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The Science Beneath Belief

An Interview with David DeSteno

The Science Behind Belief

An Interview with David DeSteno

Header image created on DALL-E 2 by Michael Burns

Dr. David DeSteno is a Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. His academic research focuses on how emotion shapes social judgment, behavior, and decision making, including moral decisions. He hosts a PRX-sponsored podcast called, How God Workswhere he interviews world-renowned thinkers, researchers, and practitioners in the arenas of science, faith, and diverse belief practices. He also published a book in later 2021 of the same title (How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion) available from Simon and Schuster. This work is an exploration of the biological and psychological underpinnings of a wide array of religious practices and how and why they benefit their practitioners. We interviewed Dr. DeSteno and asked him about this intersection between science and faith and what we can learn from this research. 

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JV: So you've written this new book How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion. What's the main thesis of the book, and how did you come to write it?

DD:  The main thesis of the book is that science and religion can learn from one another. Let me give you the long story of the impetus behind this. When I was an undergraduate at Vassar College, I was trying to decide between being a religious studies major, not in theology - not to be a minister or anything but to study world religions and the history of them - and becoming a psychologist, because I was just interested in in questions of human behavior, and how people find meaning what makes people be good or bad, et cetera. 

I ultimately decided to be a scientist and psychologist because I can run experiments and not just debate stuff to which there was no clear answer. So, I went off on my merry way, and what I found over time running a lab that primarily focuses on pro-social behaviors, morality, and character virtues and what leads to their development in people - what I found again and again were things that help people find connection, help people be more generous, more kind, more virtuous were being used by religions for a long period of time. 

One clear example from my lab is this - we study something called motor synchrony, which is kind of moving together in time, and we found that if you have people move together in time suddenly they feel more connected, and they feel more compassion for each other, if one of them experiences something problematic, and we show that that leads them to help each other, feel more similar to each other. So, hey, we have a life hack that makes connections! Every ritual I could find showed people that have been doing this for thousands of years, right?

We thought that gratitude makes people more helpful, more generous, more loyal to each other. If you look at religions, they all have blessings and prayers and gratitude. That's part of their daily practice. And so long, story short, what I began to see is everything that we were discovering that helps people to be more moral, more connected, more compassionate, generous were being used in rituals around the world. As a scientist, you don't like to be scooped, where someone else has already figured out the answer to your research question, but you really don't like to be scooped by thousands of years, and sure those people couldn't run randomized controlled clinical trials or scan people's brains, but yet they are using techniques that leverage parts of our minds and bodies. When I looked at the wider literature, what I saw is that if you look at religiosity and well-being, and even physical health, psychological well being - there's a connection - not so much regarding whether someone believes in God or not, as that doesn't predict much on its own, but are you engaged in the practices of the faith. And if you are, people tend to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. And so for me, right there, as a scientist, there's data there.

I don't want to get stuck in the debate about if these spiritual practices are divinely given by a guy who cares about his/her/ or its creatures and that's why we do them or are they the result of people figuring stuff out and being honed and debugged over millennia as cultural transmission - I can't answer that and science can't answer that. But in some sense we don't need to answer that to study the practices that are there. We've done it with meditation, right? We know in our lab we actually looked at the question of does meditation make people more compassionate and kind in their actions, and reduce aggression. It does and that's why it was created. I don't care whether it was divinely inspired, or rather not that I don't care, it is an interesting question, it’s just one science can’t answer. There's wisdom there. 

The analogy that I use is when the pharmaceutical companies develop a technology to make medication, they don’t know where to start looking, oftentimes. So they go in and do something called Bioprospecting to look at traditional cures for things. Did a lot of them work? No. Do some of them work? Yes, and from those we developed medicines that can treat all kinds of things. And so the argument here is, it's a terrible word, but let’s “religioprospect”, that is, for traditions that have been around for thousands of years helping people meet life challenges, it would be strange if there wasn't something useful there. We see it with meditation. It can't be the only practice. It can't be a fluke. Let's look! I'm trying to create a space for scientists and religious thinkers to put the questions that we can’t answer aside and let's work on what we can in a respectful way, and try to see what knowledge we can take from there. 

I mean, if you look at rituals for grieving, what those rituals have in them are things that science is only now discovering are some of the biggest predictors of moving through grief and in the most healthy way possible, et cetera. And so I think if we're a science that really wants to focus on making life better for people, we should treat this corpus of knowledge with respect - and that doesn't mean we have to buy the theology behind it, but we can examine it rather than dismiss it as just superstition, which is what a lot of the new atheists do. 

