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. God

    This article is crap.

    March 31, 2013 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  2. Asmodeus Belial

    Two things, 'Professor':

    1) God cannot 'go away,' because he, she or it would have to actually BE HERE in the first place to pull that action off.

    2) It is beyond bogus when people like you claim 'research' showing that people who believe in fantasy bearded Supermen in the sky are happier and healthier than rational people. There is NO such data that actually looks at OBJECTIVE measures of well-being, physical or emotional. All the studies you claim are based on SELF-REPORTING, and the one thing that is well-established in the religious is that they are delusional in many things beyond their child-like need to cling to bearded Superman in the sky, i.e., their 'happiness' is mostly about their ignorance of reality and their 'healthiness' is self-delusional rose-colored glasses pollyanna-ism.

    I'd rather face reality ANY DAY than cling to self-deceit and delusion.

    March 31, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Reply
    • Marcia

      It doesn't matter that you don't believe in God, He believes in you. Someday you will find out how much.

      April 1, 2013 at 12:52 am | Reply
  3. iceload9

    This nonsense has as much credibility as Phlogiston. Can it get any stupider and the saddest part is this is as good science as we are used to.

    March 31, 2013 at 10:51 pm | Reply
  4. xfiler93

    I ignored GOD for many years, but I found him again and I am so happy for it!! I cannot imagine my life without him in my life. I feel such pity and sorrow for those who refuses him.

    March 31, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Reply
    • Peteyroo

      Flyer93, you were correct to ignore God for those many years. And now you're backpedaling. Such a shame. Give it up. BTW, thewre are no unicorns either.

      April 1, 2013 at 12:33 am | Reply
    • Marcia

      Been there, done that...and will continue through eternity....isn't LOVE grand! Just think, we will meet someday in Heaven!

      April 1, 2013 at 12:57 am | Reply
  5. Peteyroo

    Those of you who think you know everything really annoy those of us who do!

    April 1, 2013 at 12:31 am | Reply
  6. Marcia

    Science is wonderful, but perhaps in this situation, our author would have been better off just asking people why they believe in God. I am a believer. I know that going to church gives me a support system, a way to make my life have meaning, an experience during worship that I am sure releases lots of oxytocin. All of that has meaning for my life. But it is not why I believe in God. I believe because I have a personal relationship with a Person/Being that has changed my life in a way that is not possible in this crazy world. I have HOPE, which allows me to face each day in a way I never could before, and if that doesn't increase my oxytocin what will! I have not been brain washed, I have been life washed, God removed my sins(yes,yes, horrible old fashioned word for doing wrong instead of right in the sight of this same Person/Being that I call God), and now I have a new life. There are many people who will never understand this....but it has made the difference between life and death for me, and for anyone that has an open enough mind to trust in something outside of themselves, or out side of this world!

    April 1, 2013 at 12:42 am | Reply
  7. f4xtrafn

    Because it was never here.

    April 1, 2013 at 3:16 am | Reply
  8. kevin

    Djesus or Jebus. Take your pick.

    April 1, 2013 at 3:18 am | Reply
  9. Jo

    Over 90% *claim to be* believers, because they're afraid of the discrimination they'll suffer if they're honest. In countries where that discrimination doesn't exist, you find a lot more people admitting to not believing.

    April 1, 2013 at 4:00 am | Reply
  10. rick

    The church says if you don't go to church, u will go to hell. Come on in brother u can buy your salvation. They don't care about Jesus dying for their salvation, they dont believe it was bought and paid for by Christ. Hell and Heaven Do not exist. Roman catholic / Christian lies. Why do people go to church, they are scared of going to a bogus hell that does not exist. Idiots.

    April 1, 2013 at 4:41 am | Reply
  11. Cal Newlan

    God sent AIDS to destroy the sodomite damned. He'll destroy the atheists, too. Wait and see. Oh, and women, keep your mouths shut and your heads covered. You may not teach a man. Nasty tramps! calnewlanministries.com

    April 1, 2013 at 5:09 am | Reply
  12. joe

    "But, that means that over 90 percent believe in a God."
    Are you coming?


    "Guess what? Few college students are religious at all"

    April 1, 2013 at 7:02 am | Reply
  13. BD

    ...all religion is a gross insult to the human intellect.

