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As Mind Hacks Go, Religion Isn’t The Best One

A response to Stephen T. Asma’s argument for religion.

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By Craig Axford | United States

In a June 3rd New York Times Op-ed, the philosopher Stephen Asma lays out a common argument for why humans need religion. “Religious practice is a form of social interaction that can improve psychological health,” Asma states. To make his point he tells the story of a student whose brother was brutally murdered and whose mother was only able to cope by finding solace in the belief she would see her son again in the afterlife.

That religious belief can provide great comfort in times of immense suffering has both powerful anecdotal and scientific support. But as with just about every other cultural adaptation that humans have come up with, there’s a downside as well as an upside. Some adaptations are more downside than up, while others are more upside than down. Asma’s forthcoming book, Why We Need Religion, may offer us a solid argument for the view that religion is largely upside but his NY Times opinion piece doesn’t.

Stephen Asma has a rather odd way of praising religion. His article in the Times often reads like a rather backhanded compliment. He seems to think that what we believe and how we go about believing it is either of little or no consequence or that it is worth the personal and social price we have to pay to purchase relief from the pain life’s slings and arrows inflict. Religions, of course, historically have taken themselves rather more seriously, and most still do.

In the tragic case that Asma cites — a mother who lost a son to a brutal stabbing and could only find comfort in a belief in an afterlife — we have only his word for it (based upon an account Asma received from a student) that this woman could find relief from her suffering by no other means. However, for the sake of argument let’s assume this is an accurate retelling of how one mother found a way to move beyond her loss. According to Asma’s own account, this story puts religion in the category of something that works as a last resort, not as a preferred or ideal method for coping with suffering.

Furthermore, Asma never attempts to interview even one out of the millions who have experienced personal loss without needing to resort to a belief in an afterlife or other untestable things in order to cope. In order to build a solid argument that a sincere belief in realms that can’t be proven translates into a speedier recovery or greater psychological health, shouldn’t a thorough survey of alternative worldviews be a necessary part of the research?

His failure to provide any research into how nonbelievers cope with personal loss doesn’t stop him from assuming they turn to science. After making this erroneous assumption he tells readers the approach we don’t take doesn’t work. “No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy,” Asma writes. “Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of crime.”

I don’t know Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson personally, but I don’t have any difficulty imagining that their method of providing comfort in a situation like this would be rather typical of most caring human beings: a hug and perhaps a few shared tears. A science lecture wouldn’t be in the cards unless Nye and Tyson are completely lacking in situational awareness. Asma, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, apparently thinks that atheists and agnostics do lack such awareness and would prescribe a few episodes of Cosmos for parents in mourning over a recently deceased child.

Science does not claim to be a source of solace. Science is a method for uncovering facts about our universe and how it functions, not an analgesic for the families of murder victims. To the extent science is useful in these situations, it is because it has provided therapists with a greater understanding of how we emotionally and physically respond to severe stress and aided our development of better therapeutic responses. To the best of my knowledge, no research into the stages of grief and the best means of getting through them psychologically intact has found a science lecture to be useful.

It’s troubling that a philosopher like Asma has adopted such a cavalier attitude about belief systems. Given life inevitably will involve suffering, human well-being must ultimately depend upon our capacity to cope with it without experiencing debilitating physical or emotional harm. Whenever possible we should strive to avoid using false or unprovable beliefs as a means to this end when equally good perspectives with greater empirical support are available. There may have been a time when religion was the best game in town when it came to coping with personal suffering, but that simply is no longer the case.

Asma’s curious attitude toward truth in this context is determined by what the “emotional brain” wants. Here’s how he puts it in his article:

Those of us in the secular world who critique such emotional responses and strategies with the refrain, “But is it true?” are missing the point. Most religious beliefs are not true. But here’s the crux. The emotional brain doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on the grounds of true and false. Emotions are not true or false. Even a terrible fear inside a dream is still a terrible fear. This means that the criteria for measuring a healthy theory are not the criteria for measuring a healthy emotion. Unlike a healthy theory, which must correspond with empirical facts, a healthy emotion is one that contributes to neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing.

