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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Persistence of Belief, Part IV: Religion is Good for Us

I noted in an earlier post that at least three streams of thought attempt to account for the persistence of belief and religion  ("The Persistence of Belief, Part I: The Future of Religion"). One, which is associated with cognitive scientists of religion, argues that religion is “natural” in the sense that it is an accidental byproduct of a separate (but adaptive) evolutionary process ("The Persistence of Belief, Part II: Religion is a Natural Accident"). A second, which draws primarily on the work of group or cultural evolutionists who contend that religion, or at least some forms of it, have helped human groups to adapt to various evolutionary pressures ("The Persistence of Belief, Part III: Religion is Good for the Group"). And a third, which I discuss here, reflects the efforts of philosopher Stephen Asma, who argues that religion persists because it is good for us because it helps us manage and regulate our emotions.

Religion is Good for Us

Like many of his fellow agnostics, the philosopher Stephen Asma has frequently poked fun at religion and its adherents. One day, however, after “pompously lecturing a class of undergraduates about the incoherence of monotheism,” he was approached by a student whose older brother had been stabbed to death and the perpetrator never caught. He told him “that his mother went insane for a while afterward, and would have been institutionalized if it were not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again.” She believed that she would be reunited with him in the afterlife where “she stressed [that] his body would be made whole again.” Put simply, her religious beliefs “dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow, and gave her the strength to keep raising her other two children—[Asma’s] student and his sister.” As Asma tells it, his student’s story “slowly unraveled [his] convictions and assumptions about religion,” and combined with his own experiences, plus time spent with Buddhists in Cambodia, he gained a new respect for religion although he remains an agnostic:
No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. But the irrational hope that she would see her murdered son again sustained her… If this emotionally grounded belief gave her the energy and vitality to continue caring for her other children, then we can envision a selective pressure for such emotional beliefs at the individual and kin levels of natural selection.
Asma believes that religion has helped and continues to help us manage our emotional lives. He believes it “is better at describing and managing the emotional life, and it is an equal player in the adaptive [evolutionary] game.” He acknowledges that some may object since religion “can’t be true,” but he believes that misses the point. “Most religious beliefs are not true,” he argues. “But here’s the crux. The emotional brain doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on the grounds of true and false… An emotion is not a representation or a judgment, so it cannot be evaluated like a theory… 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.”

Asma does not dismiss the harm that religion can cause. He readily concedes there's “good reason to criticize Christian homophobia... or Islamic adultery laws... because the condemnations and punishments are too severe and many lives have ruined by overzealous morality hygiene. Similarly, he notes that extremist religious groups that “obsess on an afterlife paradise” have caused “much misery” because they “devalue the flesh and blood of this world.” Nevertheless, he argues that the vast majority of mainstream religious people balance their theological beliefs with healthy doses of pragmatism and this-worldly priorities; congregations like Westboro Baptist Church may attract headlines, but there is a reason why it has few adherents.

Asma identifies several ways in which religion serves as an emotional management system: coping with grief, the practice of forgiveness, cultivating peace of mind, encouraging ethical restraint, promoting a sense of awe, offering opportunities for play, directing sexual drives in prosocial ways, and directing fear and rage in beneficial ways. The first, coping, has long been recognized as an important function played by religion, and it is often used by many to explain religious belief away. The other functions Asma identifies, however, confer (often adaptive) benefits that are seldom recognized or discussed. Asma briefly summarizes his argument for religion's adaptive value is captured in this brief video:



And the following table provides an overview of the five functions or ways that religion helps manage our emotional system.


Since Asma's perspective suggests that religion's persistence is more than simply an accident of evolutionary processes, one could consider it friendly to religious belief (although Asma remains n agnostic). Of course, the most parsimonious explanation is that our evolutionary ancestors were simply responding to a genuine experience of the supernatural, but such an argument doesn't typically pass muster as "scientific." Interestingly, though, Asma's discussion of "awe" and "joy" comes close to doing just that.

Appendix: Details of Why Asma Believes Religion is Good for Us

For those who are interested, a more detailed discussion of Asma's perspective can be found below.

