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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Diaz-Gilbert

Review of How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion

Updated: Jan 19

In How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion psychology professor David DeSteno sets out to show the benefits of faith and world religions at various times of people's lives. He writes, "The one thing most social scientists, priests, imams, shamans, and rabbis share is a desire to help people live their best lives."

DeSteno adds, "Every faith has a ceremony to welcome a new life into the community, a set of principles to instill morality in the young and to transition them to adulthood, rituals to bind people together, to quell their anxieties, to heal their bodies, to console their souls, and to ease their demise." How God Works aims to "examine religious practices with a scientific eye."

DeSteno's first chapter focuses on infancy and parenthood. He provides great detail of Shinto rituals in Japan after the birth of a child but less detail on the formative years of children in the Jewish and Catholic tradition. DeSteno mentions that Muslims pray five times a day. Muslim mothers, however, are excused from prayers after giving birth and are encouraged to rest for forty days.

In the coming of age chapter DeSteno writes about indigenous Sateré-Mawé twelve and thirteen year old boys in the Amazon forest of Brazil preparing for the waumat ritual led by elders. He writes in detail about the coming of age rites among male Maasai adolescents in Kenya and Tanzania. These rituals and rites come with enduring pain and being resilient. DeSteno also writes about the rite of confirmation in Catholicism and bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah in Judaism.

The next chapter places emphasis on spiritual techniques to help achieve transcendence in adulthood. These techniques include tantra sex, being a mystic, living a monastic life, and taking mushrooms in the search for transcendence. DeSteno goes on to distinguish between

right-handed and left-handed spiritual techniques practiced in religions. Prayer, meditation, and monastic seclusion are right-handed. Psycho-active substances including the spiritual medicine ayahuasca in South America and the hallucinogen psilocybin in "magic" mushrooms are

left-hand techniques to help people achieve spiritual transcendence.

The next two chapters focus on religious rites and rituals to maintain body and soul, respectively, as we age. The final chapter focuses on how religion helps us to cope with suffering, grief, and death. Buddhist meditation exists to reduce suffering. In the Catholic tradition, the priest performs Last Rites on the dying. In the Hindu tradition, the dying is brought home to die surrounded by family. In Judaism, the bereaved sit shiva and say Kaddish. Both help to bring comfort.

However, while covering all the world religions and cultures is beyond the scope of the book, inclusion of Sikhism, the fifth largest religion in the world, as well as the spirituality and faith of African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos worldwide, which includes 'curanderismo' (faith healing), would have enhanced How God Works.

How God Work: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion is a reader-friendly book on an important topic and written in a conversational tone. The book contains a 14-page index and 34 pages of notes and sources. DeSteno ends his book with, "It's through science and religion working together while respecting each other that we can find new ways to do "God's work" here on earth."

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I am the author of Come What May, I Want to Run: A Memoir of the Saving Grace of Ultrarunning in Overwhelming Times. You can order the book here from from the publisher, Amazon, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble.


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