Religion as therapy: Stephen Asma doesn’t care whether it’s true as long as it makes us feel better.

June 4, 2018 • 1:00 pm

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

69 thoughts on “Religion as therapy: Stephen Asma doesn’t care whether it’s true as long as it makes us feel better.

  1. From your description, sooooooo much wrong with this clown. Evolution not falsifiable? WTF? Sounds like he’s masquerading as an atheist to sell books. Only a Christian could make the blatant mistakes you pointed out (failure to account for other religions, failure to account for atheist mental health, etc.) Good article.

    1. He also went after evolution, saying that Darwin’s theory wasn’t “solid science” because it couldn’t be falsified.

      Amusingly enough, just today I read chapter 3 in Moti Ben-Ari’s book Just a Theory, in which he discusses falsification, and shows that evolution is falsifiable (and hence scientific) while, mutatis mutandum, creationism is neither:

      “Until creationists accept that their claims must be falsifiable and show how they could be falsified, creationism cannot be said to be a scientific theory.”

      “Popper’s attempt to construct a methodology from falsification may have been flawed, but the concept is central in the demarcation of science from nonscience. No matter how strong one’s convictions, a true scientist will always allow for the possibility that her results may be falsified; if she denies this possibility or refuses to abandon or modify a theory in the face of repeated falsifications, you can be sure that you are dealing with pseudoscience, not science.” (both quotes on page 75)

  2. Maybe religion is therapy for philosophers? But if you get stuck in this gear for too long shouldn’t you be into theology instead?

  3. Typo: “Asra doesn’t take up this issue” (his name is Asma).

    Arguable: “quantum leap” — is one of those terms that should be put to rest. It can mean paradigm shift from classical to quantum, but more often is associated with the leaping of particles, i.e. a tiny leap.

    A good takedown, though it probably wouldn’t change his mind, since he starts with a different value (comfort over truth) and these people are too indoctrinated to have an understanding that humans not in the claw of religion develop other ways to cope with grief. All they see is someone who now struggles with something and how religion helps, and they contrast that with someone who hasn’t anything.

    It’s like saying you need an umbrella in case of a plane crashes, because it is much better to have an umbrella on a lonely island than nothing. The idea that one could bring something more useful for the event is ruled out by the example they chose.

  4. Science doesn’t console grieving mothers, therefore we need religion. Well, that’s quite a non sequitur. Consolation and support can be offered by atheists and scientists. We’ve all done it many times. It sure seems like Asma lives in a bubble where he hasn’t seen any atheists or scientists grieve or offer consolation to those who are grieving.

  5. While a person being a witch may not be true, it makes some people feel good to burn them at the stake.

    What nonsense!

  6. I blame Thomas Kuhn for a lot of this. Although if he had not written The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, someone else would have written something like it.

    When I first read SSR, I thought it was profound. At this point of my life, I also thought Carlos Castaneda had profound insights. As well as Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

    I did try to read Ayn Rand back then but she was such a terrible writer that I could never finish any of her books.

    It is amazing that the influence of these “thinkers” continues to this day. If you are impressed by them as a teenage boy, you should abandon them no later than age 25. Unfortunately, the true believers stick with them for life.

    1. I could have written your first three paragraphs! (Except that I never actually read SSR–I just absorbed what others, especially mentors, said and wrote about it.)

      We must be quite similar in age. 😉

        1. I’m 68–but don’t tell anyone…

          I first remember hearing about Popper’s thesis during an OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) course in 1972.

  7. Jerry, I believe you are a bit too optimistic about very sharp declines in religious belief in the USA. I hope it does happen, but the problem is that studies have shown that insecurity and lack of control promotes superstitious beliefs. A common example in baseball is that batting has many more associated superstitions than fielding. Another example shows that sky divers see illusionary images in random dot patterns just before jumping.
    Following this principle, the US is much more religious than other 1st world countries, in part, because citizens are much less secure. To rid us of most religion would require making citizens less vulnerable, which will be a very slow and difficult process.
    A short reference follows: Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception
    Science 3 October 2008: Vol. 322 no. 5898 pp. 115-117

    1. “To rid us of most religion would require making citizens less vulnerable…”

      I think that’s exactly what Jerry’s stated many times. But I am every bit as pessimistic as you. I kinda feel that if the Enlightenment hasn’t prevailed by now, it’s never gonna do so.

