Some atheists move beyond their objections to religion to a form of frothy mouthed rage that anyone dare believe in something beyond what can be measured, analyzed, and peer reviewed. Famously, Richard Dawkins has asserted that parents teaching their children Christian doctrine is a form of child abuse. And, of course, there are meanspirited gadflies like those in the Freedom From Religion organization who like to attack people engaged in public service for having faith that is not hidden from view. Such antipathy is not universal. Some atheists are more benign. However, there is enough anti-religious emotion among the supposed rationalists that the militant fundamentalist accusations about an “atheist agenda,” etc., etc., are not entirely unfounded (just overblown).
In contrast to such overt hostility, Stephen T. Asma, professor of Philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, and confirmed atheist, has written a book to argue that maybe religion isn’t quite so bad and doesn’t deserve violent eradication just yet. Accordingly, he offers an intriguing purpose in his recent volume, Why We Need Religion. He writes, “I will endeavor a charitable interpretation of the believer and religion, one that couches such conviction in the universal emotional life that connects us all.” (14)
The general point of Asma’s book is that scientism is best, but religion helps people feel good, so it should be tolerated by those who know better. While ensuring the reader never doubts his atheistic bona fides, Asma sorts through sociological data that he argues point to the necessity of some form of religion as a “cultural analgesic.”
Asma finds multiple benefits of religion, which he argues are reasons that society should not seek to destroy religion and ridicule believers. In chapter length treatments, Asma argues that religion in general, especially those with a belief in an afterlife, help people navigate sorrow due to death and even personal fear of death. Such myths keep some people from despair, so there is no reason not to allow that beneficial belief.
For some, religion enables the ability to forgive. The belief that there will be justice meted out gives people resources not to seek immediate, personal vengeance. Similarly, a belief in a higher power can help people have mental strength leading to internal peace, resilience, and the ability to sacrifice for others.
Religion also enables people to find communal joy, to channel sexual energy, and engage in forms of imaginative play. These aspects of religion, according to Asma, have evolved in ways that differentiate us from some of the lower animals and help us get by as a society. At other points, religion proves useful in helping people control their fear and anger.
Given his assumptions, the argument is reasonable throughout, but the general point is that religion—at least some level of religion—is acceptable because it has socially and evolutionarily beneficial fruit. Thus, even if it is not actively encouraged, certain types of religion should be deemed acceptable, as long as it sufficiently agrees with the moral consensus of society and encourages behaviors approved by enough people. For example, religion that fosters contemporary forms of functional egalitarianism, pursuit of approved economic and social outcomes, and controls unsocial emotional outbursts should be accepted.
At a most basic level, it is nice to have an atheist write something that does not curse every believer for their foolishness and vehemently denigrate their existence for not aligning their faith commitments to those of radical empiricism. Asma’s book shows that the conversation between religion and radical empiricism need not be an out and out street fight at all times, especially if one accepts a version of religion that is palatable for skeptics.
Ironically, though he is an atheist, Asma makes many of the same arguments for religion in general that some versions of Christianity (the religion with which I am most familiar) make. Religion can help you live your best life now. Believing can make you a better citizen. Your kids won’t misbehave as much if you keep them in church. You can have inner peace if you will just believe. There’s no need to fear death if you’ll just pray this prayer. The list can go on and on. This observation shows the paucity of much teaching among Christians of varying stripes. I have heard similar pitches presented as “evangelism” before, and sometimes they succeed in getting people to participate in activities with Christians for a while. There is a pointed lesson here, for those whose faith would be acceptable to an atheist.
The acceptable religion Asma hopes for is the one that nods toward doing good deeds from time to time, talks about miracles as fiction that points to a higher moral, and moves aside traditional doctrines that interfere with the current popular polls. In Christian circles, Asma’s preferred forms of religion align very well with the stated doctrines of many mainline Protestant denominations and lived faith of many Evangelical and Roman Catholic adherents. Lukewarm is the hottest the faucet should go, lest it lead to a failure to go with the flow. Coexist bumper stickers are the main sign of approved faith, rather than rosaries, crucifixes, or fish stickers. Bland is the religion that is properly admissible by the Zeitgeist.
Asma’s arguments also reveal there is no point at which the attempt of liberal Christianity to create a truly minimalist faith will ever really be acceptable in society. As the moral winds shift and the polling changes, there will always be a new doctrine considered anti-social and require abandonment. Whatever vestiges of truth and odor of gospel efficacy is left in an acceptable version of Christianity won’t have much power to save, if any at all in a few years. In other words, Asma reveals that seeking praise from atheists isn’t a worthy endeavor because nothing but utter capitulation will ever be applauded, so those who claim to be orthodox and faithful should focus on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God as we believe and proclaim a rigorous, full-throated, gospel-saturated doctrine.
For faithful, orthodox Christian readers, the best use of this book is to see in it an affirmation of some of the things that we know to be true, though Asma denies the basis. Faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can help make us better citizens, to the degree that society maintains a true sense of the common good. Basically, Asma is arguing that we aren’t (always) the moral equivalent of child abusers and sometimes actually do good things, which is better than the alternative.
In the end, this is a book that was not written to people who really believe what they claim to believe, whether they are Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, or whatever. This is a book that, despite claiming to offer an olive branch, oozes condescension on nearly every page. It’s a patronizing pat on the head from the person who pretended to listen while you speak to them and then lets you know he was ignoring everything you said by his smug smile and dismissive comment. Most probably, though, the target audience for this book is not people who actually believe and practice their faith, it is the mushy middle and the militant atheist.
One possible positive outcome is that some from the mushy middle may encounter the gospel if they wander into a faithful Christian church on some Sunday morning to find the inner peace Asma highlights; may Asma’s work bear such fruit.
On the other hand, this is a book that may be helpful if it has the socially beneficial result of tempering the fundamentalist zealotry of a few atheists. On that basis, I think that it makes a valuable contribution to the conversation of the relationship between religion and society.
NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.