New York Times op-ed: Science can learn from religion

UPDATE:  If religious practices promote well being, one would expect that more religious countries would have happier inhabitants. But the graph below (prepared by reader gluonspring) shows that this is not the case: the most religious countries score lowest on the UN’s “happiness index.” Of course this is a correlation and not necessarily a causal relationship, and there are other factors as well (people may turn to religion if they are poor and unhappy), but this certainly goes against DeSteno’s hypothesis.


I’ve gotten the link to this new NYT op-ed from about a dozen readers, with some explicitly asking me to respond.

Okay, I’ll bite, though my response will be limited to this site as there’s no way in hell that the New York Times would publish a piece saying that science and religion are not mutually helpful. The writer is David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of the book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. More about him and his funding sources (yes, you can guess!) later.

The article manages to press all my buttons, including extolling the oleaginous Krista Tippett (I had to listen to her ask Daniel Kahneman this morning how he manages to “inhabit the space of his theories”!) and criticizing Steven Pinker. But let’s examine the arguments, which are independent of whether DeSteno loves Krista Tippett (she is, by the way, funded by Templeton).

DeSteno’s thesis is that religion has contributed to science, and that arguing for a divide between the areas “might not only be stoking needless hostility; it might also be slowing the process of scientific discovery itself.”

How does this occur? According to DeSteno, religion has found ways to control not only individual behavior, but also group behavior—and in good ways. If we study these religous methods, we could concoct hypotheses about how we can apply this behavioral control to society at large. In other words, the contribution of religion to science is that it suggests hypotheses. These hypotheses can then be tested using science to see if they work. As DeSteno says:

Religious traditions offer a rich store of ideas about what human beings are like and how they can satisfy their deepest moral and social needs. For thousands of years, people have turned to spiritual leaders and religious communities for guidance about how to conduct themselves, how to coexist with other people, how to live meaningful and fulfilled lives — and how to accomplish this in the face of the many obstacles to doing so. The biologist Richard Dawkins, a vocal critic of religion, has said that in listening to and debating theologians, he has “never heard them say anything of the smallest use.” Yet it is hubristic to assume that religious thinkers who have grappled for centuries with the workings of the human mind have never discovered anything of interest to scientists studying human behavior.

Just as ancient doesn’t always mean wise, it doesn’t always mean foolish. The only way to determine which is the case is to put an idea — a hypothesis — to an empirical test. In my own work, I have repeatedly done so. I have found that religious ideas about human behavior and how to influence it, though never worthy of blind embrace, are sometimes vindicated by scientific examination.

So what are these “religious ideas”? They include these:

1.) Meditation. The idea that meditation can reduce suffering and make people more moral has, says DeSteno, been supported by science. He also says that idea comes from Buddhism.

2.) Ritual. DeSteno says that science has found that the repetitive actions of rituals lead to greater self-control and more feelings of “affiliation and empathy”. He implies that the use of rituals originated in religion.

3.) “Religious virtues such as gratitude and kindness.” See below.

That’s about it, but one can think of other ideas as well. Whether they come from religion is debatable, and I’ll get to that in a minute. DeSteno’s conclusion?

If this view is right, religion can offer tools to bolster secular interventions of many types, such as combating addiction, increasing exercise, saving money and encouraging people to help those in need. This possibility dovetails with a parallel body of research showing that by cultivating traditional religious virtues such as gratitude and kindness, people can also improve their ability to reach personal goals like financial and educational success.

. . . My purpose here isn’t to argue that religion is inherently good or bad. As with most social institutions, its value depends on the intentions of those using it. But even in cases where religion has been used to foment intergroup conflict, to justify invidious social hierarchies or to encourage the maintenance of false beliefs, studying how it manages to leverage the mechanisms of the mind to accomplish those nefarious goals can offer insights about ourselves — insights that could be used to understand and then combat such abuses in the future, whether perpetrated by religious or secular powers.

Science and religion do not need each other to function, but that doesn’t imply that they can’t benefit from each other.

