Why We Need Religion, by Stephen T. Asma

by
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
(978-0-19-0469672)
Church Times Bookshop £20

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