Transcript of the "Stories of Impact" podcast episode

Science, Religion & Spirituality with Professor Kenneth Pargament

Tavia Gilbert: Welcome to Stories of Impact. I’m writer/producer Tavia Gilbert, and every first and third Tuesday, journalist Richard Sergay and I bring you conversations about the art and science of human flourishing.

This special week marks a lovely convergence of holy days for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, as well as for Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is, Jains, and Hindus. And those who claim no religious faith but do embrace a spiritual life may be as inspired and uplifted by the blossoming new season as their more-formally religious counterparts.

Today’s episode is a discussion of the intersections of religion, spirituality, and science, with Dr. Kenneth Pargament, Professor Emeritus at Bowling Green State University. Dr. Pargament was named in 2022 one of the 50 Most Influential Living Psychologists in the World, and his internationally-acclaimed research addresses the relationship between health and spirituality and religious faith. What inspired Dr. Pargament’s work?

Kenneth Pargament: I was very interested in studying systematically, scientifically, the ways in which religion may be helpful or harmful when people face major life crises. I began my research by interviewing people, by talking to people, religious people, who are going through major crises — deaths, natural disasters, divorce, injuries — and asking them, “So tell me, how has your faith been involved in the way you’re coping with your critical situation right now?” And we were able to identify some ways of religious coping that seemed to be tied to growth and positive change, and we began to identify types of religion that are helpful to people, as well as some that may be more problematic.

Science has found that there are linkages between religious involvement and better health. Literally hundreds of studies have been conducted that demonstrate that people who attend religious services more frequently experience a host of health and mental health benefits. 

Science goes further, though, and helps in identifying what is it about religious or spiritual life that may in fact be helpful to people? Or conversely, what is it about religious and spiritual life that may be at times harmful to people? Because we know religion has a dark side. 

And science says, we go beyond our intuitions, we go beyond our own subjectivity about it, our own personal opinion, and we put it 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.

As a clinical psychologist, I’m particularly interested in trying to harness the power of religious and spiritual life, to foster the health and well-being of people who are suffering. And so we don’t know as yet, what happens when we try to harness those critical religious and spiritual ingredients, to be able to help people access them, when they’re going through their most difficult times. 

So we are, I think, at the threshold of a whole new set of studies, a whole new set of research, or area of research, that helps us identify and harness the potential power of religious and spiritual life for people, especially people who are suffering.

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. And scientists can play a really important part in that.

Tavia Gilbert: Dr. Pargament explains that he was also moved to study faith and health because of how frequently he encountered people whose lives were threatened by substance abuse. Many simply didn’t have time for traditional long-term therapy, which often involves small steps and small changes, when these addicts were literally fighting for their lives. It was through Dr. Pargament’s search for dramatic therapeutic interventions that his ground-breaking scientific study of religious and spiritual exercises expanded.

Kenneth Pargament: The traditional approaches — and by that I mean approaches that try to help people become masterful, gain greater control, solve more problems — they haven’t helped people when they’ve been facing the limits of their control, their frailty, the fact that they are going to die. Our traditional approaches have fallen short. 

People become more aware that something has been missing, and so people seek other solutions. I think it’s not just the clients and patients that we see, but people who are practitioners — physicians and nurses and psychologists — I think they also yearn for a deeper approach to healthcare that touches on the deeper dimensions of people’s lives. 

So we’re really at the cusp of a whole new set of studies and science that might really be helpful in deepening human healthcare and, and ameliorating suffering and ultimately fostering flourishing.

Tavia Gilbert: In fact, Dr. Pargament believes:

Kenneth Pargament: The science of spiritual exercises will help complete our approach to fostering human flourishing. 

Tavia Gilbert: So what can science reveal about religion and spirituality?

Kenneth Pargament: We’ve been doing research on what we call sacred moments, moments that are set apart, transcendent, boundless in nature. A moment as small as five seconds can change the character of your life. And people can find their sacred moments in many experiences, and seemingly ordinary experiences.

The notion of experiencing sacred moments, I think, is a potentially transformational expression that may, for some, have life-changing implications. We found that sacred moments in our work may have some, sometimes we call it “un-PTSD,” because these moments have the same power as PTSD, but in a positive way. They’re seared deeply into the mind. And they last for many, many years, and they have the capacity to redirect and reorient people. 

But I think we’re desperately in need of transformational methods in science and in clinical practice to foster these changes. I hope that we will be generating a body of knowledge that’s going to facilitate this kind of shift. 

