The Opiate of the Masses? Not So Fast.

By Todd MayOctober 14, 2018

The Opiate of the Masses? Not So Fast.

Why We Need Religion by Stephen T. Asma

IN RECENT YEARS, we have been treated to a variety of attacks on religion, especially organized religion, by thinkers like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and A. C. Grayling. In response to these attacks, several non-religious thinkers have sought to show that religion cannot accurately be painted in the broad negative paint strokes applied by these critics. Recently, Tim Crane argued in The Meaning of Belief (reviewed in these pages) that religion provides both a sense of the transcendent and the structure of a community that are unavailable to atheists and agnostics like him. Stephen T. Asma follows this path with his latest book, Why We Need Religion. Although not himself a believer, Asma argues that religion answers to a deep emotional need — or, better, a set of emotional needs — and therefore plays an irreplaceable role in societies.

Asma thinks it is a mistake to focus on the cognitive content of religion, a mistake that the New Atheists make consistently in their interpretation of religion. Rather, we should think of religion as operating at a more primitive level — that of our emotions. To say that religion operates at such a level is not to say that it is anachronistic or inferior in any way. It is to claim that, as humans, we have not only intellectual but also emotional needs, and that the latter cannot always be satisfied by satisfying the former. As Asma puts it, unlike “a healthy theory, which must correspond to empirical facts, a ‘healthy emotion’ might be one that contributes to neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing.” There is, in other words, a “real tension […] between the needs of one part of the brain (limbic) and the needs of another (the neocortical),” and this tension cannot be resolved simply through a view that is satisfying to the neocortical. Religion, in short, can meet our emotional needs even when it contradicts our intellectual ones.

Asma often tacks back and forth between discussion of religion and of biology. He offers biological definitions of various phenomena such as rage or shame, and then goes on to show how religion is supposed to help us cope with them. Before turning to examples, however, it is worth pausing over another aspect of his approach, one that emerges as the book progresses. In Asma’s eyes, we need to see religion as a bottom-up rather than top-down phenomenon. Religion is often looked at as a broader social phenomenon, one that operates on society as a whole. But that is not where Asma thinks it has its fundamental effects. Rather, it is locally, and particularly within the family, that religion operates. Religion works, as he says in his conclusion, “not by top-down cultural policing, but by natural forces of familial affection, small group cooperation, and the demands of domestic life.”

As a bottom-up phenomenon, religion can foster a healthy emotional balance in a number of areas. Asma discusses grief and sorrow, forgiveness, mental training in peacefulness and resilience, joy and play, and fear and rage. In all of these, religion can help us calibrate our emotional reactions, particularly to ourselves and those around us, the more immediate the more effective. Take grief and sorrow, for example. We all lose loved ones or fail in important projects or regret paths not taken. The emotions associated with these losses, especially the first, can be hard to process, leaving us paralyzed or in longer-term depression. This is where religion comes in. “Sorrow,” Asma writes, “is elemental for us, and, as such, needs emotional management. The task of cultural technologies like religion is not to repress sorrow, deny it, or repudiate it. The task is to process it in a manner that leaves the grieving person relatively vital, functioning, and even potentially happy, albeit transformed by the nontrivial loss of a loved one.”

How does religion do this? Asma discusses five different ways: the placebo effect of certain beliefs, the social traditions of funeral rituals, the bond it creates for us with other grieving individuals, the belief that the lost individual is still alive in soul, and the shaping of our emotional reactions. Those who are skeptical of religion will balk at several of these procedures, since they involve the commitment to beliefs that they hold to be false. Asma does not disagree that these beliefs may be false. However, a central theme of the book is that what works on the cognitive register will often not do in the emotional one, and in order to have healthy lives we need to be able to satisfy both registers. This might sometimes leave a “tension,” as he puts it, between the two registers. This tension, though, does not detract from and in fact might be necessary for overall flourishing. Or, as he puts it elsewhere in the book, some knowledge is “indicative,” seeking empirical verification, while other knowledge is “imperative,” seeking to undergird action. These two forms of knowledge need not be convergent, and in fact in a healthy human being they may even be dissonant.

