Faith-based traditions have many beneficial aspects for practitioners of faiths. But !SCIENCE! is still unable, although success is expected daily, to enjoy the benefits of religion without that pesky Conscience In the Sky.
We must not allow people to believe in God even when it would be healthy!
Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years
By David Desteno, 14 September 2021
[DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of “How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion”. This story is adapted from [that book].]
EVEN THOUGH I was raised Catholic, for most of my adult life, I didn’t pay religion much heed. Like many scientists, I assumed it was built on opinion, conjecture, or even hope, and therefore irrelevant to my work. That work is running a psychology lab focused on finding ways to improve the human condition, using the tools of science to develop techniques that can help people meet the challenges life throws at them.
You need pills, not hope! Because !Science! believes only in pills.
But in the 20 years since I began this work, I’ve realized that much of what psychologists and neuroscientists are finding about how to change people’s beliefs, feelings, and behaviors—how to support them when they grieve, how to help them be more ethical, how to let them find connection and happiness—echoes ideas and techniques that religions have been using for thousands of years.
“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
― Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers
Science and religion have often been at odds. But if we remove the theology—views about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like—from the day-to-day practice of religious faith, the animosity in the debate evaporates. What we’re left with is a series of rituals, customs, and sentiments that are themselves the results of experiments of sorts. Over thousands of years, these experiments, carried out in the messy thick of life as opposed to sterile labs, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual technologies—tools and processes meant to sooth, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind. And studying these technologies has revealed that certain parts of religious practices, even when removed from a spiritual context, are able to influence people’s minds in the measurable ways psychologists often seek.
All the ships of modern psychology wreck upon this Rock, that all the benefits of acting like humanity has a caring Savior cannot be separated from the belief that there is a caring Savior. Let’s see if Desteno ends where most atheists do, with using the government as a sock puppet for God.
My lab has found, for example, that having people practice Buddhist meditation for a short time makes them kinder. After only eight weeks of study with a Buddhist lama, 50 percent of those who we randomly assigned to meditate daily spontaneously helped a stranger in pain. Only 16 percent of those who didn’t meditate did the same. (In reality, the stranger was an actor we hired to use crutches and wear a removable foot cast while trying to find a seat in a crowded room.) Compassion wasn’t limited to strangers, though; it also applied to enemies. Another study showed that after three weeks of meditation, most people refrained from seeking revenge on someone who insulted them, unlike most of those who did not meditate. Once my team observed these profound impacts, we began looking for other linkages between our previous research and existing religious rituals.
What were they mediating on, one wonders? Because staring at a blank wall with a blank mind for two months would make me hurt myself just to feel something.
Gratitude, for instance, is something we had studied closely, and a key element of many religious practices. Christians often say grace before a meal; Jews give thanks to God with the Modeh Ani prayer every day upon awakening. When we studied the act of giving thanks, even in a secular context, we found it made people more virtuous. In a study where people could get more money by lying about the results of a coin flip, the majority (53 percent) cheated. But that figure dropped dramatically for people who we first asked to count their blessings. Of these, only 27 percent chose to lie. We’ve also found that when feeling gratitude to a person, to fate, or to God, people become more helpful, more generous, and even more patient.
I cannot help but notice that all these ‘benefits’ are in the form of behavior modifications that the State can impose cheaply.
Even very subtle actions—like moving together in time—can exert a significant effect on the mind. We see synchrony in almost every religion the world over: Buddhists and Hindus often chant together in prayer; Christians and Muslims regularly kneel and stand in unison during worship; Jews often sway, or shuckle, when reciting prayers together. These actions belie a deep purpose: creating connection. To see how it works, we asked pairs of strangers to sit across a table from one another, put on headphones, and then tap a sensor on the table in front of them each time they heard a tone. For some of these pairs, the sequence of tones matched, meaning they’d be tapping their hands in unison. For others, they were random, meaning hand movements wouldn’t be synchronized. Afterward, we created a situation where one member of each pair got stuck doing a long and difficult task. Not only did those who had been moving their hands in unison report feeling more connection with and compassion for their partner who was now toiling away, 50 percent of them decided to lend the partner a hand—a big increase over the 18 percent who decided to help without having just moved in sync.
What about everybody wearing a face diaper at the same time? Could that also be a form of synchronization?
The combined effects of simple elements like these—ones that change how we feel, what we believe, and who we can depend on—accumulate over time. And when they’re embedded in religious practices, research has shown they can have protective properties of sorts. Regularly taking part in religious practices lessens anxiety and depression, increases physical health, and even reduces the risk of early death. These benefits don’t come simply from general social contact. There’s something specific to spiritual practices themselves.
