I have been feeling a wee bit cranky recently. It probably has something to do with changing weather patterns that make this old man work extra hard to manage the farm and with the ongoing realization that the intelligence of the American people either has always been low and the mask has recently slipped off (again, I hear H. L. Mencken say) or it has devolved down to a level hitherto unseen in human history (probably with the aid of electronic media and machine intelligence). I listened to our president and his advisers a few days ago and I said to my wife, “I have heard farts that sounded more intelligent, though few have stunk like that”. I try to avoid any visit to the Land of Stupid; now I see all too many go there as tourists, some on extended vacations. Our leadership looks to have emigrated and taken up residence there full-time.
Anyway I had recently been feeling better. The weather improved and I turned off the TV, and then I read a NYT Stone (their philosophical forum) article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/why-we-need-religion.html.) about religion and feelings, and boom, back came my crankiness when I read this: “My claim is that religion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.” My primal scream at that point was that we do not access emotions, we feel them and that science and religion are so different in their inception, in the consequent institutions, and in their management of knowledge, ignorance, and consensual activities that comparing them for their ‘management’ of emotions is a false comparison (see posts 4/4/17,9/28/17).
After a bit I realized that my crankiness had led me to perhaps overreact negatively to this essay, so I read it again more carefully. I still do not like it because I am quite tired of reading variants of the science-religion topic when so few of them seem to lead anywhere new. Mr. Asma uses some of the same old tropes to make the case that religion helps us manage our emotions while science does not (of course he does not mention anti-depressants, etc.). He presents an anecdote showing how a woman’s religion helped her cope with the despair she felt from the brutal murder of a son. He argues in short that religion is primarily therapeutic and the most powerful cultural analgesic we have for the painful vicissitudes of life, and that the atheists who “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee” fall short of the mark. More on that in a moment.
Mr. Asma shows great command of the obvious in some generalizations that are so muddled that they have left any truth behind. One is that emotions are from the old “operating system” (regular readers know I find such hard wire metaphors cringe worthy) in the limbic system while rationality (I guess he means science in this regard—he does not seem to differentiate here) comes from the “more recently evolved neocortex.” Going further he says that, “Religion irritates the rational brain because it trades in magical thinking and no proof, but it nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty”. Now here is one of my major criticisms. It should not be a news flash that religion being a cultural and symbolic activity is also associated with neocortical functioning. Religion can facilitate emotional balance; indeed most cultural activities contribute to balance in one way or another, as does walking your dog, listening to music, grooming a fellow chimp, stretching, sleeping, watching a sunset, good food, sex, friends, etc. (Mr. Asma does have the grace to admit that religion can disrupt emotional and cognitive processes. Reverting to my initial outrage at his idea of religion accessing emotions, my first image was of an ISIS recruit ‘accessing’ his murderous rage through religious belief). This means that religion is as much a part of the rational brain as is science.
Science and rationality are not synonymous; science is a method for ensuring our rationally conceived ideas match reality as best we can at this time (See my posts on 1/7/17). Rationality is the humdrum everyday thinking that we carry on and it is notoriously unreliable, ergo the need for empirical validation. We have known for a long time that our rational processes are unreliable, at least since Freud showed the influence of unconscious processes and more recently with the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see Micheal Lewis’s The Undoing Projector Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow) showing how our brains, even highly educated brains, use heuristics that are quite fallible. And I would think Mr. Asma might be interested in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind that demonstrates how we rationalize and justify our political and religious beliefs after we intuitively decide what to believe. I do not want to go further now into how cortical and subcortical systems interact to contribute to emotional processes and intellectual ferment, but they do, and Mr. Asma’s reification of their differences is, at this time in our scientific understanding, deplorable.
My other major complaint is his characterization of atheists and their (or anyone’s for that matter) rejection of religion. To repeat from above, Mr. Asma says atheists “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee”. I have read Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, and my favorite, Christopher Hitchens, and I cannot recall them talking about the moral weakness of devotees. Hypocrites, certainly. Superstitious, yes. Taking false comfort, ok. Chris Hitchens in his book, God is Not Great, assesses that the destruction waged in the name of god exceeds the good religion does. Further, religious people do not behave better despite their claim to moral authority. I find particularly onerous religious attempts to obfuscate science, e.g., design and anti-vaccination biases, and to impose their morality on others, e.g., women as second class citizens or worse, as male property, or condemning those of racial or gender differences.
I live on a farm in the country. Religion is strong here mostly, I think, because the dispersed population needs a sense of community as they depend upon each other. And yes, religion does help people cope. I found it laughable, though, when Mr. Asma says that Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson dropping by to discuss the physiology of suffering would not be helpful in consoling victims, thereby presupposing that true consolation rests solely with the religious. I am sure Mr. Nye or Mr. Tyson would be a good friend to help someone get through hard times. They are good, sensitive and intelligent humans. And science? Understanding Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grieving has helped many people cope with terminal illness and loss.
Probably the thing that upset me about this essay even more than Mr. Asma’s trivialities, distortions, and misappropriations, was that he adds nothing to this rather stale and dismal juxtaposition between science and religion (see post 2/4/14). My context is this: Religion, or rather spiritual beliefs, has contributed to human culture (see post 7/8/17: a positivist genesis myth) for at least 100,000 years if you go by archeological evidence of burial practices. Spiritual beliefs have evolved over the eons since then and religious institutions have proliferated with a fecundity of gods. Humans have always had a reality orientation and some leaning towards empirical studies. Ancient astronomers were quite knowledgeable, as were farmers and metal workers. Science as a rigorous system of knowledge was born in magical alchemy and grew into a mature epistemology with the Enlightenment and now with even more rigor with the development of positivism and modern mathematics, e.g., Boolean logic, statistics.
Here is my point: Religion is a part of our cultural evolution; if it disappears that will be a result of further cultural evolution. If it stays, same thing. In either case it will not be because of our willful intellectual manipulation of ourselves nor of our society. Our task, as I see it, is to further our cultural development through the fermentation and distillation (wonder why I used that metaphor?) of our understanding. Atheists, too often defined by a negative, are at their best when they proffer something positive and religion is at its best when it offers a meaningful way forward through the knowledge of our time. I hear some ask who does this? The current Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of this. As I have written about before (and will do so again next post), Jacques Monod carried this forward (see post 3/25/17). In his own way because of the integrity of his intellect I think Chris Hitchens did as well (see post on natural noumenal 4/13/17). I am talking here about the dialectic between mysticism and positivism, neither complete in and of itself, the dialectic providing the means to move forward (see posts 2/4/16 & 11/15/15).
To recapitulate: I have been in a sour mood. When I read an essay purporting to provide balance in the debate between science and religion, I reacted quite negatively. Recovering my own emotional balance I considered the essay in more detail and found that while my mood contributed to the intensity of my initial appraisal, my reaction was authentic, reasonable and accurate. And I felt my feelings and thought my thoughts with my whole brain, cortical and subcortical, without needing religion to ‘access’ them. Travel on.