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Coping: How Religion Relies on Scientifically Proven Techniques

Medically reviewed by Christopher Conti, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 6, 2023

The tension between science and religion has endured for centuries. In a recent survey, only 10% of scientists in the United Kingdom, United States, Taiwan, or Hong Kong attended weekly religious services. That’s less than half the percentage of Americans who say they do — some 40% of U.S. residents describe themselves as “very religious.” Across Western Europe and the United States, church and temple membership has declined. Elites often dismiss religious texts as a collection of fairy tales. Yet before the 1800s, many scientific leaders had their roots in organized religion. Recently a study demonstrated how people of faith have long relied on a proven coping technique. What is it and what do the study’s results suggest for people dealing with loss or personal crisis regardless of their beliefs?


The Science-Religion Connection


It’s easy to focus on Galileo. In the 1600s, the man sometimes called the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei, was put on trial by the Roman Inquisition, a judicial arm of the Catholic Church. His crime? Advocating the theory that the Earth rotates every day while revolving around the sun. Forced to say our blue planet was in fact the center of the universe, the astronomer supposedly muttered “Eppur si muove!” –– yet it moves. Regardless of whether or not he said it, following the trial the outspoken scientist spent the remainder of his life under house arrest. 


Church-motivated trials, tortures, and gruesome executions (both Catholic and Protestant) were a dark component of European life during Galileo‘s time. Unfortunately, the Inquisitions’ horrors, along with numerous earlier terrors like the Anglican-sanctioned killings during King Henry VIII’s reign, overshadow the scientific contributions of religious organizations and their adherents.


In Europe from around 400 C.E. until well into the 1500s, the top scientists were aligned with the church, including medieval mathematician Bishop of Oxford Robert Grosseteste, Franciscan monk and experimental scientist Roger Bacon, and most famously a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral and the inspiration for many of Galileo’s  theories –– a man named Nicholas Copernicus. Often called the father of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel was an Austrian monk whose world-changing botanical experiments in the 19th century forged a path to the lifesaving therapies of the 21st. Many of the top scientific minds like Copernicus, Issac Newton, and Johannes Kepler saw their work studying the universe as intimately linked to their faith.


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Christianity isn’t the only religion connected to scientific thought. The work performed by ancient Greeks inspired Moslem scholars who advanced numerous theories of math and astronomy. Of the three major religions, Judaism may be sui generis. For not only did early Jewish scholars translate their people’s texts into popular languages (at a time when the Christian Bible was only available in Latin), but Israel is in the top five for the number of Nobel Prize winners despite having a relatively small population. 


Still, for the most part, by the 1900s the connection between science and religion appeared irrevocably severed. Today that may be slowly changing as research discovers provable benefits from age-old practices. Recently a study conducted at the Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign revealed how people of faith have long used a proven coping strategy called “cognitive reappraisal.”


The Study


No matter your beliefs, the COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly disruptive. Day-to-day routines have been destroyed and anxiety has soared while many are experiencing devastating loss. Earlier studies have shown that when we experience strong emotions like the ones surrounding the events of the past two years, it can help to reinterpret the events in a way that alters their meaning and changes the emotional impact. This coping technique is called cognitive reappraisal. It has been shown to reduce anxiety while being significantly healthier than suppressing an emotion or refusing to acknowledge the impact of an event. Reframing can mean that a secular person would say that a recently deceased loved one is no longer suffering while a person of faith might say they are with God.


In the study, over 200 participants with no clinical diagnoses of depression or anxiety were asked how they would respond when confronted with difficult or stressful events in their lives. A subset was further surveyed using a test that probed their religious beliefs. Besides learning that a majority of those who believed in God or belonged to a particular religion used cognitive reappraisal regularly, the study showed that they had increased confidence in their abilities to cope with unexpected crises while having less anxiety or depression than those who don’t use the technique. While it isn’t necessary to be religious to get its benefits, the study is part of a growing body of research showing how organized religion has developed over thousands of years of what one writer called “spiritual technologies” — the various battle-tested rituals and customs that can calm anxiety and improve confidence. 


Studies like the one conducted in Illinois suggest not only that it’s possible to believe in God and in science, but as study leader and professor of psychology in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, Florin Dolcos explains, “It should also speak to clergy members or church leaders who can promote this kind of reappraisal to help parishioners make sense of the world and increase their resilience against stress. I hope this is an example of where religion and science can work together to maintain and increase well-being.”


Written by John Bankston

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