Psychologists and neuroscientists are discovering what followers of religion have intuitively understood for thousands of years — that taking part in religious rituals and practices makes life better for participants.

In his 2021 book, “How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion,” David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, distills the results of decades of scientific research to explain the invaluable contributions that religions make to personal health and communal well-being. This simply written, but profoundly insightful, volume is, in the words of one reviewer, one that “even an atheist can love.”

DeSteno helps us to understand the false dichotomy between science and religion — the misconception that these two worldviews are necessarily incompatible. He also helps explain why religion, which can be deployed in ways that cause immense human suffering, contributes so much to alleviate suffering.

It’s obvious, even in today’s so-called enlightened world, that many acts performed in the name of religion are simply cruelty masquerading as piety.

Consider, for instance: the insistence of Hamas, an offshoot of the Islamic Brotherhood, that Israel should cease to exist as a Jewish state; calls by extremist political elements of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewry to expel Palestinians from Gaza and repopulate it with Jewish settlers; the decision by conservative American Catholic clergy to deny the sacraments to gay and trans-sexual congregants; the execution of two people in Iran in 2023 on charges of blasphemy for posting online comments critical of Islam; and the murder, rape and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims by the military government of Buddhist Myanmar.

Yet to reject religion outright because of depredations such as these would be tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.


According to DeSteno, if we remove the “isms,” which create narrow, intolerant views about the nature of God, “from the day-to-day practice of religious faith,” the wall between science and religion and the antagonism between adherents of different religions largely evaporate.

What’s left are what the author calls “spiritual technologies,” effective rituals developed by human trial and error over millennia, “to regulate our beliefs, our behaviors, and our bonds with others.” These “help us experience joy, manage pain, persevere toward difficult goals, and bounce back from painful losses.”

Spiritual technologies may consist, among other things, in “the repetition of prayer, the stillness of contemplation, the joining of hands in celebration or sorrow, the dancing, singing, writhing and swaying.” Their constant repetition “nudges” or “tweaks” the mind into certain positive ways of thinking and habits of behavior. In other words, the regular practice of religion, rather than mere identification with religious dogma, makes us more successful humans.

DeSteno gives many examples of the ways that science has been able to experimentally measure the benefits of religious rituals in boosting the chances of success during all major passages of life.

For example, various studies have demonstrated that being religiously active reduces alcoholism and smoking, lowers blood pressure, lessens feelings of loneliness and increases life expectancy.

Traditional naming ceremonies, post-pregnancy confinement, and co-religionist alloparenting have been shown to reduce the incidence of post-partem depression, increase couples’ willingness to bear more children, and enhance parental success in raising children.


Why does this happen? DeSteno offers a number of reasons.

By providing a framework for making moral choices, religion reduces the often anxiety-provoking ordeal of running through the “what if” mental simulations involved in trying to select the best of myriad options which offer the greatest chance of future success and makes a person more accepting of the outcome if the choice leads to an unfavorable outcome.

Taking part in religious rituals builds social bonds, the all-important connections that people need for sound mental health. “Shared rituals provide the heat to break the social ice or solder a social tie.”

Rituals also play a therapeutic role in helping to prevent disease by encouraging healthy lifestyles such as abstention from alcohol and in speeding recovery from illness by instilling the belief that God is a healing force, while faith in divine assistance and purpose can reduce the pain associated with disease and help people face their own mortality.

One of the most fascinating areas explored by DeSteno, under the rubric of “Mystics, Monastics and Mushrooms,” is how religions have aided the quest of individuals to seek an “intimate bond with the divine” through practices that “break the chains of mundane, normal reality” and “sense the universe in its grand, vast totality.” Practices used to attain this mystical state, such as intense meditation and rites involving the ingestion of psychoactive drugs, are finding increasing acceptance in conventional medical care.

Perhaps, then, members of Gen “Y” and “Z,” who so ardently seek “connection,” would be well advised to try the real-world space of religious communities rather than the illusory one of digital communities.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Shukie & Segovias in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 17 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: