Give us this day our daily endorphins

June 1, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

Why do people engage in religious rituals? 

In keeping with suggestion of ethologist Niko Tinbergen, this question is actually four separate “why” questions.  Rather than dealing with the first three Why questions (Phylogeny, Ontogeny or Function), I’d like to consider only the fourth Why, Proximate Cause, with regard to the practice of engaging in religious rituals.  In other words, this post will consider the bodily machinery that leads people to attend religious rituals: the immediate payoff to the human animal.

Many believers would answer this question by introspecting.  Believers have often told me that they go to church because they “experience God.”  [How strange that God doesn’t so often hang out in the home, at cocktail parties or in Las Vegas!].  Many believers thus think that you can simply think about thinking to figure out why they do things.  Numerous and repeated experiments have proven introspection to be woefully unreliable, however.

For instance, in 1977, Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson published “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes.” [Psychological Review 84, pp. 231-259.]  They allowed female subjects to examine and select stockings.  The subjects offered lots of reasons for why they selected the stockings they selected (they spoke of such things as texture and sheerness).  Unbeknown to them, the stockings were identical.  This and numerous additional experiments robustly demonstrate that people, though they always gave reasons for their choices, are often mistaken. “Inner workings of important aspects of the mind, including our own understanding of why we do what we do, are not necessarily knowable to the conscious self.  We have to be very careful when we use verbal reports based on introspective analysis of one’s own mind as scientific data. [The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux, p. 32 (1996)].

Therefore, we should be very suspicious of self-reports.  Especially self-reports by people who claim that they go attend church because God desires it.  Daniel Dennett’s observation of believers (from Breaking the Spell) is an important one to mention at this point:  most believers don’t believe in God as much as they believe in belief in God.  Rather than considering pro and con evidence, their starting position is to find evidence to prove God.  They think it’s important to believe in God and that is their belief rather than an actual belief in God.  This belief in belief goes hand in hand with the confirmation bias: the human tendency to “seek out evidence which confirms rather than contradicts current beliefs . . .” See The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, by Scott Plous (1993).  Numerous experiments have shown that people will perceive and remember in accordance with their hopes and desires. [For a very recent study demonstrating this with regard to sexual abstinence pledging, see ].

Therefore, if you want to find out the proximate cause for people attending religious rituals the number one rule is the following: Don’t ask them!

In The Human Story: A New History of Mankind’s Evolution (2004), evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar considers alternate reasons for attending religious rituals.  I highly recommend this clearly written and well research, yet succinct book.

Dunbar is not stridently anti-religion in the mold of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.  He clearly recognizes, for instance, that

religious people in general do suffer less frequently than non-religious folk from both physical and mental disease; moreover, when they do go down with something, religious people recover more rapidly from both the disease and any invasive treatment (such as a surgical operation or chemotherapy). 

(p. 172).  Dunbar also recognizes that religious beliefs “undoubtedly introduces a profound sense of comfort in the face of adversity.”  To what, then, does he attribute the participation in religious rituals?  Endorphins. 

Many religious activities emphasize the infliction of physical pain and stress. 

These include fasting, dancing or other rhythmic movements . . . flagellation and the painful tasks imposed on pilgrims . . . (such as long periods of sitting motionless) . . . painful or stressful initiation rites in many tribal societies, communal singings (especially the tonally deep sustained forms that are typical of chanting, but also the lusty singing of hymns in the more evangelical traditions of Christianity), the intense rhythmically repetitive singing of the qawwali tradition in Sufi Islam, the long hours spent locked in services, the emotional rollercoaster induced by all the best charismatic preachers . . . The list could go on and on.

(p. 173).  Dunbar has determined that each of these ritualistic practices imposes “low but persistent levels of stress on the body, and it is precisely this kind of persistent low-level stress that is particularly effective at stimulating the production of endorphins.”  This endorphin system is designed to allow us to cope with “long-running stresses on the body,” such as stresses experienced by long-distance runners. The endorphin system is so effective that many runners get addicted to it. If deprived of running, they become irritable.  Ever notice the twitchiness in a believer deprived of church?

Dunbar suggests that religious practices are designed to “give us that opioid kick that makes us feel so much better able to cope with the vagaries of the world and, perhaps just as important, so much more at peace with our neighbors.”  There is also evidence that regularly stimulating the endorphin system activates the immune system, thus protecting the body. 

How powerfl are endorphins?  Dunbar describes the “Flagellants,” who whipped themselves with scourges, Russian Skoptzy, who advocated self immolation, and the Islamic Shia rituals, where lines of men slash at their   chests with knives and flagellate their backs with heavy whips to cause heavy bleeding.  He also describes neuroscience experiments showing that individuals who are capable of achieving heightened states of religious ecstasy are actually capable of shutting down their brain centers of spatial awareness, causing “ecstatic liberation” in which the practitioner can experience an apparent unity with infinity, often with an apparent flash of blinding light.

Therefore, skeptics don’t need to stand there with that deer-in-the-headlights look when believers claim that God is responsible for the good feeling he or she experiences when attending religious rituals.  Nor do believers need to contest that believers get “high” at religious services. Only the source of that high is in dispute.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Arie Luci says:

    As an agnostic suffering from several mental disorders, I have noticed one thing common to most mentally ill people who are non-religious: they didn't become non-religious until after suffering the effects of their mental disorders. Maybe that's why the religious supposedly heal quicker, because they do not have problems to the same extent, but then again, maybe not.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    This ties in well with Erika's recent post about the notion of a "God gene" (; i.e., the idea that genetics causes some people to be more predisposed to have "spiritual" experiences. Chemical neurotransmitters in the mammalian brain (e.g., endorphins) can have *very* powerful effects on perception (i.e., experience) and behavior, and no doubt have a significant genetic component. This is analogous to the idea that alcoholism has a genetic component; i.e., that some people experience alcohol consumption differently than do others (e.g., more ecstacy and less-painful hangovers).

    But even setting aside the genetic argument, human subjective perception is notoriously unreliable. How many times have we heard the guilty party in a traffic accident describe the other car "coming out of nowhere?" Or, consider the famous perception experiment involving a person in a gorilla suit (, in which people watching a video fail to notice a gorilla walking across the center of the screen. Indeed, as an avid bicyclist, I am highly aware of the tendency of drivers to look at, but not "see," me on my bicycle.

    Another example comes from market research studies — you know, those focus-group studies in which companies evaluate a product by putting it into the hands of target customers and asking for feedback. In one such study, participants were asked to help choose the best color for a music boombox and, as a thank-you gift for participating in the study, subjects were allowed to select and take home a boombox from a stack near the door. Well, during the "official" survey, participants suggested various colors which they though would be best for the boombox — red, yellow, blue, etc.; however, at the end of the study, when they were allowed to select a boombox to keep for their own use, nearly everyone chose black. Clearly, there was a disconnect between what people perceived about the world, and what actually happens in the world.

    I often think about this disconnect when I hear people talk about so-called "miracles." We hear them almost everyday: the "miracle" medical cure, the "miracle" diet, the "miracle" basketball shot, the "miracle" survivor of a car crash, etc. Humans seem to see "miracles" almost everywhere, which should give us great pause when we hear people of faith citing "miracles" as proof of why their religion is the One True Religion. Events that are rare or complex are obviously not "miracles"…but I bet they give a very pleasant endorphin rush.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Singing fills us with endorphins that some confuse for divine intervention:

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