    April 1, 2013 at 7:27 am | Reply
  14. hubert39

    I believe in the Gods. Not just one but many Gods. The most important? The SUN. See how long we can live with out the sun. Most people I know when asked if they believe in God, they say yes just not to cause a discussion. I live in the southern part of the USA. The so call Bible Belt. Pray for me. ; )

    April 1, 2013 at 7:58 am | Reply
  15. Surakij Vuthikornpant

    Hello,And Peace be upon you,sir.
    Please allow me to introduce myself,sir.
    My God name's "God",sir.
    My name's Mr."Surakij" Vuthikornpant,sir.
    With my humility & respect to everybody opinions,sir.
    Please allow me to show my opinions,.....to be precise,please allow me to ask a few technical questions,sir.
    Was this a type of "confirmation bias" (a type of bias that intentionally ignore details of truth but find some reasons to confirm what bias person believe),or "fallacy (error in reasoning),Intentional fallacy" (a type of informal fallacy)call "Red herring" (1st thing (logic) irrelevant to 2nd thing (logic) but using together as "quick bluff"),for tentative explaination,
    Or just unintentionally,"confirmation bias"??? What ever???

    ^^ But,nice try,not bad,not bad at all. ^^

    By the way,

    "Do you know how many species those can release hormone Oxytocin,sir.???"
    Look like most "mammal" species can.....

    Humility "selflessness,egolessness" might found in human-beings,

    According to my very very limited knowledges & very very limited life's experiences,sir.
    (If want to know more,read wikipedia. ^^)
    Oxytocin is "endocrine" in mammal species,significantly release while female mammal give birth,(some said "while mating in some species.)
    But,but,but,but,but,,,,,,,with respect,sir.
    I think "lacks of scientific evidences & scientific approach (methods) for resolving scientific hypothesis "true or false""
    Too soon to link between "humility" & "hormone Oxytocin",

    The next technical question is.....
    "What about "humility or any behaviours related humility" in another "mammal species those can release Oxytocin"???"

    ^^ My God always said "argument with "wisdom","with reasons","with evidences","with something better","with something useful to listeners"," ^^
    And who believe in Yehoshua ,(Jesus) "God,the son" should believe in "God,the father & God,the Holy Spirit" too.
    (Do you remember how to pray???)
    "Our Heavenly father","Holy(Spirit)" in your name",remember???
    And if somebody ever read Old Testament Sefer Torah Beresh it Genesis Al-Qur'an,etc, You will find the truth ,
    That'is "Judiasm + Christianity(Descendent of Abraham + Sarah,Abrahamc 1st wife),I-salami (Descendent of Abraham + Hagar,the Egyptian,Abraham's 1st concubine = 2nd wife),Bahafaith (Descendent of Abraham + Keturah (2nd concubine = Abraham's 3rd wife)),Rastafari movement (If you know ,"Bob Marley",you might know this one,(of course,Bob Marley might not popped up in Holy Book,but what ever. ^^)) (Descendent of Abraham + Sarah,through King Solomon + Queen Sheba of Ethiopea),
    So all of them ,actually, "Abrahamic tradition,Abrahamic religion,Peace religion,Culture of Peace,Cultures of Peace-Makers.""
    (Umm,look like because he was "Abraham", ^^ For the answer,if somebody asking "what ever question".)
    And "zeal" of my "God" is not "cross" .
    But "lovingkindness","loving-righteousness","merited grace","morality & virtues",
    And "Opposite of "fallacy","falsehoods","corruption" is "truth" ,"Veritas" consider "virtue",
    And my "God",all wise,all knowing,oft-forgiving,most merciful. ^^

    That was I intend to say but I changed my mind,sir.^^

    "Why my "God" never go away???"
    With & without churchs or mosques.
    Because my "God" love us all.
    Love us a lot,
    ^^ So my "God" never go away.
    Very very simple answer, ^^
    That's my opinion.

    By theway,may be a little bit late (a few day after Easter.)

    Please allow me to send blessessing,sir.

    With omniamorous infinite love of my "God" uncondtionally infinitely,for all humanity of all nations uncondtionally infinitely,for all living uncondtionally infinitely.
    With divine grace of my "God",divine grace of graciousness,divine grace of merciful,divine grace of forgiveness,divine grace of kindness,sympathy & compassion,empathy,"true repentance","the redemption",
    With my modesty,humility,good manners & courtesy,with high respect to my "God",is oneness,"God,the father","God,the Holy Spirit,"God,the son","

    The place that found wars will find Peace.
    The place that found discord will find harmony.
    The place that found despair will find hope.
    The place that found error will find truth.
    The place that found doubt will find faith.
    The place that found sorrow will find joy.
    The place that found hated will find love.
    Realize "Spirit of Humanity",
    Realize the spirit that , “we are just one.” ,"one race", “The race of Humanity”
    Realize spirit to help another conditionally.
    Realize spirt to share with another uncondtionally.
    Realize spirit to forgive another unconditionally.
    Realize spirit to love another unconditionally infinitely.
    Seeking to comfort than to be comforted.
    Seeking to understand than to be understood.
    Seeking to listen than to be listened.

