*** DEBUG END ***

Why We Need Religion, by Stephen T. Asma

19 October 2018

Robin Gill considers a philosopher’s riposte to the hard-line secularists

WHY do we need religion? Admittedly this is a crude question. Many in religious studies today insist that it is more accurate to talk about “religions”. Stephen Asma, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, simply ignores them. Émile Durkheim, the distinguished sociologist of an earlier generation, might have responded: “Because religious belonging sustains social cohesion.” In one form or another (albeit typically changing the question to “Why did we once need religion?”) this has been the response of many recent socio-biologists.

Asma’s response follows Durkheim’s functionalism, but is more individualistic. At the end of this fascinating and lively, even if over-ambitious, book, he concludes: “My goal has been to show that religion is a cultural mechanism of emotional management, and emotional management is adaptive — leading to the survival of human individuals and groups”.

To convince readers, he uses a range of disciplines — including psychology, evolutionary theory, cognitive science, and brain studies — while insisting that he, like Durkheim, is an agnostic and detached from any religious or anti-religious commitment. Yet he is not immune to simplistic reductionism — claiming, for example, that the “true function” of prayer lies in “peace of mind” and “resilience training”.

His main target, however, is the secularist who claims that the world would be better without religion(s). So, on sorrow and grieving, he concludes that “Our imagination is fed directly and powerfully by the motivating stories, ceremonies, and images of religion.” On forgiveness, he recognises the power of Buddhist and Christian forms of forgiveness: “It is unlike a philosopher to argue for health over truth, but that is not going to stop me. Forgiveness, in some cases, is a great survival mechanism, and not simply a psychological sop.”

Again, “mainstream moderate religion helps individuals love their families more,” and “some notion that an ultimate reality lies underneath the phenomenal reality of daily experience is highly effective in steering humans away from short-term, immediate fixations.”

These adjectives (italicised by me) suggest a normative basis lurking beneath his functional analysis. Indeed, while poking fun at his Catholic upbringing early in the book, on the final pages he praises a French priest who feeds the poor in Colombia, and admires Buddhists that he has met there. He even admits to his own spiritual vulnerability as a new father.

I suspect that he is not quite as agnostic as he states. Rather, he has spotted that religious belonging can be powerfully motivating . . . perhaps even (following Durkheim) “effervescent”.

This book is a thought-provoking read.

Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology in the University of Kent, and Editor of Theology.

Why We Need Religion
Stephen T. Asma
OUP £20
Church Times Bookshop £20

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)