Coping with Grief and Sorrow

Asma begins by exploring how faith helps us cope with grief. His central argument is that rationality does not help the grieving parent or child, or at least not most grieving parents or children, and religious belief is especially well-equipped for offering just that. In particular, he identifies five ways in which religion cope with sorrow. One is what he calls the placebo effect. Placebos, or course, are harmless pills or procedures prescribed for their psychological, rather than physiological, benefits. Asma notes that placebos can have surprisingly powerful effects, and he argues that religious liturgies, such as the Roman Catholic funeral rite, can help improve the overall health and subjective well-being of those who believe and participate in them. “Remarkably, several studies have found that faithful believers live longer and healthier than skeptics.” A second way that religion manages grief according to Asma are the social traditions and customs connected to these liturgies. Asma concedes that religion hasn't cornered the market on hugging, singing, or telling stories, but it has formally organized these “grief-consoling strategies” far more effectively than has secular culture.

A third way is what Asma calls “existential debt.” Although most people living in the West think of themselves as individuals first and members of a community second, Asma notes that religious rituals help remind us that “even the most independent among us are usually tied in a web of social relations that make us who we are... Long after your parents have died, for example, religion helps you memorialize them and acknowledge your existential debt to them.” A fourth way that religion helps is through “magical consolation,” such as the belief that we have a soul that continues on beyond death. One can find such beliefs in most religions, and he believes they can and do give “hope to the hopeless,” and he disagrees with those who see this as a form of cowardice.

The fifth and final way Asma identifies is that religion helps us reappraise grief and sorrow. He notes that part of our ability to cope lies in “our sense of power and agency.” Noting that there are numerous sources of power than can increase our ability to cope when disaster strikes, Asma argues that believing that God is on your side is an extremely powerful one. 

Asma is quick to point out that he is not so naïve that he is unaware that religion can lead people to see their troubles in a negative light, but he argues that such beliefs are found primarily in “extremist traditions” rather than among “mainstream stakeholders who are just trying to make it through the daily travails of life.” Moreover, he doubts that a state possesses the ability to manage sorrow as successfully as most religious traditions. He notes that China under Mao attempted to this. It discouraged traditional religious funerals, argued that cemeteries squandered farm land (cremation was required), and that coffins wasted a valuable resource. However, much like the Soviet Union, it failed to assuage the deepest longings of human life.

Forgiving and Resetting

Asma next turns to the important role that forgiveness plays in the lives of individuals and groups. Asma believes that a primary function of forgiveness is to knit communities back together. They cannot survive for long without rituals for reintegrating individuals who have harmed their group in some way. Not all can be brought back in, of course. Sometimes the harm inflicted is so great that it is impossible. However, some can, and most religions offer resources for doing so. Rituals of confession are one example, but so are the stories that various religious traditions tell about themselves, such as parable of the Prodigal son in Christianity and the tale of the Golden Deer found in Buddhism’s Jataka Tales.

Asma also stresses the importance of the forgiveness at the individual (psychological) level. In doing so he focuses more on individuals who have been hurt by someone else’s actions than on the offenders. Not that being relieved of feelings of shame and/or guilt through absolution is not psychologically beneficial. It is, but it is also psychologically beneficial for people who have been hurt to let go of their anger so that they do not become consumed by hate. Forgiveness helps the offended move on, regardless of whether those who hurt them accepts it or not. For evidence, he points to the Stanford Forgiveness Project, which has run numerous workshops for people who have suffered grievous injuries. It has “worked with mothers from both sides of the Northern Ireland conflict who have lost sons, and found that forgiveness exercises and therapies reduced reported stress levels by 50 percent, reduced reported depression by 40 percent, and reduced reported anger by 23 percent.”

Asma also notes that the evidence suggests people of faith are much more likely to forgive than are others, even in extreme cases. For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, they “tended to report more desire to forgive, or perhaps could not bring themselves to reject the value of forgiveness, even in the face of a terrorist attack.”

This is not to suggest that Asma believes all sins are forgivable or even should be. Some offenses are difficult if not impossible to absolve, and Asma claims that it is not his place to lecture others about the benefits of forgiveness, and he acknowledges that “anger and outrage” can sometimes bring about much needed “social and legal policy changes” (Asma 2018:92). Nevertheless, he contends that when it is possible to forgive, its benefits at both the personal and societal level of incontestable.