    Forbearance , patience & diligence through temperance, Resolving conflicts and injustice peacefully,accept divine grace of my "God",grace of forgiveness,divine grace of graciousness,divine grace of merciful,divine grace of kindess,sympathy,compassion,empathy,"true repentance","the redemption",
    Peace as "salvation",as "redemption".
    Shall live in Peace,with security,with serenity,with prosperity,with sympathy,with compassion,with harmony,with gloriousness,(the awesomenessess ^^ ),with joy,(the happinessess ^^ ).
    With humility,shall live with freedom with proud in human dignity,shall live with freedom from fear,shall live with freedom from want (4 want) ,shall live freedom from hazard impacts. ^^

    Because Peace as a gift with love from my "God" everybody deserve. ^^

    While pursuits of "Peace",Pursuits of "Spirit of Humanty morality perfection",pursuits of "7 Heavenly virtues".
    Through the acts,action is reflection of morality.
    And morality is reflection of virtues,based on 7 Heavenly virtues.
    Through the acts,any actions can make people to have Peace,glorious & joy,have awesomenessess & hapinessess without emotional sorrow,or cause trouble to themself & another.
    With awareness of results before acts.
    For Peace,glorious & joy,of themself & another.
    Without any actions that might cause emotional sorrow or make troubles to themself and to another.
    people,mercy,graciousness,divine grace of forgiveness,love ,omnibenevolence giving,"true repentance","the redemption",Peace as "salvation",as "redemption",sir.
    Because Peace as the gift with love from my "God" every deserves,sir.

    "Loving-kindness toward eachother unconditionally infinitely (omniamorously) is most desirable & worthy salutation".

    People in the ways of Peace,people who bring Peace to people in the ways of Peace,they are not "infidel".
    In the ways of Peace,through the ways of true repentance,ways my "God" guides,for Peace,gloriousness & joy of all humanity of all nations of all living,
    In the ways of Peace,everybody deserve.

    And I can assure you everything against Peace definitely not the ways my "God" guides,sir.

    "Epic baptized ???"
    "With "fire",with warm heart with "lovingkindness"."
    "With "speech",with "blessesing" (slang plural noun of "blessing" definition "multiple blessing",what ever?)"
    "With "7 Holy Spirit",with "7 Heavenly Virtues", (Again read wikipedia ^^)

    And I ultimately ultimately believe faithfully in “Spirit of Humanity” that we will share peace to another,people we know,people we don’t know unconditionally,similar we share omniamorous infinite love of “God”unconditionally ,to people we know,people we don’t know unconditionally infinitely,to all living unconditionally infinitely.

    To give "peace" as gift with love from my "God" to another unconditionally infinitely,to love another unconditionally infinitely.

    I ultimately ultimately believe faithfully in “good side of human-beings” ,in ”Spirit of Humanity” in all of us ,can help everybody walkthrough any difficult times together and will prevail all difficult times,sir.

    There are my opinions,sir.
    If somebody disagree,that's ok,just only opinions,sir.

    The day everybody realize "Spirit of Humanity".

    Hundreds centuries of discord,violence,wars and conflicts “caused by discrimination”,”caused by the differences” , "caused by inequality"…..”end”..… that day,sir.

    And into the beginning of era of “Cultures of Peace-Makers”,while pursuit of Peace,through the ways of "true repentance",the ways my God guides,through uncertainty of the future,the places with a lot of possibilities, where Peace ,gloriousness and joy are waiting.

    And I ultimately ultimately believe faithfully in “Spirit of Humanity” that we will share peace to another,people we know,people we don’t know unconditionally,similar we share omniamorous infinite love of “God”unconditionally ,to people we know,people we don’t know unconditionally infinitely,to all living unconditionally infinitely.

    Always ultimately ultimately believe faithfully.

    To live well,love much,laugh often.

    Happiness is everywhere……………..It’s yours,please take it ,

    “Celebrate humanity.”
    Thank you very very much about your time reading.
    Sincerely and faithfully.
    Surakij Vuthikornpant.

    April 1, 2013 at 8:11 am | Reply
  16. Thomas

    'In all these rituals, a majority of participants released oxytocin"

    So is he really writing that religion is the opiate of the people?

    One of the Marx Brothers said that first. I think it was Karl. The one that was not so funny. 🙂

    April 1, 2013 at 8:38 am | Reply
  17. JS

    God created the earth. Why should he 'go away'? I wish he'd make Zakaria hit the road, though.

    April 1, 2013 at 8:40 am | Reply
    • Rain Maker

      Agree!. Creations asking for the Creator to go away.

      April 5, 2013 at 7:10 am | Reply
  18. Hekkie vd Berg

    I think Mr Zak missed the obvious point. God wont go away because he was here first

    April 1, 2013 at 9:03 am | Reply
  19. Tom

    So apparently people show up at church for the drugs??? When the author was introduced as a professor I kind of had a hunch where this would go. My early days in church were similar, though mine were spent in a Protestant church instead of Catholic. Still lots of tradition and ceremony I didn't understand. I didn't find understanding until I went looking for it, and I looked at a lot of religions. But funny thing was, Buddha died. Mohammed died. Only Christ rose from the dead. That got me interested, and it's been quite a ride ever since.

