Who cares if religion is true if it makes us feel good?

September 29, 2018 • 1:53 pm

Here we go again: a Sophisticated Thinker decides that it doesn’t matter whether the truth claims of religion are really true, and argues that most believers don’t think that they are. Instead, religion is important because it makes us feel good.  The three problems with this are, of course, that it does matter to most people (if there’s no God, is there any sense in religion?), that in fact most believers do accept some supernatural truth claims, and that it’s hard to see how people can be religious, or go to church, unless they believe at least some claims about the universe—especially the claim that a god exists.

Further, the author, Stephen T. Asma, doesn’t worry about the downside of religion: how it controls people in a way that makes them feel bad (the guilt of Catholic children and the brainwashing of Muslim children come to mind), how it leads to a warped morality, and how it inspires bad and immoral acts. Finally, Asma doesn’t worry about whether the increasing secularization of the West (and the near-atheism of northern Europe) has proceeded in the face of increasing despondency of the secularized inhabitants. Are Swedes and Danes really that gloomy and bereft?

Do I need to go any further? Perhaps just for a bit. Read the article below (click on screenshot), whose author is identified this way:

Stephen T Asma is professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of 10 books, including The Evolution of Imagination (2017) and his latest, Why We Need Religion (2018).


Asma’s argument:

1.) Religion doesn’t make important truth claims that motivate believers. Some quotes (indented; emphasis is mine):

Religion does not help us to explain nature. It did what it could in pre-scientific times, but that job was properly unseated by science. Most religious laypeople and even clergy agree: Pope John Paul II declared in 1996 that evolution is a fact and Catholics should get over it. No doubt some extreme anti-scientific thinking lives on in such places as Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, but it has become a fringe position. Most mainstream religious people accept a version of Galileo’s division of labour: ‘The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.

. . . Religion is real consolation in the same way that music is real consolation. No one thinks that the pleasure of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is ‘false pleasure’ because singing flutes don’t really exist. It doesn’t need to correspond to reality. It’s true that some religious devotees, unlike music devotees, pin their consolation to additional metaphysical claims, but why should we trust them to know how religion works? Such believers do not recognise that their unthinking religious rituals and social activities are the true sources of their therapeutic healing. Meanwhile, Hitchens and other critics confuse the factual disappointments of religion with the value of religion generally, and thereby miss the heart of it.

Ahh, he’s channeling Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA idea. You can see that taken apart in my book Faith versus Fact, but I’ll give a very abridged version in this post.  But do most people think that religion’s truth claims are bogus, or irrelevant? Here’s what a random poll of all Americans (not just believers) think is true; this was taken by the Harris organization five years ago. These are all metaphysical claims, of course:

A personal God concerned with you  68%
Absolutely certain there is a God  54%
Jesus was the son of God   68%
Jesus was born of a virgin   57%
Jesus was resurrected   65%
Miracles   72%
Heaven   68%
Hell and Satan   58%
Angels   68%
Survival of soul after death   64%

Further, many well known religionists have recognized that religious belief depends on truth claims. Here are three quotes I often use as well:

“I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection  of stories which motivate an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorage in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.”  —John Polkinghorne

“A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.” —Ian Barbour

“Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than  just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.”—Karl Giberson & Francis Collins

Asma needs to get out more.

2.) Religion is really about morality, consolation, and emotional connection. 

Maybe, then, the heart of religion is not its ability to explain nature, but its moral power?

If that’s the case, then give me secularism any day. For religious “morality” is often twisted and warped, more about people’s sex lives than their character. It tells them who to copulate with, what to wear, what to eat, whom to hate, and how often you should pray, and in which direction. How is that good?  And of course here are some results of Catholic “moral power,” a list I often give in talks:

Opposition to birth control (leading to an increase in STDs, including AIDS)
Opposition to abortion
Opposition to divorce
Opposition to homosexuality
Control of people’s sex lives
Oppression of women
Sexual abuse of children
Instillation of fear and guilt in children

If that’s the heart of Catholicism, please do an Aztec-style cardiectomy! But wait, Asma has more! (Emphases are mine.)

Emotional therapy is the animating heart of religion. Social bonding happens not only when we agree to worship the same totems, but when we feel affection for each other. An affective community of mutual care emerges when groups share rituals, liturgy, song, dance, eating, grieving, comforting, tales of saints and heroes, hardships such as fasting and sacrifice. Theological beliefs are bloodless abstractions by comparison.

Emotional management is important because life is hard. The Buddha said: ‘All life is suffering’ and most of us past a certain age can only agree. Religion evolved to handle what I call the ‘vulnerability problem’. When we’re sick, we go to the doctor, not the priest. But when our child dies, or we lose our home in a fire, or we’re diagnosed with Stage-4 cancer, then religion is helpful because it provides some relief and some strength. It also gives us something to do, when there’s nothing we can do.

Asma makes a big deal about how religion can console people facing death, or those whose loved ones have died, implicitly arguing that atheists lack such consolation:

Consider how religion helps people after a death. Social mammals who have suffered separation distress are restored to health by touch, collective meals and grooming. Human grieving customs involve these same soothing prosocial mechanisms. We comfort-touch and embrace a person who has lost a loved one. Our bodies give ancient comfort directly to the grieving body. We provide the bereaved with food and drink, and we break bread with them (think of the Jewish tradition of shiva, or the visitation tradition of wakes in many cultures).

He goes on and on. But I want to point out just one thing. We all know, of course, that much of that consolation does indeed come from religious beliefs that are taken to be true, namely the existence of God and of an afterlife. And Asma even obliquely admits this (my emphases):

Part of our ability to cope with suffering is our sense of power or agency: more power generally means better coping ability. If I acknowledge my own limitations when faced with unavoidable loss, but I feel that a powerful ally, God, is part of my agency or power, then I can be more resilient.

What? But what about those “bloodless theological beliefs”? Clearly God isn’t one of them!

God’s existence is in fact a genuine metaphysical claim, and without that then not even Asma is consoled. And has he considered that we nonbelivers who don’t accept gods on the grounds of no evidence cannot force ourselves to believe, even if we think it would help us? God may make Asma feel better, but I can’t make myself believe in God. I am not so constituted.