Now, that's different than saying, religion is always good. I'm not an apologist for religion. I think religion offers practices and techniques that can move the mind and body in lots of powerful ways - whether those are for good or for ill depends upon the motives of those using them. But it's kind of the same for science, right? Even Richard Dawkins will say, if you want to find the most efficient way to kill the most people, science is your friend. If you want to find a way to create vaccines to save you from a pandemic, science is your friend. So I think we need to treat religious practices, in some sense, in the same way.

JV: Great! Are there any specifically Catholic religious practices that you've looked at?


DD: One thing that we often look at is the idea of Ash Wednesday and Lent. What we know is that contemplating one's own death is a very useful way to help people to realign their values toward things that actually make them happy. This leverages Laura Carson's work, she studies aging - and what she shows is that as people age normally, about the time you're in your forties or your fifties, that's when happiness tends to hit its nadir - its lowest point, and then over time it begins to come back up. And the reason it comes back up is people begin to turn their attention and values toward things like connection and service, and away from things like, do I have the newest iphone? How do I get money for my vacation? How do I do well in my career? What Carson says is that this is not really a function of age, rather a function of time horizon to death, which normally tracks age. 

What we saw over the pandemic was that people were leaving their jobs and re-evaluating everything, and trying to find meaning and happiness and connection in their life because suddenly death seemed nearer to everyone. You had twenty and thirty year olds suddenly starting to show what they valued, similar to the way that people in their sixties and seventies and eighties do - which is this type of interpersonal connection. There's another set of data that shows that pursuing this interpersonal connection at any age leads to increased happiness. 

One thing in all religions is this notion of contemplating death. The Jews do it for Yom Kippur - Buddhists will meditate on death sometimes, even in front of corpses in certain practices - and in Catholics it's Ash Wednesday and in Judaism and Catholicism it comes at a time of reflecting on your life. So in Judaism between Roshashana and Yom Kippur the days of awe, there's this sense of it being a time for atonement. It's a time for reevaluating what's important and for making amends, and on both days the prayer - the Tokef is said - and it's a beautiful prayer, because part of it is asking “who's going to be here next year? And the next year? Who's going to perish from fire, from flood, from sword and from plague? Who is going to be here next year?”, and it motivates people to make that atonement and change their life on Yom Kippur. 

For Catholicism it's the same thing during Lent. Everybody thinks about it as if it's time for, “I gotta give up chocolate” right? That's not what it is. It's a time for spiritual self reflection and change. The idea of contemplating death starting with Ash Wednesday is kind of the kickstart to get you into that reevaluation period. It kind of shakes you up contemplating your death, and the priest says remember, from dust you've come to dust you will go. It's just the perfect psychological nudge to begin a reevaluation of what matters in your life. I think it's like saying prayers every day - Catholics gather to say grace before they have meals every day as blessings of gratitude. What we know from a lot of work is when people feel gratitude it changes what they do. It makes them again more generous, more kind, more helpful. In my lab, if I bring you in, and I say to you, “reflect on things you're grateful for” - some people will do it toward things about God, some people will do it for things in their family, et cetera, whatever it might be, but what we know is immediately after that they become a little more virtuous. So the more often you say these types of prayers, the better it's going to be for you in terms of building character and building connection, building well-being. The more often you experience gratitude, these things happen.

I think, even in terms of worship service - this is not my data, but that if Patty Van Cappellen, she's a psychologist who runs the behavioral lab at Duke - she studied Catholic parishes in France before and after mass; and what she found is that after mass, especially after the parts when we're all saying the same prayers - we're kneeling, we're standing, we're singing together, those are markers of motor synchrony - what she finds is that immediately after mass people report feeling less lonely, more interconnected with each other, and at least on self report measures, have intentions to be more generous and more prosocial. The analogy I often make is, we can do life hacks like motor synchrony, and it's like we're playing single notes, whereas when you look at rituals, they leverage a lot of things together, and it's like you're playing symphonies. There’s research, where they looked at motor synchrony on its own versus motor synchrony when you're singing religious hymns together or praying the rosary together, and the effects are magnified by adding those other elements on. 

I think in terms of grieving - we all do this, and it seems rather normal to us - when somebody passes away we come together, and we talk about the great things about them, we eulogize them and if you think about that it seems normal, but it's actually kind of weird. If I lost a job that I love, or my wife, who I love, decided to divorce me I wouldn't want to keep thinking about how wonderful they were, because that would make the pain all the worse. But we do it when somebody dies, and there's this wonderful data from George Bonanno, who is a bereavement and resilience researcher at Columbia, which shows that consolidating positive memories of someone who has passed is a big predictor of moving through grief in a more resilient way. When you think about grieving rituals, this is one huge element. There are lots of other elements as well - I think of the Jewish practice of Shiva that, I think, is the best as it layers a lot of things together. But when you see these things there's a wisdom to them. Some ritual elements are nonsense, but a lot of them have a wisdom built into them that work on our minds and our bodies to help us meet whatever challenges that we're facing.

