Awe-inspiring science can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing

October 15, 2023

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Awe-inspiring science can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing

Research by a team of psychologists has revealed a profound connection between the spirituality of science and positive wellbeing, much like the benefits traditionally associated with religion.

The research explored how people use science as a source of spirituality and its connection with their sense of wellbeing.

What the researchers say: “Spirituality is most often associated with religion, but science can be a powerful source of awe and wonder for many,” the lead author told us. “It can provide a meaningful source of understanding oneself and the universe, and it can foster a sense of connection to others and our place in the world.”

In three studies the research team surveyed 1197 people (602 men, 589 women, and 6 others) on their attitudes towards religious beliefs, spirituality and their interest and belief in science.

The first study established the concept of “Spirituality of Science”, and asked people about feelings of transcendence, connection and meaning when engaging with science. Participants’ responses were compared with other attitudes towards science, including an interest in science and belief in science, feelings of awe, meaning in their lives and religious beliefs.

Spirituality of Science was related to belief in science, but unlike other attitudes including interest in science and belief in science, Spirituality of Science was also associated with feelings of awe and general spirituality. This showed that scientific sources of spirituality may be psychologically similar to religious spirituality.

In the second study, the researchers focused specifically on a group of 526 atheists and agnostics, and found that Spirituality of Science was correlated with measures of psychological wellbeing, such as happiness, and meaning in life.

“Previous research has found that religious belief generally predicts positive mental wellbeing, but it has also implied that non-religious people may be subject to poorer psychological wellbeing,” the researchers explained. “This research has found that in fact, sources of spirituality outside of religion, like science, can have similar positive effects.”

The third study investigated links between Spirituality of Science and engagement and learning in science and found that spiritual experiences in science predicted stronger engagement and recall of scientific information.

The lead author said that the findings of the research could improve the teaching and learning of science in schools and predict better educational outcomes:

“Although science and religion differ in many ways, they share a capacity for spirituality through feelings of awe, coherence, and meaning in life. This capacity for spirituality has some important benefits and implications, as this research has found. People with greater feelings of Spirituality of Science were more positively engaged with science material, which predicted better science performance. And in a group of atheists and agnostics, Spirituality of Science predicted measures of well-being and meaning in life, paralleling the positive effects of religion that is frequently observed in religious people.”

“This work contributes not only to our current understanding of science attitudes but also to our general understanding of spirituality,” the researchers concluded.

So, what? I am an agnostic, at times bordering on atheist. As a scientist I do feel the awe and wonder of science. I marvel at the new findings in astrophysics (some of which are almost mystical in their implications), in quantum mechanics, in animal neurobiology (including the human animal) and in my own field of behavioral neurogenetics. Who would’ve thought that fruit flies can be autistic, that all animals with a brain share developmental, behavioral and mental disorder characteristics, that a particle in our galaxy can affect the expression of a particle in another galaxy in real time?

In a sense religion and science ask the same questions. Some of them only philosopher-scientists can answer.

Many eons ago a guru of mine, who was an Anglican priest called Dom Petit Pierre, and I were discussing exorcism (he was an exorcist). I, of course, stated my non-belief in the practice—I still don’t believe in it.

“Bob,” he said. “Everything is possible, but only if you ask the right questions.”

“How can a question make something possible?” I countered.

“Because there are no final answers.” I was lost. He continued: “In every answer there is an inherent question—cognitive Hegelianism, if you like. An answer, like Darwin’s theory of evolution, is not where science stops. It’s merely a signpost to the next question.”


“With each question there are possibilities. You create possibilities with questions. In the end the answers from priests and scientists are remarkably similar, only the wording is different. The danger is the temptation to stop at an answer and go no further and both professions can be guilty of that. ‘Evolution is a proven fact.’ ‘God exists.’ ‘Exorcism is a myth.’ Each ‘final’ answer cuts off possibilities and makes all of us the poorer.”

“Is there an end? There must be some finality.”

“So, Marx, Hegel, Darwin and Marcus Aurelius all thought. Their ‘final’ answers were anything but final.”

“And exorcism?”

“Every exorcism is a beginning, a questioning, possibilities without end. Is it factual? Possibly not. It is, however, a possibility leading to other questions and other possibilities. And God may be among them.”

“As a question?” I asked.

“As a springboard for questions,” he replied.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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