It’s clear that what DeSteno means is that science can find out stuff if they test hypotheses derived from examining religion, but that science itself doesn’t benefit. Science is, after all, a set of practices that help us find out stuff, and it isn’t and has never been helped by religion. It is society that benefits—supposedly.

DeSteno calls these testable hypotheses “spiritual technologies”, a word he got from Krista Tippett (it has shady overtones from Scientology, though). But he also says, correctly, that these practices can be separated from religious dogma, and also don’t vindicate the dogma of any religion. In response to Pinker, who, when faced with DeSteno’s ideas, said that these are cultural and not religious practices, DeSteno says that it’s hard to separate the two.

And it is, which is one of the problems of DeSteno’s thesis. Are these techniques derived from studying religion and its supposed successes, or do they come from elsewhere? I’m willing to admit that meditation comes from Zen Buddhism, though many people don’t see that as a religion. But that aside, it does seem to have value, though some people, like Dan Dennett, never feel the “mindfulness” and “out of self” experiences touted by adherents like Sam Harris. I would be interested to see if the scientific studies of meditation explicitly credit Buddhism, but I won’t carp if they did.

As for the other two, I am not so sure they come from religion.  Ritual probably long preceded present-day religions, and may have had little to do with belief in divine beings. The origins of ritual are lost in the irrecoverable past of our species. Indeed, religion may have adopted rituals like singing and dancing from the teenage phase of our evolutionary history.

And, of course, there are other ways of bonding. Do soccer fans derive their chants and solidarity from observing religion? I don’t think so. There are many things that help us bond, and many rituals that facilitate that, and surely some of those don’t come from religion. I won’t go into this in detail as readers can think of these on their own. But why not write an article like “What science can learn from soccer”?

Here’s some video from that proposed article:

As for “gratitude and kindness,” I deny that these ideas derive from religion. While some religions emphasize them, many urge them on adherents to their faith but urge intolerance and dislike towards members of other faiths. That, indeed, was the situation throughout most of religious history. If you ascribe “gratitude and kindness” to religion, you must also ascribe “dislike, xenophibia, and intolerance of others” to religion as well. Here DeSteno is brandishing a double-edged sword.

There are many reasons to think that religion adopted the “gratitude and kindness” stand from secular reason and from evolution. These virtues would have arisen via experience and evolution over the long period of time when humans lived in small groups—groups of people who knew each other and thus could practice these virtues in light of the expected reciprocity from others. And, of course, secular ethics has emphasized these virtues from since forever. As Rebecca Goldstein told me, moral philosophy is a thoroughly secular enterprise. And she’s right. Religions simply took over these virtues from preexisting groups.

But there’s more to say. Religion has also had a malign influence on humanity, not, perhaps, through scientific study of religious methods of behavior control, but from secular enterprises apeing religious methods to control people. For example:

  1. Threats as a way to control behavior. There’s nothing more compelling than making people behave than by threatening them if they don’t. Religion is excellent at doing this, especially through threats of burning in hell. Other threats have been used by dictatorships to make people conform. What are Nazism and Stalinism but oppressive ideologies that use the methods of religion, including god figures, threats, ritual, and punishment of apostasy and blasphemy?
  2. Deprivation of freedom of expression. Religions have been suppressing heresy for centuries, a technique taken over by totalitarian regimes to ensure control.
  3. Use of raw power to get your way. Here I’ll mention how some Catholic priests have used the cachet of their church to sexually molest young people.
  4. Promises of reward if you give money or effort to the church. People who tithe expect rewards, often in the afterlife. But “prosperity gospel” hucksters like Creflo Dollar, as well as Scientologists, use these promises of reward to bankrupt their acolytes.

Now scientists may not have studied these religious methods to judge their efficacy. After all, who would fund a study of whether gaining religious power over someone makes them more likely to succumb to sexual molestation? But the hypotheses that these methods work can reasonably be ascribed to religion (at least as reasonably as the three ideas mentioned above), and they have been used to damage human beings. On balance, one can’t say that the existence of religions has been an overall good in making humans feel good and behave well. Likewise, we can’t say that scientific discoveries about human behavior would be less advanced if religion hadn’t existed.