MB: Excellent. I had a follow up question related to what you were just talking about, related to dealing with death and grief along with contemplating death independently of grief. What's the relationship between contemplation of death, and having some level of positive moral, personal psychological, or well being benefits, and your belief in an actual afterlife or sort of immortality. Is that a required thing? Is that an add-on? How does that modulate things? 

DD: If you look at the data, what they show is that a stronger belief in the afterlife predicts less anxiety about death, but it's not a strict linear relationship, there's actually a little bit of a “U” in it. People who believe in the afterlife are more comfortable, less anxious about death than atheists. But the people who are the most anxious about death aren’t atheists, they're the people who aren't sure, because they're the people who aren't, being very religious, but think there actually might be something like, “Whoa, maybe I'm not doing enough to ensure that I'm going to the right place?” And so those are the people who are worst off. But believing in an afterlife decreases anxiety about death. That aside, contemplating your own death and being comfortable with that leads to living in ways that lead you to be more interconnected with others and less ego-driven, which on a day to day basis makes you more happy. 

My best example is Thomas à Kempis, he would always say, never promise yourself that you're going to be here tomorrow and live your day like that. Ignatius Loyola had these exercises you could use when you need to make an important decision in your life. One of them is contemplating your own death. My favorite example of this is on my podcast - we have Father Jim Martin, who is a Jesuit, and he gives the example of he was at a really busy time in his life, and one of his friend’s father passed away. And he was like, “Do I really need to go to the funeral? I don't know, I'm so busy.” He said, I stopped in a minute, and I did the Ignatian exercises and I was thinking about my death. How would I feel if I were to die, looking back on this? What would be important? He's like, of course I have to go, right. Of course I have to go. Later on he was clear that he was putting my own ego aside for what I was doing working to be there for someone else and engaging in that service strengthens those relationships, makes things better. So yeah, it is true that belief in and afterlife does decrease anxiety about death. 

The other thing it does is that people who believe in a divine presence - something that has some guiding aspect to their lives, is often called surrender to God, and by surrender, I don't mean like you're a robot, just that you want to make the best decisions that are in your life, but you believe In some sense there is a guiding hand that is influencing things in your life for the better. People who score higher on that type of measure of surrender toward God have much less anxiety and much less depression in life, and part of it is related to decision fatigue. Having some options is better than having no options, but having twenty-seven types of sauce you can put on your sandwich sometimes is a problem, because which one is the best? You want to maximize things! There's data on choice fatigue where people are always trying to maximize things in a more realistic sense, you're thinking about you or your child's health outcomes, and there are all these different options you can choose from, and you're trying to think what's the best option? And this doctor says this and another doctor says that: how do I choose the right one? Am I going to regret it if I don't choose the right one? 

If you have this belief that you're going to do your best and that you're going to give it up to God and that there is, in fact, some hand that's guiding this, it actually decreases your anxiety and your regret about those types of decisions, which on a daily basis is useful. There there's work by a neuroscientist Michael Inzlicht, at the University of Toronto, where he shows that increased faith in a God who can intervene and help you in your life - when people are confronted with decisions, action on a neuroscientific level - they show less anxiety, what you see is less of the kind of alarm bell reaction about, “this might go wrong!” and it's the same brain centers that Xanax calms as well. The same centers that increased belief calms in people, are the same centers that Xanax targets. So what you're seeing in some sense is belief basically helping you deal with the anxieties of modern life. Now, that part, I think, is separate from a lot of the others that I talk about in the book, which is the way these practices leverage kind of mind-body interactions, and that those can be extracted without the belief, but that's not to say that belief on its own doesn't have beneficial outcomes for people.

MB: Based on what you've just said related to belief in an afterlife and believing that there's some higher power guiding things that happen to you or around you in your favor - those would be difficult things to replicate in a secular environment, right? So in other words, you can go to a book club and contemplate death and you can have all sorts of prosocial interactions with people. You can do the singing and the synchronized body movements. You can do all of those things, but you're not going to get the metaphysical belief stuff that seems to be an added benefit. Is that accurate?


