Do humans still need religion, or have religious beliefs and practices become redundant? Can they be written off as an opiate, or do they remain important for the future evolution of humanity? Stephen Asma answers these questions in an unusual way. Describing himself as an evolutionist and historian of religion, he teaches philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, but is also a professional musician; an experienced global traveller widely read in philosophy, anthropology, sociology and neuroscience; and a senior fellow of Columbia College’s Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture.
Asma writes in a very readable style, speaking mostly in the first person singular or plural throughout his book. He discusses a vast fund of ideas in great detail, backed by comprehensive endnotes. His extensive knowledge is grounded in his wide experience of having visited and taught in several Western and Eastern countries, especially Cambodia and China. Originally from a traditional American Catholic background, he has exchanged this for a strong attraction to certain forms of Buddhism and an interest in Daoism and Confucianism.
He argues strongly against radical atheists that the irrationality of religion does not make it valueless; on the contrary, “religion, like art, has direct access to our emotional lives in ways that science does not”. This is undeniable; yet one does not have to agree with his main thesis that the primary significance of religions lies in their resourceful management of human emotions.
Unlike others, Asma puts much less stress on the ethical, civilising and other functions of religion than on “its emotionally therapeutic power”. Religion is for him all about the emotional management of human experiences at the individual and social level, about dealing with human sorrow and “the biology of grief” over death, or shame and guilt, or about mental training to find peace of mind, foster resilience in adversity or overcome violence and fear. The importance of this therapeutic view cannot be denied, but whether it should be given such exclusive prominence must be questioned. Asma also describes his project simply as that of “an agnostic recommending the good qualities of religion”.
The emotional solace that religion provides is not only concerned with “terror management” but extends to “ecstasy, joy and play”, including “sexual communion” and “cosmic joy”. The final chapter on “fear and rage” points out that the different sacred scriptures are sufficiently vague to be mined for both pacifism and belligerence – religions are not nearly as pacifist as often claimed. An excellent section on “The Challenge of Islam”, dealing with violence among contemporary Muslims, concludes Asma’s challenging study.
This wide-ranging book can be highly recommended, although it remains simplistic in arguing for the need for religion on emotional grounds alone. Even its sophisticated transdisciplinary approach cannot deal satisfactorily with the complexity of human beings, whose needs are always more than simply emotional, connecting their lives to a larger vision of reality. What about the deepest longings of human hearts that seek the lineaments of spirit, of divine presence and grace, within the dynamic unfolding of matter and life, discovering the power of infinite love and communion? Religion is needed for far more reasons than just one.
Ursula King is professor emerita of theology and religious studies and senior research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Bristol.
Why We Need Religion: An Agnostic Celebration of Spiritual Emotions
By Stephen T. Asma
Oxford University Press
Published 23 August 2018