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. Justin H

    This article uses science to demonstrate something that is fairly intuitive: religion persists because it makes people feel good. It's not hard to understand why some people like to stick with activities that give them a feeling of well being and community. I also get how people like the feeling of believing there is something bigger than themselves. However, I could never abandon reason or logic just to feel good.

    March 30, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  2. WhosTheIdiot

    Why God doesn’t go away? You're such an idiot. Why God doesn’t go away? Because God does not exist. Period.

    March 30, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • Nice Try

      You say God does not exist. It is the epitome of ignorance for a person to make a flat statement about something they have no proof of and don't know anything about. And the fact of the matter is, you have no proof whatsoever that God does not exist. But like all atheists, you're too ignorant and arrogant and proud and too trapped in your own deceit to even admit it…

      March 30, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Reply
      • Justin H

        I am not as militant as WhosTheIdiot, but I agree with his basic assessment. However, I will point out that the equation should work the opposite way of what you are indicating. There is zero evidence to support the existence of an all powerful super being, so non-belief is the logical position. Belief in a god is the result of traditions – mostly dating back to a time before science, when god(s) were used to explain the unknown.

        As science advances, it continues to explain the natural world without the need to invoke gods.

        I will take the argument one step further and say that I am atheist and not agnostic. While I remain open to the possibility there could be some sort of god. But absent any evidence to even suggest the possibility, I have no reason to take the agnostic position of "I don't know".

        March 30, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
  3. Cal Newlan

    Why doesn't Fareed Zakaria go away? calnewlanministries.com

    March 30, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  4. warlocalcott

    Atheists somewhere along the line, thought they had a roll going. I don't know where that ever came from. Poor guys and gals. I am Wiccan, which has been the fastest growing religion in America for the past 5 years. And I will tell you, people, no matter their religion, believe in a higher deity. So crawl back in your hole, someone will bring your neds around shortly.

    March 30, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Reply
    • desire

      What a pompous ass to dare speak for everyone. Some of us are most certainly atheists in its purest form. And please don't waste any horns of toads or chins of caterpillars working a spell on me. Thanks in advance.

      March 30, 2013 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  5. Taylor

    Another case of bad science. People experience X so they release a lot of Oxytocin. Post hoc ergo proctor hoc. People are so dismissive of other people's religions. It is a sad discrimination.

    March 30, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Reply
    • Cal Newlan

      Very good, Taylor. A fine logical insight.

      March 30, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Reply
    • Bostontola

      You're right, there are thousands of religious discrimination cases every year. All committed by a believer in god.

      March 30, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Reply
    • Let There Be Light

      It is not possible for darkness and light to coexist. To discriminate against someone for doing good, is evil. But to discriminate against someone for committing sin and for doing evil, is godly.

      2 Corinthians 6:14 …for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? 17 Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord

      March 30, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Reply
      • Bostontola

        Definitely hilarious!

        March 30, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  6. Bostontola

    Evolution is the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations by mutation and selection.

    March 30, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Reply
    • Let There Be Light

      Evolution is a doctrine of the devil. So stop propagating lies. Otherwise, you are a worker of iniquity (meaning you're working for Lucifer). And all workers of Lucifer shall be cast into the lake...

      Luke 13:24 – (Jesus speaking) But he shall say... depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity.

      March 30, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Reply
      • Bostontola

        You crack me up : )

        March 30, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
      • Peteyroo

        LetThereBeCrap, wrong! Lucifer doesn't exist anymore than Santa Claus exists.

        April 1, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  7. GDAL

    Anybody can practice anything they like, and it won't bother me. I just don't want to see any of it reflected in American legislation.

    -An open minded atheist

    March 30, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  8. Lloyd

    God is the alpha and the omega. That's why.

    March 30, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Reply
    • sybaris

      which god?

      March 31, 2013 at 1:52 am | Reply
  9. A Disciple of God

    Without God, we wouldn't be here. We would have no meaning, nothing to believe in. God exist in all of us, you need to believe. Yes tradegy's happen, God didn't bring these upon us. One needs to believe. Drama will happen throughout ur life which you will look to the sky's and ask why Lord why do you stand by and let this happen. It is not up to us, the children of God to ask why, but to accept God has his plan and all will be takened care of. You need to belive.

    March 30, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Reply
    • Bostontola

      Do you actually think you are qualified to tell other people what they need?

      March 30, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Reply
      • A Disciple of God

        Only Item I brough up was they need to believe.

        March 30, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
    • Bostontola

      You must be quite exceptional to be in a position to tell others what they need to do, even just one thing.

      March 30, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Reply
      • curt gustafson

        Pay attention, he knows what he's talking about. You don't.