When I read this article, I immediately thought, “I smell Templeton in here.” (By the way, the self-aggrandizing rat in the wonderful children’s book Charlotte’s Web is named Templeton!) And it doesn’t take much digging to find that DeSteno has been and still is amply funded by Templeton. Here are two past grants he’s had, both listed on his c.v.:

John Templeton Foundation Co-PI’s: David DeSteno and Lisa Feldman Barrett Informal Science Education via Storytelling: Teaching Scientists and Philosophers How to Communicate with the Public Funding Program: Academic Engagement November 2016 – October 2018; Total costs: $216,400. J

John Templeton Foundation PI: David DeSteno Behavioral Measures of Virtue: Moving from the Lab to the “Real World” Funding Program: Character Virtue Development June 2014 – May 2016; Total costs: $244,251

And, on January 22 of this year, Northeastern University noted that DeSteno and a colleague now have three more grants from Templeton adding up to a cool $600,000:

DeSteno and fellow Northeastern psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett recently received three grants from the John Templeton Foundation for a total of nearly $600,000, including two grants to continue offering workshops that help scientists such as Routledge communicate complex information to laypeople.

Hundreds of scientists from all over the world have applied to attend the first three workshops, and a dozen have been selected to participate in each one. According to DeSteno, several of their workshop attendees have written articles for major news outlets such as theTimesThe Wall Street Journal, and Scientific American. Now they are planning a fourth workshop this fall in Boston.

Some of these grants have been to teach scholars to communicate with the public. As Templeton described the first grant above, which expired in October 2018:

Scholars yearn to provide insights into some of the big questions. Yet, too often, they are limited in their abilities to communicate findings directly to a knowledge hungry public .The result is either that scholars write mainly for one another, placing important knowledge in insular academic journals that are beyond the reach and interest of the public, or rely on intermediaries to digest and transmit knowledge. If science and philosophy are to maximally enhance well-being and benefit humanity, scholars must have a way to more easily disseminate their discoveries to the public. Success in doing so requires learning not only how to tell a good story, and how to write in different styles, but also how to approach, pitch and work with editors at prominent publications.

There’s the Big Questions trope again, which is TempletonSpeak for “osculating faith.” I see workshops like this as Templeton fostering a way to spread its own views to the public, as DeSteno does here (this article could have been written by a Templeton flack). And two of DeSteno’s new Templeton grants are for further workshops in this kind of communication.

There’s a lot of dough to be made, and public approbation to be gained, by claiming that science and religion have a lot to teach each other. Yes, science can often test religious claims (Adam and Eve, the efficacy of prayer, and so on), and these claims are always dispelled. As for religion’s contribution to science, as outlined by DeSteno in this article, well, it’s not impressive.

It’s not to the New York Times’s credit that they continue publishing religion-osculating pieces like this. Would that they gave the same space to criticisms of religion!

Templeton the rat (from the Charlotte’s Web Wiki)

h/t: Greg Mayer, Michael


  1. A C Harper
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Let’s assume(!) that science can learn from religion – how likely is it that religion can learn from science?

    • Posted February 3, 2019 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      They have, at least some of them. Now Catholic theologians are arguing how to reconcile the non-existence of Adam and Eve as our literal ancestors with the Bible story and Christian original sin. Also, many liberal faiths have had to accept the existence of biological evolution.

  2. Posted February 3, 2019 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I think that 2,000 years of “experimenting” in this world-sized Petri dish has been an ample test of the hypothesis that religion is useful for gaining scientific knowledge. It is more than clear, I think, that religion motivates people to move in the direction of ignorance more than it causes people to seek discovery.

  3. rgsherr
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Despite your decision not to I wish you’d send this to The Times. A lot more people than read this blog need to see this, Particularly the editors of The Times.

