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Local Author Says Religion Might be the Best Therapeutic Drug Around

Religion might be best form of therapy out there.

At least, that’s what author Stephen T. Asma argues in his latest book “Why We Need Religion.” Asma, who teaches philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago, said he was inspired to write the book due to his religious beginnings.

Asma and his two brothers were raised Catholic and served as altar boys. In the book, he recalls witnessing countless funerals as part of those duties. He writes about the clichés he heard priests deliver at the funerals but acknowledges the comfort they provided mourning families. That experience serves as the foundation for his chapter on grief. Asma argues that religion is unique in its ability to help people who grieve and that science cannot fulfill this role.

Asma says many of religion’s claims are forms of magical thinking, but that it doesn’t matter if the religious belief is true – it only matters that it is meaningful to the believer.

Young people in the U.S. are increasingly turning their backs on religion. Asma sees this every day through discussions with his students. But, he says, this doesn’t mean they have no beliefs.

“They are every bit as spiritual and mystical as any traditional religious person. They very much believe in things like the soul,” Asma said.   

Asma himself stepped away from religion when he was in his 20s. He lived and traveled in Asia and developed an appreciation for Eastern religions like Buddhism. Asma’s “Eat, Pray, Love” moment came, he said, when he realized the therapeutic value religion has. 

Asma joins us for a discussion about the power and purpose religion can have.

Below, an excerpt from “Why We Need Religion.”


Opiate for the Masses?

It’s a tough time to defend religion. The respectability of religion, among intellectuals, has ebbed away over the last decade, and the next generation of young people is the most unaffiliated demographic in memory. There are good reasons for this discontent, as a storm of bad behavior, bad press, and good criticism has marked the last decade.

On the negative side, abuse by priests and clerics, jihad campaigns against the infidels, and homegrown Christian hostility toward diversity and secular culture, have all converged into a tsunami of ignorance and violence. The convergence has led many intellectuals to echo 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.”1

It’s hard to disagree with Wilson when we consider some recent cases. The 9/ 11 terrorists famously shouted “Allahu Akbar”— or “God is great” as they hijacked the planes. In January 2015, gunmen arrived at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices, went to the third floor, and shot dead eight journalists, a guest, and a police officer who had been assigned to protect workers. The gunmen were heard saying “We avenged the Prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo,” in French, and also shouting “Allahu Akbar.”2 And after the Islamic State (Daesh) attacked Paris on November 13, 2015, killing over 125 people, they released their “Statement about the Blessed Paris Invasion on the French Crusaders.” In the statement, they quote the Qur’an repeatedly as a motivation and explanation of their violence, and also state, “In a blessed attack for which Allah facilitated the causes for success, a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate, may Allah dignify it and make it victorious, launched out, targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity, the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe, Paris.”3

In May of 2014, the Catholic Church revealed that it defrocked 848 priests for rape or child molestation, and sanctioned another 2,572 clerics for lesser violations.4 These dramatic figures represent only the ten years between 2004 and 2014. These kinds of negative cases lead many reflective people to question the sincerity of religious people (especially those in power), and the value of religion itself.

On the positive side of the antireligion trend, there has been a surge of important analyses coming from recent atheist and agnostic critics, and an arguable uptick in scientific literacy among the younger generation. For the first time in U.S. history, for example, the majority of young people believe that Darwinian evolution is a fact about the natural world.5 I call these positive developments because they represent increases in critical thinking generally, although they’ve negatively impacted traditional religious belief. These negative and positive developments, in turn, have generated a greater skepticism toward religion in the new millennium. It’s a relative golden era for agnostics and atheists, and some of this is a welcome transformation.

On a personal note, it feels like the current zeitgeist has finally caught up with my own mindset of the 1990s. Most of my early publications were strenuously critical of religion, but it was a more credulous era then and the club of skeptics was tiny. I remember one of my mentors warning me in the early 1990s not to anger the gods and their servants too much before I secured tenure. It was good advice then, because I was scolded regularly in those days by Christians and New Age spiritualists for poking holes in Biblical literalism, mystical overreaches, and naive supernaturalism. I wrote regularly for the Skeptical Inquirer, the Humanist magazine, Skeptic magazine, and my bestselling Buddha for Beginners (1996) exposed a wide audience to a demystified, nontheological Buddhism, long before it was standard. I even found myself listed as an entry in the reference work Who’s Who In Hell (2000), and I’m still proud of my inclusion in that collection of august freethinkers and humanists. I’m relieved that the younger generation of skeptics has a smoother road now, and along with a generation of much better writers than myself, I take a sliver of credit for making skepticism more mainstream than ever.

