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How God Works

The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion



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About The Book

Drawing on a wealth of new evidence, pioneering research psychologist David DeSteno shows why religious practices and rituals are so beneficial to those who follow them—and to anyone, regardless of their faith (or lack thereof).

Scientists are beginning to discover what believers have known for a long time: the rewards that a religious life can provide. For millennia, people have turned to priests, rabbis, imams, shamans, and others to help them deal with issues of grief and loss, birth and death, morality and meaning. In this absorbing work, DeSteno reveals how numerous religious practices from around the world improve emotional and physical well-being.

With empathy and rigor, DeSteno chronicles religious rites and traditions from cradle to grave. He explains how the Japanese rituals surrounding childbirth help strengthen parental bonds with children. He describes how the Apache Sunrise Ceremony makes teenage girls better able to face the rigors of womanhood. He shows how Buddhist meditation reduces hostility and increases compassion. He demonstrates how the Jewish practice of sitting shiva comforts the bereaved. And much more.

DeSteno details how belief itself enhances physical and mental health. But you don’t need to be religious to benefit from the trove of wisdom that religion has to offer. Many items in religion’s “toolbox” can help the body and mind whether or not one believes. How God Works offers advice on how to incorporate many of these practices to help all of us live more meaningful, successful, and satisfying lives.


The Journey Ahead

How do you raise a child to be a good person? What are your re- sponsibilities to your family, your friends, and your community?How do you cope with a serious illness? Can you find someone to love and, if you do, how do you go on when they’re gone? How do you find joy and meaning in life—especially in difficult times—and how do you make sense of your life’s inevitable end?

These are the questions that keep people up at night. They strike at the heart of what it means to be human. And so they keep me up at night too. Not only because I’m trying to figure out, like millions of others, how to live a good life. But also because for the past thirty years my career has focused on uncovering ways to help people become more moral, more compassionate, and more resilient as they walk the road of life.

That might be surprising, as I’m not a priest, therapist, or life coach. I’m a research scientist. I conduct psychological experiments. And few people would expect to find the meaning of life through scientific investigation and lab work. 

For millennia, most people have turned to priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams to help them deal with grief and loss, birth and death, morality and meaning. And many still turn to a traditional faith or seek out new modes of spirituality to address the challenges and opportunities that life presents.

But over the past few decades, science has started finding ways to help people deal with these issues too. Psychologists like me study things like generosity, empathy, resilience, and forgiveness. And as scientists learn more about what helps foster these feelings and behaviors, we can also suggest practical steps that people can take to improve their lives.

This data-driven approach may seem at odds with religion. In- deed, 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 irrelevant to my work.

Yet, over the years, as I continued to scientifically study the questions that fascinated me—questions about how to improve the human condition—I was surprised that many of the answers I found aligned with religious ideas. Even more surprising to me was that certain aspects of religious practices, even when removed from their spiritual settings, had a profound impact on people’s minds.

My research team found, for example, that giving thanks to one person (or to God) made people more honest and generous to others—not only to those they cared about but also to strangers. We saw that just a few weeks of meditation made people more com- passionate—more willing to jump out of their seats to aid others in pain and to resist lashing out at people who might otherwise pro- voke them to violence. To our surprise, we found that even basic parts of many religious rituals, like moving or singing together, made people feel more connected and committed to one another.

Other researchers have discovered that religious practices can lessen anxiety, reduce depression, and even increase physical health. In fact, much of what psychologists and neuroscientists were find- ing about how to change people’s beliefs, feelings, and behaviors— how to support them when they grieve, how to help them find connection and happiness—seemed to echo ideas and techniques that religions have been using for thousands of years. To my grow- ing curiosity, I realized that we scientists were “discovering” many things that others had realized and implemented long ago.

That’s when it dawned on me: we were going about this in the wrong way. I realized that 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 was superstition and, therefore, could have little practical benefit. Yet, as I learned and as this book shows, spiritual leaders often understood—in ways that we can now scientifically confirm—how to help people live bet- ter. Social scientists are the new kids on the block.