All I can say is that Asma seems clueless here, oblivious—in his eagerness to argue that religious makes no truth claims—to how the world really works. And yet he requires God to be consoled! The man is not only clueless, but can’t make a coherent argument. And Aeon doesn’t require that he make one. All they want is endless and sloppy osculation of faith.

To close, I’ll point out that the countries that are the happiest ones in the world are on average less religious (see chart below). Just sayin’. This is a correlation and not necessarily a causal relationship, but it’s the exact opposite of what Asma predicts. So it goes.

What is going on with the online magazine Aeon, anyway? Are they taking Templeton money on the sly?

Stephen T. Asma:

h/t: Ant

147 thoughts on “Who cares if religion is true if it makes us feel good?

  1. Karl said it first and more succinctly: religion is the opium of the people. And by glancing at the graph, one might guess that one causal way the correlation could be interpreted is that poor standards of living are driving people to religion. I wonder if there is a similar scatterplot of religiosity against government corruption.

  2. 1st August 2018: An article by Cathy Lynn Grossman “written with support from a Templeton Foundation grant” that bigs up Asma & has a dig at our Prof. Coyne:

    “True skeptics scoff at Asma’s idea that religion’s value is in offering solace, strength or delights science cannot match.

    Atheist Jerry Coyne, a frequent critic of Asma for nearly a decade, blasted the philosopher on his blog, “Why Evolution Is True,” as an anti-science sales-grubbing author who produced “Why We Need Religion” because Asma is a “canny speculator about what the American populace wants to hear.”

    Asma’s gray eyes crinkle as he laughs over Coyne’s comments.

    “He really doesn’t look at what I am saying or understand that I love science. He treats me like I’m a gullible New Age twit,” says Asma, who just finished an upcoming textbook on the evolution of cognition that he co-authored with a psychologist.”

    SOURCE: Religion News Service [RNS]

    “Our primary grant support comes from the Lilly Endowment Inc. In addition, we currently receive additional grants from the following organizations:

    Arcus Foundation
    Fieldstead and Company
    Google Inc.
    John Templeton Foundation”

    RNS have been paid a $210,078 Templeton Grant to produce articles over two years that

    “will analyze and illuminate for the public how science and religion intertwine to shine new light on the Big Questions of purpose and reality. This partnership will result in at least 40 original news and feature story packages produced by our Religion News Service, published at religionnews.com and distributed to more than 150 subscribing and partner news outlets for republication.”

    A very good deal indeed for Templeton. RNS/Double Helix/Brian Pellot should have got a $1M for that much advertising ~ perhaps next time…

    How long before Asma joins the feeding at the Templeton trough?

    1. “”He treats me like I’m a gullible New Age twit,” says Asma…”

      If the shoe fits…

      “…who just finished an upcoming textbook on the evolution of cognition that he co-authored with a psychologist.”

      Great, a social scientist & a philosopher write a book on evolution. Wonder what the ratio of assumptions to data is?

      1. You don’t necessarily need data to answer the Big Questions of purpose and reality. As long as you’re ensconced in an armchair.

  3. If you look at the map showing the happiest countries they seem to be European and countries such as the USA which have the European values. The unhappy countries are in Asia and Africa. Generally.
    The correlation is see between western values and happiness. Western cakes equaling European values. That leads to the question of the source of those values. Did they come from technology advances that lead to greater wealth and social support between individuals.
    Do the values come from philosophy and Judea Christian values and beliefs. Do one cause the other or visa versa.

    I do think it is and interesting and informative chart and map dhowing interesting correlations.

    Correlation and causation are interesting dynamics to consider.

    I have for some time stated that Christianity grew in Rome because the churches were communal and served as a welfare and support system where one was desperately needed as Rome declined. There were many religious sects in Rime. Why did Christian church’s grow when the other sects and beliefs did not?

    1. I’ve also wondered about Christianity’s beginnings and rapid spread. I have a theory (and it’s mine) that it was an economical reason. Based on “Jesus died for their sins” they no longer had to sacrifice wine, animals, food etc. to please the many gods. Now there was only one god that already sacrificed his son for mankind. So the new Xtians could keep more fruits of their labor. Sweet! I’m sure this has many holes (maybe the early Xtians still gave a lot of sacrifices). I’ve never bothered to see if any of these claims are historically accurate…or whether I could find out these kind of specifics anyway.

      1. Good question. Economics might have been part of the picture. Another, similar, rational is that it’s a very easy religion to adopt. There are no serious requirements except professing belief. Other religions demanded more. Burying you first-born son under the corner post of the house has to be a bit of a turn off.

        1. Speaking as an engineer, I wouldn’t do that. Makes a lousy foundation. You need well-compacted ground if you’re not going to get settlement later on.


          1. I see your point. But, the desert dwellers (BC) probably didn’t sweat the small stuff. They were more focused on God’s wrath of you didn’t do what the priest said.

          2. Perhaps it’s those sacrificed firstborn sons entombed in corner posts that’s the reason the Millennium Tower in San Francisco is sinking.

          1. Early tribal era religions, I suppose. I remember a similar practice described by explorers in, I think, Papua New Guinea, where a teenage couple was killed by collapsing a building on them during coitus. That cult didn’t spread very far.

          2. Similarly, “Qhapaq hucha was the Inca practice of human sacrifice, mainly using children. The Incas performed child sacrifices during or after important events, such as the death of the Sapa Inca (emperor) or during a famine. Children were selected as sacrificial victims as they were considered to be the purest of beings.”

      2. But that new god always badly *needs* money! And you *must* appease that sadistic god by following specific arcane and obviously tribal repressive rules. So sacrifices are still required.

    2. Christianity was made a state religion by
      Roman Emperor Constantine in the 300s:



      There are many who question when/if he became a Christian. There are historians who indicate that for purposes of political control Constantine was attempting to consolidate/unify the Roman state under one religion instead of many divergent conflicting belief systems. If so, he did not suceed.