Tavia Gilbert: Isn’t it a conflict for a scientist to search for clinical answers through the lens of what is non-quantifiable, like religion or spirituality?

Kenneth Pargament: Science can’t prove or disprove the existence of God. Science can’t tell you whether one set of religious beliefs and commitment is better ultimately than another. Science can’t prove other ultimate questions such as, is there life after death? 

Science can, though, look at the footprints left by faith. Science can look at 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. 

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 make 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.

We need to come together to share our perspectives, and to develop a greater appreciation for religious life. 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. It needs to be understood and approached through multiple perspectives. 

So 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, all come together to try to make sense of this amazing aspect of human nature.

Tavia Gilbert: How does Dr. Pargament define spirituality?

Kenneth Pargament: Spirituality, I think, rests on that assumption that we’re not only psychological, social, physical beings, that we’re spiritual beings. And that a primary motivation of human beings is a motivation for something transcendent, a motivation to experience something larger than ourselves or deeper within ourselves. 

And so, spirituality I think of as this yearning for something sacred, yearning for something of broader and deeper value, that may be, again, a very basic human motivation. That, of course, may lead to the question, what do we mean by sacred? And we’ve talked about the sacred in terms of both a core of divinity, transcendence, higher powers, however that may be understood or expressed or experienced, but also aspects of life that take on divine-like qualities, by virtue of their association with transcendence.

And so, we can think of the sacred including things like nature, virtues, love, compassion, gratitude — they’ve often been linked to the divine. We can think of the sacred in terms of science even, you can think of it in terms of work, that our work may be more than simple jobs, they may take on the quality and character of a vocation, which offers a deep meaning to our lives. We can talk about anything from quilting, to music, the arts and crafts can take on sacred power and meaning. 

So people have this yearning, I believe, to seek out and form a relationship with something larger and deeper than themselves. And by that, I mean the sacred. And that process of searching for, discovering, sometimes transforming that relationship with the sacred, is the heart and soul of spirituality. We’re always in process, in process of forming a relationship and sustaining relationship and developing that relationship with something sacred.

Tavia Gilbert:  And what is religion?

Kenneth Pargament: I think of religion as the pathways people take to find significance in their lives. They’re pathways that are connected to something sacred. Something of deeper value, deeper meaning of transcendence, or imminence. 

In American and Western culture, we’re very good at solving problems, we’re good at being masterful, we’re good at fixing things. But there’s another part of life that I think we struggle with more and that’s the reality that we’re, in spite of all of our efforts to solve problems and extend life and heal, we remain frail and finite beings. No matter how well we take care of ourselves, we’re eventually going to die. And how do we come to terms with that? 

I think science, medicine, psychology in particular, we’re not so good at helping people come to terms with human limitations, frailty, finitude, and that’s where religion and spirituality come in. They’re particularly designed, I believe, to help people face their limitations, to face the existential realities of their condition.

Tavia Gilbert: Dr. Pargament believes that religion and community go hand in hand.

Kenneth Pargament:  Being part of a religion, I think, is a way of defining who you are; defining identity, also defining who you’re not. I think it means to be part of a social community, and it provides a sense of connectedness in the searching for these solutions.

Tavia Gilbert: What does religion do well?

Kenneth Pargament: Religion is a really broad umbrella, and part of its power, I think, lies in the fact that it offers people many, many routes to significance. Beneath the religious umbrella, we can find people seeking connectedness, we can find people looking for larger meaning in life. We can find people who are really searching for emotional solace and comfort and reassurance. We can find people who are trying to get more control of their lives. And we can find people who are seeking a dramatic transformation from the pursuit of goals and destinations that are destructive. A big part of religion’s power is the fact that it can respond to the diverse needs of people.

Tavia Gilbert:  How does religion support health and well-being?

Kenneth Pargament: There are several religious coping methods, as we call them. One is being able to see critical life events through a benevolent spiritual lens. Being able to see negative life events can also be understood as opportunities for growth, a way to get closer to ultimate truth, a way to get closer to God. And people who are able to see their difficult situations through this benevolent spiritual lens seem to have a number of benefits to their mental health and come through major crises, some ways better. So that’s one example.

Looking to God as a partner in problem-solving is another important positive religious coping method. Being able to see God, not as someone who takes all the responsibility away from you, when you’re running through difficult times, but as a partner, someone you can kind of turn to for support and guidance and solace.