Ironically, around the time I started having these thoughts, a larger cultural battle between science and religion was again heating up. Fundamentalist faiths were casting science as a misguided or even malevolent source of information. Prominent scientists were arguing the reverse: religion wasn’t only wrong, it was dangerous. The New Atheist movement, led by eminent thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Sam Harris, cast religion almost as a plague on the enlightened mind.

But when I looked at the results of my studies and those of other researchers, I saw a more nuanced relationship between science and religion. I saw two approaches to understanding how to improve people’s lives that frequently complemented each other.

Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe that the scientific method is a wonder. It’s a framework that offers one of the best ways to test ideas about how the world works. But when it comes to thinkingabout how to help people through life’s travails, we scientists shouldn’t be starting from scratch. Just as ancient doesn’t always mean wise, neither does it always mean naïve.

I believe this view makes intuitive sense. When it comes to managing the human experience, it would be strange if thousands of years of religious thought didn’t have much to offer. As I said, people have long turned to spiritual leaders and religious communities for guidance about how to live well. And even in our increasingly secular era, there’s a good reason why people still do. Across the globe, those who regularly take part in religious practices report greater well-being than those who don’t. The key point here, though, is easy to miss. Saying you’re religious doesn’t matter much for health and happiness. It’s being religious—taking part in the rituals and practices of a faith—that makes life better.

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, most of the debates that stoke animosity between science and religion evaporate. 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. It’s here, in the repetition of prayer, the stillness of contemplation, the joining of hands in celebration or sorrow, the dancing, singing, writhing, and swaying, that— actually or metaphorically, depending on your view—we can see God at work. To ignore that body of knowledge is to slow the progress of science itself and limit its potential benefit to humanity.

But before we can start down this path, we need to remove a potential roadblock.
    -Isms Just Get in the Way Theism, deism, atheism. When it comes to religion, adopting most any -ism save agnosticism requires you to embrace a narrow view about God. If you’re a theist, you believe in a particular god of the intervening type—one willing to have a relationship with you and to whom you can appeal. If you’re a deist, you believe God created the universe, but is now rather hands-off. If you’re an atheist, there is no God, plain and simple. We’re all here based on the rules of physics, biology, and fortunate rolls of the probabilistic dice that continually unfolded after the big bang. And if you’re an agnostic, you choose not to choose.

It’s important to realize, though, that whichever -ism you abide by—even atheism—depends in part on faith. If you choose to be an atheist, it’s a faith in the principles of science—faith that chance favored us in this corner of the cosmos. Even Richard Dawkins, probably the most well-known advocate for the absence of God’s hand in creation, freely admits that he can’t be absolutely certain that God doesn’t exist. As there’s no agreed-upon scientific test for God’s fingerprint, it’s a question that no amount of empirical analysis can answer. And so, even for the most strident atheist, belief that God doesn’t exist is a matter of faith, not a provable fact.

It’s a similar case for religious theologies. When they seem absolutely contradicted by what we see in the world, they can be difficult to defend. For this reason, many religions have become more open to science as the centuries progressed. The Catholic Church, but one example of many, now teaches that science can enrich human understanding of life on earth, even in ways that challenge strict interpretations of its own texts. Catholics, for instance, are encouraged to take the biblical Book of Genesis as a metaphorical tale, should they so choose. Tibetan Buddhists take a similar stance. The Dalai Lama has been consistently open to science as a source of knowledge, so much so that he regularly funds studies of the neurological effects of meditation. He even once said that if science can prove reincarnation doesn’t exist, Tibetan Buddhists would abandon the notion. Of course, he then quipped he didn’t think that definitive evidence would emerge anytime soon.
  Like other ideological labels we use—liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist—religious -isms can usefully identify our beliefs. But they can also cut down on conversation if we adhere to them too single-mindedly. Just because we disagree in our overarching political philosophy doesn’t mean we should assume we disagree about every government policy; there may be ample common ground. The same goes for our religious beliefs. Atheists and Buddhists might disagree about whether reincarnation is real, for instance, but agree about the value of meditation or how to help people mourn.

