The Science of Religious and Spiritual Exercises
What we seek to accomplish
Religious and Spiritual Exercises as Practical Pathways for Strengthening the Human Spirit
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.
We aim to expand our scientific understanding of the impact of ancient spiritual exercises on individuals, and to support innovations in spiritual exercises to promote human flourishing.
WATCH: 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.
WATCH: 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.
Gratitude Blessings as a Key to Flourishing: The Translational Potential of the Jewish "Nisim B'chol Yom" (Miracles of the Every Day)
The Christian Practice of Lament: Mechanisms of Change, Moderators, and Flourishing Outcomes
Understanding the Psychological, Behavioral, and Social Outcomes of the Ramadan Fast
Extending the Table: Does Shabbat Dinner as a Spiritual Practice Increase Social Connectedness?
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