As with his other discussions, Asma sees a biological — in this case, neurological — grounding to the emotional work done by religion. In an ironic inversion of Marx’s famous dictum about religion, he writes:

If affective neuroscience is correct, then the lion’s share of our social life also is underpinned by internal opiates. Our brains evolved an endogenous opioid system that blocks pain and produces euphoria, and this feedback loop became the motivational system underlying our social interactions. Maybe religion is the opiate of the masses, but then so is friendship and love.

Religion, for Asma, has the potential to offer a healthy balance of living when it is taken up as a bottom-up emotional (and neurological) contributor to aspects of our lives that cannot be addressed solely cognitively or indicatively. One might want to object here that his view would seem to imply that without religion we cannot achieve emotional balance in our lives. This would be mistaken, although the book’s title might contribute to such an understanding. To say that religion contributes to emotional health does not imply that such health cannot be achieved in the absence of religion. What Asma’s view points to, and I think this is an important contribution of the book, is that we have emotional needs that can go unrecognized if we focus solely on our cognitive relationship to the world. Recent research by Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Prinz, and others, points to the importance of emotion in our actions and relations. Asma’s approach follows this in showing how religion can be a source of emotional health. However, he need not — and, in my reading, he does not — insist that religion is the only way to achieve such health.

I do have a concern about Asma’s approach, but it lies elsewhere. The book often sets up dichotomies that, to my mind, erase nuances that need to be considered. Let me briefly address two of them. The first one is central to the book: the distinction between the cognitive and the emotional or, neurologically, the neocortical and the limbic. These are, to be sure, two different categories or brain areas. However, we need not see such a stark contrast or tension between them. On the one hand, the emotional can lead us toward cognitive insights, a fact that feminist moral philosophers and others have insisted upon for some time. A sympathetic feeling for someone’s pain can help one recognize their fellow humanity. On the other hand, a cognitive insight, for instance, that Mark Rothko’s paintings are supposed to induce a spiritual experience, can lead one to orient oneself to such an experience and open oneself up emotionally to it.

Allowing these nuances would complicate the project of the book, since it raises the question of whether there need be the distinction between the indicative and the imperative, which in turn gives an opening to religion’s role as Asma understands it. Perhaps that tension need not exist. If so, instead of asking how to address both areas of our lives and our brains in ways that often conflict, we might ask how best to reconcile the two. Where might we find practices and engagements that are, at once, cognitively and emotionally satisfying?

The other, less central, place this dichotomy appears is in the chapter on fear and rage. Religion, Asma points out, can be mobilizing against one’s enemies by creating an in-group versus out-group sensibility. He concedes that this sensibility is not always helpful; it has fueled profound violence. On the other hand, he argues, people “who dismiss religious-fueled rage as intrinsically evil or primitive, have usually never faced real enemies […] Sometimes enemies must be fought and stopped, and religion has played a role in mobilizing loose collaborators into a unified defense front.”

The either/or here, while less important for structuring the book as a whole, is in some ways more worrisome. Certainly, there are enemies that must be confronted. But haven’t the theories and practices of nonviolence over the past century taught us that there are often other forms of confrontation than a religious- or otherwise-fueled rage? The trick in nonviolent action is to oppose the adversary without seeing them as entirely outside one’s moral concern. And, as the Indian Independence and American Civil Rights movements have shown us, such confrontations can be had even with “real enemies.”

This worry about dichotomies aside, Why We Need Religion is a valuable contribution to an area of reflection that is too often driven by its own dichotomy between Religion Bad and Only Religion Good. Asma’s appeal to the role of emotions in our lives and his discussions of their neurological bases adds nuance to debates that could use a little more subtlety. For those who would like to dismiss religion as archaic, irrelevant, or deleterious to our lives — as Asma himself confesses that he used to do — the book presents a significant and forceful challenge.


Todd May is Class of 1941 Memorial Professor of the Humanities at Clemson University.

LARB Contributor

Todd May teaches philosophy at Warren Wilson College. He is the author of 17 books of philosophy, including A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe (2015), A Fragile Life: Accepting Our Vulnerability (2017), and A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us (2019), all with University of Chicago Press.


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