So, for now at least, I’d ask you to put your -isms to the side. There’s no need to abandon them; each of us has a right to our own notions about God. But for what I’m going to focus on in this book—investigating how religious technologies can help support people throughout their lives—most of these -isms don’t matter. Understanding how a technology was developed isn’t always necessary to use it. You don’t need to know how the microchips in your cell phone work or even who developed them in order to connect with friends across the country. The same applies to religious rituals and practices.

I’m not saying that what you believe doesn’t matter. As we’ll see in this book, it certainly does. What I am saying is that trying to figure out how and why the tools of religion work on the mind doesn’t require solving the problem of whether God exists and directed their development. All you need is a willingness to put these techniques and practices to a test: Do they alter how we act, how we feel, how healthy and how happy we are? And if they do, how can we adapt them to even better advantage? -Isms don’t help us answer these questions; in fact, they mostly get in the way.
  I want to be clear that I’m not an apologist for religion. My goal isn’t to argue that religion is always good. I fully recognize that religious beliefs have been used to motivate and justify horrendous acts of violence and abuse, to perpetuate many types of discrimi- nation and inequality, and to push people toward many kinds of irrational behavior.

But, as with most technologies, religion’s value depends on the intentions of those using it. Yes, some of the tools religions provide can be used for evil purposes. But that’s not a reason to indict the entire enterprise, especially when there’s ample evidence that other items in religion’s toolbox can help foster people’s noblest traits.
Spiritual technologies, like any other effective technologies, are powerful. They can destroy societies or strengthen them. That’s why we need to understand how we can better use the helpful tools while combating the harmful ones.
  Tools of the Trade Rituals are observable practices that help define a religion. Some are done daily, some weekly, some yearly, and some (like funerals and weddings) only at specific points in life. And while many might feel quite familiar to us, trying to define exactly what makes something a ritual is tricky. Some use symbols; some don’t. Some involve spoken prayers; others are conducted silently. Some even seem to mimic ordinary parts of life: What makes not eating for a day different from a religious fast? What makes lighting a candle at Shabbat—the Jewish weekly day of rest—different from lighting a candle when the power goes out?  
The best definition of “ritual” I’ve seen comes from the eminent religion scholar Catherine Bell. Rituals, she argues, are a set of actions designed to be special—to highlight, differentiate, and privilege what is being done. Making certain acts feel formal, using symbols, evoking emotion, using repetition—these all are potential ways to mark that specialness. None of them are strictly necessary, though. Just by declaring that certain acts are special, we make them meaningful. They draw our attention, imagination, and sometimes hopes, in a way that mere habits don’t. And as such, they change the way that otherwise mundane actions speak to our minds.

At heart, almost all rituals seek to bring about change. By altering how our minds encode and process information, the ways we move our bodies in space and in relation to others, and the values and expectations we place on ourselves and those around us, rituals regulate our beliefs, our behaviors, and our bonds with others. In so doing, they help us experience joy, manage pain, persevere to- ward difficult goals, and bounce back from painful losses.

We humans have always strived to develop technologies that give us some control, or at least a feeling of control, over the challenges that life throws at us. In a secular context, one way to do this is via psychology. Researchers like me devote our professional lives to figuring out why people think and feel what they do, and, and in cases where those thoughts or actions are undesirable, to helping people change. We conduct experiments to see whether a certain type of drug or therapy alleviates anxiety or pain. We test “nudges,” such as policies that require people to opt in or opt out of a program, in an effort to help them save for retirement or become an organ donor. We design and evaluate social and dating algorithms and platforms to help connect people who might otherwise feel isolated. All the while, we aim to satisfy people’s urgent desires for science-backed life hacks that will make them smarter, healthier, and happier.