Peace of Mind and Ethical Restraint

According to Asma, another benefit conferred by religious faith is mental discipline. He notes that contemplative practices found in most religious traditions, such as prayer and meditation, help “decrease stress and increase equanimity,” as well as manage “temptation and egoism” (Asma 2018:124). While acknowledging that some forms of contemplation can lead to an unhealthy detachment from the world, Asma believes that most of the time it is good for us. In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, “preventing rumination from spiraling into anxiety is accomplished by the use of lectio divina, a Benedictine technique of slow scripture reading and contemplation. Similarly in Buddhist meditation, the mind is focused (during the first step of mindfulness) on a devotional object, or a candle, or one’s breath. The goal in these traditions is to quiet the mind.”

But it is more than just calming the mind. The benefits conferred by religion also “come from seeing the world in a specific way, not just from making the mind a better formal processor,” and religion's ability to calm the mind may be more important now than ever before since “we may be living in the most distracting era in human history.” Contemporary culture may seek to distract us, but amidst all the noise, we can still cultivate a quiet mind, and religion, according to Asma, “provides structures that foster such cultivation.”

Asma also believes that disciplining the mind also helps us control our more destructive impulses, and this, in turn, enhances the evolutionary adaptability of social groups. Asma identifies two threats to the social cohesion of kinship groups: hedonism and non-kin competition. With regards to the former, he argues that religion "helps manage emotions and desires such that families can be successful units... Someone who loves her family will be a better protector and provider than someone who merely recognizes a cost-benefit advantage to familial cooperation. Evolution selects for emotional equipment, as well as cognitive and physical equipment."

Asma frames the threat of non-kin competition to social cohesion in terms of free-riding. Why should we set aside our own desire and the needs of our immediate families to help out people we do not know? Because, “urban living... requires some modification of our natural competitive urges to pursue the immediate benefits for our family alone. Institutions, such as church, law, education, or property rights become ways to protect humans from their own short-sighted cravings." Religion “works” because it makes us subject “to an invisible police force, such as karma or divine justice.” As I have previously posted (""), experimental and empirical research confirms this. People are more likely to act in prosocial ways when they believe in a God or divine being who will punish them if they misbehave.

Awe, Joy, and Play

Next, Asma highlights how religion can enhance various positive emotions—in particular, awe, joy, and play—that confer an adaptive value. Asma begins by describing how religion helps give us a sense of wonder and awe, what he calls transcendental everydayness. This involves transcending our typical egoistical perspective and seeing the world in a new way, and he argues that religion helps provide us with such an “unselfish perspective, this sense of awe and reverence.”

Closely related to this is how religion can convey a sense of “cosmic joy” rather than simply “joy.” According to Asma, religions offer adherents a sense of purpose and meaning, whether it is a belief “that all things are connected or that a Divine Being has a plan” for their lives... Cosmic joy is a one-of-a-kind type of elation (sui generis) because it marks the entirety of reality and secondly it comes with concepts of purpose or meaning.”

Asma also believes that religion can contribute to a sense of play, which helps open ourselves up to the world around us, a process that the social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, calls “broadening,” and it is from this that we acquire new “resources,” such as friendships, skills, and altered understandings of ourselves and others, which help us make our way in the world. Moreover, play contributes positively to our mental health and helps us learn how to cooperate with others, such as organizing activities, settling disputes, avoiding danger, dealing with injuries, and the fair allocation of valued goods, all of which suggests that it helps us adapt to evolutionary pressures.

Finally, Asma believes that religion can help harness lust. He argues that he turns it from a potential liability (from a cultural evolutionary perspective) into an asset. People often criticize religion for the strictures it places on sexual behavior, and he readily admits “there is good reason to criticize Christian homophobia… or Islamic adultery laws, because the condemnations and punishments are too severe and many lives have been ruined by overzealous moral hygiene.” Nevertheless, he notes that "constrained sexuality has been an important ingredient in the development of successful cooperative collectives":
For human beings, religion became the central cultural mechanism that directed lust, and other emotions, into adaptive behaviors. We are the most cooperative primate, and that cooperation is possible, in part, because sexual desire is managed—it does not (usually) disrupt our network of social allies... it seeks--for example, to convert the lothario into the family man. The rigidity and zealotry of sexual management is related to the difficulty of the task—sexual desire is incredibly strong and leads many otherwise clear-thinking people into behaviors that destroy the nuclear family's cooperative alliance. It’s not trivial that the Greeks considered erotic desire to be a form of madness.
Fear and Rage