    • Posted February 3, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      The Times wouldn’t publish anything already put up on a website, and it’s not written in their style anyway. Some day I’ll try writing an op-ed for them. . .

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted February 3, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        I really hope you will.

  4. Roo
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I don’t know what to make of the Templeton Foundation – they seem to support everything from Intelligent Design to the vaguest notions of “spiritual but not religious” – groups who are traditionally very much opposed to each other. And they spend tremendous amounts of money doing this. Their aims seem so diffuse and sometimes mutually incompatible that it’s hard to know what to think. I have no problem with the idea of studying meditation (as in the work of Richard Davidson,) but don’t know if this is a particularly controversial topic anyways. There has been a veritable explosion of studies and meditation and related matters in the past decades, it’s not as if some taboo is blocking the way.

    An aside – I think Dan Dennett practices Transcendental Meditation, which is different than what Harris practices (largely Vipassa or ‘mindfulness’ meditation.)

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 3, 2019 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      The Templeton Foundation is obliged to follow loosely the wishes of the dead American-born, naturalised Brit-Bahamian, Christian Presbyterian, conservative, stock-picking genius Sir John Templeton. An interesting chap – he eschewed the trappings of the extremely wealthy although he indulged himself with a lovely home & permanent residence in Nassau, Bahamas.

      His intention with the foundation:

      “We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities”

      I believe the problem with his foundation is the people working inside [on very, very nice salaries!] are not imaginative enough & they’re throwing money mainly at a lot of nonsense – a number of academics have figured out how to play the Templeton game & it’s beginning to show. They know exactly how to word their grant applications & the golden handcuffed staff just give ’em the money because they have more dosh than they know what to do with.

      The amount of money released in grants each year is a lot less than the profits on the principle sum**. Perhaps there are limits on the size of an individual grant, but the mechanics of the foundation are private. The sciences need to start filling in those applications & I believe some of the more exotic fields have done so.

      Yes, Dennett finds that TM increases mental clarity & lowers his blood pressure

      ** Just a feeling I have based on the ridiculously generous all expenses paid, first class travel seminars they run

      • Roo
        Posted February 3, 2019 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

        Well, I give them this – because they’re funding is so all over the place, there is at least a democratic element to it. I strongly disagree with some of what they do (mainly where they are anti-science,) but in other realms I think it’s relatively harmless or even positive (as I said above, I am fine with studying methods like meditation that show tangible benefits to people, although I will say it doesn’t seem as if this is a struggling, underfunded field at the moment. But whatever, again, I’m all for positive psychology.)

        I thought I remembered Dennett talking about TM (Fun fact – I recently saw that Hugh Jackman is also a big fan. Since I see approximately one movie every decade or so and this go-round it was The Greatest Showman, which I loved, I was incredibly pleased to see he is a meditator. Not only that, but in his interview with the David Lynch Foundation, he talks about reading one of Sam Harris’s books – who knew?!) I think TM is based somewhat more on Hindu philosophy while mindfulness has more of a Buddhist framing, although, given that there are only so many ways to focus attention / be accepting, I think all the various types are fairly similar, albeit with different emphasis. It’s hard to find much in the way of information regarding TM, as I gather it’s trademarked or something.

  5. Posted February 3, 2019 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    For meditation, does this come (inter alia) from Stoicism? The title of Marcus Aurelius’s book might be a hint … 

    For rituals, is chanoyu (茶の湯), the Japanese tea ceremony, religious?

    And I completely agree about kindness and gratitude. Claiming these for religion alone is egregiously disingenuous … but sadly commonplace.


    PS. Typo! “xenophibia” (or is that fear of strange frogs?)

    • sang1ee
      Posted February 3, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      The Stoic treatment of emotions is the complete antithesis of that of Buddhism, through its teachings of mindfulness meditation. Vulcans are excellent Stoics in this way, and totally unregenerate Buddhists.

      • Posted February 3, 2019 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        Is it not still meditation?