Religious coping methods have been tied to lower levels of distress, anxiety, depression. They’ve also been tied to higher levels of reports of growth, of personal change and transformation, stronger relationships, feelings that you’ve now found a truer, deeper purpose in life.

When it comes to these ontological questions, scientists have, I believe, nothing to add. We have no exclusive position on the ultimate reality of God, or the ultimate reality of religious claims. But even though we can’t speak to the ultimate reality of God, we can look at, what is the impact of believing in God? What’s the impact of believing that God has spoken to you? What’s the impact of feeling that you have experienced a miracle? 

We can’t speak to the ultimate truth of any of these claims, but we can look at their footprints, the ways they have shaped people in their lives and their relationships and their ability to live lives of value and significance.

Tavia Gilbert: But in times of great suffering, religion isn’t always a comfort.

Kenneth Pargament: We find that at times major life crises create spiritual struggles. People are shaken, not only psychologically, socially and physically, but spiritually. So they may feel they’re being punished by God. They may feel angry at God, they may feel abandoned by God. They may start to have doubts about their core religious beliefs. They may have moral struggles in which they find themselves struggling to live according to their higher values, but falling short. They may have struggles with other people around religious and spiritual matters. And these struggles we find are tied to distress, and sometimes serious physical health and mental health problems.

Tavia Gilbert:  Are religion and spirituality necessarily in conflict? 

Kenneth Pargament: We’re seeing a growing polarization between religion and spirituality. Religion more and more is becoming kind of like the dogmatic, constricting, controlling, bad guy on the block. And we hear spirituality being contrasted with religion, spirituality is freeing, and uplifting, and good. And so we’re seeing this polarization of religion on the dark side, and spirituality on the good side. 

It’s unfortunate because nobody practices spirituality totally alone, because we’re not isolated human beings. And religion itself, people sometimes are failing to see, I think, that the most central function of religious life is spirituality. Organized religions are the only institution we have that have, as their most central function, trying to help people find a relationship with something sacred in their lives. 

So the polarization is unfortunate, but people, I think, are moving more and more to seeing the two terms as polarized and even in opposition to each other, as if you have to leave an organized religious setting to be spiritual, you have to free yourself. 

But if you follow that idea that spirituality may, in fact, be a new religious movement, then eventually we’ll see a kind of coming together again, because people who were following their individual spiritual paths will be looking more and more to do that together.

Tavia Gilbert: The polarization between spirituality and religiosity reflects a greater upheaval in modern life — a disruption of where people have historically sought meaning and direction.

Kenneth Pargament: I think, at least in Western culture, 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. 

And in some ways, you could say that that’s not the end-stage here. Throughout history, we’ve had religious revitalization periods, where there’s been dramatic change in the form and kind of religion. And you could argue that we’re in the midst of that now, where people are shifting from traditional religious life to more personal forms of spirituality. 

And those 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, in part because they feel like something in organized religious life has . . . some of the spark is gone, and they’re yearning to find that spark, to find a way to fan that flame once again. So I’m not sure it’s so much of a loss of religious involvement, as it may be a shifting in its nature. And it may be a shifting in the language that we’re using as well now, that we’re now speaking much more often about spirituality, rather than religion.

Tavia Gilbert:  Can disruption of historically-trusted institutions be attributed to any one segment of our society? 

Kenneth Pargament: I think some of the Millennials, and younger people may be more deeply involved in some of these shifts, but I don’t think it’s limited to them. We can see people of all age groups, looking for ways to find something sacred in their lives, and to look beyond the boundaries of their traditional religious setting at times. 

In fact, the largest rising group in the United States are people who call themselves both religious and spiritual. They’re holding on to some religious structure and institutional life, but they’re also trying to find ways to strengthen, enhance, inform that relationship with something of imminence or transcendence.

People will be part of a religious institution, but they may be also involved in meditative programs, or yoga, or involved in outdoor nature walks. There are many ways that people seek out and try to sustain a relationship with the sacred in their lives, and they can do that in the context of a traditional religious institution, but they’re not limited to that. So we’re seeing people engage in more and more alternative forms of spirituality.

One of the big questions is whether or not the spiritual character of these exercises adds to or magnifies their helpful value. We know for instance, that meditation is generally helpful to people. But the way meditation has been framed in the West, it’s been largely, I think, stripped of its deeper spiritual and religious connections. It’s almost a mantra nowadays that you don’t need to be religious to meditate. And that’s true, you don’t. 

