Why We Need Religion by Stephen T. Asma

Why We Need Religion
by Stephen T. Asma
Oxford University Press

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In his new book, Why We Need Religion, Stephen T. Asma—professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago—tries to provide a Darwinian explanation of religion. Why, he asks, did religion evolve? What made it adaptive in humankind’s evolutionary past? In so doing, he draws on a huge range of fields—from psychology and neuroscience to anthropology and philosophy—and an impressive range of sources, from Aristotle to modern psychological studies. The thesis he proposes is simple, however: religion helps with emotion regulation, the ability to assuage negative emotions, to bring about positive emotions more often, and it helps to repress libidinous desires so that people can more effectively serve the greater good of their ingroup.

That is, religion, most importantly, helps to satisfy the emotional part of the brain in ways that scientific rationality simply cannot. Science and reason may be effective methods of gaining knowledge about the world, but they provide little comfort or joy in the face of life’s misfortunes. According to Asma, the metaphysical beliefs, rituals, and stories surrounding religion are crucial. Many metaphysical religious beliefs are clearly irrational, but they do act as powerful metaphors for thinking about the world and about one’s life, often providing much needed emotional catharsis. The belief in an afterlife, for example, is not important insofar as it is a truth claim about the way the world is (i.e., Heaven is a real place), so much as it is a manifestation of just how much those who are still alive cared for the one who has died. This, he argues, aids with recovery in the face of loss. As Asma puts it:

Wanting my dead loved one to be alive in a place where I can see her again is not about my gullibility. My rational mind, after all, may feel quite awkward about such a belief. But I am reminded, in the very moment of such wishful thinking, how much I loved that person. The burn of that hopeful and ludicrous desire, even amidst the contempt of my own reason, is evidence that our bond was essential and fundamental. I loved that person so much that I am willing to deny death, on the outside chance that we can reunite.

Religion provides ways of understanding and appraising these emotions adaptively. They give humans a way of feeling like they have more control over what is happening, because God is on their side, and they give the world meaning by providing a cosmic narrative to the universe.

Asma describes the benefits of prayer and meditation, which help to increase focus, and the psychological benefits of forgiveness, something which most major world religions promote. But far from only working to cure negative emotions, religion can also help to bring about joy and ecstasy. Religious festivals, for instance, bring large groups of people together for a celebration, which helps to increase positive emotions. All this may work by a placebo effect, the same way a sugar pill that someone is convinced is real medicine might actually make a cold subside, but it works nonetheless.

In addition, religion helps to regulate human behavior so that a stable society, the foundation of which is, Asma asserts, the family. Religion encourages parents to love their children unconditionally through engaging in many milestones of childrearing—baptism, confirmation, circumcision, et cetera—which force the parents into an emotional connection with their children. This gets them to suppress their ravenous desires to pursue hedonistic pleasure and instead to settle down and care for their children and raise a family. This, he claims, oddly, cannot be accomplished through reason—one apparently needs religion to care for one’s children. To which one feels tempted to respond that there are plenty of atheists who make great parents; and it is even stranger that he makes this claim, given that at one point in his own book, Asma, an agnostic, describes his sudden and total devotion to his newborn son. He clearly did not need religion to be an effective caretaker, so why do others need it?

Finally, in his last chapter, Asma addresses religion’s awkward history with violence. Here, he argues, religion has helped to foster unity in the face of an enemy. It fosters both a camaraderie among the ingroup and an especial antagonism toward the outgroup: we fight for the Kingdom of Heaven but they are the servants of the devil. He, of course, admits that this aspect of religion’s “adaptiveness” has turned out to be decidedly un-adaptive at many points throughout history. But, he asserts, it was adaptive in humanity’s past, as it was often necessary for human societies to remain united in a conflict over scarce resources.

It is here that Asma makes perhaps his most outlandish claim, when, at the tail end of this chapter, he discusses the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS). Most of the followers of ISIS, he asserts, are men who have not been able to obtain sexual satisfaction in a sexually liberated, modern society, so they have decided to throw their weight behind an ideology built on the repression of sexual desire. They cannot attain what they so want, so why not join an ideology where that object of desire is instead an object of revulsion? To this, one might respond, What about all the women who have joined ISIS?

That being said, his stranger claims tend only to be ancillary to his overall argument. Asma covers an immense amount of ground in just over two hundred pages, and while he does not always provide hard evidence that religion has the effects he claims it does, it is difficult to dismiss the intuitive appeal of his arguments or the abundant evidence that those who are more religious do tend to show greater levels of psychological well-being. Asma here takes a refreshingly scientific approach to religion, avoiding apology while not resorting to New Atheist-style lambasting, and forming an argument that is convincing, if not always compelling.

Karel Carpenter is a graduate student and writer living in the United States.