28 January 2011

Asma, Myers & Blackford on religion and atheism

Stephen Asma has responded to P Z Myers’ criticism of his article ‘The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview’, where Asma argues for the emotional benefits of religion and tut-tuts atheists for not acknowledging this positive aspect. Myers wrote on his blog that Asma had misunderstood the atheist position on religion: the primary issue is not about whether religion makes people feel good or happy, but whether its claims are true. And the reason why truth matters above all else is because falsehoods can cause harm, irrespective of their feel-good effects.

Asma’s response is detailed and measured. He clarifies his own position on the atheism/theism debate (he is an agnostic, and has written anti-theist articles in humanist and skeptic magazines) and lays out the neuroscientific, psychological and sociological evidence that support his following contention:

[R]eligion, like art, has direct access to our emotional lives in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder at the majesty of nature, but there are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific alleviation. Different emotional stresses require different kinds of rescue.

While Asma agrees with atheists that many religious claims about the world and moral values are false, he believes that “religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives.” It seems that the main point of difference between Asma’s position and that of atheists like Myers is this: Asma holds that the practical benefits of religious belief should have priority over truth, while those in Myers’ camp believe that truth comes first, whatever the consequences.

But Asma makes one thing clear; he’s not defending religion, but the emotions.

Now many people have confused my attempts to describe and understand emotional religion as a defense of religion, when in fact I am really trying to defend the emotions. The new atheists tend to adopt the traditional dismissive view of emotions that one finds in neocortex-based neuroscience, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology. My own view is heavily influenced by theories of embodied cognition and affective science (e.g., Antonio Damasio, Richard Davidson, and Jaak Panksepp in neuroscience, Mark Johnson in philosophy, etc.). There is nothing spooky, or mystical, or magical about the idea that the mind is more than just rational consciousness. I am simply acknowledging that the logical neocortex is built on top of a subcortical emotional mountain. Science and rationality are not best suited to navigate some of those crags and chasms of feeling, but other human cultural tools (like religion and art) can engage them effectively.

I think Asma veers dangerously close to caricaturing atheists as unfeeling Spock-like rationalists. I doubt that the atheists he is directing his criticism at are as dismissive of the role of emotions in consciousness as he makes them out to be. I mean, Myers is certainly quite an emotional kinda guy, going by the tone and temper of his posts, and he certainly knows it (“I would be the last person to claim that emotion wasn't an important part of the human experience, and I've told people that we need more appeal to those lower centers of the brain”). But Myers makes a good point that ‘sugarcoating’ the lies perpetuated by irrational belief systems to make them emotionally palatable doesn’t address the harms caused by such beliefs. Irrational but emotionally satisfying beliefs may make, say, African animists happy, but, as Myers writes:

African animists still die of starvation, thirst, and disease, and African animists are using their faiths to accuse children of witchcraft to justify setting them on fire, or butchering unfortunate albinos to use their body parts in magical rituals.

Truth, knowledge and facts matter, if only to prevent the sort of brutality and cruelty that is fed by superstitious, unscientific beliefs.

Asma writes in his response to Myers that his description of animism and the emotional benefits of religion is not an endorsement of either. He would welcome the spread of reason and science in those societies that lack them. Perhaps it’s simply a case of impatience on the part of ardent atheists like Myers; the sooner science and reason light the dark corners of the world, the better for all of us. But Asma accepts that the modern Enlightenment project is a long, laborious process that meets resistance every step of the way. And that process includes promoting understanding:

Ultimately, my goal in the article is to contribute to our UNDERSTANDING of religious people – like a Democrat tries to understand a Republican, or vice versa. I'm not yet in a position to make many substantial normative claims, but I'll venture this important provisional one. If you want to get rid of religion, you can't ARGUE it out of existence with rationality. Instead, you have to "feed" the hungry emotions something new as a healthier replacement. The emotional brain has a voracious and different dietary appetite than the rational brain. And until we create some new emotional superfood, religion will continue to feed it. But the emotions should not be seen as some inconvenient garbage-eating monster in the basement of the brain. The emotional life provides the vitality and the dynamism that we mammals require. Science itself would not be successful if it wasn't driven by the passions of inquiry. The passions of inquiry, however, will be cold comfort to certain sorts of suffering, and that is why we have other kinds of culture (including religion). [Asma’s emphasis]

Philosopher Russell Blackford weighs in on the debate with a comment on the “urgency” of challenging religious authority in a “forthright, high-profile way”, just like the New Atheists are doing. He counts the Four Horsemen and Myers as allies in the good fight for truth. But Blackford also shares Asma’s more generous view of religion (“I don’t necessarily think that all religions are equally harmful in all contexts”).

My overall impression of this debate is a positive one. Bar the slight peevishness in Myers’ criticisms (he can be a bit of a grouchy bear, in a rather endearing way), all parties involved gave a good account of their respective views without resorting to ad hominems, crude mudslinging and just plain lousy reasoning. Which is far better than what you’d generally get when God-botherers debate non-believers.


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