Maybe religion really is the opiate of the masses - just not the way Karl Marx imagined.
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"We see this experience of unalloyed joy over and over again in megachurches. That's why we say it's like a drug," said James Wellman, an associate professor of American religion who co-authored the study.
The study, "'God is like a drug': Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches" was presented Sunday (Aug. 19) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver.
Large gatherings of shared experience like concerts and sporting events also trigger feelings of euphoria, said Katie Corcoran, a Ph.D. candidate who co-authored the paper. But, she said, "churches seem to be somewhat unique in that these feelings are not just experienced as euphoria but as something transcendent or divine."
The authors theorize the spiritual high from megachurch services is experienced as an "oxytocin cocktail" of shared transcendent experience and the brain's release of oxytocin, a chemical that is thought to play a part in social interaction. Emotion and group experience have been shown to raise levels of oxytocin.
One congregant reported, "God's love becomes ... such a drug that you can't wait to come get your next hit. ... You can't wait to get involved to get the high from God."
Another said "you can look up to the balcony and see the Holy Spirit go over the crowd like a wave in a football game," Corcoran said.
Megachurches create this high through their unique style of worship, Corcoran said. Megachurches use technology and appeals to emotion to create a shared experience in congregations that number in the thousands.