“Even though I was raised Catholic, for most of my adult life, I didn’t pay religion much heed. Like many scientists, I assumed it was built on opinion, conjecture, or even hope, and therefore irrelevant to my work. That work is running a psychology lab focused on finding ways to improve the human condition, using the tools of science to develop techniques that can help people meet the challenges life throws at them. But in the 20 years since I began this work, I’ve realized that much of what psychologists and neuroscientists are finding about how to change people’s beliefs, feelings, and behaviors—how to support them when they grieve, how to help them be more ethical, how to let them find connection and happiness—echoes ideas and techniques that religions have been using for thousands of years.” [emphasis added]
This is how Northeastern University psychologist David DeSteno introduces himself and his work in a Wired excerpt from his new book, How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion.
Even before reading DeSteno’s book, I would naturally filter the findings of science through the lens of my Christian faith. What I’ve found is that much of what I learn from science echoes what I believe to be true about God and following Christ.
Helplessness and Hope
For example, this past week I read that “learned helplessness” was discovered by psychologists in dogs several decades ago. Researchers have since found that this trait is deeply connected to depression and that one of the main antidotes is hope. You can read about it in greater detail here, but I’ll offer a summary of the science before connecting it to the Gospel.
Psychologists were testing Pavlovian responses in dogs. They constrained the poor pups and created an association between a mild shock and a noise. Once the dogs had learned the association, they removed the constraints. The dogs could leave the compartment with the shock and escape any discomfort.
But the dogs did not leave.
At first, this seemed to be a failed experiment; instead, it was the first step in understanding learned helplessness. Subsequent tests added additional conditions and showed that if a dog feels out of control and learns the pain associated with the noise, it is unable to remove itself from the situation even after regaining control. Dogs that do not learn the association under constraints have no problem learning how to avoid the shocks.
Further experiments showed this to be true in mice and humans (as best I can tell, no humans were shocked). It was clear in human subjects that learned helplessness correlates with symptoms of depression that develop when people feel like they have no control over a situation. Moreover, in each test with humans, there was a subset of subjects who did not learn helplessness. They would seek a way out rather than accept and become depressed by their plight.
Researchers established the connections to depression, and current studies indicate that hopelessness drives both depression and learned helplessness. Thus, the antidote is hope.
Like DeSteno, I hear echoes of my Christian tradition in this work. Let me now connect it to the Gospel.
After the fall, after individual and systemic sin entered the world, we faced many forms of bondage: addiction, abuse, poverty, and racism to name but a few. In each, we can learn to be helpless and hopeless or we can have hope in the one who came to set the captives free. The Bible tells us stories of how Jesus found and healed those in helpless situations. He is the source of hope that allows us to pursue control no matter how out of control we might feel. This is the Gospel the church proclaims each and every week: freedom for those buried in depression and learned helplessness.
- Here is an adaptation from David DeSteno’s book. You can also watch this series of interviews he conducted about how God works.
- Learn how psychologists discovered and came to understand learned helplessness and its connection to hopelessness.
- One of the founders of this work, Martin Seligman, says they didn’t get it exactly right 50 years ago. Learn more in this podcast (start at 6:37) or in his book, The Hope Circuit.
- DeSteno has written extensively on themes like gratitude and compassion that can supplement and support a sermon or lesson.
This Will Preach: When Science Reveals How God Works
Confession time. I get a little annoyed each time a science and faith conversation gets railroaded by the question of origins, climate change, or some other contentious issue. Sure, these are issues that our churches must wrestle with, but by putting all our attention on areas of felt conflict, we might entirely miss the ways science reveals how God works.
DeSteno puts it this way: “Science and religion have often been at odds. But if we remove the theology—views about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like—from the day-to-day practice of religious faith, the animosity in the debate evaporates.”
I would argue this with DeSteno: animosity can evaporate without sacrificing theology. It is only specific aspects of science that certain people find to be at odds with Christianity. So much more resonates with our belief in a creator who created a species able to be in loving relationship with their God and their neighbor. It resonates with a God of great beauty and splendor; an awe-some God who has created a vast universe that proclaims the Creator’s handiwork. And some science, like that of learned helplessness or forgiveness, can even tell us how God through Christ has worked out freedom from bondage and offers hope for a world where everyone can flourish and find joy.
I’m talking about the kind of science that will preach; science that reveals —. It can preach in any church and doesn’t require us to agree on origins or the role of humans in climate change.
At Science for the Church, we don’t want the divisive issues to suck all the air out of the church’s engagement with science. Rather, we want to see the church proclaim from pulpit and pew the ways science is telling us how God works.