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Apr 24, 2022

Science, Religion and Spirituality with Professor Kenneth Pargament (podcast)

A leading psychologist says studying the science of spiritual exercises may help foster human flourishing.

By Templeton Staff

This episode is a discussion of the intersections of religion, spirituality, and science, with Dr. Kenneth Pargament, Professor Emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University. Pargament's internationally-acclaimed work addresses the relationship between health and faith. Research into the science behind spiritual and religious practices might be helpful in deepening human healthcare, ameliorating suffering, and ultimately fostering flourishing says the Professor.

"Religion and spirituality do contain, I believe, gold nuggets, that can be mined more efficiently and effectively, and brought to bear on people in their lives," shares Pargament. "And scientists can play a really important part in that."

Throughout the conversation, Pargament offers insights into what motivates humans to seek spirituality or religion, what is the difference between the two, and how both support health and well-being. He shares aspects of his studies, including a look at how cultivating "sacred moments" can have the same power as PTSD, but in a positive way.

How science is examining spirituality

 Pargament's extensive body of research explores ways religion may be helpful or harmful when people face major life crises — deaths, natural disasters, divorce, injuries, life-threatening substance abuse, or other adversity. Some of the religious coping methods Pargament has studied have been tied to lower levels of distress, anxiety, and depression. They’ve also been linked to higher levels of reports of growth, personal change and transformation, stronger relationships, and feelings of finding meaning and purpose in life. "Science goes further, though, and helps in identifying what is it about religious or spiritual life that may be helpful to people? Or conversely, what is it about religious and spiritual life that may be harmful to people?"

Pargament reminds that science goes beyond intuitions, subjectivity, or personal opinion, and puts information "to test in ways that may lead to answers that surprise us.' That’s the key to being a scientist. Science rests on that capacity to be surprised and changed by whatever we may find."


Science rests on that capacity to be surprised and changed by whatever we may find.


He continues: "Science can’t tell you whether one set of religious beliefs and commitment is better than another. Science can’t prove ultimate questions such as, is there life after death? Science can, though, look at the footprints left by faith — the implications of your beliefs and your practices, your relationships, your sacred partnerships, and look at the implications for your health and well-being. And on the basis of that, maybe suggest to you that there may be some ways to foster your spiritual life and your health and well-being more generally," explains Pargament. "What science shouldn’t do, is be disrespectful of religious and spiritual life. We’re in no position to deride or derogate anyone’s most core beliefs and practices. They’re part of what makes us interesting and human and alive. And science has no place in being anything other than, I believe, respectful and curious and interested to learn more."

In today's world, the structures of community and spirituality are rapidly changing. "In Western culture," observes Pargament "we’re seeing a movement away from many of our traditional institutions, not just religious institutions, but also family life, political life, kind of a shift away from being part of something larger than ourselves to being more focused on ourselves individually. We’re, in some ways, trying to find ways to become all things within ourselves... These personal forms of spirituality, you could argue that they’re actually the beginnings of a new form of organized religion, because we’re seeing that people with these very individualized forms of spirituality want to come together to form groups, because there’s this yearning, I think, to do things as a group, as a community, as a collective. So we may be witnessing the developments of churches of the unchurched, of groups of people who are coming together to form non-traditional spiritual communities."

Does spiritual content enhance the benefits of exercises like meditation?

The trend of moving towards more individualized spiritualities has seen many people get involved in meditative programs, or yoga to seek out a relationship with the sacred in their lives. One of the big questions this brings to mind for Pargament is whether or not the spiritual character of these exercises magnifies their helpful value. Pargament and his colleague Amy Wachholtz examined this question. Wachholtz ran an experiment to see if it made a difference whether one meditates to an explicitly spiritual mantra "God is peace. God is love." or a secularized mantra, such as "Grass is green. Sand is soft." The study was performed among people experiencing chronic pain and found that participants who had been trained to follow the spiritual mantra experienced dramatically greater gains in their ability to reduce and tolerate pain. They also reduced their dependence on analgesic medication.

The importance of community to the intersection of religion, spirituality, and science

"We need to come together to share our perspectives, and to develop a greater appreciation for religious life," shares Pargament. "And people in religious and spiritual communities need to develop an appreciation for what science can offer. The territory is so rich and multi-layered and multi-dimensional, people are religious and spiritual in so many ways, that no one scientist, no one practitioner can possibly grasp it... We need the perspectives of scientists and clergy and lay leaders and grassroots people. And we need people who represent different religious traditions, including people who are agnostics and atheists, to all come together to try to make sense of this amazing aspect of human nature."

Read the transcript from the interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay, presented by writer/producer Tavia Gilbert, which features Dr. Kenneth Pargament, Professor Emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University. He was recently cited as “One of 50 Most Influential Living Psychologists in the World.”

Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and host Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.