        Sent from my iPhone


        • sang1ee
          Posted February 3, 2019 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

          Not really, at least the meditation that DeSteno is talking about and the scientific community is investigating. It’s a very specific technique and has been secularized and hybridized with cognitive therapy. The very fact that it’s showing promising results outside of the woo of Buddhism speaks to its inherently secular and practical roots.

          • Posted February 3, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

            And how does that contrast with Stoic meditation?


            Sent from my iPhone


            • sang1ee
              Posted February 3, 2019 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

              Look into some of the review papers on current meditation research. There are reams of them nowadays. In a sentence, Stoic “meditation” is not a method.

              • Posted February 4, 2019 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

                I haven’t looked at this topic specifically, but I have seen a lot of stuff from “neostoics”, which, while interesting sometimes, was *not* attributed to Stoics correctly (if at all).

                One example is a “stoic a day” calendar/book I got. Several times (examples later if people want) the exegesis was crucially wrong. One thing that is often downplayed is the teleology. Stoics think the universe and humans have divine purpose; something that many on this site would vociferously deny, I’m sure.

  6. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    If I heard my radio ask someone how they “inhabit the space of their theories”, I would defininitely yell at it.

    • David Evans
      Posted February 3, 2019 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      I hope I would have the confidence to answer “Since my theories are true, the space of my theories is the world, and I have no trouble inhabiting it”.

      • alexander
        Posted February 3, 2019 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        Theoretical physicists do “inhabit” different worlds than the three-dimensional world we are aware of because of our senses. Space-time for example is a world that we do not sense, we are not aware of time as a dimension. But space-time is the place where a lot of physical theories live. Today theorists live in abstract worlds of even more dimensions, but these mental constructs allow them to develop theories, and explore the physics of black holes, for example

  7. sang1ee
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Meditation has been a cultural, religious, philosophical and self-help practice that probably originated in India long before the Buddha, who adapted it for his purposes during his lifetime. I think Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation is uniquely Buddhist but this agnostic religion cannot claim to own this practice. I would even say that there would be no religion called Buddhism without mindfulness meditation first.

  8. Jon Gallant
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Dr. DeSteno, with his ample Templeton funding, has obviously learned a lot from religion. He learned, like the professional Pardoner in Chaucer’s tale, that broadcasting the Church’s woo to the rubes is a good way to “have multipliyng of his greyn”.

    However, the history of Science implies that, at an early stage, something may have been learned from Christianity. Why did experimental Science develop in Western Europe and not in Baghdad, Cordoba or China?
    Nobody knows, and I personally lean toward the quality of Italian wine as a favorite, plausible explanation. But something about Christian doctrine, or about the way it was promulgated in the times between Friar Roger Bacon and the Accademia dei Lincei in the early 1600s, might possibly be involved.

  9. Jenny Haniver
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I’m particularly offended by the hoary notion that practicing some religious or spiritual activity makes a person better in a moral sense, in that it assumes that a person is morally deficient if they don’t believe in something supernatural and follow some spiritual/religious tenets. My question to DeSteno: “Why are there so many corrupt people of faith and so many good, fair-minded, moral, non-believers?

    As for the first of these “religious ideas,” meditation: Buddhist (or any other kind of) meditation doesn’t necessarily make someone a better person. I find a lot of blissed-out self-satisfied meditating narcissists. I think of all those meditating Burmese Buddhists, including Aung San Suu Kyi.” Where’s the Buddhist compassion? And Alice Walker (a spiritual exhibitionist) is convinced that her Buddhist meditation and other spiritual practices make her the wise, compassionate holier-than-thou one full of wisdom that she thinks she is. Ha.

    Ritual: I would argue for the cultural as opposed to religious origin of ritual behavior. Non-human animals engage in ritual behavior. Some would regard it as ‘proto-religious,’ I say that’s begging the question. But I think that all of DeSteno’s arguments beg the question. That’s what religious arguments do. And I guess I’m begging the question by asserting that.

