By Stephen T. Asma
June 3, 2018
It’s a tough time to defend religion.
Respect for it has diminished in almost every corner of modern life — not just
among atheists and intellectuals, but among the wider public, too. And the next
generation of young people looks likely to be the most religiously unaffiliated
demographic in recent memory.
There are good reasons for this discontent:
continued revelations of abuse by priests and clerics, jihad campaigns against
“infidels” and home-grown Christian hostility toward diversity and secular
culture. This convergence of bad behaviour and bad press has led many to echo
the evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson’s claim that “for the sake of human
progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the
point of eliminating, religious faiths.”
Despite the very real problems with
religion — and my own historical scepticism toward it — I don’t subscribe to
that view. I would like to argue here, in fact, that we still need religion.
Perhaps a story is a good way to begin.
One day, after pompously lecturing a class
of undergraduates about the incoherence of monotheism, I was approached by a
shy student. He nervously stuttered through a heartbreaking story, one that
slowly unravelled my own convictions and assumptions about religion.
Five years ago, he explained, his older
teenage brother had been brutally stabbed to death, viciously attacked and
mutilated by a perpetrator who was never caught. My student, his mother and his
sister were shattered. His mother suffered a mental breakdown soon afterward
and would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to
see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife where she was
certain his body would be made whole. These bolstering beliefs, along with the
church rituals she engaged in after her son’s murder, dragged her back from the
brink of debilitating sorrow, and gave her the strength to continue raising her
other two children — my student and his sister.
To the typical atheist, all this looks
irrational, and therefore unacceptable. Beliefs, we are told, must be aligned
with evidence, not mere yearning. Without rational standards, like those
entrenched in science, we will all slouch toward chaos and end up in pre-Enlightenment
I do not intend to try to rescue religion
as reasonable. It isn’t terribly reasonable. But I do want to argue that its
irrationality does not render it unacceptable, valueless or cowardly. Its
irrationality may even be the source of its power.
The human brain is a kludge of different
operating systems: the ancient reptilian brain (motor functions,
fight-or-flight instincts), the limbic or mammalian brain (emotions) and the
more recently evolved neocortex (rationality). Religion irritates the rational
brain because it trades in magical thinking and no proof, but it nourishes the
emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens
feelings of loyalty.
According to prominent neuroscientists like
Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio and Kent Berridge, as well as
neuro-psychoanalysts like Mark Solms, our minds are motivated primarily by
ancient emotional systems, like fear, rage, lust, love and grief. These forces
are adaptive and help us survive if they are managed properly — that is if they
are made strong enough to accomplish goals of survival, but not so strong as to
overpower us and lead to neuroses and maladaptive behaviour.
My claim is that religion can provide
direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not. Yes,
science can give us emotional feelings of wonder at the majesty of nature, but
there are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any
scientific alleviation. Different emotional stresses require different kinds of
rescue. Unlike previous secular tributes to religion that praise its ethical
and civilizing function, I think we need religion because it is a road-tested
form of emotional management.
Of course, there is a well-documented dark
side to spiritual emotions. Religious emotional life tilts toward the
melodramatic. Religion still trades readily in good-and-evil narratives, and it
gives purchase to testosterone-fuelled revenge fantasies and aggression. While
this sort of zealotry is undeniably dangerous, most religion is actually
helpful to the average family struggling to eke out a living in trying times.
Religious rituals, for example, surround
the bereaved person with our most important resource — other people. Even more
than other mammals, humans are extremely dependent on others — not just for
acquiring resources and skills, but for feeling well. And feeling well is more
important than thinking well for my survival.
Religious practice is a form of social
interaction that can improve psychological health. When you’ve lost a loved
one, religion provides a therapeutic framework of rituals and beliefs that
produce the oxytocin, internal opioids, dopamine and other positive affects
that can help with coping and surviving. Beliefs play a role, but they are not
the primary mechanisms for delivering such therapeutic power. Instead,
religious practice (rituals, devotional activities, songs, prayer and story)
manage our emotions, giving us opportunities to express care for each other in
grief, providing us with the alleviation of stress and anxiety, or giving us
direction and an outlet for rage.
Atheists like Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson
and Sam Harris, are evaluating religion at the neocortical level — their
criteria for assessing it is the rational scientific method. I agree with them
that religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity, but we’re at the
wrong bar. The older reptilian brain, built by natural selection for solving
survival challenges, was not built for rationality. Emotions like fear, love,
rage — even hope or anticipation — were selected for because they helped early
mammals flourish. In many cases, emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems
than deliberative cognition.
For us humans, the interesting issue is how
the old animal operating system interacts with the new operating system of
cognition. How do our feelings and our thoughts blend together to compose our
mental lives and our behaviours? The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown
that emotions saturate even the seemingly pure information-processing aspects
of rational deliberation. So something complicated is happening when my
student’s mother remembers and projects her deceased son, and embeds him in a
religious narrative that helps her soldier on.
No amount of scientific explanation or socio-political
theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. Bill Nye the
Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide
to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of
crime. But the magical thinking that she is going to see her murdered son
again, along with the hugs from and songs with fellow parishioners, can sustain
her. If this emotionally grounded hope gives her the energy and vitality to
continue caring for her other children, it can do the same for others. And we
can see why religion persists.
Those of us in the secular world who
critique such emotional responses and strategies with the refrain, “But is it
true?” are missing the point. Most religious beliefs are not true. But here’s
the crux. The emotional brain doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on the grounds
of true and false. Emotions are not true or false. Even a terrible fear inside
a dream is still a terrible fear. This means that the criteria for measuring a
healthy theory are not the criteria for measuring a healthy emotion. Unlike a
healthy theory, which must correspond with empirical facts, a healthy emotion
is one that contributes to neuro-chemical homeostasis or other affective states
that promote biological flourishing.
Finally, we need a word or two about
opiates. The modern condemnation of religion has followed the Marxian rebuke
that religion is an opiate administered indirectly by state power in order to
secure a docile populace — one that accepts poverty and political
powerlessness, in hopes of posthumous supernatural rewards. “Religion is the
sigh of the oppressed creature,” Marx claimed, “the heart of a heartless world,
and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Marx, Mao and even Malcolm X levelled this
critique against traditional religion, and the critique lives on as a
disdainful last insult to be hurled at the believer. I hurled it myself many
times, thinking that it was a decisive weapon. In recent years, however, I’ve
changed my mind about this criticism.
First, religion is energizing as often as
it is anesthetizing. As often as it numbs or sedates, religion also riles up
and invigorates the believer. This animating quality of religion can make it
more hazardous to the state than it is tranquilizing, and it also inspires a
lot of altruistic philanthropy.
Second, what’s so bad about pain relief
anyway? If my view of religion is primarily therapeutic, I can hardly despair
when some of that therapy takes the form of palliative pain management. If
atheists think it’s enough to dismiss the believer on the grounds that he
should never buffer the pains of life, then I’ll assume the atheist has no
recourse to any pain management in his own life. In which case, I envy his
remarkably good fortune.
For the rest of us, there is aspirin,
alcohol, religion, hobbies, work, love, friendship. After all, opioids — like
endorphins — are innate chemical ingredients in the human brain and body, and
they evolved, in part, to occasionally relieve the organism from misery. Freud,
in his “Civilization and Its Discontents,” quotes the well-known phrase, “He
who has cares, has brandy too.”
We need a more clear-eyed appreciation of
the role of cultural analgesics. It is not enough to dismiss religion on the
grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee.
Religion is the most powerful cultural response to the universal emotional life
that connects us all.
Stephen Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago,
and the author of the forthcoming, “Why We Need Religion.”