Radio Show

Professor David DeSteno on the Science Behind the Benefits of Religion


David DeSteno, Professor of psychology at Northeastern University discusses his new book, “How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion.”

David explains that he has always been interested in what religion does for people. “If you look at the data from lots of labs across the world, we see that people who regularly engage with practices of their faith lead longer, happier, and healthier lives,” he says. “That tells me there’s some wisdom in those tools. That’s what I explore in the book.”

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David highlights some benefits of religion. “Everyone knows that religion tells people to be kind, generous, honest, etc, but religion also gives us the tools that help us to live that out. For example, one thing that almost all religions have are prayers of Thanksgiving, like Christians say grace at a meal. They’re giving thanks to God… In my lab, we have seen that when we make people feel grateful, it changes their behavior. It makes them more honest… There are lots of examples of how religion, in the rituals and tools that we have, helps us to actually live better lives.”

Take, for example, the act of praying in unison. “We will stand in unison, kneel, and sing in unison. It just seems normal, but there’s a deep-seated reason we do this,” David explains. “We do experiments in our lab where we have people move in unison. They don’t know each other. We simply have them move their arms or rocking chairs in unison. Right after that, we ask them how similar they feel to the person they were just with. When people move in unison, they report feeling closer to each other. They’re trying to give me explanations for it. They don’t know why, but they feel linked to that person… It is a way of building connection, and religions have this synchronous action in them. When you look at studies that don’t just make people move in unison, but add singing, chanting, or praying the Rosary in unison, the strength of that goes up. It is one of the subtle ways that these rituals and practices are building a sense of community without people knowing it.”

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Father Dave asks David how religion helps with grief. “Religious ritual includes eulogizing a person. We talk about what was great about this person, and it seems really normal, but if you think about it, it’s kind of weird. If I just lost a job that I really love, or my wife just left me and I really loved her, I’m not going to want to think about that job, or my spouse who just left because it’s going to make it hurt all the more. But what research shows is that when you consolidate positive memories of the person you’ve lost, it actually reduces grief. It reduces depression. It helps people be resilient. All religions do this.

“We have modern research that proves the benefits of thousands-year-old rituals,” David continues. “That was humbling to me as a scientist. There are a lot of scientists who say religion is just silly superstition, but it  would be strange if thousands of years of thought that was meant to help people meet the challenges of life didn’t have something good to offer. My argument is scientists don’t have to buy anything on faith, but let’s be respectful. Let’s look at what’s there. And let’s be a little humble and see how we can help people.”