Does the ubiquity and supposed beneficial effect of religion constitute evidence for God? Well, at least one intellectual (and I use the term loosely) thinks so.
Reader Michael sent me a link to Nick Spencer’s favorable review in Prospect of Stephen Asma’s 2018 book Why We Need Religion (click on screenshot below). Michael added this: “Maybe you’ll find this reviewer’s uncritical nonsense of interest. The reviewer, Nick Spencer, is a beneficiary of Templeton’s pieces of silver and you’ve written about him before.”
Actually, I didn’t write much about Spencer; I asked a reader, Mark Jones, if he’d say a few words about Spencer’s BBC program, The Secret History of Science and Religion. Jones’s words about Spencer were not favorable, nor were mine after I watched one episode of the show. I did say this about Spencer:
Nick Spencer is a Senior Fellow at the Christian think tank Theos, and is responsible for the 2009 Templeton funded project “Rescuing Darwin” (to the tune of $600,000!!, according to page 214 of this book).
It also turns out that I’ve already discussed a New York Times article by Asma written before his book came out, and summarizing the thesis of that book, which is that regardless of its truth claims, religion is good for humans. In his Prospect review, Spencer simply reiterates that thesis, adding that he, Spencer, thinks that the prevalence and value of religion is evidence that there is indeed a God. (Prospect is a general magazine “of ideas,” and doesn’t seem to be particularly religious in its orientation.)
Click on the screenshot below, but be prepared for a new and mushy argument for God:
According to Spencer’s review, Asma (a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago) once disdained religion, and still sees it as “irrational”, but now thinks that its irrationality doesn’t override its value as a mechanism for coping with life:
Most of [Asma’s] early publications were “strenuously” critical of religion. He wrote enthusiastically for various sceptical and secularist publications, and even found himself listed in “Who’s who in hell,” a publication of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware.
However, some challenging encounters, wider reading and deeper reflection began to change his mind. “I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation,” he confesses towards the end of his provocatively-entitled 2018 Why We Need Religion, “but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously.” “I’m not naïve,” he goes on to say. “I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But it is a response that will not go and that should not go away if it provides genuine relief for anxiety and anguish.”
. . . [Asma] now views religion—his focus is primarily on Christianity and Buddhism, but much of what he says applies more widely—as natural, beneficial, humanising, and, indeed, indispensable.
The key is the body. Why We Need Religion takes our embodied and affective nature very seriously and shows, in detail and with impressive supporting evidence, that religious commitment—beliefs, practices, rituals, etc.—help protect and manage our emotional life with unparalleled and probably irreplaceable success. Religion is, in effect, a management system for our emotional lives that helps the human organism stay healthy and well.
Yes, there are studies that show that religious commitment can have salubrious effects on your personality or emotions. But that has no more bearing on whether it’s true than does the placebo effect of sugar pills on the hypothesis that sugar has a physiological effect on arthritis (Spencer disagrees; see below). Indeed, one can envision religion as a placebo effect on your brain: it can make you feel better regardless of whether the content of religious claims is true.
But to Asma, the truth of religion doesn’t matter: it’s still good because it makes people feel better. You’ll recognize that as the “Little People’s Argument”—the claim that religion is good for the masses because it soothes and placates them (a thesis advanced by Karl Marx), even though Asma himself doesn’t believe in God. This is an enormously patronizing argument, and also fails for reasons I discussed in my critique of Asma’s NYT article:
. . . 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, and apparently Spencer, seem to want us to suspend our disbelief in religion—or at least stop criticizing it—because some studies show that it’s helpful. And yet other studies support Marx by showing that the religiosity of countries is negatively correlated with the happiness of their inhabitants. That negative correlation also holds among the 50 US states. Here’s a graph for countries produced for this site by reader Michael Coon; it shows a strongly negative relationship between how religious a country is and the United Nation’s assessment of its “Happiness Index” (higher values mean happier countries):
Now this doesn’t disprove that religion makes you happier and better able to cope with life. It is, after all, a correlation. But it surely doesn’t support that thesis, either. My own theory, which isn’t mine but one advanced by many sociologists, is that countries tend to become more religious when their inhabitants are not doing that well. When the government or your fellow humans can’t help you much, you turn to God, thinking that, even if things are crappy in your life, it will all be rectified in the next life.
Look at the happiest countries on that plot. They’re countries like Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands—countries that have a large number of atheists. The unhappiest countries are ones from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where people are religious but not particularly well off. As I wrote in my earlier critique of Asma:
Never does [Asma] 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?
