In its slow movement towards Regressive Leftism, the New York Times has just made a quantum leap: a really bad op-ed piece for “The Stone” philosophy column that, as Authoritarian Leftists are wont to do, coddles religion. One would think that such Leftists would be rational and not spend a lot of time touting the benefits of fairy tales, but that wing of our party is also pragmatic, and realizes that criticizing those fairy tales offends a lot of people in America. Much better to tell everyone that religion is a good thing. Ergo we have the piece below (click on screenshot) that says we need religion—it’s not clear who “we” are—because it’s therapeutic and gives us emotional benefits.
It’s also not clear whether the author, Stephen Asma (a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago), is even religious, as he admits that religion is irrational, “isn’t terribly reasonable”, and that “most religious beliefs are not true.” (But which ones are true Dr. Asma?) In the end, though, none of that matters, for to Asma the emotional benefits of religion outweigh both the downsides of faith, which are many, as well as the probability that the empirical claims of religion, particularly that of the afterlife, are palpably false.
The claim that religion is good for people regardless of its truth isn’t a new argument, of course, and I wonder why the Times even published it. Asma gussies it up with some neuroscience, saying that our “reptilian brain” was built not for rationality, but for emotionality, and that “emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems than deliberate cognition”. (Really? Has he asked a Catholic priest how we should treat gays, women, divorced people, and those who use condoms?)
But I am getting ahead of myself. Asma isn’t offering any new arguments, but touting his brand-new book, Why We Need Religion. Given the plethora of goddies who inhabit our Republic, I’m guessing he’s hoping for a best-seller. After all, when you tell people what they want to hear, you sell more books, particularly when you tell them it’s okay to be religious and especially when you tell them there’s an afterlife. (It’s not clear whether Asma thinks there is one.)
At any rate, several readers called this article to my attention, fully expecting I’d go after it. And I will. But read it yourself by clicking on the screenshot below. Also, recall that I’ve written about Asma before—back in 2013 when he wrote an equally dire piece dissing science and claiming that there’s no way to demarcate it from pseudoscience. He also went after evolution, saying that Darwin’s theory wasn’t “solid science” because it couldn’t be falsified. You can read my critique of that at the link.
Asma begins by giving one of those “dying grandmother” case studies in which someone’s religious belief soothes them in light of a tragedy. The tale came from one of Asma’s undergraduate students:
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.
. . . No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical 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.
(Note the gratuitous science-dissing here. As if someone like Tyson would try to console a grieving mother by explaining science!)
Yes, of course we all know some reasons why religion persists, and not the least among them is brainwashing of kids. The question is whether it should persist—whether there’s a non-magical alternative that doesn’t come with religion’s harms. To many of us, there is: the alternative of secular humanism. The only downside to secular humanism is that it doesn’t give people false hopes that could console them. On the other hand, it helps us enjoy the one life we do have, and not waste our time going to church and pondering a nonexistent postmortem future.
And yes, religion also persists because it offers false hopes to those who have no other source of support, and, in the case of seeing one’s kid in the afterlife, those hopes can’t be dashed: the mother will never learn she’s wrong.
You’re saying, “But still, those hopes ARE false. We can’t base our lives on falsehoods!” I agree but Asma doesn’t. He says that it doesn’t matter if religious beliefs are false so long as they’re helpful.
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 neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing.
Note that here Asma lumps himself with “the secular world”, implying he’s an atheist too. In that case, he’s making the Little People Argument: “I don’t buy religion, but it’s good for the Little Folk.” And, in fact, you cannot fully embrace a religion, or reap its supposed consolations, if you don’t believe it’s true—really believe it’s true. If you don’t buy the Jesus story of Christianity, then you’re not going to be consoled about meeting your son in Heaven. Asma doesn’t take up this issue: if religion is irrational, and impossible to believe for many, then such people can never force themselves to believe, no matter how much they’d be consoled if they did.
Further, if religion is good because it provides this consolation, then what about those religions, like Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, in which you don’t get to meet your relatives and friends in the hereafter? Are those religions also good because they have other benefits?
Asma would say “yes,” because he does see other benefits of religion, including the rituals that bring consolation, and the idea that “religious practice is a form of social interaction that can improve psychological health.”
Never does he mention that countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and France—countries in which people who really believe in Heaven and other such nonsense are in the minority—manage to sustain themselves quite well, with people finding meaning in nonreligious activities and philosophies. And those countries, as we well know, tend to be better off than religious countries in most ways, including having a populace with greater material and psychological well being, and, importantly, being happier. If religion brings us so much consolation and happiness, and so much emotional well being, how come studies repeatedly show that a populace’s perception of their well being, and their assessment of their own happiness, are negatively correlated with the religiosity of their country? Why are the countries with the happiest and most secure people the most atheistic, while those with the least secure and unhappiest populations are the most religious? Why does religiosity go up after indices of social success go down? Shouldn’t it be the opposite, Dr. Asma?
Here’s what will happen. In the West, at least, scientific advances will continue to erode religion, despite what Asma says. Evolution, for instance, was one of the biggest faith-killers that ever came down the pike. As the evidence for God doesn’t get any stronger, but rationality and science continue to dispel things seen as mystical, like libertarian free will, the world will become more secular, regardless of what Asma thinks. That’s accelerated by the kind of material and moral progress outlined by Steve Pinker in his last two books—progress that reduces the need for religion as a psychological palliative. Asma argues that religion really doesn’t serve as Marx’s “opium of the people,” but the data say he’s wrong. (His article is woefully short of data and very long on unsubstantiated beliefs. But of course he’s a philosopher.)
And yes, there will remain a residuum of people who can’t survive without superstition. But much of the West will discover, as much of Europe already has, that we simply don’t need religion as an emotional crutch. Asma is not nearly as good a prognosticator as he is a canny speculator about what the American populace wants to hear.
Finally, as he did in the piece I criticized five years ago, Asma throws in some gratuitous science-dissing, connecting atheism with science and using that connection to impugn science. The man really doesn’t like science very much, except the kind of neuroscience that, he says, buttresses our supposedly strong need for religious belief:
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.
As Reagan said, “Here we go again.” Most “problem solving” is not emotional, but either hard-wired (I pull my hand out of the fire when I feel pain, I run when I see a tiger) or rational. When Asma says that emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems, he gives no examples, nor considers whether maybe emotions may be worse ways to solve problems.
I could go on, but I have ducks to feed: a much more important task than going after this misguided religion-osculator. I’ll simply add by repeating what I said in 2013:
Asam’s piece was brought to my attention by a friend who added, “The NY Times will publish anything by a philosopher who sneers at science.”
h/t: Michael, George