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May 1, 2023

The Science of Religion and Spirituality: New Explorations

Religion and spirituality might have more to offer to our contemporary world than is commonly assumed.

By Bonnie Zahl

In a new Request for Proposals (RFP), Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) seeks to award a total of up to $3 million for research that will advance our knowledge of how religious and spiritual exercises contribute to flourishing-related outcomes. Get detailed information about the RFP here.

Most people consider the study of religion to be the province of theologians and priests, and religious beliefs, teachings, and practices only meaningful and useful to the practitioner of the faith. With a basis in ancient texts, oral traditions, and centuries or millennia of tradition, religion is often considered as a fundamentally conservative force. Rarely, if ever, does a secular person or institution think of religion as a resource, or as a source for innovation in our contemporary work, social, or personal contexts. Yet religion and spirituality might have more to offer to our contemporary world than is commonly assumed. 

Religion is complex and multifaceted, but psychologists generally agree that the world’s main religions share a few common dimensions. To be religious entails believing in a transcendent entity; bonding in a self-transcendent and emotional manner with others and with a deeper reality; behaving in certain ways that conform to specific norms; and belonging to a particular community or tradition. Spirituality, on the other hand, is sometimes defined as the search for the sacred, which can happen in private and individualised, or in public and communal contexts, within or outside of religious frames.

Templeton World Charity Foundation seeks to encourage open-minded scientific inquiry about religion and spirituality and their impact on individuals and societies. By acknowledging the immense motivating power of religion and spirituality on human lives throughout our history, the foundation encourages scholars and practitioners to explore and learn more about the implications of religious and spiritual disciplines on well-being and on flourishing. 

Over the course of hundreds and thousands of years, religions have developed and refined sets of behaviours and strategies that help people to cope with life, and orient them to something deeper, more meaningful, and more profound than their day-to-day experiences. These strategies can range from systems of social and material support through religious communities, to individual and group activities that can support the mental and physical health and wellbeing of individuals.

Consider, as an example, the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an element of one of the eight Buddhist paths to enlightenment and has been a spiritual discipline for Buddhists over thousands of years. Over the past four decades, mindfulness has become integrated into modern clinical psychology and psychotherapy, and scientific research has provided evidence of its positive impact on mental health and well-being. It is now a firm fixture in contemporary health and wellness industries, and thousands, even millions, of people are likely to have experienced improved mental and physical health because of it.

In his book Why We Need Religion, philosopher Stephen Asma notes that scholars often draw a sharp distinction between essentialist and functionalist approaches to religion. Put simply, an essentialist approach is concerned with what religion is about — its beliefs, doctrines, rituals — while a functionalist approach is concerned with what those aspects of religion do for people. The lived reality of religion and of spirituality, however, does not draw such a sharp divide about what religion is about and what it does for people.

Spiritual practices have evolved in ways that cannot (and should not) be easily divorced from the beliefs associated with them, which provide meaning and integrity to the things that people do in their lives. In seeking to understand the practices and disciplines that are informed by people’s religious beliefs and worldviews, and by understanding what their impacts are and why and how they make a difference, we can deepen our understanding of how we can change mentally, physically, and spiritually. We may even be able to find creative ways to make these helpful practices more widespread, relevant, and helpful to more people. 

We began engaging with this topic in a convening in autumn 2020 between scientists and religious scholars with a simple question: how can we do good empirical science on religious and spiritual exercises while respecting the authenticity and integrity of these practices?  What can religious and spiritual exercises tell us about how to well and flourish in our world today? What can we learn from the scientific study of religious and spiritual disciplines that would be valuable and accessible to people with and without religious, faith, or spiritual backgrounds?

We are still in the early stages of exploring this. That said, there are already researchers working with practitioners to engage with exactly these questions in a real world setting. TWCF has partnered with Sacred Design Lab to explore how to foster the most effective partnerships between practitioners and researchers. 

Learn more about our Science of Religious and Spiritual Exercises priority.

Bonnie Zahl is the Principal Advisor for TWCF's Big Questions in Classrooms, and also provides consultation to the foundation on other areas of grantmaking. She is a Senior Research Coordinator at the University of Oxford.