DD: That’s right - it raises two questions. One is, how well will it work without adopting the metaphysical beliefs that are attached to it. The second is, are we dealing with, ethically, some type of religious appropriation. That's a problem. If you're Catholic, I don't want to say, “Here, say these Jewish prayers and you'll feel better” right, and so on. So regarding the appropriation part, what I think is useful is, we never want to take the theology or the symbology or the metaphysical beliefs of a religion, and try and apply it to another. But if you look at lots of religions, there are lots of elements that are shared. Most religions have contemplative practices. We just happen to know about the Buddhist ones because they were popularized. But there are similar elements in Judaism, in Christianity that can be extracted. There are elements of doing things together in groups, whether it's motor synchrony that we were talking about, and other things that can easily be extracted without taking the metaphysical beliefs. Now one of the questions is, will they work as well? And from that one set of papers on motor synchrony, what we see is you can get a benefit in synchronous activity, but it's not as strong as it would be without the metaphysical elements added to it. It's not as good. We're taking that symphony that I talked about as a ritual and breaking out pieces. How much can we break out? I think there's a lot of shared elements that are owned by any religion, and I don't view that as appropriation.

The question about beliefs is an interesting one. 

Let me give you my example on grieving again, because I think it's a really good one. We talked about eulogizing, and how that's common to lots of religions. If you look at the Jewish practice of Shiva, which is their mourning ritual, it's a seven day period over which there are very prescribed things that you have to do. One is you must - it's not like, if you feel like it - you must. It's a commandment - go to the houses of the people who are bereaved for visits over those seven days. The community has to go. You have to bring them food. You have to help them out in certain ways. This is what's called instrumental support. It's one of the biggest predictors of moving through grief in a healthy way, from the scientific data. 

I was Catholic, and we have our wake, and then, after we have a funeral, then maybe somebody brings something by your house after, but it's not really mandated, as is in the Jewish tradition, that in the seven day period that you're almost never alone, and people are doing things for you. That's one of the biggest predictors of moving through grief. They cover the mirrors in the house. They also do this at Irish Catholic wakes - it's not regular Catholic wakes, but Irish Catholic wakes. But why the hell do they cover mirrors? Well, there's scientific data showing that when a person looks into a mirror, whatever emotion they are feeling becomes amplified. So if you're happy, look in the mirror, you feel happy, right? Covering mirrors is one way, one small way to reduce the grief that people are feeling. 

Mourners are not supposed to shave. They're not supposed to worry about what they're wearing or their personal appearance. We know that self-focus increases grief. Anything you can do to reduce self-focus, decreases grief, and so again wearing clothes that they tear up, Judaism, and they tear it to ribbons as a simple form of now focusing on appearance. You're not worried about how you're looking and reducing self-focus. They sit on low stools or on the ground, and what you'll know is biomechanically, if you're sitting on the floor or on very low stools, it's uncomfortable for your knees and back. The mourners do this, and they get up to meet people to come in. So what you're doing is having frequent onsets and offsets of minor discomfort. There's new neuroscience work that shows increases in onsets and offsets of minor discomfort, reduced grief and rumination. Again, there's the logical reason for why they're doing this, but why are they really doing it? Probably because I think they found that it's a simple life hack that reduces grief and rumination. You have to have every day, a couple of times a day, a minion - a group of ten people - come to your house where you say these prayers together and chat them together. There is motor synchrony happening in a group. What does that do? It increases compassion, empathy, and feelings of support. What you can see in these rituals - they seem like this weird stuff put together, but if you look at them, at least part of the elements - are a package that is designed to leverage mind, body mechanisms to help people meet the challenges that they're facing. And so, are you going to say Jewish prayers? No. But do you want to schedule times and people are going to come over seven days and do things for your house? Might you come together and have set up remembrances of people where you might sing the deceased’s favorite song together or do things together? Yeah. So there are ways, I think, that you can adapt these things without disrespecting the theological tradition from which they come.

JV:  That's great. So I had a question about explanations for all of this. Michael and I were talking before we hopped on the call about at least three different explanations. As a Catholic, I might say, well, this isn't too surprising, because I believe I'm made in the image of God or I'm hardwired for God. There are different ways of talking about this, but I was made to worship God. So the fact that engaging in acts of worship is going to be psychologically beneficial, is not particularly surprising. And, in fact, you might even make the argument. This is evidence for that outlook, right? So that's one explanation. You could have a different explanation that sort of reverses the chicken and egg, and you say, no, you've got these psychologically beneficial practices, so it's no surprise that religions are going to endorse these and pick them up as they go, because over the course of centuries they fine-tune what's going to be beneficial for human beings psychologically. The third one we were talking about is maybe it's all placebo right? 