    “Religious virtues, such as gratitude and kindness,” are also not specific to humans, as the numerous videos posted on this site of intra- and inter-species altruistic behavior in animals, gratitude, kindness, self-self sacrifice.

    It’s hardly a novel observation that religion/spirituality can make people callous and cruel as easily as it can make them compassionate and grateful.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 3, 2019 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      I can second that. I was religious and a jerk, now I’m not religious anymore, and I think I’m slightly less of a jerk (I’d hope).
      Point is: how many of those that lost their faith, or converted to it, are more ethical, less of a jerk now? Does conversion either way make for a better person?

  10. Posted February 3, 2019 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    DeSteno’a thesis here seems to be that science and religion can and should collaborate on mass mind control tactics. He also defends religion by telling us it isn’t always wrong; the “stopped clock” defense.

  11. SecMilChap
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    TM could be called “Benson Meditation” (leads to an unfortunate acronym, tho’) if we learn it from his book The Relaxation Response (1970s, but much updated and still in print). He had one terminal PT, Spanish & RC, who reduced suffering by using a 4-word Xian prayer “mantra”. But remember that awful Teapot Tempest in CA a few years ago, when a bunch of Xian bigots stopped a school from teaching Benson’s method of meditation. For me, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” seems like a nice mantra, too. Meditation is a good mental exercise. Like tennis or music, it’s better if you practice daily.

  12. Paddy
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Sorry, maybe off topic but.

    Loot at that graph, anyone else note where Israel is on the Religious scale?

    • Posted February 3, 2019 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Israel is a lot less religious than most people think. There are a lot of secular Jews, and they tend to be nonbelievers.

      • lkr
        Posted February 3, 2019 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        for how long? — given the godbots’ reproductive imperative..

  13. Sastra
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Can science learn from pseudoscience? By looking at groups which deny the worth of vaccinations, practice ESP, promote “healing energy,” advocate astrology, and believe that the earth is flat and the moon landings were faked, are there interesting facts to be found regarding how we think, how we value some virtues over others, and what makes people come together and stick together against the disapproval of society in order to strike out in new directions — or return to the old? Does the study of pseudocientists and their adherents tell us some important things about the way the human animal ticks? And might the very nature of pseudoscience lead to self confidence and love of the planet and the people on it? Does pseudoscience enchant the world?

    Why yes, I think it can and does, for all those questions. And I’ve read interesting books by scientists and psychologists, professional and amateur, which carefully examined how and why pseudoscience not only interests people, but can help them with what they emotionally need.

    But so what? This is hardly a recognition of the unique *value* of pseudoscience per se. Scientists and others aren’t wrong to scorn it, or criticize it, or try to eliminate it through teaching and other methods.

    Once again, by tripping lightly over both the dangerous methods and flawed conclusions and focusing on the “ benefits,” someone else reconciles science and religion in a damned shallow sort of way, one similar to reconciling science with pseudoscience.

    • Posted February 3, 2019 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      You’ve said exactly what I wanted to say. DeSteno’s article suggests to me that we should study religion as a natural phenomenon rather than reconcile it with science.


      • Posted February 4, 2019 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        Not only that, we *must* if we want to help move away from it.

  14. Posted February 3, 2019 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    “There are many reasons to think that religion adopted the “gratitude and kindness” stand from secular reason and from evolution.”

    Yes — or parked themselves on top of those qualities and claimed them as their own. Parasites, dogs in mangers!

  15. Steve Gerrard
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    “Religious traditions offer a rich store of ideas about what human beings are like and how they can satisfy their deepest moral and social needs.”

    Yes, history is worth studying. Social sciences may well find fodder for analysis in religious culture, among other things. This says nothing about the role of religion in society today. It is like studying folk medicine to see if there are any useful nuggets buried in it, without suggesting that we adopt it wholesale.