This is all great. We’re lucky to be living at a time when the rate of discovery and the flow of information has never been quicker. But for thousands of years, humans have gone about developing tools outside of the strict scientific method. We’ve experimented, but in a more colloquial sense of the term. Put simply, we’ve tried things that, in some way, seemed promising to us and waited to see what happened. That’s the way many religious rituals have come about. Change features prominently even among established religions. Elements of worship are modernized. The numerous sects and denominations in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism all derive from change and evolution within those faiths—change that’s reflected not only in their dogmas but also in their practices. But new rituals can emerge even more quickly than that. In Silicon Valley, a company called the Ritual Design Lab posts a promising slogan on its website: “You tell us your problem. We will make you a ritual.” It’s no fly-by-night; its customers include Microsoft, Airbnb, and SAP. It even offers an app, IdeaPOP, thatwill help you create your own rituals.

In a similar vein, if you need a ritual to help prepare for the emotional challenges of a preventative mastectomy, a prayer for refugee children living in camps, or guidance on a funeral ceremony for a beloved pet, the Ritualwell website offers suggestions coming from the Jewish Reconstructionist movement. Certain of these will appeal to many; others may not. But the ones that do— the ones that work—will grow in use.

Science has come to recognize the special power of rituals. Recent experiments have shown that even an arbitrary set of actions, when ritualized, can help people. Take dieting, for example. Researchers invited people trying to lose weight to take part in a five-day experiment. They told half the people that when getting ready to eat, they first had to cut their food into several pieces, then rearrange the pieces on their plates so that they formed a symmetrical pattern, and then finally tap their utensil on each piece of food three times before they took a bite. They asked the other half sim- ply to think about what they were eating in a careful way.

Surprising as it may seem, for every one of those five days, people who performed the prescribed ritual consumed 224 fewer calories on average than those who actually stopped to think about what they were eating. Something similar happened even when the researchers tempted health-conscious people with chocolate versus carrots. Those who performed a ritual—this time knocking on a table, taking deep breaths, and closing their eyes—were 25 percent more likely to select a carrot to eat than to take a chocolate candy. Here again, a ritual created on the spot helped people improve their self-control.

These surely aren’t the best rituals to help people diet or fast. They simply offer proof that some types of ritual actions can affect our desires and behaviors. The big question, of course, is: Which ones? Which rituals—which combinations of elements—work best? And it’s here that religions have a vast head start. They’ve “debugged” the technologies they’ve used through the centuries.

No ritual is perfect at the outset. But they have to start some- where. So people often begin by making choices that are informed by theology and symbolism. The resulting mix is a set of practices that often combines beliefs, songs, prayers, or movements that speak to the mind and body on several different levels—some of which we understand and others of which we don’t. But over time, rituals change to sharpen their effects, leading to that debugging I just mentioned.

Buddhists, for example, have developed different meditation practices for different purposes. Some are meant to enhance attention, others to cultivate compassion. But in each case, tweaks were made over time in line with how well they achieved the desired ends. Even among very centralized and hierarchical religions like Catholicism, changes that come from the top are meant to better serve the needs of the faithful.
  Given the ubiquity and variety of religious rituals and practices, it’s surprising that science hasn’t taken up the charge to ex- amine their effects more widely and carefully. One exception over the past decade has been mindfulness. We now know, with ample data to back it up, that meditation offers many benefits. It enhances attention, decreases anxiety and stress, and even increases compassionate behavior toward others. But none of that would be news to the spiritual thinkers who developed contemplative techniques centuries ago. That’s what they set out to do in the first place.

