In recent years, psychology has directed attention to understand the wisdom of spiritual living and to explore its value for health. A flood of outcome studies from epidemiological research confirm that spirituality and religion enhances health and well-being, leading to further investigations about how spirituality benefits a healthy and fulfilling life (Koenig, 2012).
Though some spiritual followers find confirmation of scientific research unnecessary, arguing that faith does not require research proofs for validation; and some scientists find investigation of spiritual matters inappropriate, deeming spirituality nonscientific by definition, introducing phenomena not relatable to the scientific method, this fascinating and significant research presses on. Though core assumptions of the scientific method and religious beliefs are different, confirmation of a wider, unifying truth may demonstrate our dual nature, affirming that we are both physical and spiritual, dimensions not inherently at odds, nor mutually exclusive.
Today “spiritual things,” such as prayer and meditation are brought into the laboratory, as reductionism of the psychological task has been replaced by wider considerations, embracing transpersonal psychology and attending to how cultures and religions affect human psychology, as demonstrated in neuroscience (Chaio, et al, 2010). This is not actually so modern, since the father of American psychology William James, himself, championed the cause of pragmatism and functionalism in psychology, emphasizing the practical application of how the mind functions and that truth is dependent upon its use to the person who holds it. In fact, James acknowledged belief in God through the proof of God’s existence of how belief affects individual life. The spiritual experience occurs in the “spiritual reality,” in real action, in life. Commenting on religion, he identifies striking parallels of the objectives of Scriptures with the psychological task—understanding enhancement through spiritual experiences.
In his Treatise of Religious Affection, explaining the spiritual, James states, “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots” pointing out that the roots of “a man’s virtue are inaccessible to us…Our practice is the only sure evidence, even to ourselves, that we are genuinely Christians.” In The Varieties of Religious Experience, he observes, “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
The New Testament states, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). St. Paul explains these fruits as, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” Galatians 5:22.
As psychology today more freely begins to assess the power of spiritual well-being for healthcare and document the value of nurturing, developing, and experiencing such virtues for health, we are beneficiaries by both confirming these values that enhance our daily life and health, and are encouraged to create methods for more systematically developing these qualities through parenting in the homes and education in schools for enriching and strengthening health and happiness.
At this stage in research, science identifies general spiritual practices and qualities that contribute to health and wellness over specific creeds. Religions that nurture these “fruits of the spirit” through constructive methods must be affirmed for contributing to the enhancement of well-being. Similarly studies showing psychologically damaging impact to the spirit, through what is described religiously in one tradition (though similarly shared by many others) as “idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions” (Galatians 5:20) correlate with research evidencing weakened health. Authentic spirituality and health psychology resonate similar objectives that encourage collaboration.
In the final analysis, the unique methods and boundaries of psychological research and spiritual practices do not collapse in view of their similarities, yet require appreciation and differentiation, as well as potential collaboration for their mutual goals and benefits. While William James said, “There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose one before we can participate in the other;” it may be that these two lives as both natural and spiritual reflect our true nature and may be most beneficial by learning how to embrace them together.
Chiao, J. et. al., (2010). “Theory and methods in cultural neuroscience.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5, 2-3:356-361.
James, W. (1902/2013). The varieties of religious experience. Seattle: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Koenig, H. G. (2012). Review Article—Religion, spirituality, and health: The research and clinical implications. ISRN Psychiatry. 12:278730.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit www.drchirban.com.