Science and Spirituality

Thou hast made us for thyself,

and our hearts are restless

until they find their rest in thee.

St. Augustine, Confessions

It’s amazing what social science can do, when not driven by ideological opposition to the objective order of things.

Looking back over the turmoil and triumph of his life, the Bishop of Hippo realized that God had always been with him, even when he had been thinking of anything and everything but God. In the end, meeting God was the key to meeting himself, as he really was, for the first time.

In a mirror image of Augustine’s journey, contemporary psychologist Clay Routledge has taken a close look at human nature, and found that it points back to God—or at least to religion, which points to God.

Observing that religious affiliation is declining in America, Routledge has the audacity to ask some hard questions about how that’s working for us. And the answers are precisely in line with what St. Augustine discovered centuries ago.

To begin with, Routledge notes that when people abandon religion, they don’t for that reason relinquish belief in things unseen. Even atheists can be shown to fear God (whom they allege doesn’t exist) more than they fear their fellow human beings.

Furthermore, though rationalists pretend that religion is opposed to science, a majority of practicing scientists think otherwise. Meanwhile, those who reject religion are likely to believe in “religious substitutes,” whose compatibility with science is genuinely dubious, such as “aliens, ghosts, astrology, and related ideas.”

Finally, Routledge considers the motivations driving religious or substitute-religious belief. Both types of conviction are strongly associated with our innate need for meaning.

While those in search of meaning are nowadays increasingly likely to seek it in substitute forms, however, the data suggest that—mirabile dictu!—traditional religion is far more successful at actually giving people a sense of meaning than are aliens, ghosts, and astrologers.

How does social science explain this superiority of religion? Further research supports the hypothesis that people derive meaning from “close familial, social, and community bonds,” which religion promotes. But this “sociological” point is by itself insufficient, even by the lights of empirical analysis.

For religion does more than tell people that they ought to cultivate social bonds. It actually enhances their capacity to do so. The chief practices of religion, such as public worship, private prayer, and the study of sacred texts, facilitate “order and structure,” “self-control,” and “moral concern for others”: the stuff of which flourishing relationships and societies are made.

In other words, it is “the spiritual dimension of religion” that is “vital to its social power,” rather than the other way around.

It seems that the fulfillment of our nature does indeed depend on an encounter with the One who designed that nature to be restless, until it finds its rest in him.

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