There’s no reason to think that meditation is the only practice created by religion that might have scientifically verifiable bene- fits. It’s one tool among many that several traditions have used. We only recognize its benefits because the Dalai Lama encouraged scientists to study it. He gave it a head start. The question we should be asking, then, is: What’s the next mindfulness? What’s the next spiritual technology that we can use to improve people’s lives? It’s out there if we’re willing to look.
  Religioprospecting This book sets out to do with religion what has been done success- fully in other realms to dramatically improve human life. Consider the field of medicine. For decades, pharmaceutical science has looked to traditional healing for medicines and insights that might help treat ailments. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, scientists had the technical ability to produce new pharmaceuticals, but not enough ideas about exactly which ones to produce. So many drug companies sent their scientists bioprospecting—looking for folk remedies from cultures around the world they could bring back to their labs to test.
  In the 1950s, the researcher Gordon Svoboda, working for Eli Lilly, added rosy periwinkle—an evergreen shrub adorned with delicate, five-petal, pink flowers—to a list of compounds to be examined. Although originally native to Madagascar, the plant had spread through commerce to Southeast Asia, Europe, and Jamaica in the 1700s and 1800s, and many cultures touted its power to com- bat diabetes. Interested in the possibility, the scientists at Lilly set to work examining the plant’s chemical makeup.
The plant did indeed contain chemicals that helped the body regulate blood sugar (although these weren’t found until much later). But two other compounds really sparked the scientists’ in- terest. These compounds—vincristine and vinblastine—appeared to destroy proliferations of white blood cells—proliferations com- mon to cancers like leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Through continued testing and development, scientists refined these com- pounds into medications that helped increase the survival rate for these cancers from 10 percent to 90 percent.

There’s a plethora of examples like this one, where older, traditional notions informed the development of effective new treatments. But if those scientists weren’t willing to look at traditional ideas for healing, they might have missed the opportunity to find potentially powerful treatments. That’s as true today as it was in the 1950s. Such bioprospecting isn’t the only way to find cures, of course, but it’s proven to be a very effective one.
While most people are open to prospecting for new biologics to heal the body and brain, that same open-mindedness doesn’t extend to psychologics. By “psychologics,” I mean the beliefs, practices, and rituals that affect human minds. Just as various cultures may have found chemical tools to enhance biological well-being, so, too, might they have found psychological ones—ones that they’ve embedded in their spiritual contexts. Again, the origin of such tools isn’t germane to determining how useful they are. Whether or not one believes that God put rosy periwinkle on earth to help Its creatures heal themselves doesn’t affect its ability to fight cancer. What led to this lifesaving discovery was openness to an idea followed by a careful evaluation of the evidence.

The time for religioprospecting has come. As with biologics, the promise of some practices may be just that: promises without any evidence of effect. But many others will, like the traditional remedies from which some modern medicines spring, surprise us in their efficacy and even suggest new uses.

There’s a simple reason why I believe this view is correct: con- vergence. No matter where or when we live, the path of life, for most, winds past the same landmarks. We’re born. We grow into a community and learn its rules. We become adults and look for someone with whom to connect. We love. We raise families. We age. We get sick. We grieve for those we lose, and we face the prospect of our own demise. For millennia, it’s been this way. And for each of these mileposts—each of these points of meaning, joy, or dread—religions the world over have devised rituals and practices to help us through.

Every faith has a ceremony to welcome a new life into the com- munity, a set of practices to instill morality in the young and to transition them to adulthood, rituals to bind people together, to quell their anxieties, to heal their bodies, to console their souls, and to ease their demise. More than 80 percent of the world’s population identifies to a degree with some religion, thereby continuing an embrace of the tools such traditions provide.

In the pages that follow, I invite you to walk that path of life with me. To see what various religions have already discovered about how to help us traverse it more successfully. Along the way, we’ll find remarkable similarities in the tools religions offer, but perhaps even more important, some striking differences between them. Yes, every religion prescribes practices for birth and death, but that doesn’t mean that all are equally effective. Might Shinto rituals before and after a baby’s birth lead to better outcomes for mother and child than the birth rituals of other religions? Might the Jewish practice of sitting shiva better ease the pain of a grieving family than rituals of other faiths? Questions like these can be answered only if we start to examine religious practices with a scientific eye.