  16. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    That graph is telling, but it also tells us there is more than a lack of religiosity to explain happiness. The plot is really very widely scattered with several very far outliers.
    Bulgaria appears to be very unhappy, while being quite non religious (Maya, comments on that?), same, but to a lesser degree, China, Hungary and Ukraine. I note that all of them are former communist countries.
    On the other hand we see some countries that are reasonably happy while being quite religious: Brazil, Kuwait, the US and Mexico.
    Now I do think that the inverse correlation between religiosity and happiness is real, but the graph really shouts: what other factors?

  17. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    There are more than 150 countries in this world, the graph only shows about a third. It’s power would be greatly enhanced if some 100 more countries would be included.

    • Posted February 3, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Sadly, that graph gives all the countries in the World Happiness Survey that have also been uniformly surveyed for religiosity. But I’d bet that the correlation would get stronger if you included more religious areas like sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted February 3, 2019 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I would think so too, that the correlation would get stronger there clearly is a trend after all.
        And it might learn us some more, eg that former communist countries tend to be unhappier than would be expected by their high degree of irreligiosity

  18. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I note there is nothing in those religious virtues (if indeed they are – Jerry makes a good case they aren’t) that informs science:
    – meditation, Although it might help some people to get their balance, I fail to see how it informs science. Maybe we should meditate about a tricky differential equation instead of solving it
    – Ritual? Well yes, even scientists sometimes fall into a ‘ritual’, preparing and carrying out the experiment correctly, but they don’t need religion for that. Ritual, useful and psychologically satisfying as may be does not inform science.
    Gratitude and kindness? What has a quark to do with that, or the Krebs cycle?
    We would all be grateful if you would have the kindness not to spout the nonsense that science can learn anything from religion.

    • Posted February 3, 2019 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      But surely the question is not, “what can those practices bring to science?” but, “what can scientific study of those practices bring to society?”


      Sent from my iPhone


      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted February 9, 2019 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Yes. That is how it should be seen, I’d think.

  19. JezGrove
    Posted February 3, 2019 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Did I read that graph correctly? People in Venezuela are slightly happier than those in Germany? What year does the data come from?

  20. Posted February 3, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    What method did he use to determine the amount of religiosity was in each country? And how did he determine how happy the people in each country were?
    That chart has what appears to me to be some odd groupings and placements.

  21. Posted February 3, 2019 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    “Hostility toward spiritual traditions may be hampering empirical inquiry.”

    Hostility towards empirical inquiry requiring no spiritual traditions may be hampering human flourishing.

    The obvious, by spending bucket loads on a waste of time and energy. Money better spent elsewhere.

  22. Posted February 4, 2019 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Does anyone think that modern culture could benefit from some RITUAL and maybe a little Creed that was NOT religious or nationalistic??

    Like atheists could try to reclaim Christmas into its Solstice origins: feasting, lights, Yule log. And spring, lovely for its Rejuvenation, we could drink a lot of wine and dancing around a May Pole. Naked?! Maybe also some healthier death rituals about us being recycled back into Nature’s ongoing Recurances?
    I’m ready to apply for the High Priest position but I’d need good High Priestess! Do you think Gwenith Paltrow is available?

    The Creed would be based on science backed info on the interconnection of living things, The Lifeboat Earth Idea , and the Organism-like character of The Ecosphere and human society.


    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 4, 2019 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Start your own new age thing & you can have as many Gwyneth ‘high priestesses’ as you like. Just rip off Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas – his science/spirituality mash up, the “noosphere” & the Omega Point, evolutionary unification of consciousness. His “bad poetic science” [Dawkins quote] would fit you snugly – just peel away the Jesus veneer & you have your suit of clothes ready to wear.

      I’M SERIOUS!

      • Posted February 4, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        Michael, you’ve got no emotional attachment to Nature and its creatures? Surely you have been awed by it often. And as serious a commentator as Lewis Thomas called the Earth a “loosely fit spherical organism.” We could benefit from some well-directed emotional attachment to a thing larger than ourselves and not a god or a nation. Maybe.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted February 4, 2019 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

          Don’t talk about me that’s irrelevant to my comment. It seems you didn’t check out Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – your ideas & his ideas overlap quite a bit [I read your blog].