MB:  A placebo interpretation could be applied when you wanted to say something like, the Judeo-Christian God made us and wants us all to be happy, and so doing things that engage with the Judeo-Christian God are things that are beneficial to us. But that's clearly only kind of true, because the same thing occurs, I assume, among Muslim populations and Buddhist populations and Hindu populations, and what that means is that that's one definition of how a placebo works. It's like the action of taking a pill, for instance, regardless of what's in the pill, is the thing that’s beneficial. 


DD: Well yes and no. The first two that you raised I completely agree that one can make the argument either way, and there's no way that science is going to be able to disentangle those. 

JV: So that's why you put your hands up and say you can't do that in the lab, not going to not going to test it.

DD:  What's the test of God? The fingerprints of God? People say, well, you say a prayer, and God doesn't answer, it doesn't give you what you want, but that assumes that you know the mind of God - maybe God has a reason why God doesn't want to do what you ask God to do, right? Unless we know the mind of God, there's no real test that I can run. Is God a theistic god? A deistic God where it’s like, I created the world and now you're running on your own? We don't know. And so there's no real science without knowing God's mind that I can test. 

JV:  So the chicken and egg one you're going to say. You really can't tell which came from.


DD: I can’t tell! And I think we have to respect each other's priors on those, because if we don't, then we can't work together on the stuff that is here, and the thing I like about the Catholic church is that it's willing to engage in the science of stuff. Let's leave the theological questions aside - we don't know. But if these practices make life better for people, let's study them. And why is that interesting? Well, there are a lot of Catholics who don't do all the practices that the Church recommends. And so, if I say to you, I can show you scientific data on how doing these things helps you, maybe you want to do them, and maybe it's because God cares about you and gave you the tools to do it. I don't know. I can't tell you that. But let's think about it. But because we fight over that which is not answerable, it prevents scientists and believers from engaging more deeply. 

The placebo thing, on one level, I agree with you in the sense that the Jews have practices that work for them, the Buddhist, the practices that work for them, and so on. However you think of God, if you're going to say, “only my God is right,” then it seems really weird that the other practices work for those people. If you believe that God comes to different people in different ways, and can accept that belief, then it kind of works. But it's not placebo in the sense of the really broad sense. So placebo is - you come into my lab, and I tap your head with something and pour liquid on you, and suddenly you feel better. We know that there's lots of data that shows that this will cause different types of healing. But there is wisdom to these things (religious practices) that the things that are chosen are not random. That is, I could have covered my TV set, but I'm covering my mirror. I’m not covering my table, I’m covering my mirror, I'm reducing self-focus. 

We know that makes people feel better. I could have had them sit on high chairs that are comfortable rather than low chairs, I mean just highlight the opposites of these things. We know saying the rosary, for example or engaging in that type of where, alters the breathing rate of people. It slows the breathing rate. Same thing happens for chanting. But we see it in rosary recitations also. It reduces the respiration rate which calms the body and puts the body in a state of relaxation and openness to things. There's another great thing I want to relate to you regarding Catholicism. It’s about where we embody ourselves. There's a study that shows if you give people information that they're not sure about the answer to, and you try and convince them of facts, and you present it on a TV screen at eye level, below eye level, or above eye level, there is a slight increase for them to accept facts that they don't know about things if it is presented above eye level. The idea is because biologically within us, higher, higher up means higher status. And so when you are in Church, you're kneeling, the Priest is up on a dais. It's a slight increase that whatever they're saying is going to be taken with a little bit more willingness because of how we're embodying those vertical distances. It's things like that. 

So it's placebo across religions, maybe, but within a faith, it's not totally placebo, because what we're doing is leveraging the biology of the body and the mind to increase the efficacy of what the outcome is. So if I just chose elements randomly for you to do in a ritual they would not be as effective.

MB:  Excellent! So that answers that question for me. So there is something interesting that's happening in that these things seem to work across faiths, but the rituals themselves are not random. There's some signal there. 


DD:  There's a signal there, so if you buy that, and there's data for that so it's hard not to buy, what you have to then believe is that God gave this to all of its creatures, and some religions are using them, but maybe they've got part of the message, or that God comes different people in different ways. It's hard to answer that. So if you said to me, “Dave, does one religion have it right in terms of the mechanisms of making life better?” I would say no. What you see is a major confluence of a lot of different types. A lot of religions use rituals that use contemplation. They use contemplation of death, use meditation, use synchrony, use all of these things. Some package them a little more efficaciously than others. But there's not one that does everything right that you could say. “Oh, God gave them the secret sauce to make it make it the best.” Does that complicate your beliefs about the theology that you ascribe to you? I don't know - that's up to each person.