      I also think “followers” are evolutionarily maintained at some proportion of a given population because sometimes blind acceptance is more adaptable than freethinking.

      I also think our (US-ian) utter size and diversity works against us, in that it encourages the tribalism that seems to be the root of much societal unrest. When we compare ourselves to Scandinavian countries, for instance, we don’t take into consideration that only one has a population larger than that of New York City. I do expect that the north-bound immigration in the old world (now mostly political, but predicted to soon be due to climate change as well, it’s been predicted) will rile up the currently stable, secular European countries, which will then slide more into tribalism, demagogues, conservative politics, etc. I think it’s already happening.

      Ain’t I profound? 😀

      When I was first contemplating such matters, in the optimistic stage of youth when you’ve first thought to think of them and then realize that the solutions are so obvious that surely sensible minds will prevail, I, too, was optimistic. Given the horrendous backsliding in my lifetime, I’m exceedingly cynical about humanity ever becoming rational and superstition-free overall. Steven Pinker notwithstanding. 😉

      1. Regarding “followers” and size & diversity differences, just as you said above to someone else, “I could have written that myself.

        But, I might be slightly more optimistic than you. Or maybe slightly less pessimistic would be more accurate. I am 100% sure that we will never be rid of superstition or irrationality but I do think it is very possible that Scandinavian like levels of secular humanism could become widespread enough globally to make a big positive difference.

  8. Just a quick drive-by; not subscribing.

    (Hi, everybody! Hope all is as good for all y’all as it is for me. I mean, sure the world is on the express train to Helena Handbasket, with King Trump dragging us all along with him in his lovesick puppydog pursuit of Emperor Putin…but, locally, life couldn’t be better — at least for me.)

    Asma’s argument boils down to this:

    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.

    Even if we grant him his premise that the “emotional brain” doesn’t care about the substance of reality (he seriously typed that with a straight face!?), his conclusions still don’t follow.

    If we take as given that a certain person is suffering from a loss or trauma and that an evidence-based course of treatment and therapy for this person would be inadequate if it only stuck to facts…

    …he completely ignores the role of role-playing in such courses of therapy. And of art therapy and its related disciplines — or countless other methods available to the therapist, some (but not all!) of which do, indeed, face the truth unflinchingly head-on. (For example, the grieving mother can be assured that grief is normal and healthy, and she can simultaneously be empowered to take positive steps to build a better world, even in small ways — which is true regardless of the otherworldly condition of her child, something the therapist need not at all dwell upon or even directly address.)

    Nobody ever thinks that the roles played in therapy are real or that art is more real than reality; yet both speak quite eloquently to the “emotional brain” in as honest a manner as any ever proposed.

    What Asma’s thesis boils down to is a flat-out rejection of the validity of the modern evidence-based mental health profession in favor of walking on eggshells around anybody with a religious belief. And that, frankly, is unhealthy — mentally and otherwise — for everybody, the religious and secular alike.

    Worse, he seems to be suggesting that a mental health professional would ridicule or otherwise be dismissive of a patient’s religious or cultural heritage — a calumny as vile as one that suggested doctors give better treatment to those whose skin is the same shade as theirs. Mental health professionals have religious beliefs in the same proportions as the rest of the population, and a counselor who fasts during Ramadan is going to be no more inclined to convert a Pentecostalist to Islam than an atheist accountant is going to try to deconvert an Hindu client’s tax forms.



    1. “he completely ignores the role of role-playing in such courses of therapy.”

      But that’s what religion *is*. Along, unfortunately, with a lot of other toxic baggage.

      The difference between religion and a Star Trek convention is that the Trekkies don’t insist theirs is the only true universal belief to which everyone else must subscribe or be burned at the stake.


    1. Curiously enough I was just thinking the same thing. Comfort through pharmaceuticals… not a convincing argument but it leaves your weekends free.