    April 1, 2013 at 9:28 am | Reply
  20. candycoatedapple

    God loves us even if we haven’t loved him.
    “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us.” (1 John 4:10)

    God wants us to know him.
    The Bible says God is at work in everyone’s life. “So that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27)

    April 1, 2013 at 9:53 am | Reply
  21. Adam2Jesus

    He professes Catholicism then makes a statement as to whether "Heaven really exists". If you are not sure about your faith don't adulterate it with unbelief. Say you are merely someone who occasionally attends Catholic Mass (if you do), but don't claim to be Catholic if you do not believe in Heaven.

    April 1, 2013 at 10:24 am | Reply
  22. Adam2Jesus

    Faith and Belief in God has to be Spiritual for it to be true faith. Faith cannot be measured by experiments on the Carnal. Rituals are not what creates Faith. Faith comes through the hearing of the word of God, believing in God, through the Holy Spirit of God. If you don't believe in God, even after hearing the word of God, then you have put up personal spiritual roadblocks to receiving his Spirit. It isn't a matter of whether God exists...He Does. It is a matter of the unbeliever accepting truth or choosing to live in a world of falsehood about one's own existence and the creation of the world. I find many people don't believe because either they want to see some "magical" act of supernatural manifestation performed "on command", or in front of them, or because something didn't work out the way they thought it should, or felt their prayers have been unanswered. Children who were victims of some type of abuse or neglect may grown up wondering why "God didn't save them" not understanding that the responsibility for their welfare was in the hands of their parents/caregivers. Humans rejected God on earth a long time ago and more than once. Every time we sin we reject him. He cannot work where there is no faith. May this nation learn to bow and humble themselves before the one true living God so that we may be blessed and not cursed. America is growing worse day by day, and it is because, Americans are insufficient in faith.

    April 1, 2013 at 10:31 am | Reply
  23. Johnny 5


    April 1, 2013 at 10:50 am | Reply
  24. Jokesterer

    I just walked within a few feet of automatic paper towel dispenser and it spit out a paper towel. If that's not proof of God's existence, I don't know what is.

    April 1, 2013 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • William Demuth

      But is he the same God that flushed the toilet?

      What about the one that let Clown Boy butcher all the kids in Sandy Hook?

      And if they are all the same, why would one worship him?

      April 1, 2013 at 11:22 am | Reply
      • Jokesterer

        Flushing toilets is beneath His dignity. Dispensing paper is OK though.

        April 1, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  25. William Demuth


    3000 Gods have come and gone, as all the permutations of Abrahams hallucinations soon shall.

    ALL GODS DIE. And thankfully so. We mature as a race and leave the stupidity behind us.

    The idea that a Palestinian gender neutral political agitator with a virgin mother is the ruler of time space and dimension will soon seem as absurd as The God Of Wine does now.

    Grow up America, the whole civilized world is laughing at your simpleton zealots and the power they hold.

    April 1, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
    • Jason

      But science is hard!

      Open-minded critical-thinking is hard!

      April 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Reply
  26. William Demuth

    The God 90 percent of AMericans believe in is the US dollar

    People pay lip service to "God" but no more believe than I do.

    They just lie to get along, because they are sheep.

    April 1, 2013 at 11:25 am | Reply
  27. Jokesterer

    I used to time travel when I was younger. I can still time travel if I wanted to but I choose not to and you'll have to take my word for it. If you don't believe that I can still time travel, I'll have to torture you in fire when you die. I don't want to torture you in fire when you die but I have to. There's no way around it. The decision is yours. What will you do?

    April 1, 2013 at 11:39 am | Reply
  28. On Earth

    Complete rubbish...waste of time.

    April 1, 2013 at 11:43 am | Reply
  29. Syed

    A non believer once asked Ali cousin of prohpet Muhammad 'What if there is no God and the praying you have doing all your life is just waste of time?'. He replied if that is the case then both their endings will be the same but what if there is God, what will happen to you?

    April 1, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
    • Bible Clown©

      "if there is a god, what will happen to you?" I'll get an extra prize for not being fooled by the false gods, then me and god will become best friends and go skipping away holding hands. We will totally hang out together and watch old movies while eating pizza. It will be just as I always imagined. I bet Pascal twenty bucks it would happen that way.

      April 1, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Reply
      • Rain Maker

        Your answer is based on the environment and people you grew up around. But you are making it sound like you 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 7:19 am |
  30. Jason

    I only clicked on this story to see the explosion of pro-religious, baby-brain comments I knew would be here. It's a nice distraction... god people make me laugh.

    April 1, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Reply
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