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.
The author of the brilliant above-linked article, David DeSteno, wrote a book about the science behind the benefits of religion. Many religious practices simply work. Here is something I wrote a few years ago about my early experience with meditation:
My mom was very skeptical of meditation. If she had spoken English she might have called it Eastern Mumbo Jumbo. She soon had a change of heart, however. One day, several months into a daily practice of meditating for twenty minutes before school, and another twenty minutes before dinner, she asked whether I had already done my evening meditation. I told her I hadn’t and that I might not have time for it. She suggested I should do it now. I looked at her the way a teenager looks at a parent when they think “what do you care, mom”… she picked up on that unspoken communication and said, I can see the difference it makes when you meditate. Really, I asked, surprised that this could be. Yes, she replied. So I sat down and meditated, marveling at the idea that meditation was changing me, perhaps in a subtle way only my mom could detect, but changing me nonetheless.
One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Fivefold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.
Spiritual technologies — tools and processes that can sooth, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind!!