      There are still many non-Christian religions, and great diversity within Christianity. For example: Roman Catholicism, the various sects of Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestants.

      1. That is true, but my question is why it grew so large between 100 and 300 plus. It became so large Constantine thought he has to join it to maintain his position

        1. Christianity was at most maybe 5-10% of the population when Constantine legalized it. Historian Robin Lane Fox argued that Constantine found in Christianity a cult he could work with. Unlike the Jews who revolted at the drop of a temple defamation, the Christians never took up coordinated arms no matter how they were persecuted (remember the big one was under Constantine’s predecessor Diocletion). Attracted by nature to all manner of mythic stuff, the distinctive enthusiastic certainties of Christianity was another thing the Emperor found congenial in his own nature (which was a weird mixture of credulity and hedonistic puritanism).

    3. * Early Christianity [up to say 300 CE] grew at a rate of 40% per decade – Mormonism has spread at a slightly faster rate [stats from Rodney Smith]
      * Christianity was the first Amway – a Christian converts two pagans to the new miracle religion & thus the pyramid selling begins
      * Early Christianity is evangelising with NO COMPETITION within the Roman Empire – Jews & pagans were not in the conversion business.
      * Christianity gives women equal status in some areas – more so than Judaism & Roman culture of the day. Compared with Rome it has a strong stance against adultery, abortion & infanticide.
      * The lowliest of the low have status & [false] hope within Christianity
      * As the power of Christianity grew [Emperor Constanine onwards] mass conversions of villages & towns occurred.

      An easy game, set & match

      1. It is easy to forget how unforgiving & brutal was the Roman way of life & death. To the elites, the common people of that cultural epoch were no different in status to the domesticated cattle & certainly below the status of a favoured hunting dog. Perhaps one reason for slavery was so that ‘free men’ had people to look down upon – made their lot seem less hopeless.

        1. Christianity did spread initially as an egalitarian social movement, communal in a way the top down elitist mystery cults weren’t, spreading among slaves as easily as the privileged, with women playing a big role. That changed once it became the Imperial religion, taking on the patriarchal authoritarian characteristics of its Roman host.

      2. I was just looking at Mormon expansion and:

        “The church’s reported membership as of December 31, 2017 was 16,118,169. The growth of 1.59% in 2016 is the lowest percentage growth since 1937.”

        Which is less that 40% per decade. Maybe it’s a recent downturn. Do you have R Smith’s link?

        1. I meant Rodney Stark. You can easily guess why my brain erroneously came up with “Smith”. SEE TABLE 1.2 [PDF] and see the bibliography at the end – the “Stark” references. And see HERE for Ehrman on Stark on Christianity.

          1. Oh, my. Right from the start, Rodney has me deeply depressed:

            “within a century there may well be more than 250 million Latter-day Saints.”

            Sweet baby Jesus! I read on…

            1. Even worse:

              Mormons are over-represented in the US Senate: they constitute two percent of the overall population of the country, but there are six Mormons—Mike Crapo (R-ID), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mike Lee (R-UT), Tom Udall (D-NM)—in the Senate. Four of them (Crapo, Flake, Hatch and Lee) are on the judiciary committee. It has 21 members, which means Mormons constitute almost a fifth of that body, and more than a third of the Republicans (4 out of 11).


              1. Good God almighty! And Romney wanted to lead the country. Probably still does. I can see it now…”Supreme Court declares polygamy and baptism of long gone holocaust victims legal”.

              2. It goes back a ways, too, but sure has stayed below the radar. I was never too comfortable when (Democrat, Mormon) Harry Reid was Senate majority, then minority leader for all those years. He was known to be anti-Roe v Wade…

              3. JEBUS ! Thank YOU, Ms Diane G for this “registry” of idjitcy.

                I knew there were some. But .This Many. is
                not only frickin’ frightening but is also
                just … … wrong.

                Wrong for ALL of us. Wrong for something
                of a country called its … … d e m o c r a c y.

                I ask again: What century ( of f a c t ) IS
                this one anyhow ?!


          2. Stark’s paper is rather old. Data is from 1980. Here’s some better news. LDS rate of growth is slowing.

            ” After 1990, average annual growth again slowed steadily to a rate around 2.2% for the ten years ending 2015, approximately double the average world population growth rate of 1.1% for the same period.”


            Stark’s paper made me think we were in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. I hope I can get to sleep tonight.

            1. Yes, that’s all true. My initial comparison was with how the two religions have left the starting blocks at similar rates of growth. The down tick in growth recently can change – the potential is there in Africa & China.

              For example, LDS are not one of the five religions recognised & permitted in the PRC – so they can’t officially baptise, but they have a strong underground there ready to burst forth should China undergo a change to a more open society. In my view the PRC will have to liberalise if they wish to sustain their modernisation.

              The monster isn’t dying yet.

              1. My hope is that sooner than later(not necessarily in my lifetime) the world’s religions will melt down into a smoking puddle of oblivion. Like the Wicked Witch of the West. She may screech and twitch going down but down she must go.
                There. Now I can die a happy atheist.

              2. They are already being replaced in the post-religious parts of the West by a multitude of money making panaceas that are hollower than trad. belief systems. There’s a range of consumerist-inflected new age mysticisms such as Paltrow’s GOOP & Deepak Chopra’s quantum bollocks. There’s the insanely poorly articulated Transhumanism & other live-for-ever fallacies such as freezing brains. There’s false philosophers like Jordan B. Peterson.

                If the dream of increased leisure time materialises I fully expect the irrationality to increase as people lose their reasons for getting up in the morning. Sleep on that! 🙂

              3. Good God! More to worry about. New age mysticisms taking the place of priests in robes? Why do we even try?
                Anyway, I can leave that problem for the next generations. Meanwhile, “Thou hast no figures nor no fantasies which busy care draws in the brains of men;
                Therefore thou sleep’st so sound.”
                Julius Caesar.

              4. Just you wait until some cosmologist proves conclusively that the initial state of the universe [entropy etc.] is so improbable that “Intelligent Design” is the only reasonable explanation & the predicted unreachable end state is nothingness an eternity into the future, so not just an intelligent designer, but a malicious one. Night. Night.