Using the tools science provides—experimentation, data anal- ysis, and more—we can set aside debates about the theological meanings of rituals and focus instead on how they influence the body and mind. Why, for example, can contemplating death by placing ashes on your forehead or meditating in front of a corpse make you more compassionate? Why can a healer’s touch reduce pain? Why can covering the mirrors in a home during times of mourning reduce feelings of grief?
We’ll explore how rituals, practices, and sentiments from the world’s religions nudge our minds in certain ways. In some cases, research on specific religious ideas and practices already exists. In others, I’ll break down the component parts of religious beliefs and rituals to show how they align with what psychology and neurosci- ence know about how our minds work. And through this process, I’ll offer insights into how certain aspects of rituals and practices might be adapted to help both secular people and those of different faiths improve their well-being.
  Along this path of discovery, two themes will appear time and again: belief and connection. Since these play an essential role in religion’s influence on our health and happiness at all points in life, I want to highlight them here before we begin our journey.
  The Balm of Belief In the developed world, most people live a life infused with the luxury of choice. The grocery store offers approximately for- ty-seven different types of cereal. The television, two hundred or more channels of programming. Dating apps, more profiles than people can possibly swipe. But perhaps what we think of as a lux- ury might be anything but. Choice, and the uncertainties that ac- company it, can actually be a curse at times.

One of the most important insights to emerge from neuroscience over the past two decades is that the human mind is a kind of prediction machine. It’s built not simply to respond to stimuli but rather to anticipate them. What makes the mind so adaptive and efficient is its ability to guess what’s coming next. And although we can’t be certain of the characteristics of all animal minds, it’s probably safe to say that humans are among the few species, if not the only one, that can effectively time travel in this way. We can simulate the future, running all types of scenarios in our heads. We can also relive the past in exquisite detail, meaning we can reexperience the pleasures or regrets resulting from all the choices we’ve made.

The fact that choice can be a bane may sound strange, as most people think that more choices will make it more likely that we’ll find the option that’s tailored exactly to our needs. Yet, while that may be true in terms of maximizing a specific outcome, it’s not the case in terms of maximizing overall well-being. As psychologists have repeatedly shown, having too many choices can cause greater dissatisfaction with whatever option we ultimately choose.
  It’s precisely because we don’t want to make the wrong choice that having too many options can push us into choice paralysis. Trying to analyze everything can become overwhelming when the options in front of us grow beyond a select few. The psychologist Barry Schwartz has repeatedly shown that those of us he calls maximizers—the ones who always want to find the single best option in any situation—tend to be less happy, less optimistic, and more prone to depression and regret than are others who feel that good enough options will do.

While these are important findings about how the mind works, you might wonder what they have to do with religion. Think of it this way. If running simulations and having regrets about which toaster or car to buy can make us feel bad—a fact for which there’s ample evidence—what happens when we’re considering weightier subjects? What if you’re deciding whom to marry? Or whether lying to save your job is okay? Or what you should do to help your child recover from an illness? Uncertainty in the realms of morality and fate—the realms that religions dominate for many people—is taxing not only because it requires the brain to simulate so many options but also because of the emotional consequences involved. And it’s here, as we’ll see, that belief comes into play. With belief— that God will intervene, that a ritual will heal, that a choice never to lie or cheat ensures the best outcomes—comes certainty. And with certainty comes a kind of inner peace.

The links between faith and decreased anxiety can even be seen at the neurological level. For example, scientists have shown how belief calms activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)—a part of the brain associated with what we might call “alarm bell” experiences. When we feel annoyed or threatened, certain patterns activity in the ACC intensify. These are the same patterns that ramp up in those suffering from anxiety disorders, and they’re also ones that are reduced by alcohol and medications like Valium and Xanax.
  When neuroscientists measured activity in the ACC as people were confronted with decisions in which they made errors, those who had stronger belief in God showed less activity than did others. In other words, believers showed less anxiety at the neurological level about making perfect choices. In a similar vein, researchers also found that letting believers reflect on their faith before making decisions further reduced ACC activity in the face of errors. Simply put, thinking about God made religious people calmer.

The upshot is pretty clear: the sense of certainty that comes from religious belief dials down the brain’s response to error and uncertainty in all areas. The ACC’s “alarm bells” are less intense, and choices are made with less regret. This is one reason, among many, why research consistently links religious belief to decreased stress in daily life.

