Stephen Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College in Chicago, was a childhood Catholic altar boy who grew up to become a “cultural Buddhist” and religion-skewering writer for Skeptic magazine. Now, at 51, he's finds himself agnostic about God, but is asserting Why We Need Religion in his new book due out from Oxford in June.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity)
You write in Why We Need Religion that “… the irrationality of religion does not render it unacceptable or valueless.” Will your unbelieving friends think you’ve lost your mind?
Maybe! But there are a number of people like me who are skeptical about the belief claims of religions yet nonetheless respect it. They haven’t had the voice for what they are thinking. I say religion is actually very good therapy for our emotional lives. It resonates. There are levels of suffering that art and science can’t do much with and religion is very good at. People think of religion as a system of beliefs but it is fundamentally an emotional management system, one that science and any other kind of “cultural technology” cannot offer.
Are we all – including you -- inherently “religious” but some of us don’t ‘name it and claim it’?
Yes. We are mammals. Our brains evolved to seek help. Sometimes there is no help to be found with other human beings so your brain and emotions reach out to the universe. Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson don’t need to tell a grieving mother that the religion that gives her solace and the strength to get up and keep going is all fictive. We evolved things such as prayer to manage our spontaneous yearning to survive and flourish. I’m not embarrassed and I don’t think it is intellectually cowardly. Religiosity is in human nature. I don’t kneel down and pray as I did in my childhood. But I allow myself to have spontaneous conversations with the universe.
Can you talk about the dark side to your portrait of religion as an adaptive behavioral mechanism?
Religion gets more tribal when a population feels it is under siege. There’s more demonizing. Dehumanizing the “enemy” is part of the brain’s adaptive job. And it has to be managed. I write about Westboro Baptist Church [which rages against gays]. It makes Christianity look horrifying but they are only 50 people lost among millions of U.S. Christians. I look at ISIS and Wahhabism in Islam [the most politically and religiously extreme expression of the faith]. But I point out that extremism is still small in most Muslim societies. Extremism is bad and must be faced but it does not undo all the positive things religions offer. There is a tendency among liberals to say all tribalism is bad. But that misses the profound benefits of tribalism, a notion of “our people.” Having a preferential network is how you get things gone, how we often times get through life.
Is this a sort of intellectual apologetics for religion?
I don’t want people to dismiss the book as saying faith is better than we thought it was or religion is more rational than we thought. What I am saying is that the brain has different operating systems and the rational part it is fairly new. Religion speaks to the oldest part of the brain and it has a therapeutic mission to manage our emotional life. How one feels is as vital to survival as how one thinks.