MB:  This is super fascinating. Here's a question for the common person. As a common person who has worked in the service industry when I was a young man, one of the things that feels a little bit weird about your research - and I'm not disputing your research at all - but one of the things that does feel weird about it, though, is, if you've ever worked as a server or you've worked in the service industry. One of the absolute worst times to work is Sunday afternoon after church lets out because the people that you interact with are typically miserable. Have you heard of this before?


DD:  No! It’s interesting! So, I talk about in the book, there is this data that actually shows that, and it's not universal, what you see is, if you measure certain types of virtues you see effects. So, for example, there are areas of the country that are more religious than non-religious areas of the country. And I don't know how they got this data, but if you look at porn download rates they are no different, except on Sunday. On Sunday when they go to mass, it is lower. If you look at donations to charity, what you find is that right after mass people are more willing to donate to charity - This is related to Patty Van Cappellen’s work. Also in Islam right after hearing the call to services, shopkeepers give more donations right then than they do other times. There’s research work where, if you have people play behavioral economic games, and you have to play them in a church or in a restaurant they give more money when they're playing in a church than when they're playing in a restaurant, so I don't know how to square that with what you're saying about in the service industry people are more miserable. Are they just unhappy, or do they actually give lower tips, or they're just grumpy, or what across the board? 


MB:  Across the board, but tips are notoriously terrible. People tend to be rude and mean.


JV:  Is this personal experience? 


MB:  It is both personal experience, and it is totally anecdotal. But if you go ask people, it's common wisdom in the service industry. You never want to work the Sunday afternoon shift, because it's a bad gig.


DD:  That’s interesting although one thing that I need to know that would make this different is, so there's this thing called licensing in psychology. If people just gave money at church, then they're going to be less likely to give after church, because the idea is if I've just been good, now I don't have to be good for the rest of the day?


MB: Could there be some type of moral othering or condescension like, “I was busy doing good stuff, and now I have to go interact with these secular workers.”

DD: It could be. It could be because they don’t see you as a charitable case. It's not like I'm giving to St. Jude's Hospital, or something. So maybe so. I'm not discounting this, but there are data that being in a church, hearing calls to prayer, makes people download, porn less and give more money to certain things. But it could be that there's something different about, have they just given? Because in most Christian services you give money there, and then you may give money less afterward. I'm not sure why they're miserable, though that's the interesting part! 


MB: Who knows? This could be a regional thing as well. Related to this on a larger scale - you’ve probably interacted with these data before - the relationship between happiness and well-being indices looking at religiosity across countries. When you're looking at, like the Scandinavian countries, sort of tipping the scales as some of the happiest or best thriving societies, but also the least religious - what's going on there?


DD: There is a relation. I saw the most recent metaanalysis there. There is a small relation, it's not huge. Almost everywhere we look there is a relationship between religiosity - where that means being engaged in your religion, not just do I self identify, if you're a Christmas Catholic, it's not going to predict much if you're going regularly at that. So there's a modest relationship. It's clearly not going to overrule economics and everything else. And so in some senses the Scandinavian thing doesn't bother me because yes, they are secular, but they have entirely different economic and safety net systems and all of this, so I don't think anybody would say - anybody reasonable - that religiosity is an exceedingly strong predictor of happiness and well being, but it is a modest predictor, and so there is a relationship there. The question would be within those countries, do we find differences? I know within the USA you do and within some of the other countries you do. I don't know if there's data within those [secular] countries of people who are more religious showing more happiness. 

The effect is even stronger when you look at physical health. So this is data from Harvard School of Public Health and the Mayo Clinic, from lots of places. What they find is that with increasing degrees of active religiosity, engagement with your faith, you find decreased anxiety, decreased depression, better cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, lower morbidity overall, controlling for all the other health issues you have going on, and even decreased rate from death and despair. So there clearly is something there, and this brings you back to your point you raised earlier, which is when you say, can we secularize these things and do them outside a belief system? People oftentimes try to create groups like that, and they typically don't last, and they fall apart. And the reason, I think, is because they're not only jettisoning the religious aspect, but they're jettisoning the wisdom of those other practices that are built into it to build communities. 