  9. I have the impression he has misinterpreted Damasio (whom he cite twice). Damasio wrote in The Strange Order of Things this:

    “The fact that the history of religions is rife with episodes in which religios beliefs led and still lead to suffering, violence, and wars, hardly humanly desirable outcomes, in no way contradicts the homeostatic value that such beliefs did have and clearly still have for a large part of humanity.
    Finally, just as in the case of artistic endeavors, I need to make clear that I do not see religions as mere therapeutic responses. That the initial motivation of religious beliefs and practices was related to homeostatic compensation is both plausible and likely. How such early attempts evolved is another matter. The intellectual constructions that followed have gone beyond the goal of consolation to serve as instruments of inquiry and formulation of meaning where the compensation element is onle a vestige…”

  10. Asma is offering a false dichotomy. Simple as that. More complex, perhaps, is his motivations for doing so.

  11. Professor Coyne is correct that there is nothing new in this article. I would hazard the opinion that many people in the United States, if not most, go through life subscribing to one or more delusions, not always religious, but sometimes as dangerous. For example, I think that most members of the Trump cult are delusional. Many people use the delusion of religion to get through life and look to it for comfort in times of stress. In other words, for many people truth is an irrelevancy in how they live their lives. They will believe anything, no matter how nonsensical, if it makes it easier carrying the burdens of life. If religion were to disappear, other non-religious delusions would gain more currency to the degree people feel their lives are insecure medically, financially, professionally or in their personal relationships. So, yes, the better lives people live will reduce those harboring delusions. Delusional people will always be with us. Our goal should be to reduce that number. The Scandinavian model could provide some useful examples for the United States, while realizing that this country is in many ways different from northern Europe.

      1. Everybody has that feeling.

        And it’s true that, in your universe, you are the most important being. If you cease to exist, then – for you – the Universe will cease to exist too.


  12. Your claim that the NYT is more and more coddling toward religion, which I don’t support or dispute, caused me to explore a bit. This is part of some series they are calling “The Stone”, which they describe as follows:

    “A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. The series moderator is Simon Critchley, who teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research.”

    Obviously “The New School for Social Research” is a red flag. I full expected Mr. Critchley to be a full-fledged religionist but he claims to be an atheist:

    Just thought it was interesting.

  13. “emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems than deliberate cognition”

    So said he who was without sin and picked up the first stone to toss at the adulteress on the mount of Olives.

    1. I’m very sympathetic to the idea that emotions are flash judgments. But that’s precisely why they are dangerous – initial assessments can be useful but can also be disastrously wrong. That said, I am also sympathetic to the idea one can train them to be more effective.

      But is religion good for that? Arguably not, for all the usual reasons.

  14. Scientists are fond of contrasting religion and science by noting that “science works.” Well, in the case of the mother being consoled by the hope of seeing her dead son again, religion works. Personally, I don’t think such a hope is grounded in reality, but I’m inclined to agree with Asma that it doesn’t matter. As Jerry points out, the mother is never going to learn that she’s wrong.

    That said, I also agree that Asma is setting up a false dichotomy. As “musical beef” rightly notes, many atheists and scientists are perfectly capable of offering effective consolation to a grieving mother without resorting to the crutch of religion. Conversely, many who offer the consolation of religion may have a negative effect.

    Empathy is what counts, and most people can tell when it’s the genuine article.

    1. I don’t think you can conclude that “religion works” in the case of the mom with a dead son. In what way, exactly, can we say it is working? She still feels a terrible loss, exactly the same as she would if she was an atheist. Whatever comfort she gets is derived from the attention of those around her.

      1. “In what way, exactly, can we say it is working?”

        Her belief that she will see her son again allows her to get on with her life in a way that she supposedly wouldn’t if she didn’t believe this. Hence it “works” in the same way that a placebo works. Not sure why this isn’t obvious.

        1. “Supposedly” betrays unwarranted credulity.

          A qualified mental health professional, especially one who specializes in grief counseling, would be much better qualified to provide her with the resources she needs “to get on with her life” than simply whitewashing her sorrows with vague assurances of dogma.

          And, no. The mental health professional isn’t going to deconvert her or otherwise “rob” her of her religious belief. The professional will be professionally respectful of the patient’s religious and cultural background, even in cases when the professional’s own beliefs or culture are distinctly at odds with those of the patient.

          In practice, religion simply isn’t a significant factor of treatment, even when religion itself is the source of the problem. Treatment instead focusses on targeted building of specific cognitive and emotional strengths and agilities everybody needs (and most already have to some degree) — much like physical therapy builds strength and range of motion in injured parts of the body. The therapist helps the patient build cognitive strength and stability; what the patient does with that is up to the patient.