            2. Another good sign is that the Mormons used to have a stranglehold on the Boy Scouts, which is no longer true.

    4. Be interesting to see a graph of happines vs average income. It may well be that money *does* buy happiness.


  4. When Grossman (or is it Asman?) talks about “Asma’s idea that religion’s value is in offering solace, strength or delights science cannot match”, she completely misses the point. It is not science’s main function to offer “solace” or “strength”, although I would argue that it absolutely does. Its main product is truth, or as near to it as our science-based models allow.

    As for “delight”: only someone who is completely ignorant of what observation, evidence, science and reason have revealed to us over the past 400 (or is it 3000?) years could offer such a crass and revealing comment.

    1. Precisely on point. It has always been the pinnacle of irony to me that religion fluffers like this Asma person are always banging on about how wondrous and amazing religion is and yet all religious mythologies I’ve ever learned anything about are simplistic, tiny, parochial and dull compared to the realities that modern science has revealed to us.

  5. It’s been well established that Aeon gets bucks from Templeton, which sponsors certain articles, just as this by Asma is sponsored by Oxford University Press, which is touting his book “Why We Need Religion.” Since I know that Aeon is tainted by the Templeton association in its lust for lucre, and try to keep a weather eye out when I read any of their articles, whether or not they’re sponsored by Templeton. More worrying to me is that OUP is publishing such drivel.

    1. All the established, respected publishing houses [MIT Press, OUP etc] now routinely publish any old drivel – some of them pretend otherwise by publishing such garbage under a specific imprint so as not to sully the main brand.

      Here is the Aeon Partners list which includes a number of such respected publishers

      Putting aside the publisher partners I have identified five other partners with Templeton links:

      Leverhulme Foundation

      Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London

      American Philosophical Association

      John Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values

      The Hastings Center

      These five have people associated with them who have [for example] chaired symphosia [correct plural?] paid for by Templeton.

      I notice some grants are awarded that mention Aeon incidentally as one of the outlets which will publish the results. Such as THIS ONE [The gobbledegook is worth a look at the link – it’s a high standard of blatant nonsense]

  6. The fact remains that most of the people on earth believe in religions of some sort. Why? Is it because they don’t need enough Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins? (Or their own scriptures, for that matter.) Or is it because their minds are attracted to religious explanations, no matter how often critics of the religions draw legitimate attention to their wackiness and shortcomings? That all religions disagree on fundamental content means the content needn’t be true to be fervently believed. Millions of people think Kent Hovind is a scientist. The Trump administration is awash with people unlikely ever to be moved by Coyne’s position of reason and evidence.

    If it ultimately isn’t possible or likely for most people to abandon their various religious urges (for a host of neurobiological and sociological reasons), perhaps it is time to focus more on spreading secular protections (whereby the religions are prevented from enforcing their orthodoxy by the instruments of the state), finding common cause there with believers (or at least the more liberal and temperate ones), and moving down a few notches from the wish for a universal disbelief that may be as unlikely to occur as the Second Coming.

    1. …finding common cause there with believers (or at least the more liberal and temperate ones), and moving down a few notches from the wish for a universal disbelief that may be as unlikely to occur as the Second Coming.

      It is the Templeton Foundation strategy to ‘accommodate’ a synthesis of believers & non-believers with buckets of money for bullshit articles & conferences. ‘Accommodationists’ on all sides are the enemy dammit!

      ‘We’ don’t need to meet the believers halfway – they are sliding towards a non-supernatural version of their religions because of the pressures applied by rationality/science & the changes in society/culture/law which have hacked away at the unreasoning respect for religion & its proponents.

      Complete rationality is not a desirable goal anyway – each human believes her own babies to be the most beautiful babies in all of time & space. Long may such useful & essential irrationality remain true.

      Meanwhile I will not accommodate religion – I will take the piss because that’s the honest thing to do.

      1. No one’s demanding you change your view. But the last time I looked, there are creationists in public office, and hard to find an overt atheist counterpart. And those creationists are making policy decisions for us all. If you want to wait for a Utopian time when the majority of people believe as you do, by all means do so. And don’t hold your breath.

        But in the meantime the dynamics of human behavior means that most voters (or rampaging mobs, if things get really testy) will be people who have some manner of religion. The creationists made full use of their network of belief (often downplaying doctrinal differences by ignoring them)to achieve their ends, and to the extent the purity of atheist belief disconnects our minority from any political influence, don’t be surprised as the Pences and Huckabees get their needs accomplished while we languish in a periphery partly of our own making.

        1. Ummm. . . this comment doesn’t make sense. Are you saying we should coddle religion or shut up about religion because it makes us ineffective. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. The country is in fact becoming more secular despite Trump, and atheists didn’t do much to promote Trump’s election.

          Or should we pretend to be creationists or religionists?

    2. AU (Americans United) is such an organization and has been in existence since 1948.



      In addition to AU, here are a few other such humanist, secular, skeptic, atheist organizations I can think of:

      AHA (American Humanist Association),
      CFI (Center For Inquiry),
      CSI (Committee for Science Investigation) or CSICOP (Committee for Science Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal),
      FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation),
      MRFF (Military Religious Freedom Foundation), SCA (Secular Coalition of America),
      Skeptic Society.

      1. I’m well aware of all those organizations (including Americans United, which actually started out as an anti-Catholic organization back in the day, but has fortunately mellowed since). They do fight the good fight, and are relatively inconsequential in doing it. FFRF has struggled to around 20,000 members, of which collective successful action at the level of functional government has been not their forte.

        For contrast Breitbart’s mob can marshal as many people as that in an afternoon (as when they supported with $300,000 gofundme funds in two days some bigots in Indiana who were terrified they might have to cater gay weddings). The NRA has millions of members, and they cheer the ignorant bully who has taken over the GOP.

        Successful people are often ones whose brains actively lie to themselves, overlooking the things they don’t want to think about. Being right and reasonable and objective doesn’t always cut it in the real world, glutted with people who make their imagined realities real by doing them.

