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. Vladmir

    Catholics are also wrong , they do not read the bible . All versions of bibles either catholic or not reads:
    Lest ye corrupt {yourselves}, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, Deuteronomy 4:16
    Yet I see people bowing down to images of virgin Mary and so called saints....

    March 31, 2013 at 11:50 am | Reply
  2. PeteH

    Gee; I wonder how that oxytocin got there...

    March 31, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  3. hisgoodteenr

    FSM will live forever. Ramen.

    March 31, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  4. Michael

    In spite of CNN's ongoing effort to promote athiesm, people still go to church.

    March 31, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Reply
  5. IslandAtheist

    Because people keep brainwashing their kids and destroying their ability to think critically.

    March 31, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  6. tony

    What isn't there in the first place, can't be seen to go away. Standard religion misunderstanding an effect, becuase they don't want to learn the cause.

    March 31, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  7. Milwaukee Broad

    Nope, God isn't going away. We can try if we want, but there's nowhere else to go. There is nothing beyond God's creation, bwahahahaha!

    March 31, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  8. Jokesterer

    Bible magic is taught at age 2, sometimes sooner. Science isn't taught until age 15 and hard science not until 19. Let's switch that and see what happens. Start teaching science at 2 and wait until age 15 to start teaching Bible magic.

    March 31, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  9. Jesus Christ Prison Ministry

    God is real. He is provable through His Bible and history. Those of us who love to believe in truth, believe in God for He does live and is very active in our lives. Here is a link for those who want proof that God is: http://www.jcpm.com/theology/proofothebible.html

    March 31, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Reply
    • Jokesterer

      Other things that have similar reality: Sasquatch, UFOs, Loch Ness Monsters.

      March 31, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Reply
      • Cal Newlan

        Another pseudo-sophisticated, phony "atheist." You don't know enough to talk about God or anything else!

        March 31, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
    • Dana

      What a bunch of nonsense.

      March 31, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Reply
    • Peteyroo

      JesusPrison, you're full of nonsense, my confused friend. God does not exist anymore than leprechauns and unicorns exist.

      April 1, 2013 at 12:41 am | Reply
  10. dwt

    Another way of looking at this point might be that mainstream Americans in fact experience relatively impoverished social and civic lives apart from church and family relations, and family is, of course, a mixed bag for many people. That's relative to cultures (say, the Italians or Greeks–speaking within my experience) where the urban planning and routines make social interactions easier and richer. I've lived in American neighborhoods where nobody walks and visits in the streets with any regularity, and often they couldn't tell you much at all about their next-door neighbors. You won't REALLY meet anyone nearby unless you go to their church.

    March 31, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  11. Randy

    Although having relationships and community takes more work than being a narcissist, I've found in my experience that it gives more meaning to life than living for my own dreams/desires/pleasures/goals/etc. Not that that there's anything wrong with those other things, but as Jesus said, "To give is better than to Receive" (Acts 20:35).

    March 31, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  12. Mike

    How shallow. Must be desperate to fill up space.

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

    I don't believe in atheists. Happy Easter! calnewlanministries.com

    March 31, 2013 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  14. TC

    Article seemed to fail to make a point other than the fact that there will always be atheists and believers. We already understood the biology without the author's explanation and the creation of oxytocin is beyond any ritualistic acts as it can be created by meditation. Happy Easter and Christ Has Risen – Alleluia

    March 31, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  15. LouAZ

    We are not forced to be free, as Sartre would so elegantly put it, but instead, we are forced to believe that we are forced to be free- and this has created many personal illusions and subsequent social problems.
    – Lyndon Page (Arlington)

    March 31, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  16. petroskies

    moron and who tell you he is not away, but don't worry my Lord will came and people like you and all pervert vicious
    supporter of this degenerate evil sodom and gomorrath will go to see the reward of their acts.

    March 31, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Reply
    • Peteyroo

      PetrolSkies, slow down and write coherently.

      April 1, 2013 at 12:37 am | Reply
  17. TOMG

    BECAUSE IT IS TOO MUCH HUMAN WASTE AND TOO MUCH HUMAN URINE ARE NOW IN THIS KARMA NGHIEP PLANET LIFE FORM THAT WHY GOD AIN'T GOING AWAY YET , AMEN .