          And, yes. Modern mental health practice is evidence-based. See your local Wikipedia for references to peer-reviewed research, if need be.

          Incidentally, there’s zero shame in needing the help of a mental health professional, especially if you find yourself in unfamiliar territory. Just as you wouldn’t beat yourself up for not being able to haul around 50-pound sacks of potatoes if you’ve never had to before or after you’ve been injured, you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you don’t know how to deal with the aftermath of loss or trauma, especially if you’ve never had any personal experience with it.

          This hypothetical woman wasn’t born knowing what to do in the aftermath of the death of her son, and it’s certainly not something you’re taught in school. So why should we expect her to be able to instinctively do it any better than we’d expect her to instinctively mentally power herself through hauling around 50-pound sacks of potatoes on no notice?



          1. I am somewhat skeptical of the evidence base for some mental health practices, even some mainstream ones. Furthermore, I have had mental health providers suggest approaches for which there is no – or virtually no – evidence base eg therapeutic shaking, brain spotting.

          2. While a mental health professional could certainly help people in times of personal crisis, many cannot afford such care. Indeed, if all people in crisis turned to mental health professionals, there would not be by a long shot enough of the latter to service the incredible demand. Religion does, in fact, help people in times of crisis. Many of the more than 1100 comments on the NYT site testify to this. People in crisis don’t care about the truth; they want to psychologically survive. As another commenter pointed out, religion helps many of them as the placebo effect comes into play. This is why the delusion of religion will not totally disappear any time soon. Many if not most people need a delusion of one sort or another to get through the day. Religion is one of those delusions.

            1. Medical professions have, for millennia, operated under the principle of first doing no harm.

              In triage situations, where inadequate resources are available to treat the entire population in need, the answer is not to break out the voodoo dolls and ouija boards. Rather, one prioritizes the limited resources according to pre-established protocols while simultaneously working to generate and acquire more resources.

              In medical crises, this might be done by providing emergency training to volunteers and by improvising according to best practices. For example, a family pressure cooker normally used to prepare beans for dinner could be coopted as a “good enough” autoclave to sterilize surgical equipment.

              You are correct in noting that we are in the midst of a crisis of access to adequate mental health care, but the answer is to train more mental health professionals and to pay current professionals competitively. Even the tiniest fraction of the out-of-pocket cost of the Trump tax cut would have paid for an entire new generation of such professionals; as such, I take conservative objections that we’re much too poor to be able to afford the same modern health care as the rest of the developed world enjoys with utmost cynicism. Especially when the recommended alternative is to simply give up because anything else is too expensive or difficult.

              Can you imagine the outcry if, in face of the current medical health care crisis, the proffered solution was an embrace of faith healing? If people with cancer unable to afford treatment were instead told to be content with the comfort of their religious beliefs that they’ll be reunited with their families after they all die? If that seems outrageous to you — and it should — why should your own directly-equivalent suggestion for mental health “treatment” be any less outrageous?

              For that matter, could there be anything more un-American than this “can’t do” attitude so pervasive on the right? Not to mention that it’s the “haves” taking ever more unto themselves telling the “have nots” to tighten their belts! This is the land of equality, the land of opportunity, the land of limitless potential!?

              Aargh! Must not refresh. Must go do something productive.


              1. “Can you imagine the outcry if, in face of the current medical health care crisis, the proffered solution was an embrace of faith healing?”

                You’ve jumped the tracks here, Ben, and gone a long way round to do it. No one is suggesting that the medical profession offer religion as a substitute for best-practices, evidence-based treatment. The issue is simple: if this mother’s religious beliefs do in fact help her in the grieving process for her lost son, is there any point in your disabusing her of those beliefs just because you consider them to be false? If your answer is “yes,” then tell us (as succinctly as possible) what exactly you hope to gain.


              2. No one is suggesting that the medical profession offer religion as a substitute for best-practices, evidence-based treatment.

                That’s the very title of Asma’s op-ed: that religion is (at least in some instances) the only substitute for science.

                And you yourself wrote, “Her belief that she will see her son again allows her to get on with her life in a way that she supposedly wouldn’t if she didn’t believe this.” You are claiming that her religion is a substitute, and claiming that evidence-based treatment (at least in her case) is a poor second-rate alternate for her religious beliefs.

                So…”no one” really means, “the original author as well as you yourself”…?

                is there any point in your disabusing her of those beliefs just because you consider them to be false?

