Why we need religion

Stephen Asma, an agnostic, argues powerfully that religion is natural and beneficial. Is it such a leap to believe that it is grounded in truth?

November 29, 2019
Jacob King/PA Wire/PA Images
Jacob King/PA Wire/PA Images

It is a truth, though sadly not one universally acknowledged, that what you think of religion largely depends on what you think is religion. If you believe religion to be primarily a means of explaining the origins and processes of the world and of nature, you’ll measure it with a scientific yardstick and find it wanting. If you think it is a metaphysical enterprise, making propositional but untestable statements about human identity and destiny, you’ll assess it on more philosophical principles, and find it momentous or meaningless depending on whether you like your ideas falsifiable. If you think it’s a series of ethical guidelines for how to navigate the world, with little truth content in themselves, you’ll measure it on a moral scale, and find it inspiring or dispiriting, depending on which bits you’re looking at. And so on and so forth.

Stephen Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago and, once upon time, a happy inhabitant of the first of these camps. Most of his early publications were “strenuously” critical of religion. He wrote enthusiastically for various sceptical and secularist publications, and even found himself listed in “Who’s who in hell,” a publication of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware.

However, some challenging encounters, wider reading and deeper reflection began to change his mind. “I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation,” he confesses towards the end of his provocatively-entitled 2018 Why We Need Religion, “but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously.” “I’m not naïve,” he goes on to say. “I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But it is a response that will not go and that should not go away if it provides genuine relief for anxiety and anguish.”

We have been here before. Such a non-conversion to “religion” is the cue for a toe-curlingly patronising exercise in religious non-defence. Religion may be irrational and infantile, you know, but it’s good for the children, especially the adult ones.

This, however, is not the direction in which Asma heads. To be clear, he still sees religion as irrational, although his extended discussion of creationism rather suggests he’s going for the low-hanging fruit here. Rather, he now views religion—his focus is primarily on Christianity and Buddhism, but much of what he says applies more widely—as natural, beneficial, humanising, and, indeed, indispensable.

The key is the body. Why We Need Religion takes our embodied and affective nature very seriously and shows, in detail and with impressive supporting evidence, that religious commitment—beliefs, practices, rituals, etc.—help protect and manage our emotional life with unparalleled and probably irreplaceable success. Religion is, in effect, a management system for our emotional lives that helps the human organism stay healthy and well.

Take grief as an example. Human grief has both elaborate cognitive and neurochemical dimensions (not, of course, disconnected things). We ruminate on moments past, futures lost, hopes dashed, memories decaying. At the same time, human—like all mammalian—grief is a form of separation distress. Mammalian brains are hardwired for the calming comfort of a caregiver’s touch, and when that is denied us, especially permanently, the brain experiences a “major reduction in opioids, oxytocin and prolactin.” Religious belief attenuates the severity of that separation, and religious practices develop, codify, and authenticate grieving customs that serve to offer a kind of emotional surrogate for loss. Both cognitively and affectively, religion helps us cope with grief. That, of course, is one of the reasons why non-religious religions like Secular Humanism so often get into the funeral business. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Asma looks at grief, forgiveness, resilience, sacrifice, joy, fear and other deep emotions besides. Time and again, he shows how religion contains “cultural structures that enshrine and celebrate some important adaptive psychological” states, drawing on evidence that would have upset his younger, more muscular secular self. Empirical studies, he writes half way through, confirm our long held assumption that “religious people try more than others to overcome their grudges.” Similarly, the evidence that education increases forgiveness and reduces violence “is somewhat thin.” The second of these is eminently believable but even I have problems believing the former. If true, there are certainly some pretty powerful counter-examples.

The book differs from the “but isn’t religion helpful” genre, then, for reasons of its scientific rigour, but also on account of the author’s sensitivity and empathy. Not only does it take some courage to begin a book by confessing a change of heart (if not mind) as Asma does, but it takes more, for example, to emphasise with the religiously violent. “People who dismiss religious-fuelled rage as intrinsically evil or primitive,” he writes, “have usually never faced real enemies.” Asma is not, of course, legitimising such rage or violence; simply seeking to understand it. In prosperous western liberal democracies, like our own, it is easy to think of one’s enemy as “a misunderstood force, whom one can eventually negotiate with.” That being so, religious rage is intolerable and an obvious moral failing. “Would that such [western] circumstances were long-lived and ubiquitous,” he remarks. “But they are neither.” This is powerful, striking at the heart of what makes people like you, me and those likely to read his book feel so morally superior.

All that being so, it seems to me to be a natural step to move (or at least to edge) from religion’s affective importance to its cognitive reliability; i.e. from the kind of goodness (or at least usefulness) of which Asma writes, to its truth. Now, to be clear, this move need not be made. Just because something is (or can be) good, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. However, we should, at least, pause here. You can make a very strong argument that religion has played a positive role in human evolution, enabling individual and group survival, strength and cohesion, thereby being selected for in the evolutionary process. True, evolution selects for survival, not truth… but the two are hardly independent.

Broadly speaking, an organism whose cognitive functions are capable of tracking “that which is the case” is likely to do better than one that doesn’t. Whether you are finding prey, sensing a predator, or responding otherwise to your environment, it helps if your evolved senses are trained on the truth. It strikes me that the same point can be made of the apparently ubiquitous human need for religion (or in some places now, religion-like substitutes). As Steven Pinker (of all people!) once remarked “we have colour vision because there are differences in wavelength in the world.  We have depth perception because the world actually does exist in three dimensions. By the same logic someone might be tempted to say that if we have a ‘God module’ there must be a God it’s an adaptation to.” Pinker of course is not tempted to say that. Nor, it seems, is Asma. I am.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos

"Why We Need Religion" by Stephen Asma is published by Oxford University Press