sin of mankind and his sacrifice made it possible for us to be redeemed to God.
        With the potential for living life eternally on a recreated paradise earth for all those that accept Christ as their personal savior. That day and hour is already set in time and will come just when God has commanded it.

        April 1, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  9. truthbringsfreedom

    According to the Pew report 88% of those that identify themselves religiously as "nothing in particular" are not seeking any religion. That's about 10% of the total population. I would say that at least some of those people are agnostic/atheist. For some reason, claiming to be "nothing in particular" combined with "not seeking a religion" translates into a believer category in Mr. Zak's mind. Free your mind Mr. Zak. Perhaps some of them just haven't thought about and don't care at all about how they are defined (theist,atheist, or agnostic); they just don't believe? Religious belief and affiliation may be irrelevant to their lives.

    March 29, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  10. laguna_greg

    This would all be very believable, except that the same Pew research also shows the more Americans than ever before have become unchurched. They might believe in god, but they don't got to church nor do they identify with any religious affiliation. Zak conveniently left that out.

    March 29, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  11. kenchandammit

    I'd be willing to bet that a huge percentage of church-goers have very, very strong doubts that it's all true, and they only attend church and proclaim that they believe 'just in case'. This is simply a result of the 'flock' having been terrorized their entire lives with the promise of eternal damnation and hell-fire if they don't comply. Nobody 'experiences' god. Religion is something that is sold to us by people who were sold by other people, who were sold by other people... I've made the decision to finally stand up and to not be afraid of the lies that the church implanted when I was a little kid. I'd like to see more people finally stand up, too, and work toward a world where we can all get along, free of the hatred the church teaches.

    March 29, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  12. James

    That's great and all, but it's still a false system of belief that leads many to help take away rights from others. Atheist and proud.

    March 29, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  13. salino333

    Please don't mix it up!
    People like to be among others and feel welcome. You don't need religion to do so. If you look at little kids, routines and rituals make them feel comfortable and happy. Being at home with family-members, people you personally know for such a long time – shared the first moments with and gens- this is something that has an impact on your behaviour and feelings. The cathlic religion has a very long tradition to stay in power, to introduce rituals and moral instances to make you feel like a sinner, diminish your self, etc. It's simple psychology! If your acceptance of a higher might grows and you feel convinced and would be prepared to die because of the will of god, you don't do this because of symbols!! Cathlics believe in evil, god's punishment and all this – so people are not made confortable, but are made frightened with a certain form of subtile pressure. Making people frightened is something that happenes voluntarily and with method.
    But you are right: blood is a natural fluid and all religious tradition came from natural folks as a desire to express fear and thread caused by unkown experiences with thunderstorm, death and desease.
    But today, why our relative should be burried with religious ornaments and a priest, and not with flowers only, is something that must be explained.
    Rituals should be questioned, if they still make sense – or if they are empty and god's name is only an empty excuse for not acting .. (f.ex. against guns).

    March 29, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  14. The_Mick

    My childhood cross-carrying, altar boy Latin, etc. mirrors the author's and I've also rejected, as did Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, etc., religion's version of God. But I don't reject the secular aspects of many religions, especially those promoted by Jesus of Nazareth, which uplift society itself. Many people who aren't especially religious attend Church, Synagogue, Mosque, Temple, etc. for those reasons and often send their children, when they don't attend themselves, to get property oriented socially.

    March 29, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  15. Dr. Salah Sultan

    As-salam alaykum....Allah ybarek feekom

    March 29, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  16. Bostontola

    The whole oxytocin angle is really not key to the main point, that religion is here to stay.

    Humans form groups. The groups bond from within and reject outsiders. This happens at many levels, families, religions, schools, cities, nations, etc. What chemical(s) facilitate that behavior isn't the important fact.

    The most fascinating thing is that our desire to be in a group is so strong that it propagates belief in an invisible being of infinite power. These religious groups are so tied to this that they go to war with other groups who believe in another invisible being of infinite power. Wow.

    March 29, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  17. Solex

    The only problem I have with "God" is that anyone saying God exists does not make it so. It is therefore by definition an OPINION. I will grant you that my opinion that there is no "God" also follows that rule. However, I am not trying to make my opinion the law of the land nor do I expect anyone else to share it.

    Religion allows like-minded people to congregate. It also allows for you to blame "God" for your prejudices and bad behavior. More atrocities have been perpetrated in name of "God" than any other influence in history. "God" allows one to sleep at night when one openly advocates hatred and disenfranchisement to people you do not know and have done you no harm.