        To the extent that atheists actively disconnect from forming coalitions with people who can help get desirable things done (such as entrenching secular protections against the state enforcing religious orthodoxy de facto) merely gathering in self-referential but functionally inert clubs to proclaim the primacy of reason and truth, is to indulge in grumping as the big social parade passes us by with their fierce grimacing indifference.

    3. Give it time. It’s been less than 500 years since the evolution of scientific and Enlightenment approaches and culture changes slowly. Unless you’re going to argue that atheists are virtually a distinct biological species, there’s no reason to believe that, in the long run, “it is unlikely or impossible for most people to abandon their various religious urges.”

      Consider the neurobiological and sociological urges towards war, violence, and revenge — but nobody thinks protective measures shouldn’t be accompanied by attempts to change hearts and minds.

    4. “The fact remains that most of the people on earth believe in religions of some sort. Why?”

      I say because they’re adaptive.

      1. My observation is that religious people reproduce faster than non-religious (who tend to have negative population growth), and this difference is not fully compensated by religious people becoming atheists.

    5. “The fact remains that most of the people on earth believe in religions of some sort. … If it ultimately isn’t possible or likely for most people to abandon their various religious urges … the wish for a universal disbelief…”

      Yes, but since the Enlightenment Scandinavia has turned efficiently non-religious and Europe dominantly so, “a universal disbelief”. That rejects your low likelihood hypothesis on non-religion, and replaces it with a simple correlation between societal dysfunction (insecurity) and religion.

    6. What is a ‘liberal believer?’ If, in mainstream, urban Protestant Christian terms it means no supernaturalism, then why religion? If it does include supernaturalism in its creed (and it does, at the heart), then this necessarily excludes any ‘accommodation’ from a secularist devoted to the truth of naturalism.

      In the focus on southern evangelicalism and its devil’s bargain with Trump, we may easily finesse the reality that mainstream Protestant denominations such as Methodism and Lutheranism ARE THEMSELVES EVANGELICAL and always have been. Their congregations send missions to Haiti to win converts first, helping people secondarily; and they are ecumenical with their cousins, however far removed, but not with secularists.

      The only ‘gospel’ I can imagine sharing with this group is the social gospel–and that, they need constant reminding, was not invented by Jesus.

      At the same time, the typical, say, Methodist church in a medium-sized U.S. city is slowly going out of business. Compared to their southern cousins they might be labeled ‘liberal’ on social issues, but they are too comfortable in their bourgeois existence to embrace what the social gospel entails. Some are stricken by bad conscience; others, perhaps most, treat their churches as social centers merely when they choose to drop by for services. What is it that the Christian ‘New Testament’ says about the ‘lukewarm’. . . ?

      In the small city where I reside, I happened upon a column in the local newspaper under the rubric ‘From the Pulpit.’ It was written by husband-and-wife pastors of a prominent Methodist church. They bewailed the growing threat of anthropogenic climate change and declared that, after an extended period of prayer, God had instructed them to preach about it. And by God they were going to!

      Starting next Sunday, I suppose. What might they ask their congregants to do about the matter? Not vote Republican? If they do, they’re gone within the year. . . .

    7. My understanding is that such protection is contained in the first amendment to the constitution. At least that was their intent in forbidding the establishment of a state religion. They wanted to separate church and state. Maybe they should have been more clear.

  7. What i care about is living a life with the truth no matter what it looks like and shaped. It is as fundamental as free speech, freedom of expression and from oppression, these like god, religion are a cultural construct.
    But, unlike the former three (works in progress) it has over reached itself and showing signs of stress as a lie would, Asma shows this by writing this stuff, trying to puff it out.
    We have one life only, nature has packed it with it’s expression, of which we are one, that is what we work with and live with.
    Rightly, we SHOULD be shoving bad ideology, religious, political, medical, in the bin as outmoded, ineffectual, stagnated and in the process of fossilising… going crusty.
    The rate of understanding about our world, the solar system, universe leave some who can’t keep up, and that is the crux, people like Asma choose not to, they’ve lost their knowledge mojo, pleading,… tie yourself down to something there is no shred of evidence for, but it’s good for you. Like rhino horns are good for your sex life.
    No thanks, NEXT!

  8. Asma seems to be saying that religious people don’t really believe believe, they just engage in a willing suspension of disbelief sufficient to allow them to let religious mythology wash over them and make them feel good.

    Those of us who enjoy fictional arts willingly suspend disbelief, too — as to novels, movies, tv, etc. — for the time it takes to enjoy the aesthetic experience. But as Dean Wormer said about being fat, drunk, and stupid, willingly suspending disbelief in perpetuity regarding metaphysical constructs is no way to go through life, son.

    1. Asma claims to be an atheist, but his atheism is identical to your summation of his notion of religious belief. They’re one and the same stupid, and I simply cannot suspend my disbelief and think of Asma as an atheist.

      1. If religious folk simply suspended disbelief in their mythology for an hour or two on Sundays, to enhance their enjoyment of their liturgy and statuary and music, far be it, it would be from me, to say a discouraging word.

        Hell, I enjoy a Sunday matinee sometimes myself. But when I walk out of the theater, I don’t claim that the Corleone family actually turned the NY business over to Clemenza and moved to Nevada in the 1950s, or that cyborgs sent from 2029 actually walk among us. And I sure-as-shit don’t try to set environmental policy based on The Day After Tomorrow.

        But the religiosi, they do something quite analogous.

    2. As Vonnegut said, we become what we pretend to be and therefore must be careful what we pretend to be. During the Ottoman Empire, Christian women taken to be made Muslims’ brides and Christian boys taken to be made Janissaries were forcibly converted to Islam. Initially, they just pretended to be Muslims so that to avoid punishment. Then, they internalized it. The Janissary corpus had the reputation of most loyal.

  9. I can’t speak for anyone but me. To me it doesn’t matter what people believe, what they think is true or false. What really matters is whether or not law are made by, or the behest of, believers that everyone must follow. Beyond that, I don’t care. Just don’t make laws outlawing abortion, same-sex marriage, death with dignity, making religions, and any property they own, tax exempt, don’t allow any religion to not comply with the ACA healthcare mandate or fair employment regulations. Otherwise the government is giving credence to a belief system that is demonstrably false. To paraphrase Nancy Reagan, Just say no to religion!

