April 19, 2019

Why We Need Religion

“IN RECENT YEARS, we have been treated to a variety of attacks on religion, especially organized religion, by thinkers like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and A. C. Grayling. In response to these attacks, several non-religious thinkers have sought to show that religion cannot accurately be painted in the broad negative paint strokes applied by these critics. Recently, Tim Crane argued in The Meaning of Belief (reviewed in these pages) that religion provides both a sense of the transcendent and the structure of a community that are unavailable to atheists and agnostics like him. Stephen T. Asma follows this path with his latest book, Why We Need Religion. Although not himself a believer, Asma argues that religion answers to a deep emotional need — or, better, a set of emotional needs — and therefore plays an irreplaceable role in societies.

Asma thinks it is a mistake to focus on the cognitive content of religion, a mistake that the New Atheists make consistently in their interpretation of religion. Rather, we should think of religion as operating at a more primitive level — that of our emotions. To say that religion operates at such a level is not to say that it is anachronistic or inferior in any way. It is to claim that, as humans, we have not only intellectual but also emotional needs, and that the latter cannot always be satisfied by satisfying the former. As Asma puts it, unlike “a healthy theory, which must correspond to empirical facts, a ‘healthy emotion’ might be one that contributes to neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing.” There is, in other words, a “real tension […] between the needs of one part of the brain (limbic) and the needs of another (the neocortical),” and this tension cannot be resolved simply through a view that is satisfying to the neocortical. Religion, in short, can meet our emotional needs even when it contradicts our intellectual ones.

Asma often tacks back and forth between discussion of religion and of biology. He offers biological definitions of various phenomena such as rage or shame, and then goes on to show how religion is supposed to help us cope with them. Before turning to examples, however, it is worth pausing over another aspect of his approach, one that emerges as the book progresses. In Asma’s eyes, we need to see religion as a bottom-up rather than top-down phenomenon. Religion is often looked at as a broader social phenomenon, one that operates on society as a whole. But that is not where Asma thinks it has its fundamental effects. Rather, it is locally, and particularly within the family, that religion operates. Religion works, as he says in his conclusion, “not by top-down cultural policing, but by natural forces of familial affection, small group cooperation, and the demands of domestic life.””

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