        March 31, 2013 at 12:45 am |
    • Frankhy

      Some of us have grown up and realized that daddy and mommy are neither all-knowing nor omnipotentent nor going to pamper you all your life under the name of "God". As for (life) having no meaning unless you define yourself as a mindless puppet of an imaginary Sky-daddy, nothing could be more wrong. A lot of us atheists lead highly purpseful life, but we are free to find worthy causes, ambitions, passions, aims and missions to dedicate our lives, using the greatest gift that evolution has granted us: A compassionate human heart and intellect.

      March 31, 2013 at 2:36 am | Reply
  10. Winston Smith_1984

    The empty hubris and bankrupt philosophy of Atheism doesn't impress me

    March 30, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Reply
    • Frankhy

      Luckily for you though, your hubris (not to mention that of your fictuous God), is not punished in eternity by the non-God of the atheists, as opposed to the paranoid dictatorial "God" that the theists worship who punish non-believers for not worshiping him fervishly enough. Well, he would punish them if he wasn't evidently powerless and had to have his adherents persecute the atheists for him.

      March 31, 2013 at 2:28 am | Reply
  11. rad666

    196,222 pounds of frozen food recalled on fears of E. coli

    E. coli

    Just one of God's little gems for population control.

    March 30, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Reply
    • Cal Newlan

      196,222 pounds of frozen food ... And that's just what Rosie O'Donnell had stashed in her freezer!

      March 31, 2013 at 12:22 am | Reply
  12. curt gustafson

    This may be a good example of why people that don't know God go to church, but people at my church have a relationship with God. It is very sad that people are going to church and not finding God. If you don't know God personally you've missed the whole point of church and of life in general.

    March 31, 2013 at 12:43 am | Reply
  13. North Dallas Don

    Maybe Paul Zak is satisfied with his findings, despite the questionable methodology behind them. I am not so easily convinced. Perhaps the reason some of us are convinced that God exists has more to do with personal experiences and our personal relationship with Him.

    March 31, 2013 at 12:47 am | Reply
    • sybaris

      " personal experiences and our personal relationship with Him."

      Do you gag as much as I do at hearing this pious crap?

      I've known my sister for over 6 decades. Although I live in Tampa and she lives in Boise, so we only see each other every couple of years, I can tell you:

      • how tall she is.
      • what color her eyes are.
      • what color and how curly her hair is.
      • the different kinds of prescription drugs she takes, and what for.
      • which parts of her have been operated on.
      • which colleges she attended.
      • what jobs she's held.
      • what cities she's lived in.
      • what her hobbies are.
      • the names and breeds of the various dogs and cats she's had thru the years.
      • her favorite sports teams, and which one she has season tickets for.
      • the TV programs she watches regularly.
      • that it's her on the phone just from the sound of her voice.
      • her att¡tude toward eating meat.
      • whom she voted for in the last presidential election.
      • what kind of medical care she wants in case of a terminal illness.
      • her favorite color.
      • and about 50 other things.

      Now that's a personal relationship. Could any of you Bible-thumpers manage even half a dozen comparable answers about your "deep, personal friend" Jesus? And, even assuming your overwrought imagination could in fact gin up a few stabs at them, what are chances that they'd agree with any other equally deluded True Believer? OTOH, you could ask any of my sister's other good friends about the above characteristics, and they'd give you the exact same answers I would. That's because my sister, unlike your Jesus, is real — a 3-dimensional, flesh-and-blood, living, breathing, real-world human being, with a life, preferences, substance, and history.

      So, Mr. or Ms. True Believer, let's say you're walking across library mall one day, you see your good buddy Jesus in a crowd of folks ahead of you, and you holler "Hey, J, dude, wait up!". Would he?

      Let's not kid ourselves. This would never even happen because there's no way you'd be able to pick Jesus out of a crowd. Heck, you couldn't pick him out of a 1-person lineup. You wouldn't know him if he walked up to you on the street and handed you his business card. (In fact, it would tickle me pink to see your reaction if somebody actually did exactly that.)

      So we both know exactly what your claim to have a "deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ" is. It's bullsh¡t. You know it's bullsh¡t. Everybody else knows it's bullsh¡t. The only reason you keep on repeating this bullsh¡t is because it's the slogan of the club that some con artist or charlatan has suckered you into believing you really want to be a member of. All you have to do is keep repeating the magic bullsh¡t phrase "I have a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ" and you can keep going to the club meetings. (Provided you keep paying the dues, too; let's not forget what's really important here.)

      But don't think that repeating that phrase is going to win you anything but contempt or possibly some degree of pity from anyone with a functioning brain. All you're really demonstrating is that you don't know diddly about real relationships or the way the real world really works. You are, in short, a pathetic dupe. And full of bullsh¡t, to boot.

      March 31, 2013 at 1:56 am | Reply
      • jony3322

        Good thinking!!!

