THE QUESTION: Are various religions good for individuals and for society even if, as skeptics contend, their beliefs are not really true?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Time for a skepticism update. Never before in history has there been such a concerted effort to question the value of religious faith like we now see across the West’s free societies (as distinct from artificially enforced atheism under Communist tyrannies).
For instance, the common conviction that religion is important for shaping youngsters’ morals is questioned in a recent qz.com article by Annabelle Timsit, a writer on early childhood. “Parents who decide to raise their kids without a religion shouldn’t worry,” she assures us. “Studies have shown that there is no moral difference between children who are raised as religious and those raised secular or non-believing. Moral intuitions arise on their own in children.”
Admittedly, terrorism by Muslim cults raises doubts about the moral credibility of religion in general. Yet even Timsit acknowledges there are “well-documented” potential benefits from religiosity, such as “less drug, alcohol, and tobacco use; lower rates of depression and suicide; better sleep quality; and greater hopefulness and life satisfaction.” Faith also provides a “buffer” against stress and trauma, she says, not to mention fostering “better test scores” for students.
Stephen T. Asma, philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago, takes a similar stance. The above question is The Religion Guy’s blunt distillation of the intriguing scenario in his new book “Why We Need Religion” (Oxford University Press). He summarized it in a June 3 nytimes.com opinion piece “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).”
Say that again: “We need religion.”
What’s striking about this is that Asma is an “atheist,” according to Religion News Service, though he prefers the “agnostic” label. (Atheists are certain God or gods do not and could not exist. Agnostics aren’t sure, or figure we can never really know.) This onetime Catholic altar boy told RNS “I suspect there is no God in the personal way that the monotheisms recognize.” He calls himself a “cultural” Buddhist who has seriously studied that regimen, but not a “religious” one.
His new book critiques the “New Atheists” whose writings years ago slammed religions and religious believers as stupid if not evil. Let’s label Asma’s outlook the New Agnosticism. His analysis draws upon anthropology, biochemistry, research on lower primates, and especially human brain science. Conclusion: Religion has obvious benefits for individuals and for society. Lacking God as an explanation, he thinks faith simply evolved, Darwin-style, as a beneficial factor across eons of past time.
Asma formerly instructed his students in sharp-elbowed skepticism, but fell back upon what resembled prayer when his son was in a hospital emergency room. That mellowing got him to rethink what lies behind these inevitable human reactions. Another formative experience came when a student said his mother’s belief in her slain son’s life in heaven was the only thing that gave her the strength to soldier on and raise him and his siblings.
At this point, it’s important to emphasize per our question above that Asma has no regard for what religions teach as the truth concerning, say, the existence of God, the purpose of the cosmos and of life, the human soul, positive effects from prayer, scriptures as divine revelation, miraculous events, free will, or the afterlife. “Most religious beliefs are not true,” he insists, but they “are not the primary elements of religion.”
What, then? Think “coping mechanism” and “social glue.” That is, “religion, like art, has direct access to our emotional lives in ways that science does not.” Plus, “many forms of human suffering” are beyond any alleviation from science. His thinking has been influenced both by personal suffering and conditions he observed living in Cambodia.
In portraying religion as “primarily therapeutic,” Asma downplays its traditional “ethical and civilizing function” (a la Timsit) and instead uplifts its power to help people manage their emotional lives. If religion is an opiate, as Karl Marx preached, “what’s so bad about some opiates anyway?” Plus, Marx missed the fact that “religion is energizing as often as it is anesthetizing.”
From there, he scans the latest research in psychology and biology to probe how religions help us manage death, grief, forgiveness, shame, guilt, resilience, sacrifice, fear, rage, hopes, vulnerabilities, and (a favorite theme of sociologist Peter Berger) experiences of ecstasy, joy, and play.
In sum, religion may not be reasonable to his fellow skeptics but it’s “a cultural mechanism of emotional management, and emotional management is adaptive – leading to the survival of human individuals and groups.”
Yes, in some circumstances that produces defensive conflict over against outsiders. But “even the most supernatural religious beliefs can coexist with and even underscore the goals of tolerant humanism.”
Believers: What do you make of all this?