Inspired and Blessed by Bob Acebedo
Inspired & Blessed

The scientific relevance of religious practices

Sep 9, 2023, 12:40 AM
Bob Acebedo

Bob Acebedo


If science and religion have often been at odds, how can 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 (that is, 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 percent of the variance in meaning in life among participants and (a statistically significant) 2 percent of the variance in depression. Controlling for intrinsic religiosity uncovered a mediating effect of meaning in life on depression, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the variance.

Another breaking finding is provided by a book published last year, “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 of 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 or to God, people become more helpful, generous, and even more patient,” DeSteno pointed out.

3. Communal religious rituals provide a sense of connection, 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 unveil 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.

With these findings, I can’t avoid making a corollary thought that indeed there is a divine connection or spiritual dimension in us humans – that God is naturally embedded in the human heart.

The amount of empirical evidence of this truth is simply compelling: Humans are naturally of divine origin.

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