        March 31, 2013 at 6:11 am |
  14. IslandAtheist

    There isn't a shred of evidence supporting the existence of anything supernatural.

    March 31, 2013 at 2:16 am | Reply
    • jony3322

      Every believer has different image about him. The sun has the same image that everyone knows. That would tell the whole story about the reality and imagination.

      March 31, 2013 at 6:15 am | Reply
  15. Misha Firer

    More than 90% of Americans believe in God proves that there is God and the belief is responsible for the nation's great prosperity, as the Americans value materialistic values more than any other. Perhaps Americans should expand their faith beyond money and religious rituals and dream of spiritual values, then what a truly great nation that country could be!

    March 31, 2013 at 2:35 am | Reply
    • gpark1018

      how long did it take to build this illusion in your mind?

      March 31, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
  16. Cal Newlan

    Happy Easter everyone! Don't forget to take some time today to thank our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for all He has done for us. Bless you. calnewlanministries.com

    March 31, 2013 at 3:23 am | Reply
  17. MAJ

    Just pause for a fraction of a second!
    About half of Americans believe the Earth is 6,000 years old!!!

    March 31, 2013 at 4:05 am | Reply
  18. snowdog

    Amen Amen. He is risen. Amen.

    March 31, 2013 at 5:49 am | Reply
  19. jony3322

    GOD please show yourself!!! Come on!!! No? If you are so powerful, why it can be hardly find a long lasting happiness around us? If you are so powerful and real, why you are not proving your existence to me but you have to let other people running around to tell me that you exist?

    March 31, 2013 at 6:02 am | Reply
    • Marcia

      Be careful, you may get what you ask for. And yet, He loves you.

      April 1, 2013 at 1:01 am | Reply
    • John Gid

      You can't see the air but it keeps you alive.

      April 1, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  20. amrazim9


    March 31, 2013 at 8:10 am | Reply
  21. steve5777

    If I were to state my beliefs here, it's a fairly safe bet that none of you would agree with them. And that's OK! I feel no need to convert nor convince anyone to believe as I do. I'm secure in them. That's all that matters.

    What's the problem? If you're secure in your beliefs, why attampt to force them down anyone's throat, or wish harm to them? 🙂

    March 31, 2013 at 8:46 am | Reply
  22. Kevin

    There is no god, no gods, no goddesses, no angels, demons, fairies, dragons, unicorns, Easter Bunnies or Santa Clauses.

    Get over it.

    March 31, 2013 at 9:30 am | Reply
    • steve5777

      Kevin: I respect your beliefs and have no problem with them. Easy, isn't it? 🙂

      March 31, 2013 at 10:43 am | Reply
  23. .

    What a load of liberal horse manure.

    March 31, 2013 at 9:35 am | Reply
  24. jesus christ

    I'm glad religion won't be going away anytime soon. Religion is the easiest thing in the world to make fun of. This is why I enjoy living here in Utah. It fills my life with joy.


    March 31, 2013 at 9:38 am | Reply
  25. DD

    Why should belief in any god go away? I consider such belief- or not- to be a personal choice. Every one of us experiences the universe in a unique way, and how you interpret the experience is your own business & no one else's.

    March 31, 2013 at 9:57 am | Reply
    • steve5777

      DD: Exactly. Excellent post. 🙂

      March 31, 2013 at 10:46 am | Reply
    • Cal Newlan

      Belief in God shouldn't "go away." This is just a secular-progressivist tipping his hand. He automatically assumes that there's some sort of natural "evolution" from religious belief to secularism in complex-industrial societies. In other words, there's an implicit, and illicit, teleology in his argument. It's bad sociology.

      March 31, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  26. richard_nogin

    There are two items that Christianity has given to the rest of us that, in my opinion, are worth keeping. One; the ten commandment are pretty reasonable. They offer a decent compass for behavior that honors and respects one's self and one's neighbors. Two; fish fry friday. Why? Because Cod is more tangible and tasty than God.

    March 31, 2013 at 10:06 am | Reply
  27. gpark1018

    so the lesson to be learned here is that if atheism wants to grow and prosper as a solid organization we have to develop groups and rituals. Perhaps we should steal rituals from the established religions so as to make them more comfortable to the existing church goers. Easter bunny anyone?

    March 31, 2013 at 10:10 am | Reply
  28. Aceshadow

    20 not 6% don't believe in God. More and more people are moving away from religion. Only the sheep needs a Shepard. So, if you have the brain of a sheep...you need to get help; otherwise make it on your own!

    March 31, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
  29. Martin Luther

    Fortunately most people who believe in God do not believe in religion.

    March 31, 2013 at 10:53 am | Reply
  30. Bman

    Because america is Godawful.

    March 31, 2013 at 11:05 am | Reply
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