Two more points. First, while I’ve suggested that secular humanism is a good replacement for religion, and has the advantage of not forcing you to believe silly things, Spencer—and perhaps Asma—sees secular humanism as a “substitute religion.” This is a common but ultimately ridiculous way to defend religion in general (my emphasis in the passage below):
Human grief has both elaborate cognitive and neurochemical dimensions. . . Mammalian brains are hardwired for the calming comfort of a caregiver’s touch, and when that is denied us, especially permanently, the brain experiences a “major reduction in opioids, oxytocin and prolactin.” Religious belief attenuates the severity of that separation, and religious practices develop, codify, and authenticate grieving customs that serve to offer a kind of emotional surrogate for loss. Both cognitively and affectively, religion helps us cope with grief. That, of course, is one of the reasons why non-religious religions like Secular Humanism so often get into the funeral business. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
In what way is secular humanism a religion? Spencer doesn’t tell us.
Although Spencer casts doubt on some of Asma’s claims about the psychological values of religion, Spencer ultimately buys the thesis that religion is salubrious. But again, just because something is salubrious, does that mean it’s true? And what about the negative effects of religion? Spencer doesn’t discuss the second point but he does take up the first. And, in a stunning move, Spencer argues that the ubiquity and salubrious effects of religion are indeed evidence for a god, using arguments about our senses that have been advanced by, among others, Steve Pinker (my emphasis in Spencer’s passage below):
. . . it seems to me to be a natural step to move (or at least to edge) from religion’s affective importance to its cognitive reliability; i.e. from the kind of goodness (or at least usefulness) of which Asma writes, to its truth. Now, to be clear, this move need not be made. Just because something is (or can be) good, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. However, we should, at least, pause here. You can make a very strong argument that religion has played a positive role in human evolution, enabling individual and group survival, strength and cohesion, thereby being selected for in the evolutionary process. True, evolution selects for survival, not truth… but the two are hardly independent.
Broadly speaking, an organism whose cognitive functions are capable of tracking “that which is the case” is likely to do better than one that doesn’t. Whether you are finding prey, sensing a predator, or responding otherwise to your environment, it helps if your evolved senses are trained on the truth. It strikes me that the same point can be made of the apparently ubiquitous human need for religion (or in some places now, religion-like substitutes). As Steven Pinker (of all people!) once remarked “we have colour vision because there are differences in wavelength in the world. We have depth perception because the world actually does exist in three dimensions. By the same logic someone might be tempted to say that if we have a ‘God module’ there must be a God it’s an adaptation to.” Pinker of course is not tempted to say that. Nor, it seems, is Asma. I am.
“I am!” LOL!
While there’s no strong evidence that religious belief has a genetic component, much less was installed in our species by natural selection, let’s go ahead and accept that claim. Does it then show that God exists? Not at all! For if religious belief evolved, it was likely during the period of our species’ infancy when had little understanding of how the world worked. Baffled and saddened by disease, death, natural disasters, and other enigmatic phenomena, perhaps our ancestors—as Pascal Boyer suggests—invoked a supernatural agency as an explanation. Such an “agency detection module” may well be the ultimate cause of religion, and itself might have been adaptive. After all, if you think a rustle in the brush indicates the presence of a predator, you’re more likely to survive than if you just fob it off as wind.
But if religion is a byproduct of something like that, or simply an evolved tendency to believe your elders (something that’s also adaptive), then superstitious beliefs can become embedded in our culture regardless of whether they are true. Is our “afterlife module”—part of many but not all religions—evidence that there really is an afterlife? Or is it simply a way of coping with the fact that our species is unique in apprehending our earthly mortality?
As I noted previously, there are all sorts of religions, ranging from theism to deism to panpsychism, and even the theistic ones ranging from Scientology to Hinduism to Mormonism to Catholicism. Are these simply different manifestations of the same God module? Spencer doesn’t answer, nor did Asma in his NYT piece (the book may, but I don’t know). I think a more parsimonious hypothesis is that the existents of tens of thousands of diverse faiths doesn’t attest to the truth of a single god, but to the various ways in which humans can find solace in superstition, and in which they can exert power over others by making them adhere to those superstitions.
Neither the ubiquity of a belief nor its positive effects on human psychological well being say anything about the truth of that belief. Religion is not like vision or smell; it’s a psychological rather than aphysiological trait, and many people get on perfectly well without faith. If Spencer thinks that there’s a god because belief in one brings well-being, and because religion is ubiquitous (but disappearing in the West!), then he is pretty ignorant of the way we use empirical observations to establish truth.
Curiously, the well-regarded site 3 Quarks Daily, a site that for some reason I don’t often read, has linked to Spencer’s review of Asma, not mentioning that that review takes the claim that religion is “natural and beneficial” as evidence for God. 3 Quarks is largely an aggregator of other sites, and in this case doesn’t seem to have vetted the Prospect piece very carefully. Clicking on the 3 Quarks screenshot below will just take you to a link back to the Prospect piece; I put it here just to show you how uncritical people can be, and how far the rot has spread: