Is religion better than atheism as a coping mechanism?

Unthinkable: Secular philosophies ‘lack the melodrama of religion’, says Stephen Asma

Children prepare for a nativity play: “Religion is filled with fantastical superheroes and stories.” Photograph: Frank Miller

Children prepare for a nativity play: “Religion is filled with fantastical superheroes and stories.” Photograph: Frank Miller

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Many of us have been there in darker moments: You hadn’t crossed the threshold of a church in ages but suddenly you find yourself starting a conversation with God.

Stephen Asma knows the feeling. “I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation, but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously,” he confesses.

Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, has written a powerful response to New Atheists in his book Why We Need Religion (Oxford University Press). Of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, he says: “I agree with them that religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity, but we’re at the wrong bar.” Religion is not necessarily meant to be true, he argues, but it’s meant to be useful. “Religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives” and especially cope with pain.

Asma, this week’s Unthinkable guest, thus makes the case that “the reduction of human suffering” – rather than intellectual coherence – “should be the standard by which we measure every religion”.

You portray religion as a coping mechanism, or emotional crutch. But do we really need it?

Stephen Asma: “Everyone needs coping mechanisms. Everyone needs emotional help now and then. My argument is a Darwinian defence of religion. Religion is the oldest system of cultural adaptation for apes like us, who need to cooperate well with others and survive stressful psychological challenges.

“When I say ‘we need it’, I mean a few things. The ‘we’ here refers to Homo sapiens over historical time spans, up to the present. A specific reader of this interview might feel liberated and unencumbered by religion, but around the world a vast majority of people use religion like a life-preserver to get through the difficult days and weeks.

“I lived in Cambodia and travelled a lot in the developing world. Many people are crushingly poor and do not have access to medicine, and when a loved one is dying of an injury or terminal illness – or the family is going hungry – then there is no other consolation but religion.

“My view, however, is deeper than the old saw, ‘reason for the few, magic for the many’. I think many of us with good educations, living in developed countries, will also meet with miseries that cannot be ameliorated or consoled by scientific means. . .

“Religion is real consolation in the same way that music is real consolation. It doesn’t need to correspond to reality in order to work.”

What about secular philosophies like humanism, stoicism or some kind of virtue theory? Could they not adequately serve the same function as religion?

“Humanism, stoicism and virtue theory are indeed very powerful ways of training the mind to handle misfortune, and they also help clarify our values. But they never catch on with anybody besides a tiny, elite, educated clan because those philosophies lack the drama – indeed the melodrama – of religion.

“Religion is filled with fantastical superheroes and bad guys, cosmic struggles, and stories of adventure, tribulations and victories, with images of hybrid gods and monsters, together with group activities like fasting rituals, sacrifices, songs, and so on. This kind of melodrama is often dismissed by the sceptic as ‘bread and circuses’ or even ‘opiates’ for stupid people. But the sceptic fails to appreciate that we humans see the world primarily in dramatic narrative terms, not in objective scientific terms.

“Religion not only provides a coherent and deep narrative for people, but it also activates our limbic emotional brains – the affective roots of empathy, care, courage and so on.

“As much as I love the stoicism of Seneca and the virtue theory of Aristotle and Confucius, they are too dry and dull to motivate large-scale societies to cooperate better. And their power to console comes after years of rigorous intellectual study, psychological discipline, and even aesthetic refinement. By contrast, most people trying to survive, to raise their families and possibly thrive need help right now.”

Would a world without religion be better than what we have now?

“It’s common for critics of religion to acknowledge its occasional therapeutic aspect, but quickly remind us that religion is a form of ‘reality denial’ or ‘reality avoidance’. No doubt this is true in some cases, but psychologist Kenneth Pargament found substantial data that religion’s main power lies in its ‘ability to appraise negative events from a different vantage point. Crises become an opportunity for closeness with God . . . Even the most desperate situations can be appraised in a more benevolent light from the religious perspective.’

“According to this view, religion does not increase coping by denying reality, but by reframing it in a manner that inspires resolve, or courage, or whatever is needed. In this regard, it functions like the friend who helps you see your troubles in a more positive light. Like the friend, religion helps one reframe obstacles as opportunities.

“Today, most critics of religion are Enlightenment-styled rationalists, who see religion as a dark cloud, obscuring the light of reason. Supernaturalism is the great delusion that distracts our otherwise optimal, rational calculations of life – if only religion could get out of the way!

“In my book, I try to show why religion will always speak to the deeper and more desperate recesses of the human psyche. The human mind remains irrational and vulnerable, no matter how trained and mature the rational mind becomes. Rationality cannot do the heavy lifting that is required in the face of devastating loss. What is needed is positive emotion and pain-reduction – in a word, religion.”

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