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55 MIN READ TIME

What Can Science Learn from Religion?

ON SUNDAY FEBRUARY 3 THE NEW YORK TIMES RAN an Opinion Editorial by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, Boston who “studies the ways in which emotions guide decisions and behaviors fundamental to social living.” The essay (https://nyti.ms/2HUN2CQ) argues that scientists have much to learn from religious traditions because they “offer a rich store of ideas about what human beings are like and how they can satisfy their deepest moral and social needs.” Referencing Richard Dawkins, DeSteno quotes him out of context, writing: “a vocal critic of religion has said that in listening to and debating theologians, he has ‘never heard them say anything of the smallest use.’ Yet it is hubristic to assume that religious thinkers who have grappled for centuries with the workings of the human mind have never discovered anything of interest to scientists studying human behavior.” DeSteno continues: Just as ancient doesn’t always mean wise, it doesn’t always mean foolish. The only way to determine which is the case is to put an idea—a hypothesis—to an empirical test. In my own work, I have repeatedly done so. I have found that religious ideas about human behavior and how to influence it, though never worthy of blind embrace, are sometimes vindicated by scientific examination.

Religious ideas that lead to testable hypotheses, DeSteno proposes, include: meditation (to reduce suffering and increase moral behavior), ritual (leading to greater self-control), and virtues such as gratitude and kindness. He also praises the Jewish practice of Shabbat, which “stems from a divine command for a day of rest and includes ritualistic actions and prayers. But it’s also a cultural practice in which people take time out from the daily grind to focus on family, friends and other things that matter more than work.” While explaining “I am no apologist for religion,” DeSteno concludes: “Science and religion do not need each other to function, but that doesn’t imply that they can’t benefit from each other.”

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