So, now, it feels oddly familiar to be strangely out of step with my time, as I come around to write an appreciation of religion. But this will not be your typical, aging, return to religion, after a rebellious youth. I am not a religious apologist of that variety. Nor will this book use the old strategy of sweeping religious irrationality under the reassuring rug of “faith.” The fideism or faithism tradition, from Kierkegaard to C.S. Lewis, has defended religion on the grounds that its truths are above and beyond the regular faculties of knowledge. I have no such allegiance to faith, as a special ability, or power, or window to the light.

So, what is my appreciation of religion based upon? Why do I think we need religion? Perhaps a story is a good way to begin.

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 unraveled my own convictions and assumptions about religion.

Five years ago, he explained, his older teenage brother had been brutally stabbed to death. He was viciously attacked and mutilated by a perpetrator who was never caught. My student and his whole family were utterly shattered by their loss and the manner of their loss. He explained to me that his mother went insane for a while afterward, and would have been institutionalized if it were not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again. She expected to be reunited with him in the afterlife, and— she stressed— his body would be made whole again. A powerful motivational force, hope, and a set of bolstering beliefs dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow, and gave her the strength to keep raising her other two children— my student and his sister.

For the more extreme atheist, all this looks irrational and therefore unacceptable. Beliefs, we are told, must align themselves to evidence and not to mere yearning. Without rational standards, like those entrenched in science, we will all slouch toward chaos and end up in pre-Enlightenment darkness.

Strangely enough, I still agree with some of this, and will not spend much time trying to rescue religion as reasonable. It isn’t terribly reasonable. But therein lies its secret power. Contrary to the radical atheists, the irrationality of religion does not render it unacceptable or valueless. Why not? Because the human brain is a kludge of three major operating systems; the ancient reptilian brain (motor functions, fight or flight types of instincts, etc.), the limbic or mammalian brain (emotions), and the most recent neocortex (rationality). Religion nourishes one of these operating systems, even while it irritates another.

In this book, I will argue that religion, like art, has direct access to our emotional lives in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder and the majesty of nature (we can feel the sacred depths 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 paeans to religion that praise its ethical and civilizing function, I will be emphasizing its emotionally therapeutic power.

Of course, there is a well-documented dark side to spiritual emotions as well. Unlike scientific emotions of sublime interconnection (also still available in religion), the spiritual emotions tilt toward the melodramatic. Religion still trades readily in good-guy bad-guy narratives, and gives testosterone-fueled revenge fantasies every opportunity to vent aggression. But although much of this zealotry is undeniably dangerous, much of it is relatively harmless, and even the dreaded tribalism has some benign aspects. Moreover, I will argue (based on recent social science and psychology data) that the positive dimensions outweigh the negative. I will argue that traditional religion recruits and channels the mammalian emotions of fear and rage adaptively in premodern small group collectives, but in state-level global societies fresh challenges and obstacles arise. The lamentable story of religious zealotry is used by the enemies of religion to damn the whole enterprise, but this critique oversimplifies both the emotional palette (much of which is prosocial) and the religious modes of emotional management.

The New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are evaluating religion at the neocortical level— their criteria for assessing it is the hypothetico-deductive method.6 I agree with them that religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity, but we’re at the wrong bar. The older 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. Fear is a great prod to escape predators, for example, and aggression is useful in the defense of resources and offspring. Care or feelings of love (oxytocin and opioid based) strengthen bonds between mammal parents and offspring, and so on. In many cases, emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems than deliberative cognition. Moreover, our own human emotions are retained from our animal past and represent deep homologies with other mammals.

Of course, the tripartite brain is not a strict distribution of functions, and many systems interpenetrate one another, but affective neuroscience has located a subcortical headquarters of mammal emotion. This, I will argue, is where religion thrives. For us humans the interesting puzzle 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 behaviors? Our cognitive ability to formulate representations of the external world, and manipulate them is immersed in a sea of emotions. When I think about a heinous serial killer, for example, my blood runs cold. When I call up images of my loved ones in my mind’s eye, I am flooded with warm emotions. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown that emotions saturate even the seemingly pure information- processing aspects of rational deliberation.7 So, something complicated is happening when my student’s mother remembers and projects her deceased son, and further embeds him in a metaphysical narrative that helps her soldier on.

I will argue that religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives. No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. But the irrational hope that she would see her murdered son again sustained her, according to my student. If this emotionally grounded belief gave her the energy and vitality to continue caring for her other children, then we can envision a selective pressure for such emotional beliefs at the individual and kin levels of natural selection.

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. An emotion is not a representation or a judgment, so it cannot be evaluated like a theory. 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 to empirical facts, a “healthy emotion” might be one that contributes to neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing.

The definition of an emotion is almost as contentious as the definition of religion. For our purposes we will acknowledge that emotions involve complex combinations of (a) physiological sensations, (b) cognitive appraisals of situations, (c) cultural labels, and (d) expressions or behaviors of those feelings and appraisals (Simon and Nath 2004, following Peggy Thoits 1989). I will sometimes refer to the physiological aspect of emotions as “affects” to distinguish them from the more cognitive emotions of modern humans.