    To me, religion is nothing more than man wanting to live forever. But in order to get there, you have to live in fear of a self-described jealous "God". In my OPINION, you only live once, so I choose NOT to live in fear of a fairy tale and will live by the Golden Rule. I invite you to do the same.

    March 29, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • Dr. Salah Sultan

      SOLEX is so very mis-informed, He repeats the oft quoted "that god/religion is responsible for majority of wars/atrocities. This is lie!! 7% of war in total human history can be traced to religion. The rest is "you got it I want it" and others. Even in USA history only "war on terror" has any religous tone.Do simple study as this lie is easy to refute.

      March 29, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  18. buck cameron

    How do you make something that is not there disappear?

    March 29, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  19. JAB

    The author needs to read The God Delusion.

    March 29, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  20. Pete

    My rational mind keeps me entrenched in the science camp, but I find myself WANTING to believe in God. Maybe that stems from a desire to find meaning, but I don't think so. I find plenty of meaning through logic and feel that morals and the like can be derived naturally through reason. I think my desire to believe in God is the result of wanting to have a benevolent force at work in my life, which is somewhat selfish. I kinda still hold out hope, though I can't pinpoint exactly why...

    March 29, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      If your sincere desire to believe in some "benevolent all power" gets out o control the religios people would call you a BELIEVER, the psycologists would dig in to your delusions. And feed you prescribed pills if you truely believe it. The name for this wish for an all benevolant power is "Grandios Delusion". The wish that someone else would miracolously get things right. Somebody is watching over you....etc. Everyone needs such a recourse. Do not keep their safety blankets from them.

      March 29, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • Randy

      If you look at the way the animals are, the way for example that most animals' eyes, ears, legs, and arms are placed symmetrically to each other, the way that if the Earth were tilted any degree more downward or upwards that we'd either burn or freeze, etc. etc. ... there's plenty of scientific facts to support a creator. The atheist has more faith to believe that all of life and matter just appeared by some random bang, than to believe that the universe was ordered by a Higher Power. Apart from that, I know from my experience that there is a God, because God is love and when you experience that love, you'll know there has to be a God.

      March 31, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Reply
    • frespech

      Pete- if you are sincere then go to the scource of teaching which for believers is the Bible. You will have to prove to yourself the good and perfect will of God. I suggest maybe looking at the book of Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon purported to be the wisest of men. You will see the futility he speaks of and in the last couple of verses he sums everything up very succinctly. Hope this helps.

      April 1, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  21. Nodack

    I'm agnostic. I leave room for a higher power, but I think you all have it wrong. Jews think they are going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell. Catholics think they are going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell. Muslims think they are going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell. The same with every other religion. "We are the special chosen ones and everybody else goes to hell."

    My best friend who is Christian told me that if I didn't take Jesus as my lord and savior that I was going to hell. I said what if I was born on some deserted island and never knew about religion, but was the most kind and giving person anybody has ever known? He said I would still go to hell. I said any God that sends people to suffer for eternity just because they don't worship him isn't a God I want to follow.

    I only allow the possibility of a higher being because I don't know. He could be the leader of an alien race that has visited us or there might not be a god at all. There has been zero communication from any god in thousands of years and what is known about God thousands of years ago was written by man, not God.

    Sorry, I refuse to be gullible.

    March 29, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
    • frespech

      If for some reason you were never taught anything about God or Jesus or had never heard of them I suggest you would be judged on your heart condition and behavior. When people suggest Hell to you ask them where God sent Adam at his death. There is no Hell as preached by most so called christian religions. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.
      Your reward for believing and following the will of God is eternal life- your punishment for not doing so is death. Not torture.

      April 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  22. K Kim

    RE: "Perhaps the saying "God is love" has it backwards. When we love others, we embody Godliness."

    It is true that when we love we embody Godliness but that is precisely becasue God is love. Jesus said: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another." John 13:34.

    March 29, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  23. deniz boro

    I do believe in a higher being. I also believe all religions are outdated. They were all fine to form a social structure given the society they where ment for. All the books have valuable rules. Not only one of them mind you. But well, I wander what one o the Prophets say in the current sociaty. In shorts, I believe all religions were valuable social interventions necessary for their period.

    March 29, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  24. deniz boro

    Sorry, my referenace to E. Fromm had a misteke (my Freudian slip) the actual book is named "Fear of Freedom" as the link below if CNN allows me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escape_from_Freedom

    March 29, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  25. David from Nor Cal

    Most people are 99% atheist / agnostic. Assume that there are only 1,000 deities known in recorded history (a number far lower than reality). If people only believe in one god (as monotheists claim, though often incorrectly depending on how you define a god), then you are an atheist about 999 gods. You believe in 1/1000 gods. That is 99.9% atheist, 0.1% believer. And that is a conservative number of deities.

