Why We Need Religion
By Stephen T. Asma
Oxford University Press. Pp. 272. $29.95

Review by Bonnie Poon Zahl

Even though the new atheists’ strident denouncements of religion seem to have receded in recent years, it is still the case that secularists rarely offer fair, let alone charitable, interpretations of religion. Given that Stephen Asma, a philosopher and professed agnostic, has been a rather vocal critic of religion, what does he have to say now in religion’s defense?

Asma makes a sustained argument for its psychological power. Roughly speaking, the human brain has three subsystems: the ancient reptilian brain (responsible for motor movement), the older mammalian brain (responsible for emotional and behavioral responses), and the most recently evolved neocortex (responsible for complex cognition and rationality).

Emotions like anger, fear, sadness, happiness, shame, and guilt are seated in the mammalian brain, and they affect our memory, attention, and behavior. Successful management of these emotions has therefore been conducive to human survival.

Religion, Asma argues, nourishes the mammalian brain. It has an “emotionally therapeutic power” that “helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives” (pp. 4-5). Those who dismiss religion purely on the grounds of rational validity are missing the point.

Each chapter of the book focuses on a different cluster of human experiences and emotions that religion is apt at managing. These include coping with death and sorrow; shame, guilt, and forgiveness; selflessness, sacrifice, and the practice of self-control; seeking joy, meaning, and love; and dealing with fear and rage.

In each of these areas, Asma surveys research from psychology, neuroscience, ethology, evolutionary science, and comparative philosophy to support his argument for the utility of religion in helping believers cope with these sorts of experiences.

For example, research on coping shows that religion can provide ways of reframing challenging situations that inspire courage and generate a sense of closeness to God. Funeral rituals and customs encourage acceptance, reflection, and reaffirmation of bonds that continue to exist, and provide comfort to those who are grieving. Meditative and contemplative practices restore balance and equanimity. Forgiveness, promoted by Christians as a virtue and by Buddhists as a path to detachment, is linked empirically to a host of physiological benefits and positive relational outcomes.

Even what we think of as negative feelings like rage can motivate the desire for justice or defense of the community. Altogether, Asma believes, such evidence should persuade even religious skeptics that certain kinds of religious belief and practices are in fact psychologically and socially valuable.

To the reader who is content with bracketing religion’s metaphysical aspects, Why We Need Religion is a persuasive (but not naïve) naturalistic account of its potential benefits. Asma’s arguments move with ease between science, philosophy, and accounts of his experience in different religious settings and communities.

The science he appeals to is informed, balanced, and well-chosen. His treatment of essential religious beliefs as they relate to individual experience demonstrates competence, even if it is at times superficial. It successfully delivers, as its cover promises, “a Darwinian defense of religious emotions and the cultural systems that manage them.”

Natural selection has selected for emotions, and religions have provided an effective management system for them. Christian readers might find it interesting to see how science confirms their religious experience, when their faith in God comforts, energizes, gives meaning, inspires courage, and helps them to find purpose beyond themselves.

As a psychologist, I found Asma’s psychologizing of religion thoughtful and largely accurate. But I confess that as a Christian I nevertheless found the book dissatisfying. I could recognise some of my experiences in Asma’s account, but the picture that he paints ultimately comes across as strangely flat. I take no issue with its scientific accuracy, but it is hard not to find the book less “charitable” (p. 14) than Asma seems to think.

Asma says he wishes to “express an emotional solidarity with believers,” but he also describes religion as “intellectually awkward” (p. 7) when “most religious beliefs are not true” (p. 5).

He recognizes that the meaningful frameworks for religious believers are “intimately metaphysical,” and that the “values and the meanings flow from the metaphysics” (p. 10), but he also describes religion as one of many “analgesic therapies,” like “aspirin, alcohol … hobbies, work, love, friendship,” which we administer for “palliative pain management” (p. 13).

There is a condescension in tone and a superficiality in his treatment of the metaphysical dimensions of religion that is hard to get past. Here we find one of the classic challenges that arises when secularists attempt to make peace with religion. I respect Asma’s sincere attempt at empathy with religious people. But the reason that religion helps me cope is not because I imagine it to be true. It does not seem to have occurred to Asma that a religious person might have tested religion intellectually and not just emotionally, and still not found it wanting.

Bonnie Poon Zahl is a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford. 

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