You could bring people together and say, Okay, let's get together and talk about X, Y or Z, or whatever. But you're not having those other elements where the synchrony that evokes those emotions or other things that those rituals do. And I think that's part of the reason why they fail. You know, if you bring people together. So you're seeing this now. I don't know the literature that well, but things like SoulCycle and other groups that bring people together - they're doing these kinds of ritualistic things together without an overriding theology. I think those are the things that from the bottom up, build the connection between people. And when you just say, let's have a group get together, and it doesn't work as well as a religion, well part of it, maybe because you don't have this overriding belief system, but part of it, maybe because you also aren't, incorporating these other elements of these practices that lead to those increases in solidarity and and beneficial outcomes in these types of groups. And so, my argument again is, let's see what of those practices we can take in a responsible way and incorporate different ways to bring people together and increase health and well-being.


MB:  Do you think it would be possible for someone to build a new sort of religion, or a new, social order, or a group that incorporates all of this stuff that works and then jettisons all the stuff that doesn't?


DD: In theory, yeah? But who knows? In theory it is another thing. But I think that's what people are trying to do. 2020 was the first year since Gallup started studying it, that the majority of people in the US didn't report belonging to a church, synagogue, temple, or a mosque. But the people who are leaving faith, most of them aren't becoming atheists. They say, I still have this urge, this desire to be spiritual, just due to the institutional failings of these institutions I don't want to be a part of them, or they're not speaking to me. And so there's this desire to be spiritual. The fascinating thing is, this paper came out by Daniel Yudkin and Molly Crockett and colleagues, and we're just doing this in my podcast now, about Burning Man. People think that Burning Man is, let's go party in the desert and do drugs and have sex. And yeah for some people that's what it is. But for a lot of people it's a fundamentally altering experience. So in this data they looked at about 1200 people, and what they found is when people were at Burning Man, many of them reported having fundamentally transformative experiences, that they felt a deeper connection to something larger than themselves, and sure that was amplified among those who took psychedelics, but even among those who didn’t, it was there. 

What you found is that six months later, when they found these people again, they were still reporting that, and they were reporting that they were still more so. Burning man runs on what’s called the gift economy, which is, everybody has to give something without the expectation for return. So everybody was a lot more generous there. So like, if you do - do you guys know what the dictator game is? It's an economic game where you get some money and you can give as much as you want, and normally, what people tend to do is they keep about seventy percent for themselves, of whatever money they're given, and they give thirty percent away because they feel like they have to give something otherwise they're going to be viewed as the jerk. 

At Burning Man, it inverted. The mean giveaway was sixty-two percent, and the mean keeping to yourself was thirty-eight percent, which is a pretty wild finding! But those people six months later, were also still reporting being more generous, feeling more connected and fundamentally changed in their lives. There's reasons why that is so. Burning Man, it's kind of like a right of passage. You're in this place where it's incredibly inhospitable. Your outcomes are really dependent on people. Some bring ice, some bring food. Some bring this, and everybody needs to cooperate for that city to work. And you can throw off your old roles and people wear different clothes and they use different names. And so it's kind of like this liminal space, kind of like a right of passage where you can kind of reformulate yourself. And people are just reporting that you're seeing the same thing with psychedelics, right? Seventy percent of them reported it was the one of the five biggest experiences in their lives.

MB: There's some absolutely crazy research on PTSD and other disorders as well related to psychedelics. 

DD:  Oh, sure, yeah! A lot of traditional indigenous religions use these things. What they have built around them are a set of rituals. And so when you take ayahuasca or you do psychedelics in indigenous cultures, there is a Shaman who guides you and helps you make sense of it. There's a lot of chanting and singing, which is that breathing which puts you in a calm state. So when I talk to Michael Pollan about this, he said, you know I've had a wonderful trip, and I've had a terrifying trip, and the thing that differentiates them is having the scaffolding around you, so that you feel like you are in a safe space, because when that ego-death comes, if you don't feel safe, it can be terrifying. 

At [Johns] Hopkins, where they're doing a lot of this work, they have a guide sit with you during it as a shaman would, who, if you start to have this weird experience, will offer you a hand, will calm you down, afterward helps you what they call reintegrate to make sense of the visions that you saw. They're not just leaving you alone, and they have good outcomes. But you know twenty percent of trips when people are left alone, go bad because they don't have the ritual scaffolding. And so again, what I'm arguing is, you can take part of the elements out, but if you don't take the other parts that go with it, you're potentially losing the safeguards and things that make these things happen right. So, can you take things like Burning Man, for which there's no theology on top of it at all, but it uses elements that are related to many types of spiritual practice, whether it's psychedelic rituals, or whether it's these limited rituals where you remove you to a space where the norms of daily life are are eviscerated, and we depend on each other, and there's a temple of Burning Man where people come together and talk about things you know. 