So far, so good. All of this is just humans being social creatures that are more pleasant when they aren’t being rat-raced everywhere.
The ways these practices leverage mechanisms of our bodies and minds can enhance the joys and reduce the pains of life. Parts of religious mourning rituals incorporate elements science has recently found to reduce grief. Healing rites contain elements that can help our bodies heal themselves simply by strengthening our expectations of a cure. Religions didn’t just find these psychological tweaks and nudges long before scientists arrived on the scene, but often packaged them together in sophisticated ways that the scientific community can learn from.
And off the deep end we go. Religion gives people credible reasons to feel better that no laboratory can offer.
“My Grandma died!”
“She was devout, you’ll see her again in Heaven.”
“My Grandma died!”
“She’ll be recycled into protein chunks by our Glorious State Empire. That’s kind of like a second life.”
The surprise my colleagues and I felt when we saw evidence of religion’s benefits was a sign of our hubris, born of a common notion among scientists: All of religion is superstition and, therefore, could have little practical benefit. I’ll admit that we’re unlikely to learn much about the nature of the universe or the biology of disease from religion. But when it comes to finding ways to help people deal with issues surrounding birth and death, morality and meaning, grief and loss, it would be strange if thousands of years of religious thought didn’t have something to offer.
And stranger yet if none of that was sourced in God rather than clever psychological tricks. Their hubris will persist until they allow for the possibility of God actually existing.
Desteno is also exhibiting the Progress fallacy that new is always better than old. These fools destroy traditions, rewrite history and tear down statues because they are supremely confident that what comes next, WHATEVER IT HAPPENS TO BE, will be an improvement on hokey religions and ancient architectures.
That’s how you can KNOW that sodomy is a good thing… it was almost NEVER tolerated by those temporal hicks!
Over the past few years, as I’ve looked back at the results of my studies and those of other researchers, I’ve come to see a nuanced relationship between science and religion.
Okay, if ‘nuanced’ means ‘Christians invented modern science’.
I now view them as two approaches to improving people’s lives that frequently complement each other. It’s not that I’ve suddenly found faith or have a new agenda to defend religion. I firmly believe that the scientific method is a wonder, and offers one of the best ways to test ideas about how the world works. Like any good scientist, I’m simply following the data without prejudice. And it’s humbling.
But… you JUST DID find reason to defend religion. You CONFIRMED RELIGIOUS PRACTICES with the scientific method. And your only thought is to discard God as quickly as possible so that the benefits of devotion can exist in a vacuum?
Rather than scoffing at religion and starting psychological investigations from scratch, we scientists should be studying rituals and spiritual practices to understand their influence, and where appropriate, create new techniques and therapies informed by them. Doing this doesn’t require accepting a given theology—just an open mind and an attitude of respect. Not doing it risks betraying our principles.
The principle of Evolution. What abortion is to feminism, Evo is to atheists. It is what allows them to act smart while denying that our incredibly ordered and balanced reality could possibly be the result of a transcendent Creator.
Desteno must find a way to explain everything from cosmology to death rituals in a way that proves they are not the result of religion… that is to say, that religion came along one day, found a useful behavior and appropriated it.
Philip Pullman made such an argument with his Northern Lights books. No surprise if you haven’t heard of them. TL;DR in a parallel reality, the Catholic Church suppresses all dissident science. A courageous expedition to discover the mindless substance that created reality ends with fallen angels helping a protagonist to murder God with a magical shiv. For science!
Just like Carl Sagan’s movie Contact, atheists always start out knowing that there is no God and end up trying to kill and replace Him. Even the atheists see themselves like that!
If we ignore that body of knowledge, if we refuse to take these spiritual technologies seriously as a source of ideas and inspiration to study, we slow the progress of science itself and limit its potential to benefit humanity. It’s by talking across the boundaries that usually divide us—science versus religion, one faith versus another—that we’ll find new ways to make life better.
You fool. You were the one who threw up that boundary in the first place. You said it in the very beginning of this article, that you first discarded God and then tried to make men good. You even made it your life’s work and called it science.
But just as Christ does not fit under the microscope, neither does evolution. You have made an idol out of !Science! and still haven’t noticed after 20 years of worshiping it.
Even now, when your research and experiments have confirmed the parts of religion that can be observed in a laboratory, you deny all religion while attempting to keep their behavior-modification tricks. You don’t, nay, you dare not allow yourself to consider the most obvious conclusion of your own research: that it wasn’t evolution that made humans act like there’s a God. Not if they want to be healthy, anyway.
But credit to Desteno, he didn’t end by calling for government to act as a surrogate deity. At least, not in this chapter of his book.