                As should be overpoweringly obvious from my multiple posts in this thread, a therapist who set out to disabuse a patient of religious beliefs that contradict those of the therapist’s…that would be more gross violations of professional and ethical standards than I can count. And it would run violently counter to the evidence-based standard of care — something not that different from randomly stabbing somebody suffering from cardiac arrest in a mad parody of an exorcist’s version of an organ transplant.

                So since you’re not only arguing with yourself but with some straw man who’s the diametric opposite of me, I must leave here with the conclusion that somebody in this thread is powerfully confused. And I don’t think it’s me….


          3. Presumably this woman didn’t adopt a religious belief in an afterlife with “no notice” on the occasion of her son’s death. I would assume it was a long-held belief that either was or wasn’t strong enough to be of any help to her in the grieving process. Comparing this to the help of a mental health professional is a bit beside the point, since such help may or may not be available and, if available, may or may not be sought out.

            As for being evidence-based, I could cite any number of studies that show that people with strong spiritual beliefs resolve their grief faster than those without. Unfortunately, however, this is an area in which the results of studies tend to magically coincide with the researchers’ predilections—and I say this as one with 20 years experience working with health researchers.

            So instead I’ll just stand by my original post.

    2. I can understand how believing you will see your son again would give you consolation. And if you carry that belief to your grave, you will, indeed, never know you are wrong.

      But what if you come to the conclusion that you are wrong during your lifetime? And what if you realize that the people encouraging you to believe it don’t believe it is true? Where does that leave you? You’ve lost your comforting belief and you understand that you have been horribly misled.

      1. To answer your ‘what if’ –

        that may well depend on the circumstances of the case. We’ll assume the belief helps the mother through the initial period of grieving.
        Like morphine after an injury.
        Usually, the sharpness of that emotion fades with time (‘time is a great healer’). If, later on, the mother very gradually realises that her religious comfort was illusory, she may be able to put that in context and get on with her life anyway.

        A few might suddenly realise they were being ‘lied to’ and experience a huge emotional shock as a consequence (your scenario). Or become addicted to the belief (morphine addicts?).

        Often, what helps is just feeling that someone cares and understands, whether it’s a priest, a therapist, or a friend, irrespective of what line they take.

        (H/T to Karl Marx for the ‘opiate of the masses’ allusion)


        1. And Marx realized that one had to fix things so the drug was not needed … not insist that we remain addicted forever, which is what the article suggests sort of .

    3. “Empathy is what counts” – this hits the nail on the head. There’s an enormous amount of evidence that empathetic support, whether from the community or a mental health professional or preferably both, helps. So of course the grieving mother is helped by her church group – but the emphasis should probably be on group, far more than on “church”.

  15. Relinquishing religion helped me sleep better at night. Ever since the death of my grandfather, when I was 7 or 8, I would have trouble falling asleep as I would get stuck thinking about that great unimaginable stretch of time, Eternity. For a small child, it was representative of a great, unending blackness, a void. It terrified me, kept me wide-eyed and clutching my covers, fearful of this Eternity; a time more vast than anything an 8- yr old could cope with, more vast than the ocean, more vast than the night sky. I never felt comforted by a god or heaven, although I was terrified of hell. However, the realization that when you die, you dead, as the song goes, and the Mark Twain quote about not having been worried about all the time before I was born, etc., well, what a relief! I can still be sad about all the future I’ll never see, but now I fear the eternal void no more than a lamp fears being switched off. Becoming an atheist was to be freed from eternity and from fear of that eternity. Now, I only fear all the crazy crap life throws at me, and embarrassing social situations and gawd never helped with that when I was a believer, so I’ve lost nothing but gained many more nights of sleeping soundly.

    1. Interesting. Even as an atheist, I occasionally experienced that feeling. It can be alarming, probably just as well we can’t fully comprehend the awfulness of infinity.

      My main fear of death is all the interesting stuff to be done and seen which I will never get to see. Maybe as I get more decrepit I will realise that’s becoming moot as I am no longer capable of experiencing it, like the 104-year-old Australian physicist(?) who just went to Switzerland for euthanasia.

      As the old tagline definition goes –
      Death (n) – to stop sinning suddenly.