Although it is currently unfashionable to write positively about fear and rage, Asma argues that from an evolutionary standpoint, both can be adaptive. Whether we want to admit it or not, it is to our advantage to know when to flee or fight back. Not knowing when we face a real threat to our well-being tends to be detrimental to our long term well-being. And in this respect, Asma argues that religion can play a positive role.

Asma begins by noting that religious beliefs and rituals can help us manage fear when were are facing death, danger, and the unknown. Fear of death is perhaps the most obvious, and there is little denying that religion can be a “powerful analgesic,” and as Asma notes studies have found a positive correlation between religious belief and death, as well as support for the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes.

When it comes to facing danger, Asma believes that religion offers the faithful a measure of confidence because of their belief that God or the gods “have their back.” He tells how he “met a former Khmer soldier who assured [him] that his special Buddha amulet—still worn around his neck—allowed him to survive many battles with Vietnamese enemies. The amulet, he said, prevented bullets from piercing his body.” Although Asma found this claim dubious, he has “no doubt that his religious confidence helped him somewhat. Running at an enemy that is trying to kill you is a necessary part of war, and how you feel about it shapes how well you do it.”

In terms of the unknown, Asma notes that “philosophers and anthropologists long have recognized that religion explains the unexplainable.” And while critics often dismiss religious explanations for inexplicable phenomena as “magical thinking, because naturalistic explanations would better suffice,... on many pressing questions (e.g., the origins of the universe, or the loss of a child to cancer) there are no naturalistic explanations that satisfy—either because the mechanical explanation is still just a promissory note, or because the ‘how’ answer fails to address the ‘why’ question.

Asma also argues that religious beliefs not only helps believers face fear, it also helps them to know when to fight back. Religious stories, symbols, and rituals can be quite effective at redirecting fear outward at enemies threatening a group’s existence. Asma acknowledges that religiously-motivated violence has often wreaked untold and unnecessary damage. However, "it is easy to forget that sometimes there really are foreign hordes at the gate. Sometimes real enemies want your destruction and want what you have... Sometimes enemies must be fought and stopped, and religion has played a role in mobilizing loose collaborators into a unified defense front."

Closely related to all of this is rage, which is closely related to humiliation, indignation, and notions of justice or fairness. One often gets angry when they feel they have been wronged, but that does not always give way to rage, and Asma is somewhat unique in that he does not believe rage should always be tamed. He notes that Aristotle saw rage as central to the virtuous life, as long as it “provided one was angry at the right person, about the right thing, for the right amount of time, in the right measure, and for the right purpose.” And this is where religion comes into play. It can minimize (down-regulate) rage’s effects by adopting a long-term perspective, which allows adherents to cool-off:
When we are feeling overwhelmed by anger, or despair, or fear, the Buddha asks us to think about the impermanence of our problems and ourselves. Similarly, Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius asks us to contemplate the human drama of families, cities, and even nations that lived hundreds of years ago. They all did as we do. They married, worked jobs, had children, loved and lost, felt great joys, killed each other, and engaged in every other emotional human endeavor. But, as Aurelius reminds us, “of all that life, not a trace survives today.” It will be no different with the dramas of our own generation.
Asma, however, is also keen to highlight the evolutionary advantages of unleashed rage. Although he believes that we should “strive for tolerance, openness, and compassionate acceptance, [we] shouldn’t be naive about it.” And religion can help us avoid evolutionary maladaptive naiveté.

In closing, he acknowledges that religion has to potential to transform fear and rage such that they become a threat to a group and a society’s well-being. Nevertheless, he argues that most people of faith are not extremists because “life keeps getting in the way... It is a rare personality than can shut out the social world of family and friendship, and work, and aging, and sickness, and love.” Put simply, the day-to-day exigencies that so many of us complain about are primary factors as to why most religious believers benefit rather than take away from the groups in which they are embedded.

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