      • Posted February 4, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        Michael, you’ve got no emotional attachment to Nature and its creatures? Surely you have been awed by it often. And as serious a commentator as Lewis Thomas called the Earth a “loosely fit spherical organism.” We could benefit from some well-directed emotional attachment to a thing larger than ourselves and not a god or a nation. Maybe.

        • Posted February 4, 2019 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          sorry, didn’t realize it sent.

    • Posted February 4, 2019 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      The Super Bowl doesn’t count I suppose? It has a bit of nationalism and I’m sure they worked some God in there too, at least in the commercials. It is certainly a ritual.

      • Posted February 5, 2019 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading. I’ve heard of de Chardin but never read him. I have read some other idealists like A.N.Whitehead.

      • Posted February 5, 2019 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        Super Bowl counts but we could do better. The Olympics is better; big dose of ritual and a much better theme: “Let’s peacefully and fairly compete” (kinda) and it is a World Wide Focus.

        If our world is ever going to get along better, we need more mutualist focal points.

        I think the culture war over Xmas is important to our nation. If it could be reclaimed from the Christians and returned to its other origins it could be a more inclusive focal point for Americans. If we could turn the focus toward Nature –knowledge of the seasons, sense of their impact on us — Ya, a little more social solidarity wouldn’t hurt.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      ‘Does anyone think that modern culture could benefit from some RITUAL and maybe a little Creed that was NOT religious or nationalistic??’

      Well, this ‘someone’ emphatically does! And the U.S.A. is a nation that might benefit the most. Consider the ‘National Cathedral’ in D.C. That place, though ostensibly a part of the Episcopal Church, is run as if it were the equivalent of St. Paul’s or Westminster in England.

      What if, instead of high-church, patriotic Christianity, the National celebrated a belief in democracy that transcends and obviates nationalism? So here’s a brief credal poem we might sing should that (most unlikely) day arrive:

      Be our mass heavy not heaven sent,
      our bread from free labor’s sweat,
      our wine–-beer taken in a pewter mug,
      our peace from old memory’s tug,
      some little glory in thought, not prayer,
      and our votes the benediction we confer.

      Our worship in this ample space:
      a chant raised up in freedom’s voice’

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted February 9, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Seriously, if you want to dance around a pole naked around the December or even in May, I have this unexplicable feeling you might have more success if you start your endeavour in the Southern hemisphere. 🙂

  23. rickflick
    Posted February 4, 2019 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    “What science can learn from soccer”?

    The film, with cheering soccer fans, reminded me of events when I was student teaching in a high school. The so called pep rally was a noisy, boisterous, cacophony. Students stomping and chanting in the auditorium while cheer leaders tumbled and ran around with banners. The noise was deafening. But, I got the feeling that is was a release, a catharsis for the students who are expected to sit at desks all day. War is like that too.

  24. Posted February 6, 2019 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    This article would be a lot more impressive if the significance study had used all countries and not a handpicked 1/3.

    I agree with the theme of the article though. Morality in a society gives an individual a sense of safety. The belief that everyone in a society has the same morals is the glue that holds democracies together. Morality is crucial to happiness but religion and the inevitable extremism that comes from it are not necessary. One can have a set of believes about what is “right” or “wrong” without also having the fear of punishment from a supernatural force.

    • Posted February 6, 2019 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      It’s not a “handpicked 1/3”: these are all the countries for which we have both happiness and religiosity data. And that was data from a previous article that explained its source. The data were added later to an article that stands by itself.

      It ticks me off when people like you imply that the data were chosen to make a specific point. They weren’t. Why didn’t you ask before you made your incorrect pronouncement?

      Thanks for your pronouncement, and see you on other websites.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted February 9, 2019 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        Ben, I agree with Jerry here.
        This is about all we’ve got (as good as it gets at present) and there is not the slightest suspicion there was hand-picking involved. I lamented the same lack of ‘other countries’, but that does not in the least imply cherry-picking.

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