The intellectual life answers to the all- important criterion: Is this or that claim accurate? Do our views of the world carve nature at its joints? But the emotional life has a different master. It answers to the more ancient criterion: Does this or that feeling help the organism thrive? Often an accurate belief also produces thriving (how else could intelligence be selected for in Homo sapiens?). But frequently there is no such happy correlation. Mixing up these criteria is a common category mistake that fuels a lot of the theist/atheist debate.

Some skeptics suggest that my appreciation of emotional well-being (independent of questions of veracity and truth) is tantamount to “drinking the Kool- Aid” or “taking the blue pill” (from the Matrix scenario). But the real tension is not between delusion and truth— that’s an easy one. And that easy debate dominates the conversation, preventing a more nuanced discussion. The real tension is between the needs of one part of the brain (limbic) and the needs of another (the neocortical). Evolution shaped them both, and the older one does not get out of the way when the newbie comes on the scene.

William James understood this tension, long before we had a neurological way of framing it. And I will draw heavily on James’s still powerful “middle way” between the excesses of both secularism and theism. James recognized that faith is not knowledge in the strict sense, but since it is deeply meaningful it is important to see how and why it might be justified. He also understood, long before Damasio, that secular reason is more feeling-laden than we usually admit— there is a sentiment of rationality. The recent debates about religion, like polarizing political rhetoric, have lacked James’s refined understanding of the real stakes involved. John Dewey’s pragmatic A Common Faith also tried to preserve aspects of religious experience, while jettisoning the troubling metaphysics. “The religious,” Dewey explained, “is any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of its general and enduring value.”8 In this more capacious definition, he laid down a template for both today’s moderate skeptics and interfaith optimists.9

I will build a case for religious tolerance and appreciation, without neutering metaphysical traditions entirely. I will argue that there are indicative metaphysical commitments of religion (e.g., “Jesus is God,” “Shiva is destroyer,” “the soul exists”). But these are not the primary elements of religion. Our indicative beliefs are derived instead from our imperative emotional social experiences. Adaptive emotions, folk psychology, and cultural transmission are enough to generate most religious life. The metaphysical beliefs become part of a feedback loop, but they are not the prime movers or motivators of religious life. Dewey’s insight, that almost anything can be “religious” if we understand its unique blend of enthusiasm and existential scope, can be updated and revitalized with recent insights from social psychology, neuroscience, and cross-cultural philosophy.

I never had much use for magical thinking . . . until, eventually, I did. In the years since my student told me of his slain brother and unbreakable mother, my own troubles amplified in disturbing albeit illuminating ways. My personal suffering in the last decade, together with my experience living in Cambodia, strengthened my respect for religion, while leaving my agnosticism fully intact. There’s no need to go into confessional mode here, except to express an emotional solidarity with believers who find meaning in the intellectually awkward domain of religion. The relationship between suffering and religion is old and obvious, but we now have new tools (philosophical and scientific) to assess the relationship better. Moreover, this book will couch the issue of suffering in the wider web of religious necessity, namely human vulnerability. The need for religion is frequently proportional to the stakes involved— the householder/ parent, for example, has a level of high- stakes vulnerability largely unknown to the bohemian ascetic, or the teenager, or even the twenty- something citizen. And sure enough, their religious interests follow quite different paths. My book will offer an explanation of and modest justification for these religious impulses. It will be a respectful, rather than reductionist, psychologizing of religion. As Roger Scruton has pointed out, “consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.”

Importantly, this book is not just a defense of religion on the grounds that it comforts. It certainly has this function, and it is a crucial aspect of why we need religion. But many thinkers, from Lucretius and David Hume to Pascal Boyer, have noticed that religions inculcate some uncomfortable, harrowing psychological states.10 Sometimes religion creates more distress for believers than consolation. Jonathan Edwards (1703– 1758) famously set the bar for American religious horror, when he said, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”11 I will endeavor to show that even these negative feelings are part of the larger therapeutic mission of religion to manage the emotional life.

How one feels is as vital to one’s survival as how one thinks. This argument, premised on the view that emotions are largely adaptive, will be made throughout the chapters. Running through the text then will be two sets of data and argument. One will be the evidence and argument for adaptive lust, care, panic, fear, equanimity, rage, and so on. How exactly are these adaptive (from the Pleistocene to the present)? Secondly, how exactly do religions manage and modulate these affective powers? How do some of the religious universals (e.g., ritual, sacrifice, forgiveness, soteriology) regulate the emotions into successful survival resources?

Adapted from Why We Need Religion by Stephen T. Asma. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2018 and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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