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June 22, 2010, at 8:34 pm — Blogs / / /

Positive psychology: where science and religion collide

I was born into two religions. When my parents wed, my mom was a former practicing Christian and my dad was a Buddhist only by association, much like the majority of the Taiwanese population. I still remember attending church services with friends and family friends, showing up to pray at Easter and Christmas services and being asked on occasion if I wanted to give myself over to a life led by Jesus Christ. Given that I was all of seven the first time this happened to me, I replied honestly that I just didn’t know enough about this God character to devote my entire life to Him and went about my merry way.

Alternately, some Saturdays I would make the 30 to 45 minute drive with my dad’s side of the family to the local temple, where we would light incense sticks, bow our heads before giant golden Buddha statues, and mumble a few words before sticking the incense into large vats. Religion, then, became to me at an early age merely a series of rituals — because my parents wanted to ensure that both my brother and I came to our own conclusions, they didn’t tell us much about the meaning behind these actions. So for me, organized religion always seemed more rooted in routine than in questioning, less discovery and more listening.

In college, I became very interested in psychology, and specifically, the psychology of happiness. So-called “positive psychology” is a growing field, and the volumes of books and studies devoted to the topic are astonishing. What I discovered, somewhere amidst the papers and exams and assignments, was just how many bits and pieces of religion seemed to leak their way into positive psychology. Psychology, now considered a science (albeit a “soft” science by people in other scientific fields), actually helped me make more sense of the religious rituals I had experienced growing up.

At that point in my life, I considered myself spiritual, but not religious. And here was my textbook, with facts and figures proving that meditation did indeed lead to better use of psychic energy and therefore increased happiness. Meditation, so deeply rooted in the Buddhist doctrine, is all about clearing the mind and understanding the impermanence of thoughts and feelings, and especially earth’s material things. By changing your mind, my texts claimed, you could change your brain’s functionality.

Buddhist monks, known to lead longer lives than the average human being, and also admired for their cool, collected demeanor, now have scientists supporting their way of life. Their thoughts. Their religious doctrine.

Likewise, studies have proven that individuals who spend time weekly (if not daily) on matters relating to faith live longer, happier lives than those who don’t believe in a God. Whether these are tricks of the brain or genuine results of religious faith is still the topic of much debate nowadays, but one thing is certain: Science and religion are no longer mutually exclusive. Being a man of faith doesn’t exclude someone from being a man of science, and vice versa.

Having grown up without understanding the spiritual aspects of religion or the logical mechanics of many scientific facts, it’s at least good to know that learning about one means I’m learning about the other as well.

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1 comment to Positive psychology: where science and religion collide

  • Well said. Learning about creation (through science) teaches us more about the Creator, and learning about the Creator (through faith) enlightens our understanding of creation. Truth can’t contradict truth.

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