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The Science of Religious and Spiritual Exercises

Expanding our scientific understanding of the impact of ancient spiritual exercises on individuals, and supporting innovations in spiritual exercises to promote human flourishing.

For tens of thousands of years, we have expressed our spirituality in countless forms. At their best, the world’s religions today communicate a vision of human life as meaningful and purposeful; respond to human’s most intimate concerns and existential questions; and encourage commitment to prosocial values and behaviors in the context of relationships and communities that motivate the expression of those commitments. At the same time, religious and spiritual traditions attend to the transcendent dimension of human experience: they provide for our sense of the sacred, boundless, and ultimate.

Religious and spiritual traditions also contain repositories of ancient practical wisdom about how to live well in spite of the contours of life’s experiences. These traditions often prescribe intentional, repeatable practices, habits, or pathways that strengthen people’s capacity to foster deeper connections with themselves, with people and the world around them, and with the transcendent.

Some spiritual exercises are deeply embedded in religious traditions as part of specific belief systems and teachings, while others transcend religious contexts. Close study of sacred texts; keeping Sabbath; various types and forms of prayers; living in simplicity; sobriety; extended periods of self-examination; confession; spiritual direction; the practice of hospitality; tithing; forms of asceticism such as fasting, iconography, stewardship, pilgrimage; and engagement with nature are just some examples of the religious and spiritual exercises that are practiced by people around the world, individually or corporately.

Often imbued with a sense of the sacred and ascribed with deep meaning, many of these exercises are believed to strengthen qualities associated with the human spirit, such as self-awareness; humility; radical generosity; love of others; a sense of purpose; wisdom; discernment; and, for some, a sense of intimacy with the transcendent.

The term “exercises” is synonymous with “disciplines”, “habits”, or “practices”, all of which connote intentionality, repetition, skill, and with the purpose of strengthening the individual’s capacity to live with greater meaning and purpose, connection to others, and awareness of what is transcendent. In this program, we define spiritual exercises as sets of defined, purposive, intentional, and repeatable behaviors that have a religious or spiritual significance, and that are expected to strengthen the human spirit.

We are interested in better understanding spiritual exercises that are embedded within specific religious traditions, as well as exercises that transcend religious traditions.

SRSE what we seek
What we seek to accomplish
Focus on expanding our understanding of the science of religious and spiritual exercises.

Support interdisciplinary and practice-informed empirical research on the impact of religious and spiritual exercises.

Encourage science-informed innovation in religious and spiritual exercises to promote human flourishing.
What is SORSE?

Templeton World Charity Foundation has partnered with Sacred Design Lab

Templeton World Charity Foundation has partnered with Sacred Design Lab to explore how to foster the most effective partnerships between spiritual practitioners and scientific researchers. Co-founders Reverend Sue Phillips and Casper ter Kuile interpret the dynamic of contemporary spirituality and how it relates to religious tradition, community, science, and human flourishing.

Human Flourishing and the Science of Religious and Spiritual Exercises

We understand flourishing as a multifaceted construct that connotes a sense of appropriately directed growth and resilience in multiple areas including (but not limited to) physical and mental health; close social relationships; happiness and life satisfaction; meaning and purpose; and character and virtue. Importantly, flourishing does not necessarily mean the absence of negative emotions or experiences. Some researchers have argued that flourishing involves having life experiences that are psychologically rich, varied, and perspective-changing. Flourishing is a state, in that an individual’s life might be appraised as flourishing (to some degree) in a given moment by the presence of certain characteristics. It is also an ideal aim, in that an individual can be striving towards the ideal of flourishing even if their circumstances are less than perfect or if they are unable to fully optimize their abilities and capacities.

Some religious and spiritual exercises are likely to have direct and indirect positive impact on one or more dimensions of human flourishing. An example of a spiritual exercise that has been investigated extensively for its functional benefits on flourishing is mindfulness meditation. Since the introduction of a secularized form of mindfulness meditation into mainstream clinical psychology in the 1970s, numerous studies in the clinical, brain, and behavioral sciences have examined the impact of mindfulness-based practices on practitioners. The now sizable body of research on mindfulness-based interventions shows fairly consistent benefits of mindfulness interventions on mental health, physical health, cognitive, affective, and interpersonal outcomes in clinical and some non-clinical settings. Researchers have identified neurological, biological, and psychological mechanisms that underpin the exercise’s impact on practitioners. While most of these studies have neglected the philosophical and spiritual contexts of mindfulness, researchers are increasingly attentive to the study of authentic forms of mindfulness practices that reflect the broader philosophical and spiritual contexts from which mindfulness was originally drawn.

We seek to expand our understanding of a more diverse set of religious and spiritual exercises by funding research on exercises that have hitherto been overlooked by rigorous empirical research. We are interested in projects that seek to establish causal links between the practice of religious and spiritual exercises and a range of states and outcomes associated with human flourishing; and projects that will elucidate moderators and mediators that can potentially inform innovative applications of spiritual exercises to promote human flourishing in both traditional and non-traditional contexts. Innovative applications may include novel designs of spiritual exercises, or new ways of practice that encourage greater uptake or enhance sustained engagement.

Stories of Impact

Have you ever felt Collective Effervescence?

Have you ever felt collective effervescence — a heightened sense of unity and sacredness, often felt during group activities such as a sporting event, a concert, or a religious gathering? Social psychologist Shira Gabriel is studying this phenomenon via Koolulam, a social musical initiative centered around group singing events. Her-TWCF funded research project explores how Koolulam's events impact spirituality, connection, acceptance, and wellbeing, and whether the link between these outcomes and group singing is mediated by collective effervescence.

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