    Additionally, if only one god was the true god, and only their followers were good and moral, you would expect a huge number of people to be totally immoral. However, that isn't the case. Even presuming half the world only believe in one god, and that was the "true" god who's followers were all moral and just (avoid falling out of your chair in laughter here if possible), you'd still have half the worlds population who was immoral. I doubt you would find many who would claim even this relatively (in context) high percentage of moral humans (50% or so) was high enough (though I'm quite sure some would claim its far to generous).

    In addition, you'd expect to only find people in prison for violent / immoral crimes who were NOT of this religion. Even allowing for the "prison conversion" where someone "finds god" in jail, I highly expect a great many people who are a part of a great many religions go to prison. To my knowledge, there is not a majority of the prison population who are atheist / agnostic. I believe I have seen studies showing the percentage of the prison population is about the same in terms of religiosity as the general population, though as I don't remember the specific study I won't claim it outright here.

    The claims of increased chemicals in the brain as a result of religious activity, non religious activity, sports, etc all producing a fairly similar result is quite interesting, and makes good sense. As an atheist, I experience a rush of wonder, excitement, and even generosity and community when I conduct activities such as a study of the world / the universe, listen to a stirring piece of music, watch my section of the earth turn towards the sun once again each day (as often pointed out by scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, the term "sun rise" is a misnomer from the days when it was believed that the sun revolved around the earth, hence sun rise not earth turn), hear my wife laugh or help her to smile, and a great many other activities.

    March 29, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  26. Cal Newlan

    "Rituals for bringing people together"? A lame rationalization. God doesn't "go away" because He is real and a real force in the lives of believers. calnewlanministries.com

    March 29, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • HitchedBritches

      Here you are trying to get people to join your cause and visit your "ministry" website, while at the same time you effectively turn people off to you with your acidic speech. Do you see the irony in that? Of course you don't.

      March 29, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Reply
  27. NoGodNoMaster

    God will never go away because of the shackle that religion has on society.

    March 29, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  28. Jesus Was a Space Alien

    I think the author has a good point. People in community whether for soccor or worshipping a fairy in the sky report to be happier and healthier. Community is the key not the fairy in the sky.

    March 29, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Reply
    • Bostontola

      Well put.

      March 29, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Reply
    • Pale Horseman

      And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven (Son of man in space): and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

      Most Christians would be happy to see Jesus coming from space in the clouds with power and great glory.
      Most people would mourn if they see an Alien Spacecraft comring from space in the clouds with power and great glory.

      Our Father, the Creator of our Species, didn't just create humans!

      March 29, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • Let There Be Light

      Show me someone without God who has happiness, and I'll show you someone who don't know what happiness is...

      March 29, 2013 at 8:41 pm | Reply
  29. Cal Newlan

    God sent AIDS to destroy the sodomite damned. calnewlanministries.com

    March 29, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Reply
    • Timmay

      Oh cut out your nonsense. Chrsitianity is really the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree... yeah, makes perfect sense.

      March 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Reply
      • Cal Newlan

        Bless you, ignorant sinner. It's not too late for brute beasts like you. You must accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior NOW! calnewlanministries.com

        March 29, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
      • John

        Too much television can certainly taint your world view......

        March 29, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • Timmay

      No thanks, I stopped believing in fairy tales long ago. I thought your Jesus creature told you to love your fellow man. So which is it is God loving or merciful. There are so many contradictions in your fairy tale book it is laughable. The crap you guys believe in is a large book of fairy tales about murder, incest, etc.

      March 29, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Reply
    • capnmike


      March 29, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Reply
    • darkstar

      [whispering] Psst! You might want to step into the nearest restroom and check yourself Cal Newman. Your delusions are showing.

      March 29, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  30. Pale Horseman

    God is Dead.

    He put himself above Our Father, the Creator of our species, by having people worship God as the Creator of the Universe when Our Father is of the Milky Way Galaxy.

    Think of the Branch Davidians of Waco Texas and putting themselves above the USA and threatening the USA, and we saw the consequences.

    Now think of God (Chosen One Branch Davidians and Universals=Catholics in Greek) having put himself above our Galaxy, above our Creator, calling himself the Creator of the Universe and threatening all of US. and getting US involved in his crimes.

    March 29, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Reply
    • Let There Be Light

      "God is dead"?... That's not what he says...

      March 29, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Reply
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