    1. I think that ignoring the driving motivations and beliefs behind undesirable actions in order to concentrate on urging people to compartmentalize what they do, from how they see the world, is at best an inadequate, temporary fix. I wouldn’t put much trust in it for racism or sexism, say.

      1. This is a succinct and accurate statement, Sastra, of
        what I as well believe to be .t r u e.

        For egalitarianism in all matters, then
        I put NO trust in persons’ ompartmentalizing.


  10. If I acknowledge my own limitations when faced with unavoidable loss, but I feel that a powerful ally, God, is part of my agency or power, then I can be more resilient.

    This is pure and utter bullshit. It was only after I had to reevaluate my belief structure after a loss that I was able to feel some agency again. I realized that sometimes bad things happen for no good reason, and that god had jack to do with any of it. We are mortal creatures in a mortal world and realizing this was a great balm of relief.

  11. If a religion opposes sex education and family planning, what really comes from that religion is a lot of suffering, not consolation.

    But, what is the suffering of hundreds of millions of children compared to the consolation of religious rituals?

    Can I swear?

  12. The one semi-solid argument is that for many, religion does provide a means of solace. A great many people live in poverty, or close to it. They have to go without, and many of their closest associates have died from poverty, violence, or disease. Deprivation and mourning are never far for billions of people. So the mosque or the holy shrine is an escape that they clearly seem to welcome. They clearly get something out of it, and that cannot be denied.
    I know of course that it is all a Big Lie, but can anyone rebut these points?

    1. I can rebut those points with the observation that religion is a tool of control & blame shifting.

      Bad harvest? “Not a problem created by us, the priests didn’t supply the gods with sufficient quality sacrifices – round up a bunch of virgins from the next town over”

      You & your ancestors having a shit life & early death sweating on this hundred year cathedral project? Don’t worry – your reward is in heaven.

      1. Agreed; but I think that part of Mark’s point is that if people have no wealth, health or prospects, the availability of religious solace may be all they have to hang onto. “Religion is the opiate of the people” can mean that it’s something they opt for because there is nothing else.

        It is up to those of us who are privileged enough to have wealth, health and/or prospects to make them a better offer.

          1. The church figured out *long* ago that they could get credulous people to “loan” money and property to the church with a virtual promissory note that they would be paid back with a wonderful afterlife! Indulgences for everyone was an additional windfall for the church!

        1. That would be nice, but I don’t think it’s going to as easy as offering better options because traditions are hard to break, and, to carry the religion/opiate analogy further, religion is not only a simple panacea for a complex world (akin to the wacky explanations adopted by conspiracy theorists) but also addictive, and breaking addictions is very hard. The analogy falters though when you consider the side effects: I strongly suspect that throughout history, religion has been vastly more lethal than opiates.

        1. But sometimes, though it sounds awful to admit it, we really are talking about the little people. Society can’t survive without the little people, who buy the bullshit and piously carry out the scutwork jobs that people who can think critically would never tolerate. One reason I think women are over-represented in religions is that their plight in so many places is so stark, they could hardly go on living if they weren’t convinced they’d ultimately get their eternal reward.

    2. If:
      .Christians would follow the instructions of Jesus about caring for the poor…
      .the money that has gone into cathedrals and other structures, church possessions and church coffers…
      .Christianity had continued as it started with communal sharing…
      .if all world religions focused on caring for the world’s poor…
      .there were less corruption in the world’s governments…
      .all governments had adequate social programs for the poor…
      .accumulation of wealth were less the achievement dream of so many…
      . education, education, education…

      there would be no need for religion to: “…provide a means of solace…” for the reasons you give above.

        1. Thanks for the reference. I’ll do some reading. I know of many differing Christianities throughout history and presently but, somehow, had missed that one. Many mainstream Christian belief systems have survived for long periods of time before finally being deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic Church and some of them eradicated.

    3. What about non-theistic religions, like Buddhism?

      If Asma thinks that religion provides emotion regulation and that theological abstractions have nothing to do with that, then shouldn’t he advocate for non-theistic religions?

      And with regard to Mark’s points, Buddhism claims that poverty is not sufficient cause for suffering, because suffering comes from attachment. Now, I don’t know if that’s true – because I haven’t followed meditation paths very far, for one thing. But if it is, then perhaps solace can be gotten without the theological baggage Westerners usually assume.

      1. What about non-theistic religions, like Buddhism?

        If Asma thinks that religion provides emotion regulation and that theological abstractions have nothing to do with that, then shouldn’t he advocate for non-theistic religions?

        Asma does spend time on Buddhist activities & advocates for a non-woo version – rather like how Sam Harris does I believe [not too sure on the latter]

      2. Well, lots of Rohingya have in recent years gotten permanent ‘relief from suffering’ at the kind hands of Myanmar (Buddhist) security forces.

    4. I don’t think that it can reasonably be denied and it shouldn’t be because arguing something that is so evidently true doesn’t help our position. But a few points.

      1) Perhaps more often than not religion also helps keep the poor down. Certainly historically it has. It keeps them resigned to their lot in life. It’s a tool for maintaining stagnation. It glorifies poverty.

      2) Religion is tradition. It is the foundation of most cultures traditions and newborns begin imbibing it with their mother’s milk. That’s why it is so tenacious. Its longevity doesn’t indicate that it must be a good thing any more than the long history of killing other people in order to take their resources means it must be a good thing.

      3) Though religion does undoubtedly offer the low and downtrodden comfort, so what? That it does so does not mean that it is the only social / cultural construct that could offer comfort, or that it is the best at it, or that it is even particularly good at offering comfort.

  13. The phenomenon of feeding at the Templeton trough is an old story. How did religions with a priestly class originate in the first place, if not as a device by which some individuals gained a favored position at the communal trough? The warrior class gained this position with the sword, but wilier operators offered consolation, good-feeling,
    and all the rest which Asma celebrates.

