Book review: Why We Need Religion by Stephen T. Asma


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A book review by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys:

"Why We Need Religion" by Stephen T. Asma. 1

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I just finished reading Mr. Asma’s book, "Why We Need Religion". 1 It is an interesting and thought-provoking book. I encourage others to read it.

I think he is trying to point out that Religion isn’t all bad. It has some benefits. One of those benefits is that it helps people deal with their emotions -- with the ups and downs and tragedies of living. As he sums his premise at the end on page 211, its chief virtues are as a:

"... coping mechanism for our troubles, and as social glue for our community."

I guess the main objection I have is that he doesn’t use enough qualifiers — "some," "many," etc. For example, the title could have been worded "Why Some or Many People Need Religion" or "Why We Need Something Like Religion" or "What Religion Can Do For Us that Science Can’t! I understand he wrote an essay with a similar title for the New York Times.

I agree that Science tries to avoid the emotional and subjective, in favor of the rational and objective. But I don’t think we have to choose Science in favor of Religion or of nothing. Science hasn’t destroyed my sense of awe and wonder and love for the natural world. Science has enhanced my understanding of the world and how it works; and of people and how they work; and of societies and what we need to do to make them work for all of us. My system of values, morals, beliefs, knowledge and practices isn’t built solely around Science. My system incorporates what:

  • I have learned from loving parents;

  • from all the people I have met, loved (and even those I have disliked) and otherwise interacted with over the years;

  • from all I have learned about the World’s Religions, Mythologies and Philosophiesm, and from reading their Sacred Texts,

  • from what I have learned from reading the works of our great philosophers and thinkers; and

  • everything I have seen and witnessed.

One Religious system or Science alone could never have provided what I have gotten from all of that!

My second objection to the book is that he seems to ignore the "is and the aught". How religion is actually practiced and how it aught, -- or should be, -- or could be practiced (using more of those qualifying words I mentioned above.)

One example starts in the section on Fear on page 181. He comments that religion scholar Robert Fuller suggests that Religious stories are very effective at "transforming fear into fear-induced anger." He then explains this concept: He downplays how "fear-induced anger" can so quickly turn to hate and violence; the persecution against the "other"-- the one/s that are different, that aren’t just like you. He also downplays how fear-induced anger can so easily become uncontrollable — by the individual and the religious or political leader that fired it up.

These are my personal overall impressions of the book, not a scholarly analysis. And as I said it is a thought provoking book and well worth reading. Some of you will have very different impressions from mine. That is okay! Good books like Religions and New Age philosophies speak differently to each of us.

My third objection relates to the book title. It implies that our needs (as human beings) can only be satisfied by Religion. That simply isn’t the case. Some people will find what
they need in Religion and others won’t! Others will find what they need elsewhere! AND some religious people as well as some non- religious people seem to never find what they need.

To be fair, Asma does mention the problems and downside of religion in places. In Chapter 5 -- the section on meaningful conjuring -- he discusses the concept of soul, and mentions one problem that he sees:

"The problem with some religions and New Age soul talk is that it exports the soul concept from the domain of subjective expression to the domain of objective fact, where it can have no empirical corroboration. That is the main category mistake." P. 143

I think this sentence can be reworded to explain what the main category mistake of some religions and New Age philosophies has been:

"The problem with some religions and New Age philosophies is that it exports concepts from the domain of subjective expression to the domain of objective fact. In doing so it misses the true beauty and meaning behind the subjective expression when it attempts to interpret a passage in a book or a metaphysical insight as literal historical physical TRUTH/Reality."

I have observed that there are some people that really seem incapable of abstract thinking or of understanding subjective expressions. I have wondered if their parents never read to them when they were children. They don’t seem to understand that stories can contain a true/valuable/insightful message without being a literal representation of reality. I also worry about today’s young people who are growing up with a visually enhanced and constantly active fast paced life — TV, videos, videos on phones, etc. Will they lose their ability to imagine, to think abstractly, and to understand subjective expression? Will they even be able to distinguish between fact and fantasy?

His overall view for why we need religion appears on page 13 where he discusses it's therapeutic value.

On page 120 he states it "contributes to fitness". He claims Religion helps us deal with the ups and downs of life—the tragedies and triumphs, with our warring emotions — love and hate, fear and contentment, and the demands of our higher Ego (our better Angel—turn the other cheek) with our baser instincts (the Devil on our shoulder that seeks revenge for even the smallest perceived slight or injury).

Unlike some other Atheists, I understand that Religions have served many purposes over the centuries. If they want to do away with Religions they will have to offer a better alternative, than nothing. I don’t think Religion is the problem, it is what people do with their religion that is the problem. My overall view is that all the world Religions and secular philosophies can help some people become better but sometimes it helps some people become worse.

By "better people,' I mean it helps some people deal with their emotions and life’s up and downs; it works to bring out the best in them. Religion can provide a structure and framework for understanding the world and their place in it for people that can’t create one for themselves and need the structure and framework to be provided for them.

By "worse people," I mean it helps some people become more fearful of the "other" -- the one/s that is/are different, the ones that aren’t like them. It can provide justification and sanctification of prejudice and actions that harm others. And it can mislead and misinform about issues that are vital to their survival -- climate change for example! It can cause harm, not enhance fitness.

Religions and Secular Philosophies can either cater to people’s baser instincts or encourage them to live up to their highest ideals. It isn’t that we need Religion but that we as in all humans need some system of beliefs and practices that help us become better people not worse ones. Some will find their system in Religion. Others will find it elsewhere. Some seem never seem to find it.

I get the impression Mr. Asma seems to excuse or consider the extremists as aberrations or anomalies -- a minority of no major consequence. I have seen far too many people who
demonstrate with their day-to-day words and actions the worse that Religion can produce. They may be in the minority but they are a large enough group that they taint the waters from which we all must drink. They drive the extremists among us into more extreme positions; drive those on the fringes and in the middle to choose a side; drive the cynics into dropping out as they attempt to stay out of the fray altogether; and make life for everyone more difficult and unpleasant -- perhaps driving them to seek solace from the belief system that helped create the mess in the first place, thus perpetuating a losing cycle, not improving anyone’s fitness for life in this 21 st century.

I have a final thought/question for everyone to consider. I think that Mr. Asma downplays the negative in favor of not only the positive but also in favor of the positive aspect of the
negative -- i.e. that even the negative side has positive affects. Near the end of the book on page 197 he argues that:

"aggression is part of a larger adaptive strategy for group survival."

That may have been true a few hundred years ago when small tribal groups were the norm and they were trying to establish and defend their turf. However,the majority of the uchworld’s people no longer live in such groups. Most now live in very large culturally, ethnically, racially and religiously diverse groups that depend on global supply chains to provide the goods and resources needed for life in this 21 st Century.

At the end of the book, on page 211 he says:

"Principles such as ‘do no harm’ and ‘increase compassion’ (as found in Buddhism and Hinduism) form a kind of virtue canopy over all manner of metaphysical and supernatural beliefs. Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other religions also have such a virtue canopy, but it usually only unfurls when cultural threats abate."

The problem is that far too often it is the religious leader that creates and/or adds fuel to fire up those cultural threats in the first place! My question is whether Religion is the best way in this 21 st Century to help people manage their emotions and build community or whether it is time for a new system?

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References used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Stephen T. Asma, "Why We Need Religion," Oxford University Press (2018). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Author: Contributing editor Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2018-NOV--01
Latest update: 2018-NOV-15

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