No, emotions aren’t “true or false.” But they are warranted or unwarranted. A parent that has just lost a child is justified in feeling deep sadness regarding the loss. He/She has a reason for feeling this way. But there is nothing in our evolution as a species that states a mother or father must adopt a false or unverifiable belief in order to eventually move on with their life. Atheists and agnostics lose family and friends all the time, and the vast majority of them still manage to get out of bed in the morning.

If a person truly cannot find a way of coping with their grief that does not involve the permanent use of magical thinking, there’s nothing emotionally healthy or warranted about it. If a person loses even the capacity to entertain doubts about their religion (or any other worldview, scientific or otherwise), that’s not someone who has been rescued by their belief system, but someone who has become severely cognitively impaired by it. That’s not a good thing from either an individual or societal perspective.

Asma argues that “Religious practice is a form of social interaction that can improve psychological health. When you’ve lost a loved one, religion provides a therapeutic framework of rituals and beliefs that produce the oxytocin, internal opioids, dopamine and other positive affects that can help with coping and surviving.” This statement is worth breaking down and analyzing in greater depth.

The “social interaction” that Asma mentions I assume gets to one the greatest benefits of religion that researchers have cited, namely community. We are social creatures, and as such we don’t usually function as well physiologically or emotionally in isolation for long periods. But religious communities are just one of many forms our interactions with others can take. In fact, religious services themselves tend to occur only occasionally. The Abrahamic religions meet regularly only once a week on average, so by themselves, they would have to be very powerful experiences indeed to drag someone suffering a profound loss through the other six days of the week.

What religions provide is a reliable support network. These networks can be called upon during the remainder of the week to help individuals get through a crisis, which can make a huge difference to both the speed and quality of a person’s recovery. But it isn’t the belief in an afterlife that these communities share that either Asma or researchers in the field are pointing to here, but the “social interactions” they provide. In other words, a highly supportive book or chess club will do just as well in a pinch provided they are there for you when needed.

Next Asma refers to a “therapeutic framework of rituals and beliefs” that releases oxytocin, dopamine, and produces “other positive affects” that can assist a suffering individual. Again, that religion does have this impact isn’t in dispute. However, that it is the only or best mechanism for producing these “positive affects” is highly questionable.

First, let’s take a closer look at the importance of the religious beliefs. As was pointed out above, Asma himself admits that “The emotional brain doesn’t care” whether something is true or false. He also states that while “Beliefs play a role…they are not the primary mechanisms for delivering such therapeutic power.” It is the “religious practice (rituals, devotional activities, songs, prayer and story)” that offer “us opportunities to express care for each other in grief, providing us with the alleviation of stress and anxiety, or giving us direction and an outlet for rage.”

Since by Asma’s own admission the beliefs don’t really matter either to our emotions or as mechanisms for our recovery, all things being equal we might as well utilize beliefs that don’t require us to to adopt patriarchy as our default position when it comes to relations between the sexes or to jettison the theory of evolution in exchange for a 6000 year-old earth. Whatever impact these beliefs may or may not have on our emotional recovery after a traumatic event, they do have implications for the health of our relationships and society as a whole, so we should at least consider them in that context.

That leaves rituals, which can play an important role in providing people with a sense of continuity and some semblance of control during difficult periods. Ritual can be a strong antidote for the powerlessness we feel when our life is in turmoil. But here too religion need not be the only source for ritual. Meditation, for example, can easily be substituted for prayer and has the benefit of working as well in a secular as in a religious context.

If religions were more open to serving as halfway houses where people recovering from whatever it is that emotionally ails them could park themselves for a while and temporarily take on beliefs until their equilibrium was restored, Asma’s argument would be much more difficult to find fault with. Unfortunately, religion typically insists upon belief and loyalty in exchange for these services. In extreme cases, this can involve the rejection of science or even the rejection of non-believing friends.

Stephen Asma briefly touches upon religion’s “dark side” in a single paragraph in his Op-ed, but religion’s shadowy side deserves more attention than that. While there are a few liberal churches that have a high degree of tolerance for doubt and are willing to let people come and go as they feel the need, these institutions are sadly the exception. For obvious reasons, they have a hard time building up a large membership. Hopefully, his book will provide answers to the challenge more orthodox and fundamentalist religions pose that go beyond a few lines.

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