  14. Galileo’s division of labour:

    Here Galileo is quoting “an ecclesiastic”:

    Galileo: “I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: ‘That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.'”

  15. The hungry hunter is objectively better off if he knows that his arrow failed to take down his prey. Then he can continue trying to catch his dinner. While it might make him briefly happy to falsely think that his hunt was successful, the reality of the situation will eventually become unavoidable.

  16. I have found the same to be true of my conservative Facebook friends. They will post what reflects and amplifies their feelings and won’t take down inflammatory posts or memes even when they know they’ve been photoshopped or are just plain false.

  17. My biggest beef with religionists is how they claim ideas for their religion which are plain untrue.

    It is a travesty for liberal Christians to assert that gentle Jesus was meek and mild. Ehrman, Sanders and Vermes are much closer to the mark on how JC is depicted in the Gospels: a rather nasty End Times salesman.

    It offends me that Muslim apologists declare that they know how the Koran was written and how much they know about Muhammad’s life. Currently, it is not possible to know anything much at all about Mo.

    This is what in the end deeply offends me about faithists: how they expect to be taken seriously on any subject – morals, how to live one’s life – when they must know that I know they can not be trusted on even the simplest historical facts and likelihoods of their own scriptures. They must know that I find their evasions shady: and simply not care.

    Without that bona fides, I can not know the whole status of the conversation.

    1. “… when they must know that I know they can not be trusted on even the simplest historical facts and likelihoods of their own scriptures.”

      But they don’t care about people like you. (Or me.) As long as they can successfully brainwash large numbers of gullible/naive/easily led people the relatively small number of critical thinkers doesn’t really matter.

      1. I think they do, Diane, deep down. Think how horrible it feels to have someone point out an egregious error in your reasoning: you have a choice, to acknowledge it or to continue with the train of thought, knowing in your heart of hearts you are being dishonest to yourself and that others can see it. A house divided against itself can not stand and a plague on both parts of it.

        1. One would think/hope so…I tend to think, though, that so many have been so brainwashed (for lack of a better term) for so long–practically from the cradle–that they simply cannot perceive their dishonesty.

          I’m sure there must be some who do feel horrible for the reasons you give, though. Then there’s not only the dishonesty to themselves they have to somehow deal with, but the harm and alienation that could come to them should they dare to speak out.

    2. “It is a travesty for liberal Christians to assert that gentle Jesus was meek and mild. Ehrman, Sanders and Vermes are much closer to the mark on how JC is depicted in the Gospels: a rather nasty End Times salesman.”

      Bart Ehrman and Geza Vermes are not Christians whereas, apparently, E. P. Sanders still is. All three research and write about the historical Jesus. Vermes and Sanders seem to focus on his Jewishness as opposed to the subsequent accretians of Christianity. “…A rather nasty End Times salesman…” seems to be what you’ve gleaned from these authors, not what they wrote.

      “This is what in the end deeply offends me about faithists: how they expect to be taken seriously on any subject – morals, how to live one’s life – when they must know that I know they can not be trusted on even the simplest historical facts and likelihoods of their own scriptures. They must know that I find their evasions shady: and simply not care.”

      All of us are both knowledgeable and ignorant in varying ways on a large variety of subjects, including subjects we believe we are knowledgeable in such as religions and, particularly, Christianity. I know of a great many different types of Christianity but, not all. I know quite a bit about the history of Christianity, but not all. Not every Christian or Non-Christian has read the Bible. Not everyone who has read the Bible understands it, or the history of how it came to be accumulated into one sourcebook from so many different ancient sources. Not everyone has read Ehrman, Carter and Vermes or the numerous other authors digging into aspects, historical or otherwise, of Christianity.
      “Deplorableizing” and Demonizing those who are not secularists/humanists/agnostics/atheists/etc. does not help us find common ground on which we can come together to work toward the betterment of humankind.

      1. Yes, Rowena, Vermes, the Jew, is definitely not a Christian because he is dead.

        I honestly do not know what your reply is getting at. Is it or is not true that JC, as C.S. Lewis nearly admitted, was a lunatic, a common-or-garden End Times hawker? Is it not true that this is the natural conclusion of Sanders’ ideas, whether he is a Christian or not?

        As for demonizing God-botherers, what is one to make of an apologist who claims Mo as a feminist and an atheist who asserts Jesus the homophile? Where can a conversation start with such people who tickle the cat’s neck of religion? Why should they not pay a huge social cost for so derailing a rational conversation?

        1. Much of what has been written interpreting who/what Jesus was (Jew, Christ, magician, dying/rising god, God, etc.) was written by people who are now dead as Geza Vermes, the secular Jew, and C.S.Lewis, the Christian, are. They were of varying religions and none. They still speak to us in their writings, as do the writings of current authors such as Ehrman and Sanders. We pick and choose what we read. We learn different “theories” or “facts”. Our knowledge base is not uniform.

          I’m sorry I didn’t make myself clear. I tend to feel strongly about the need for finding similarities/commonalities from which to build a better world for all. Somehow, whether religious or not, we live on the same planet and need to accommodate differences in each other so we can all live in relative peace. How do we get there? Not being able to communicate will not help.

    1. Nothing wrong with that. Whatever floats your boat.

      Just – don’t make me get on board. I’ve got my own boat.

      “I will not play with your toys” – Christopher Hitchens.


  18. I don’t know about these cross-country studies. Too many differences. Within my own socioeconomic group I know a number of religious and less religious families. It pains me to say the religious ones seem happier despite their delusion. A small sample for sure, but one with a lot of controls given its apparent homogeneity.

    1. There are plenty of studies that people who attend church are happier, healthier, recover quicker, and live longer lives.

      Correlation is there.

      Causation is what is being debated.

      Theories vary as to why this is true. They included group membership, bonding, support systems, faith, belief et. al.

      1. Another problem is that happiness is self-reported. I suspect the religious are less likely to be honest about their happiness report. Who has ever said “I’ve found Jesus and I’m unhappy.”?

