WITH my admittedly solid – or so it is – upbringing in the seminary, it’s no-brainer for me to readily acknowledge the spiritual benefits of surrendering to a higher power or connecting with the divine.
That’s why, in my current practice of giving team or organizational development trainings to various employees and individuals, I always make it a point to start the workshop with, instead of a simple opening prayer, a psycho-spiritual mood setting of some sort, like a pre-taped guided meditation.
But, as it is, if science and religion have often been at odds, how do we expect the non-religious or those who care less about faith or God to accept the relevance or usefulness of religious practices and rituals?
Curiously, if we remove the theology (i.e. the ruminations on divine concepts, nature or properties), can these religious practices and rituals yet offer tangible ways which can improve people’s quality of life?
Social scientists say YES – and their findings resonate with what religion has known for years.
In a study published in Trends in Psychology (March 2021), it was found that religion mitigates feelings of depression by providing a sense of meaning.
The study provided empirical evidence by examining the relationship between religiosity and depression symptoms among 279 respondents to an online survey.
The study’s results were quite telling: intrinsic religiosity accounted for 13% of the variance in meaning in life among participants and (a statistically significant) 2% of the variance in depression.
Controlling for intrinsic religiosity uncovered a mediating effect of meaning in life on depression, accounting for roughly 20% of the variance.
Another breaking finding is provided by a freshly published (only this month) book, “How God Works: The Science Behind The Benefits Of Religion”, by David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, USA.
DeSteno posits that religious practices and rituals, minus its spiritual context, provide tangible benefits to people – like soothing them when they grieve, helping them to be more ethical, and letting them find connection and happiness.
In particular, DeSteno cites four examples or benefits that these so called “spiritual technologies” can provide:
1. Meditation, even for a short time, makes people kinder. “After only 8 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,” DeSteno disclosed.
2. The religious practice of “giving thanks” (gratitude) make people more virtuous. “Christians often say grace before a meal; Jews give thanks to God with the Modeh Ani prayer every morning. 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 or 53 percent cheated. But that figure dropped dramatically for people who we first asked to count their blessings. We’ve also found that when feeling gratitude to a person, to fate, or to God, people become more helpful, generous, and even more patient,” DeSteno pointed out.
3. Communal religious rituals provide a sense of connection, solidarity, or belongingness. “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 when reciting prayers together. These actions belie a deep purpose: creating connection,” DeSteno said.
4. Taking part in religious practices lessens anxiety and depression, increases physical health, and even reduces the risk of early death.
“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,” DeSteno explained.
Now, vis-a-vis these scientific findings of the tangible benefits of religious practices other than faith or spirituality, I’m inclined to make a corollary thought that indeed there is a divine or spiritual domain, if not connection, in us humans – that God is indeed naturally embedded in the human heart.
Again, not that I have learned this in my years of stay in the seminary, but rather that the amount of empirical evidence on this truth is simply compelling.Homo est naturaliter divinus (Man is naturally divine).