Why We Need Religion

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Stephen T. Asma
  • Oxford, UK: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


We need religion, despite its seeming irrationality, because it helps us manage our emotional lives in a way that science simply cannot. Or so argues Stephen Asma in Why We Need Religion. In part because of this emotional management, religion's “positive dimensions outweigh the negative ones” (3). Asma appeals both to our rational minds and our emotional ones as he reviews the latest scientific research on human emotions along with stories from religious traditions and personal anecdotes to bolster his central claims. He garners the reader’s trust by sharing that he was a religion critic well before it was cool. He claims that “it’s a tough time to defend religion” (1), which is arguable, but prepares the rhetorical ground to suggest that we skeptical readers can change too, since he’s now an outsider defending religion.

His argument can be divided into two primary elements. The first is that we are not (just or always) rational but emotional creatures. Thus, we need social and psychological tools to help manage the emotions that are an unavoidable part of our evolutionary package, and religion is one of those tools. It is of course debatable that emotional management is the core of religion—which is sometimes what Asma implies—but it’s certainly an important function. So far so good. The problem is the second element: religion is a better tool for managing our emotional lives than most things on offer (science, education, reason, etc.). His defense of this element did not satisfy me, and I suspect will also fail to satisfy those who see more nuance than his narrow constructions of the alternatives and their proponents: the “enemies” (4) or “critics of religion” (37).

In the first chapter Asma uses the by now well-known but still entertaining Creation Museum as a backdrop, presumably to illustrate that overly rigorous rationality can occur among the religious as well as the nonreligious, with regrettable results either way. Asma takes a welcome charitable tone toward creationists, but in order to establish the rational approach as ignorant of the real needs that religion satisfies, he erects a caricatured Mr. Spock version of skepticism that has no place for emotion in its reliance on pure logic. He writes: “Creationists and atheists share the mistaken assumption that an accurate description of the world will unroll the rules of moral and social behavior” (32). This aside, Asma provides a helpful insight in this chapter: “critical thinking” relies much more on interpretation than we like to think it does (25). We all stop short of a thorough review of the available evidence at different times and places of our lives; realizing this can be a humbling corrective if we’re willing.

In the five primary chapters of the text, Asma addresses five corresponding complexes of emotion: sorrow, forgiveness, peace, ecstasy, and fear. These chapters contain similar elements in varying orders. The author introduces the emotion and engages the latest neuroscientific, evolutionary, and psychological research that shows the emotion's inextricability from our individual and social lives. He then gradually provides examples of how religion helps us manage (in an individually and socially positive way) that emotion. He reminds us of his antagonists—those “critics of religion”—and how they misunderstand the importance of this management (32, 37, 55, 85, 111, 148, 163, 176). At some point before the end of the chapter, Asma briefly attempts to bridge the gap between the importance of emotions and why religion is necessary by ceding that other institutions (reason, education, and science) can provide this same sort of management while insisting they cannot do it as well (59, 88, 90, 109, 151, 167). He also unfailingly mentions that religion sometimes produces the opposite effect—managing the given emotion in an unhealthy or destructive way—but insists that this is the exception to the rule (50, 87, 115, 117, 148, 201). With that, we move to the next emotion. 

I agree with the crudeness of the critic's position as Asma describes it, but the critiques I’ve read are far more nuanced. To pick a single example, in chapter 4 Asma introduces a common argument that Westerners oversimplify Buddhism by taking meditation as a cure-all for concentration problems (99). This takes away the important emotional management component Asma is highlighting. However, at least one of Asma’s favorite critics, Sam Harris, argues the same thing and has developed a meditation app—which, as a caveat, I use—on the premise of correcting that oversimplification. Harris and others take issue primarily with the metaphysical aspects of religious traditions and the negative social impacts Asma minimizes. While some are attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff, Asma’s argument suggest that the prevailing argument for reason necessarily eliminates religion.

Like many projects, this one seems to reflect Asma’s own journey from dismissal to appreciation of religion. This is motivated in part by personal challenges that he alludes to, and by no means should a critique be taken as a dismissal of his or others’ emotional trauma. Rather, it is a question of how best to deal with it—Asma prescribes religion as the best medicine, though he doesn’t doesn’t take it himself.

In the second chapter, Asma quotes a passage from a short poem on death, “The Promissory Note,” that I found impactful. Like Asma, I’m fascinated with religion and have spent my professional life studying it without participating in it. But I do feel the fear of death, the “eras[ure] . . . into oblivion” that Galway Kinnell describes (46). I am lucky not to have suffered any extraordinary tragedy, so it’s certainly possible that such an experience would change everything for me, but this alone doesn't justify religion. I doubt Asma really believes that either, which makes me think his book should be retitled something like How Religion Helps Us Manage our Emotional Lives. The title isn't sexy, but Asma could keep the interesting stories, the cutting-edge research, and religion’s function in regulating emotions and drop the straw man argument as well as the rhetoric about how religion does it better.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matt Recla is a lecturer at Boise State University.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen T. Asma is a Professor of Philosophy and Founding Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture at Columbia College, Chicago. He is the author of On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears and Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums.


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