Belief doesn’t make people more complacent or less intelligent. It simply reduces the revved-up, hypervigilant, hypercritical state many of us fall into as we strive to make complicated decisions. Throughout this book, we’ll see how enhanced belief, and the certainty it brings, can be fostered through religious practices and rituals.
  Loneliness Is Hell A second theme we’ll see that rituals address in people’s lives is connection. For humans, there are few states worse than loneli- ness. We are social beings. We crave the company of others. We thrive by working with and supporting one another.
  Without strong connections to another person, we pay a heavy price. Loneliness is as dangerous as smoking in terms of its potential to shorten people’s lives. It impairs immunity, worsens inflam- mation, and increases blood pressure, all of which are linked to maladies like heart disease and diabetes.

It’s precisely because of these dangerous changes to our health that our brains, even during early stages of isolation, make us experience loneliness as actual pain. Religion, like many social institu- tions, can combat this pain by giving people opportunities to come together. For example, most religions prescribe obligatory gather- ings. But unlike other social institutions, religions’ power to cre- ate connection isn’t limited to scheduling. Religions can also forge meaningful bonds through the power of the rituals themselves. Al- though we’ll see many examples of such binding happening later in this book, let me offer one now as evidence of this fact.

What psychologists call motor synchrony—moving parts of your body in time with others—is a part of many rituals the world over. Sometimes it’s bowing and swaying, sometimes it’s spinning and dancing, and sometimes it’s joint singing and praying. But however the movements in question take place, they’re a marker to the brain that the people involved are parts of a larger whole. Their outcomes are joined. It’s such a fundamental signal of being joined together that infants as young as fifteen months of age already use it as a cue to determine who is linked to whom.

To show the effects of synchronous movement, my lab con- ducted an experiment where we paired each person with a part- ner and had them put on headphones and tap their hands to the beats they heard. While neither member of each pair in the exper- iment knew the other, some pairs heard synchronized beats and thus tapped in time with each other. Other pairs heard random beats that led to no synchronization at all. Following the tapping, we asked each pair how similar they felt to their partner. As we anticipated, those who had tapped in time felt a greater link to each other. And when we later orchestrated a situation where one member of the pair needed help completing a difficult task, partners who had tapped synchronously were much more likely to come to the aid of each other and offer assistance (a rate of 49 percent) than were partners who didn’t (a rate of 18 percent). One simple act of synchronized movement was all it took to make people feel connected enough to almost triple their rate for helping a complete stranger. Many other researchers have found similar results.

Experiments like these prove that a common element of ritual, even when stripped bare of any theological trappings, can still speak to the mind on a deep level. But that doesn’t mean combining the more basic elements of ritual with religious belief can’t enhance their power even more. In compelling work, a team of researchers from New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington set out to see if synchronous movement could have an even greater effect if it was religiously inspired.

The researchers measured feelings of connection, trust, and actual cooperation between people before and after they engaged in a type of chant associated with their faith, more secular synchro- nous acts like drumming or singing nonreligious songs together, or activities like playing poker that people do together without any synchronous movement. Although the researchers found that synchrony of any type made people feel closer to, trust, and cooperate more with one another, most of these effects were magnified when the synchrony had a sacred element attached to it—that is, when people chanted in a manner that followed a ritual of their faith. Put another way, a belief that this activity was spiritually meaningful—that, in accord with Bell’s definition of “ritual,” it was a special as opposed to mundane activity—intensified the impact that synchrony had on people’s minds.
  Unlike regularly participating in a religion’s rituals, these experiments involved a single act of synchrony. So while their ability to create bonds between people was evident, the magnitude and longevity of such bonds are likely to be even greater when they’re repeated regularly while attending services together.

Religions the world over appear to have converged on synchrony as a tool for creating connection. Centuries before psycho ogists ever studied it, almost every tradition had adopted it as a way to bind people together—to nudge them to support one another and to reduce the toll loneliness can take on the body and mind.