  16. Not just consequentialism, but extremely short sighted consequentialism. After all one of the ways religion can help a person “feel better” is papering over the guilt they should be feeling for being horrible toward other people by assuring them that such behavior is moral even when it causes suffering for others.

  17. When the NYT created a “philosophy blog” in 2010, Jerry’s colleague at the U of Chicago, Brian Leiter, summed it up as “What is the NY Times Thinking?”
    “They create a blog forum related to philosophy (“The Stone”), and then choose a complete hack as its moderator. Simon Critchley?”

  18. If religion is helpful surely we should be deciding which of the religions is most helpful and then teaching just that one and suppressing the less helpful ones

  19. The guy is 99% full of it.

    The 1% where he has a point (which isn’t his point to own) is that an interest in something, or a belief, can be emotionally beneficial even if we know it’s a fantasy. (What’s the term my literature teacher used – ‘willing suspension of unbelief’).

    This is why I read Terry Pratchett. It’s why people avidly watch Game of Thrones or Star Trek (and speak Klingon!), even though they know it’s fiction. It helps them forget their banal troubles. And they’re welcome to do it.

    (The difference is, so far as I know, there are no Trekkies insisting that I believe in it too, or lynching Doctor Who fans for their heathen beliefs.)

    The other way he has a point is that our emotions urge us to believe that our dead loved ones are still around somewhere and we’ll see them again. And our innate sense of fairness strongly favours an afterlife where the occasional more blatant injustices of this life can be redressed. Unfortunately, the universe doesn’t give a damn.


  20. My response to the likes of Asma is this:

    In the DRC last month there was an ebola outbreak. Three patients with the dread disease were quarantined.

    The families were devastated – but their religion gave them the strength they needed…

    To arrange a break-out from the quarantine so they could take their family members to a church to pray for healing.

    Or at least they tried. By two in the morning, when authorities found them, one was dead, another dying, a third survived.

    And 50 members of the congregation had to be quarantined, because they came into contact with the escapees’ sweat and vomit.

    That which makes us feel better is not good.

    That’s your comfort in religion in action.

  21. The idea that “it doesn’t matter whether religion is true as long as it makes us feel better” was the conclusion reached in the movie Life of Pi, although I don’t think many people understood that.

    In the movie, the character Pi tells a far-fetched but entertaining story to a writer about his experience while lost at sea, which includes a tiger and some implausible events, such as landing on a magical floating island populated by meerkats. Then he follows with a more realistic but depressing version.

    And then:

    Adult Pi Patel: So which story do you prefer?

    Writer: The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.

    Adult Pi Patel: Thank you. And so it goes with God.

  22. This article presents religion in a highly abstract way, quite different from what most people of faith actually practice. The great majority of Christians I know really do think there really is an Old-Man-in-the-Sky, who will soothe the aches life gives us, give out justice to the oppressed and the wicked, and reward the just and upright. They would be insulted at the assertion God is not real, but just an elaborate personification of wishes and desires.

  23. Think about the dying grandma another way. She was, all of her life, an anti-semite. As she lay dying you whisper in her ear. “You were right, Grandma, it was the Jews!” Grandma is comforted in her last few minutes of life and goes to “her reward,” in peace.

    Confirming someone’s prejudices may be “comforting,” but hardly a touchstone for leading an honest life.

    Why confirm religious fairly tales as someone lies dying? Why not tell them stories, read to them from their favorite books, tell them you love them (if you actually do), massage their feet?

    1. Considering that she will soon be dead and that, therefore, nothing you say will have any consequences except for her personally – I’d say it was quite permissible to say whatever gives her most comfort, true or not.

      Even Hitch agreed implicitly with that view.

      (I think one should divorce this argument from anti-semitism, which is a red herring in this context).


  24. “This I find frightening: the idea that we should adopt as standards of belief what will make us good and happy rather than what is objectively true.” – Steven Weinberg, Night Thoughts of a Quantum Physicist

    1. Weinberg’s quote assumes that we can know what is objectively true, which, in the case of an afterlife, we can’t. That being the case, I’d indeed be inclined to go with what made me more “good and happy,” whether it was belief or disbelief. Both have been known to work.

  25. Weinberg’s quote assumes that we can know what is objectively true, which, in the case of an afterlife, we can’t. That being the case, I’d indeed be inclined to go with what made me more “good and happy,” whether it was belief or disbelief. Both have been known to work.

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