              1. You started out saying it pains you to admit they were happier. Now you are denying that they are. Quite a switch in just a few comments.

  19. Pope John Paul II declared in 1996 that evolution is a fact and Catholics should get over it. No doubt some extreme anti-scientific thinking lives on in such places as Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, but it has become a fringe position. Most mainstream religious people accept a version of Galileo’s division of labour: ‘The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.

    The irony of Ames’ statement is that the largest mainstream Christian sect, the very one he quotes, still doesn’t wholly accept science. Yes they accepted evolution, but in the very document where they accepted it, they claimed a single-pair Adam and Even was a fundamental and unchangeable theological belief. Yet, it’s scientifically untrue.

    The “only fringe groups don’t accept science” claim is therefore wrong. There’s pretty much no counterexample to it better than pointing out a Papal declaration that rejects a finding of science.

    1. “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”

      Another vacuous religious claim in action. What is the evidence that a ghost of any kind even exists (pious or otherwise)? And how can anyone go to an obviously thoroughly unevidenced fantasy location? Can they also visit the giant’s castle in the clouds to first hand view the singing golden harp of “Jack and the Beanstalk” fame?

  20. The happiest countries are the ones with the most people of European ancestry. Those people have on average about 4 per cent of their DNA from Neanderthals.

    Obviously it is the Neanderthal DNA that makes people happier.

    1. Do we conclude from that that getting a bit of stray on the wrong side of the tracks is a recipe for happiness? [vbeg]


      1. Don’t know which of our traits came from our Neanderthal ancestors. Has to be something. Maybe something good that has helped us over the years.
        Don’t know if just any straying would be good. Just a chance and luck, like any mating would be.

  21. An affective community of mutual care emerges when groups share rituals, liturgy, song, dance, eating, grieving, comforting, tales of saints and heroes, hardships such as fasting and sacrifice.

    Other than ‘liturgy,’ none of these require religion. They might require friends and in some cases a choice of lifestyle (i.e., most people don’t choose to fast), but not religion.

    Look at any Spanish or Italian football club. They share rituals. They sing and dance down the street in parades, they eat together, grieve together, comfort each other, and tell tales of their heroes. Many hockey fans (and players) don’t shave during playoffs, or wear the same unwashed clothes – a ‘shared hardship.’

    These activities might be important ‘glue’ for human social communities, but religion is only one of many types of communities we can use to celebrate them. It’s certainly not necessary, nor even sufficient.

    Of course, if someone’s going to argue that an affective community of mutual care requires shared ‘liturgy’, then yeah, religion becomes necessary. But that’s kind of a circular argument.

  22. Just once, I’d like to see one of these erudite essayists make the straightforward case for why supernaturalism is, on balance, beneficial. It seems like they would find it embarrassing.

    1. “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality of happiness, and by no means a necessity of life.”

      — George Bernard Shaw, Androcles and the Lion

      If only being permanently drunk was socially acceptable.


  23. Oh, and there’s one other thing. The Magic Flute doesn’t sing. When it’s “played”, it wards off evil. Go see the opera, it’s pretty good.

  24. “And has he considered that we nonbelievers who don’t accept gods on the grounds of no evidence cannot force ourselves to believe, even if we think it would help us?”

    I had a conversation with a religious friend this weekend, who fell back on his claim (this has happened before) that “in the absence of evidence, we just have to accept some things on faith”. My argument was that there is not an absence of evidence; there is a wealth of evidence, and it not only supports a materialistic view, it also contradicts the Cartesian dualistic view (we were talking about souls and NDEs in particular).

    Since the two views are mutually exclusive, evidence for one is evidence against the other. (Even if they weren’t exclusive, evidence for one would have to be taken as some degree of evidence against the other, since the probability that they were both true, while not zero, would at least be much lower than the probability that just one was true.) In this case, the massive evidence for a materialistic worldview is massive evidence *against* Cartsian dualism.

    So this is the line I’m starting to use when someone pulls out the “no evidence” canard. It’s just not the case that there is “no evidence”. No evidence in support of souls and NDEs, perhaps, but lots of evidence nonetheless.

  25. I think it is no coincidence that humans are a moral and superstitious kind of animal.

    I believe all superstition is the result of our brains dealing with cognitive dissonance caused by gaps in our knowledge or discomforting facts.

    Shared morals and superstition are very important (maybe the only way) to coordinate group behavior even if these people have no direct contact with each other. Its function is to bind and blind competing groups (Jonathan Haidt).

    1. In addition, it seems to me that religions are sustained in large part by the presence of many followers are not familiar with the basics of epistemology (and don’t know how to Google effectively). So, they are severely handicapped when it comes to digging themselves out of a cognitive impasse. They follow authority as a lazy alternative. This suggests to me that the antidote would be to include basic philosophy in the education of the young with an emphasis on logic and critical thinking – n spite of the difficulty of convincing your local school board.

  26. I have mixed feelings about this.

    On the whole I think it is better (more adaptive) to believe what is true, even if that truth is uncomfortable.

    However, for many on this earth religion is the only means of coping with the brutal realities of life. I would think it cruel to disabuse someone of God beliefs if they enable that person to psychologically and emotionally deal with certain harsh realities, such as the loss of a son or daughter, or economic devastation. I also think that religion is more of a reaction to despair and socioeconomic dysfunction than a cause of it [cf. terror management theory]. And of course religious authorities exploit this despair to boost their influence and power.

  27. I’ve long said (since reading _The Science and the Humanities_ as an undergraduate) that saying “religion = (only) poetry” as insulting to believers by telling them what to believe, that their doctrines aren’t what their own religions say they are, etc.

  28. “Religion is really about morality …”

    Religionists really like making that vacuous claim but overwhelming evidence indicates that they are *really* bad about defining and following even reasonable moral behavior.

  29. Any of the religious who would subscribe to this, will have thrown away any argument about their religion being the right one, or any religion being the right one.

    Okay, all you religious folks “Are any of you willing to give up a claim of your religion being right or any of the others being wrong? Just hold up your jands. … Uh, no one? I thought so.

Leave a Reply