Of course, synchrony is but one of many tools religions use to build connection. The greater point I want to make is that religions have identified effective technologies that need to be studied in the rich context in which they’re used (as opposed to the more constrained settings of the lab) if we’re to fully appreciate how they can reinforce each other—how beliefs, symbols, actions, and group behavior can work synergistically to magnify each other’s impact. It’s here that religions have a long head start. It’s here that they’re playing a psychological symphony, not just randomly striking single notes we find soothing.
  Setting Out With all this in mind, it’s time to begin our journey along life’s path, examining how the world’s religions try to ease our way. Be- ginning with the challenges birth presents to parents and infants, we’ll move on to see how rituals also guide the development of morality in the formative years of childhood, how they help us cross the thresholds from childhood into adolescence and adulthood, how they aid us in finding a loving connection to each other and perhaps even to something greater, how they heal our minds and bodies as we move through midlife, and, finally, how they help us cope with the loss of loved ones and our own inevitable ends.
  Along the way, I’ll point out not only the incredible convergences across faiths—a testament to the shared challenges all humans face—but also, as I suggested above, how some faiths may have honed their technologies in even more targeted ways. It’s not that the rituals of any one faith are generally superior to those of others, but rather that for specific challenges, some may have found tweaks or solutions that push the mind’s buttons more effectively. As I make these points, my goal isn’t to provide a completely comprehensive view of rituals from across the globe. That would take many books. Instead, I’ve selected examples from both the world’s major religions and its more localized faiths that show most clearly how religion can benefit us at various points in our lives. You might notice that I focus somewhat more on the rites of the major faiths. This isn’t because I see them as intrinsically better in any way, but because they address some issues that hold greater importance for people living in more complex, modern societies (which itself is one reason why they’ve spread around the world). Morality is one. It’s not easy to behave badly when you live in a small village. But in larger cities, greater anonymity makes it easier to cheat or steal. Existential crises are another. If your life is primarily focused on surviving from day to day, you often don’t have the luxury of pondering the meaning of life or worrying if you’re on the right path. So let’s set out.

About The Author

Amy Vitale

David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of Emotional Success and The Truth About Trust, and coauthor of Out of Character. He frequently writes for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Harvard Business Review, and The Atlantic. He received his PhD in psychology from Yale University.


Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 14, 2021)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982142315

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Raves and Reviews

“What do you get when you cross spiritual wisdom with modern science? A whole bunch of smart ideas about how to live a happier, healthier, and more meaningful life. A delightful and illuminating read.” —Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness

“A masterful and continually surprising tour of how spiritual practices around the world anticipated the latest evidence-based insights from the science of behavior change. DeSteno provides a compelling scientific defense of the power of ancient traditions and shows how we can all use them to improve our health, connection, and happiness.” —Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab podcast

“This is a book on religion that even an atheist can love. One of the leading psychologists of our time shows how the world’s religions provide technologies that anyone can use to live their best lives. Clear, engaging, and very persuasive, How God Works will change the way you think about faith and science.” —Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University and author of The Sweet Spot

“DeSteno shows convincingly that whatever we think of the underlying theology, religious rituals work! Fine-tuned over centuries of practice, they help us cope with major life transitions, comfort us in times of fear or grief, and encourage us to show gratitude, exhibit compassion, practice community, and find enduring happiness.” —Mark U. Edwards, Jr., former professor and dean of academic affairs at Harvard Divinity School

How God Works explores the rituals of religions and delves into the science of psychology to show how seamlessly the two can work together. This isn’t a work about one god or one religion. It is a thought-provoking, useful book that points us toward happier, healthier lives.” —Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness and Real Change

How God Works makes a brilliant case for ‘spiritual technologies’ for the believer, the skeptic, and the atheist alike. DeSteno offers a scientific explanation for why and how the prayer, rituals, and community-building practices of the world’s religions help make us more resilient, happy, and moral people.” —Angela Buchdahl, Senior Rabbi, Central Synagogue, New York

"An exceptional and expertly researched study of the science of believing in the divine …This thorough, insightful study will convince readers that worship itself is a boon for mental and physical health.” Publishers Weekly

“For many, COVID-19 seems to have brought existential questions to the fore. Research scientist and psychologist DeSteno offers findings based on his and others' work about how humans make meaning throughout a lifespan…Parents, teachers, and religious leaders will appreciate Desteno's work, which is accompanied by copious endnotes.”—Booklist

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