So. Sorry - long-winded answer. Can you do it? Probably. This is what you've got to give respect to and to the wisdom that's come before and not try and just recreate something out of whole cloth.

JV:  I was really curious about the religious person who says, yeah, I'm not surprised to get psychological benefits from my practices, and it's great to know, and maybe I even have an explanation for why I think that's the case. But that's not the point, right? The point is rather that you know, I think, that this puts me in touch with reality, or that this really is true in some way. Maybe you even have the person who says, you know a lot of times these religious practices actually led to really bad outcomes. And you know, the first couple of hundred years of Christianity, those people's lives were not long, and they were sure there's all sorts of examples where some religious practice actively puts believers in peril. I have a feeling I know what you're going to say here, but I was just wondering about the person who says, Actually, these practices shorten my life, and they're really not psychologically beneficial. But I still do them.


DD:  A few things: One harkens back to what I said before is that you can think of these as powerful tools to move the mind, and if the Pope is using these to kind of get you to commit pogroms or to go on crusades, that's a problem. If they're using them to increase your belief that whatever the priest says is right, and they're going to abuse you that's wrong. So I think it depends upon what the intent is that they're used for, which is an institutional question when you're talking about institutional faith, or even individuals on their own - are they using this to try and control people? But on the whole, there's two ways these practices work. There are the practices that are there to kind of make your life better. They will make you healthier. They will make you happier. They'll help you deal with grief and stress, and all these things in that sense you can think that they're divinely given and this is why you do them. And why, if you're not doing all of them, why you might want to adopt some, if science shows they're beneficial.

But the other is there's also practices where you say, what's the point? So if the point is to be a better person in the world, then God is giving you these practices to help you be more virtuous. I talked about how things like gratitude makes people more generous and honest. Contemplative practices make people more kind and make people more compassionate. There's empirical data on that. There's another set of practices that actually increase your ability to connect with God, right. And these are the things that kind of lead to kind of those mystical practices. There's a whole set of Catholic meditative practices that aren't talked to the laity, and I don't know why, but they're not. If you look at St. Teresa's descriptions of of meditation, her contemplative practice, she will go through this period first, where you feel this burning love of God, and then you go into kind of merging into this, this quietness, but this merging with what they call the the Godhead, and that's the same in other religion and other meditative practices, too, it’s this merging with something greater than you. 

There are ways to see that deeper connection with God through some of these practices. Some are to live a better life, be healthier, be happier, be a better person, and some are also to have a deeper connection with God. If you want to do this, some of those are emphasized more in some traditions. They're often not in some of the traditions like Judaism and Catholicism. There's a cynical argument for why, they’re not because people - I don't know how true it is - people who have those direct mystical experiences with God, in some sense people believe that allows you to kind of get around the power structure of the Church that says “I'm your conduit” if you can have your own personal experiences. But there are roles that you can do that even within the Church itself. And I think for people who have those experiences, they are life altering for people. I'm doing this episode now on people who hear or feel God, and it's changed their life course, and for evangelical traditions, there's this thing where you cultivate it. It's called learning how to listen for God. So you regularly talk to God. You sit down every morning, you have your cup of coffee and you put out a cup of coffee for God. God wants to hear what you're doing that day, and what you begin to do is to listen - to expect that there'll be an answer. And among some people those answers come. Mormons have this thing called feeling the spirit.

MB:  The burning in the bosom. 

DD:  Yeah, exactly! And that's a marker that God is there. Michael Ferguson, who was the first scientist to study spirituality, has scanned Mormons when they do this, and they feel this. I don't know how to get them to do it inside an MRI machine, and what he finds is among some of the centers that it lights up in the brain is the reward center, and so it encourages people to want to continue to do this, not as a high and like getting a drug, but as in, “this is a good thing, and when I follow these practice it's rewarding to me,” and then those practices are also ones that typically make them more moral and kind to other people. So again, it's leveraging these things. In Catholicism we often don't talk about that as much, and I'm not sure why those one to one direct experiences of God aren't there, but you see them in the lives of the Saints. And there are practices that are done, but I don't know why they're not as much from the center.


JV: Dave, I think Michael and I both have tons more questions for you, but we want to be respectful of your time. Thanks a ton for taking the time to chat with us here! 


David DeSteno

David DeSteno is Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, where his research focuses on how emotions guide moral, economic, and social decisions. He is also the author of several books, including How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion, and host of a PRX podcast of the same name. In addition to his scientific writing, he is a frequent contributor to outlets including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post.

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