And yet we know that meditation was grounded in religious traditions. We can find meditative forms in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, the major religions, we can find examples of meditation and its roots. By removing its religious connotations, and its religious connections, are we possibly diminishing the potential value of meditative methods for people? 

And we’ve actually done some research on that. My colleague Amy Wachholtz and I looked at whether or not it made a difference whether you meditate to an explicitly spiritual mantra, which is God is peace, God is love. Or a secularized mantra, such as grass is green, sand is soft. And the question is whether the spiritual dimension of the meditation, does it add power to its effects? And Amy studied this 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 their pain and tolerate levels of pain in their lives, they also reduced their dependence on analgesic medication. And so, the spiritual content counts. It adds something to the power of these exercises.

Tavia Gilbert:  Whether religion or spirituality, what are people looking for? 

Kenneth Pargament: In spirituality and religion, we can find people with diverse motivations. It’s not one size fits all. Certainly, many people are trying to make sense out of their lives and are looking for meaning. What’s the point of it all? 

But not everyone is meaning-oriented. Not everyone has that kind of cognitive yearning. For many people, it’s wanting a connection with something, a connection with nature, a connection with other people, a connection with the larger world. And for them, this relational yearning is what’s key, the relational motivation is what’s really important for them. 

And then there are many people who are simply seeking some kind of emotional comfort in a world that seems to be so disrupted, so frightening, so chaotic. You know, so much seems out of our control and out of our hands, and our very lives seem to be at stake, and people want to feel a sense of safety and security and comfort. It’s not so much trying to make sense of it, it’s more like trying to reduce some of the existential anxiety of living.

I think particularly so nowadays, in the midst of COVID, where religious institutions themselves were shut down, so people couldn’t be part of a larger community, they couldn’t be part of rituals that help them find a way to express and experience the change that they’re going through and feel part of a community of people going through this together, and the strength if they can derive from that. So in some ways, we’ve been forced to move towards more individualized spiritualities, because the organized aspect of religious life hasn’t been as available.

Tavia Gilbert:  Whether we seek meaning, direction, or comfort through organized religion or a less defined spiritual practice, what does Dr. Pargament see as the throughline? 

Kenneth Pargament: I think I’m much more able to kind of bridge the two languages here, of psychology and religion, and put the two together in ways that I couldn’t have imagined initially. So to me, it’s a journey to greater wholeness, but I’ve still got a ways to go. 

And I really enjoy the Kintsugi metaphor. Kintsugi is a Japanese art form that involves breaking a ceramic and then putting the pieces back together again, with some kind of gold or silver filigree. And the broken ceramic, when it’s put back together again, is more beautiful than the ceramic that had been unbroken. And the philosophy underlying it is that in brokenness, we can create greater wholeness. And the wholeness can be of greater beauty when we appreciate that the brokenness is a part of the wholeness. 

And I find that to be very true in people’s lives. We’re all to some extent wounded and broken in some ways, and yet, we try to find ways to put the pieces together again, to become more whole. It’s a process that never ends, we’re always trying to become more whole. And in the process of doing that, as we move forward, I think we have opportunities to flourish. But we’re flourishing as we move towards greater wholeness in our lives.

Tavia Gilbert:  We’ll be back in two weeks with further discussion about healthcare and flourishing, with Dr. David Addiss, a public health doctor and the director of the Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics, a program at the Task Force for Global Health based in Atlanta.

David Addiss:  As I reflected on flourishing, and particularly the idea that flourishing is a sense of all things going well in all domains of your life, I thought, well, if that's true, how many minutes of my life will I be truly flourishing? Because there's always something that could be better. And I started wondering about flourishing in the context of adversity. As a physician, I've known people who were at the end of their life, perhaps in great pain, and yet they were flourishing. They were fully alive. And also people who seemed to have everything that I was searching for or looking for as a professional physician, who seemed miserable. So this dialectic between suffering or adversity and flourishing became alive for me. 

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This has been the Stories of Impact Podcast, with Richard Sergay and Tavia Gilbert. Written and produced by Talkbox Productions and Tavia Gilbert. Senior producer Katie Flood. Music by Aleksander Filipiak. Mix and master by Kayla Elrod. Executive producer Michele Cobb.

The Stories of Impact Podcast is generously supported by Templeton World Charity Foundation.