    March 31, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Reply
    • Peteyroo

      Tommie, all caps? Really? Take your medicine and calm down.

      April 1, 2013 at 12:36 am | Reply
  18. TOMG

    KARMA LIFE FORM ARE ALWAYS WILL BE IN AND ON OUR DAILY THINKING AND THOUGHT OF AND THE ACTION TO HELPING GOD TO REAPPEAR OR GO AWAYS IS UP TO ONESELF MIND OF THINKING FULL OF COMPASSION OR THINKING FULL OF HELL IN ONESELF DAILY LIFE FORM WORLD , AMEN .

    March 31, 2013 at 8:05 pm | Reply
  19. TOMG

    THERE WILL BE MORE AND MORE DOG MIND DEVIL AND EVIL HELL BEING FORM IN THIS TWENTY – FIRST CENTURY HELL ERA , AMEN .

    March 31, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  20. TOMG

    WHAT GO AROUND MUST GOING BACK AROUND TO ONESELF ANAL , IS THE SAME THING LIKE OUR POWERFUL SUN ARE ROUND AND SO DOES OUR POWERFUL MOON ARE ALSO ROUND AND SO DOES OUR KARMA LIFE FORM PLANET ARE ROUND ALSO AND TELL ALL OF US SOMETHINGS ABOUT IT FORM FROM THE BEGINGING TO THE ENDING OF HUMAN RACES ERA THAT ARE FULL OF HELL KARMA LIFE FORM ALWAYS , AMEN .

    March 31, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  21. TOMG

    WE ALL CAN BECOME LIKE GOD IF WE STARTING THINKING OF COMPASSION AND THE ACTION ARE COMPASSION WAYS THAN ONESELF IS ALSO A LIVING GOD LIKE JESUS OR THE FIRST BUDDHA OR THE HAPPY BUDDHA ONE , AMEN .

    March 31, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  22. TOMG

    THERE ARE DOG EVIL DEVIL FORM MIND ARE NOW IN OUR KARMA HELL LIFE FORM DAILY DOG WAYS OF LIFESTYLE ALWAYS , AMEN

    March 31, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  23. TOMG

    ONLY WHEN ALL LIFE FORM ARE STOP CREATING ALL KARMA DEVIL AND EVIL HELL WAYS OF LIFESTYLE THAN GOD WILL BE GOING AWAYS , AMEN .

    March 31, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Reply
  24. TOMG

    BECAUSE MOST HUMAN FORM ARE STILL TOO STUPID TOBE AWAKENING UP THAT WHY GOD AIN'T GONNA GOING AWAYS ANY TIME SOONER IN OUR KARMA LIFE FORM THINKGING ALWAYS , AMEN ..

    March 31, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  25. AEvangelista

    In my high school and college years, I went to church for the girls. Yes, for the girls. I even joined the youth choir to get to the girls. In Los Angeles, we see many churches being taken over by immigrant congregations because church is social, cultural and even for business. By the way, check out my eBook on Amazon/Kindle called "Visitations from the Other Side."

    March 31, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  26. TOMG

    WHEN HUMAN FORM ARE STOP EATTING THE HUMAN WASTE AND STOP DRINKING THE HUMAN URINE THAN GOD WILL EVENTUALLY GOING AWAYS , AMEN .

    March 31, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Reply
    • Peteyroo

      Tommie, get your head out of your backside. You make no sense whatsoever.

      April 1, 2013 at 12:35 am | Reply
  27. TOMG

    MAN LOVE WET CAT AND WOMAN LOVE DRY UP DOG , AMEN .

    March 31, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Reply
  28. TOMG

    DOG FORM WAYS OF THINKING WILL ALWAYS BE DOG FORM WORLD IN THIS KARMA NGHIEP HELL LIFE FORM WEORLD ALWAYS , AMEN

    March 31, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Reply
  29. Dana

    It is amazing that anyone still believes in this absurd magical nonsense. Grow up.

    March 31, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  30. Dana

    The poll was conducted by a religious group. There are far more atheists than that. Their percentage is increasing very rapidly in educated areas.

    March 31, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Reply
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