Do people still need religion?

My daughter asked my opinion about an essay in the New York Times, by philosophy professor Stephen Asma, titled, “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).” (Here’s a link.) Asma says he’s not religious, but argues that we still need religion.

He starts with a story about a woman whose son was killed. She was shattered, and “suffered a mental breakdown.” But what saved her, enabling her to “soldier on” to raise her remaining kids was (guess what) religion, including belief that she’d see her dead son again in Heaven.

Asma calls that irrational; but says “its irrationality does not render it unacceptable, valueless or cowardly. Its irrationality may even be the source of its power.” (I’ve seen people say they have faith not in spite of its irrationality, but because of it.)

Asma is distinguishing between rationality and emotion. He locates emotion in the “limbic mammalian brain,” and reason in the more evolved neocortex. “Religion,” he says, “nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty,” and “can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.” He mocks the idea of trying to soothe that bereaved mother with scientific information.

But drawing such a clear line between emotion and reason is a fundamental mistake. Asma cites neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, yet the one thing Damasio is famous for is the idea that reason and emotion are actually inextricably intertwined. You can’t separate them. Indeed, patients who suffered brain lesions that did separate them had disastrous results, because it is emotion that provides the motivation for reasoning.

And what exactly does Asma mean by “direct access to this emotional life?” Simply that people can be more emotive about God and Heaven than pondering theories of evolution or relativity? Well, so what?

Asma’s is hardly a startling new argument. It’s a very old and lame apologia dressed up with a lot of neuroscience and psychology jargon. It’s a utilitarian argument: that religion is useful because it works in soothing the existential dis-ease that life entails; truth or falsehood is immaterial. In fact, Asma actually calls the “emotional management” provided by religious belief “healthy.” He even likens religion to pharmaceutical pain management remedies.

This echoes Marx calling religion the opiate of the masses. In effect Asma is  saying religion is a placebo! Placebo treatments work because they affect mental attitude, and mental attitude affects the body. Admittedly, of course, religion does do that.

But is this a reason to choose a religious belief? Remember that what one believes is, nominally at least, a choice. We don’t have beliefs pre-installed like software; we develop them ourselves based on what we’re taught, what we learn, what we experience. At the end of the day, does it make sense to say to oneself, “this isn’t true, but I’ll believe it anyway because it will make me feel good?”

My basic answer is this. One cannot engage authentically and meaningfully with life and the world while laboring under false concepts about their essential reality.

Like the concept of Heaven. As in the case of the mother Asma discusses, many people do prefer to believe death is not final, for obvious psychological reasons. I myself am profoundly troubled by my mortality. But that cannot persuade me to believe in a fairy tale alternate reality. And I feel that death, being really the most important fact about life, requires one to grapple with its true meaning, come to terms with it, and live life accordingly. Otherwise you’re not living authentically.

Meantime, most people who believe in an eternal paradise are in no hurry to go, and try to remain on Earth as long as possible. What’s up with that? “Belief” is a tricky concept. What people think they believe and what they actually believe can differ. You may persuade yourself you believe in Heaven — but another part of your brain is not on board. (As Mark Twain said, “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”)

I consider it mentally healthy to avoid such cognitive dissonance. To have all parts of one’s mind on the same page.

Further, Asma recognizes that the assertedly good things about religious belief are bound together with some very bad shit. Faith does give some people some comfort, but it also gives some people suicide vests. And that’s unsurprising. Because, after all, the idea of God is a very extreme idea, with extreme implications for how to behave if one actually believes it.

Indeed, if people really and truly believed in God, most would behave very differently. That belief seems to govern their lives only about 10%. But then you do get some people at the 100% level. And that’s a peck of trouble.

Asma refers to aspects of religion apart from dogmas — rituals, songs, human interactions, etc., all of which provide something in the emotional realm. But can’t we have that without ridiculous dogmas? In fact, the Unitarian “church” goes some way in that direction. I have sometimes imagined creating a “religion” devoid of superstition, but with rituals, songs, togetherness, etc.

That “religion” would be an expression of the emotion I feel about what I have referred to as the essential nature of life and the world. The science that Asma disparages as some seemingly cold dispassionate construct is part of it; contemplating it gives me very profound feelings about what I call the human project. One does not have to believe nonsensical things in order to feel deep emotions about the cosmos and human life within it. I would even submit that such emotions are better than ones grounded in concepts that are false — and known, deep down, in one’s heart of hearts, to be false.

3 Responses to “Do people still need religion?”

  1. Robb Smith Says:

    Stories give meaning to our lives. These stories do not have to be factually true, but they do have to be good stories that connect us to one another. Batman, the Marvel universe, etc. all provide mythology that may be more satisfying than the old religious myths, but they lack the ritual and tradition that keep groups together. So we are stuck with traditional stories that are less relevant every year but nonetheless are necessary for our sense of meaningful community. God is dying very slowly.


    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

  2. ryan71 Says:

    As Robb mentioned, “stories give meaning” as they provide vital wisdom to the human condition.
    We need to have faith. Without faith, in something, life would be chaos.

  3. Lee Says:

    With children, we teach to their level; in a host of subjects, we gloss over (i.e., lie about) some aspects that would be taught in intricate detail to graduate students. Inability to understand is not the only scenario in which we lie to ourselves. Sometimes the focus on the details of the absolute truth (as we know it) distracts us from a higher-level view that is more important.

    Religion can be more useful for these higher-level views than science. The problems arise only when religion is applied in scenarios where the glossing over of facts is a net negative. Teaching ourselves not to cross this line is important, but telling ourselves to also avoid the positive aspects of religion is a disservice.

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