The Science of Sacred Spaces

 Olivia Rathbone

In this guest blog post, Professor Ken Miles casts a scientific eye over the interior of his local church. Ken is an academic radiologist and author of “From Billiard Balls to Bishops: a scientist’s introduction to Christian worship”. His webpage on science, faith and worship can be accessed and shared with this link:

Church buildings are not simply locations for worship. The design, shape, and features of religious settings are fundamental to the way God is experienced and to the changes in behaviour these encounters produce. And science can provide novel insights into what is going on; not pure science but science blended with Christian thinking. We can look at science afresh while allowing for the existence of God, recognising that there are experiences in which God is truly and critically a part. When we do this, we discover that specific features within a sacred space can bring about a range of beneficial outcomes that are supported by scientific data. Here are some examples from my local church in rural Devon.

When you enter via the north door, you are greeted by a worship space that invites exploration. A person must walk around this setting to appreciate its complexity and the more you move around, the more there is to see. An ornate rood screen separates the chancel and the nave such that there are many aspects of the church interior you cannot see or appreciate if you only look at it from a single location. The impact of different worship settings on congregants and external observers has been the subject of scientific research. Environmental and social psychologist Benjamin Meagher found that worship spaces which, like my local church, are visually complex and open to exploration are more likely to produce greater satisfaction, feelings of restoration, and more positive emotions among congregants.

On each side of the church, there is an arcade of arches supported by tall pillars which create an overall effect of spaciousness and height. Neuroscience has shown how these features can help worshippers to reflect on the divine. Thinking about concepts for God is fundamentally interlinked with brain activity related to the processing of spatial information. When we reflect on the divine, we also think about vertical position in space. To put it another way, our brains automatically associate God with highness. The sense of height produced by upright pillars and arches can enable connections to be made between our mental images for God and everyday body-based experiences. The pillars also create a setting predominantly comprised of vertical lines.  Environments of this sort can increase brain responses to the shifts in visual attention that can activate beneficial mental and bodily processes during worship.

If you look up, you will see a barrel-vaulted ceiling which, over the chancel, is decorated with a pattern of stars. According to research performed at the University of Toronto, when people encounter God-related words, their visual attention is systematically shifted upwards, drawing their attention to features located higher in space. This shift in attention can bring about physiological changes that not only promote physical and mental well-being but also influence emotions, thoughts, and decision-making.

In front of the rood screen, there is an ornate wine-glass pulpit. The ornate wood carvings on the panels of the pulpit add to the worship setting’s complexity and openness to exploration. But science suggests that using the pulpit to address the congregation is also beneficial. In a series of studies exploring the metaphors people use for God, social psychologist Brian Meier and his co-workers found that people respond more quickly to and are more likely to recall God-related concepts when they are presented higher in visual space.

My local church provides cushions for kneeling on during a church service. As is traditional, they have been embroidered using locally relevant images. But the kneelers are not just things of beauty. Kneeling and other bodily postures and actions undertaken during worship are not arbitrary customs adopted only for their symbolic meaning. Linking religious ideas to specific gestures and body positions can make abstract concepts easier to understand and remember, reinforcing belief in God. Physical activities that form part of worship can also contribute to better mental well-being, physical health and can lead others to a life of faith by signalling a genuine commitment to God.

Although built long ago, many of the internal features of my local church are much more than historical quirks. They continue to enhance the worship experiences of the congregants today. Science, when combined with Christian thinking, can show why they are beneficial. But sacred spaces do not need to be old to achieve these effects. With appropriate attention to design, modern settings can also make best use of the mental and physiological processes that become activated during worship. Even some outdoor settings have advantageous elements. For example, woodlands can provide an environment composed predominantly of vertical lines, creating a sense of height. On the other hand, it is worth noting that these beneficial features may be absent in many secular buildings that are sometimes selected for worship in an effort to connect with the population. The science of sacred spaces can not only heighten our appreciation of existing church settings but also play a helpful role when choosing or designing new places for worship.



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