I’ve been looking at religion all wrong.
I’ve often been critical in this column of the role religion plays in our lives. No surprise there. My tendency is to analyze religious beliefs and practices by whether they stand up to the test of rationality.
Can a religion’s backstory be proved or is it more a collection of powerful myths? Does religious law make logical sense? Is there tangible evidence for a supernatural presence in the universe?
All that misses the point, says Columbia College philosophy professor Stephen Asma. He lays out his argument in a recent New York Times article and in a new book, Why We Need Religion.
Religion will always fail the proof test, Asma says, because fact-based evidence simply doesn’t exist for religion, at least not in ways that science can measure.
But that’s not what religion’s all about, argues Asma, a former Catholic altar boy who grew up to become a devout atheist and religion-skewering writer for publications such as Skeptic magazine.
Asma still scoffs at the absolutism of religion.
“I do not intend to try to rescue religion as reasonable. It isn’t terribly reasonable,” he writes in his Times piece. “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, he explains, is a “kluge of different operating systems.” There’s the ancient reptilian brain, which governs our motor functions and our fight-or-flight instincts; the mammalian brain, which is where we find our emotions; and the more recently evolved neocortex, which is where we derive our rationality.
“Religion irritates the rational brain,” Asma writes, “because it trades in magical thinking.” Religion’s sweet spot, rather, is the emotional brain. That’s where it “calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty.”
Our emotions – be they fear, rage, lust, love or grief – if managed properly, are part of how we survive. They helped early mammals flourish and for humans are every bit as evolutionarily imperative as our ability to walk upright or use language. “In many cases, emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems than deliberative cognition,” Asma says.
Moreover, religion – especially in times of crisis or bereavement, with its time-honored rituals and an emphasis on community – serves as a kind of palliative pain management. Just think about the healing role played by the Jewish custom of shiva, the seven days of mourning.
“What’s so bad about pain relief, anyway?” Asma the atheist asks. Indeed, who among us would take away a proven therapeutic tool like religion, only to leave the bereaved with – what – OxyContin, aspirin and alcohol?
“We need a more clear-eyed appreciation of the role of [such] cultural analgesics,” Asma states.
Karl Marx famously derided religion as “the opium of the people.” Asma’s counter: “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” following a terrorist attack.
Asma hasn’t become a believer and his book is not a treatise on return to religion. He steadfastly agrees with fellow atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris that religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity. “But we’re at the wrong bar,” he says.
Nor is Asma blind to religion’s darker side. Its pervasive black-and-white, good-vs-evil narratives still lead to far too much narrow-mindedness, hatred and violence. But is that enough to support American sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s claim that “the best thing we could possibly do” for the sake of human progress “would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths”?
I’ve never taken my own response to religious fundamentalism all the way to proposing we toss the baby out with the baptismal bathwater. Asma offers a new – and for me, refreshingly novel – way out: a bifurcation of the basis for religious belief into a requirement for definitive proof on one hand (not going to happen) and a non-toxic tool for releasing curative endorphins especially (although not only) in times of trouble.
Religion in this sense acts as a form of complementary medicine – a great big cultural placebo, if you will.
Compare religion with homeopathy, for example. There’s no scientific validation that homeopathy works. A 2016 British meta-study covering 176 trials looking at 68 different health conditions found “no evidence homeopathy was more effective than a placebo.” And yet, many people steadfastly take their ultra-highly diluted little white pills and rub their arnica cream on zealously.
How is this any different than the emotional support religion provides?
My take: It’s not, and maybe that’s fine (as long as it’s not harmful). The same goes for other types of healing that have eluded science so far.
Does that mean I’m ready to re-embrace religious observance? Probably not. Nor will I let up on my criticism when I encounter religious hypocrisy or political overreaching. (Sorry, rabbinate, you’re not off the hook here.) But perhaps I can accept that strict scientific scrutiny is not the only way to understand the persistence of religious faith and action.
In his article, Asma brings an example of a mother grieving after her son was murdered. Religion saved her from a mental breakdown, Asma says. It was only her belief that she would “see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife, where she was certain his body would be made whole [that] gave her the strength to continue raising her other two children.”
How could I not say “amen” to that? The writer’s book,
Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com
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