It is a truth, though sadly not one universally acknowledged, that what you think of religion largely depends on what you think is religion. If you believe religion to be primarily a means of explaining the origins and processes of the world and of nature, you’ll measure it with a scientific yardstick and find it wanting. If you think it is a metaphysical enterprise, making propositional but untestable statements about human identity and destiny, you’ll assess it on more philosophical principles, and find it momentous or meaningless depending on whether you like your ideas falsifiable. If you think it’s a series of ethical guidelines for how to navigate the world, with little truth content in themselves, you’ll measure it on a moral scale, and find it inspiring or dispiriting, depending on which bits you’re looking at. And so on and so forth.
Stephen Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago and, once upon time, a happy inhabitant of the first of these camps. Most of his early publications were “strenuously” critical of religion. He wrote enthusiastically for various sceptical and secularist publications, and even found himself listed in “Who’s who in hell,” a publication of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware.
However, some challenging encounters, wider reading and deeper reflection began to change his mind. “I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation,” he confesses towards the end of his provocatively-entitled 2018 Why We Need Religion, “but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously.” “I’m not naïve,” he goes on to say. “I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But it is a response that will not go and that should not go away if it provides genuine relief for anxiety and anguish.”
We have been here before. Such a non-conversion to “religion” is the cue for a toe-curlingly patronising exercise in religious non-defence. Religion may be irrational and infantile, you know, but it’s good for the children, especially the adult ones.
This, however, is not the direction in which Asma heads. To be clear, he still sees religion as irrational, although his extended discussion of creationism rather suggests he’s going for the low-hanging fruit here. Rather, he now views religion—his focus is primarily on Christianity and Buddhism, but much of what he says applies more widely—as natural, beneficial, humanising, and, indeed, indispensable.