Religion is about emotion regulation, and it’s very good at it

by Stephen Asma Aeon

Religion does not help us to explain nature. It did what it could in pre-scientific times, but that job was properly unseated by science. Most religious laypeople and even clergy agree: Pope John Paul II declared in 1996 that evolution is a fact and Catholics should get over it. No doubt some extreme anti-scientific thinking lives on in such places as Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, but it has become a fringe position. Most mainstream religious people accept a version of Galileo’s division of labour: ‘The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.’

Maybe, then, the heart of religion is not its ability to explain nature, but its moral power? Sigmund Freud, who referred to himself as a ‘godless Jew’, saw religion as delusional, but helpfully so. He argued that we humans are naturally awful creatures – aggressive, narcissistic wolves. Left to our own devices, we would rape, pillage and burn our way through life. Thankfully, we have the civilising influence of religion to steer us toward charity, compassion and cooperation by a system of carrots and sticks, otherwise known as heaven and hell.

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim, on the other hand, argued in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) that the heart of religion was not its belief system or even its moral code, but its ability to generate collective effervescence: intense, shared experiences that unify individuals into cooperative social groups. Religion, Durkheim argued, is a kind of social glue, a view confirmed by recent interdisciplinary research.

While Freud and Durkheim were right about the important functions of religion, its true value lies in its therapeutic power, particularly its power to manage our emotions. How we feel is as important to our survival as how we think. Our species comes equipped with adaptive emotions, such as fear, rage, lust and so on: religion was (and is) the cultural system that dials these feelings and behaviours up or down. We see this clearly if we look at mainstream religion, rather than the deleterious forms of extremism. Mainstream religion reduces anxiety, stress and depression. It provides existential meaning and hope. It focuses aggression and fear against enemies. It domesticates lust, and it strengthens filial connections. Through story, it trains feelings of empathy and compassion for others. And it provides consolation for suffering.

Emotional therapy is the animating heart of religion. Social bonding happens not only when we agree to worship the same totems, but when we feel affection for each other. An affective community of mutual care emerges when groups share rituals, liturgy, song, dance, eating, grieving, comforting, tales of saints and heroes, hardships such as fasting and sacrifice. Theological beliefs are bloodless abstractions by comparison.

Emotional management is important because life is hard. The Buddha said: ‘Life is dukkha’ and most of us past a certain age can only agree. Religion evolved to handle what I call the ‘vulnerability problem’. When we’re sick, we go to the doctor, not the priest. But when our child dies, or we lose our home in a fire, or we’re diagnosed with Stage-4 cancer, then religion is helpful because it provides some relief and some strength. It also gives us something to do, when there’s nothing we can do.

Consider how religion helps people after a death. Social mammals who have suffered separation distress are restored to health by touch, collective meals and grooming. Human grieving customs involve these same soothing pro-social mechanisms. We comfort-touch and embrace a person who has lost a loved one. Our bodies give ancient comfort directly to the grieving body. We provide the bereaved with food and drink, and we break bread with them (think of the Jewish tradition of shiva, or the visitation tradition of wakes in many cultures). We share stories about the loved one, and help the bereaved reframe their pain in larger optimistic narratives. Even music, in the form of consoling melodies and collective singing, helps to express shared sorrow and also transforms it from an unbearable and lonely experience to a bearable communal one. Social involvement from the community after a death can act as an antidepressant, boosting adaptive emotional changes in the bereaved.

Religion also helps to manage sorrow with something I’ll call ‘existential shaping’ or more precisely ‘existential debt’. It is common for Westerners to think of themselves as individuals first and as members of a community second, but our ideology of the lone protagonist fulfilling an individual destiny is more fiction than fact. Losing someone reminds us of our dependence on others and our deep vulnerability, and at such moments religion turns us toward the web of relations rather than away from it.

Long after your parents have died, for example, religion helps you memorialise them and acknowledge your existential debt to them. Formalising the memory of the dead person, through funerary rites, or tomb-sweeping (Qingming) festivals in Asia, or the Day of the Dead in Mexico, or annual honorary masses in Catholicism, is important because it keeps reminding us, even through the sorrow, of the meaningful influence of these deceased loved ones. This is not a self-deception about the unreality of death, but an artful way of learning to live with it. The grief becomes transformed in the sincere acknowledgment of the value of the loved one, and religious rituals help people to set aside time and mental space for that acknowledgment.

An emotion such as grief has many ingredients. The physiological arousal of grief is accompanied by cognitive evaluations: ‘I will never see my friend again’; ‘I could have done something to prevent this’; ‘She was the love of my life’; and so on. Religions try to give the bereaved an alternative appraisal that reframes their tragedy as something more than just misery.

Emotional appraisals are proactive, according to the psychologists Phoebe Ellsworth at the University of Michigan and Klaus Scherer at the University of Geneva, going beyond the immediate disaster to envision the possible solutions or responses. This is called ‘secondary appraisal’. After the primary appraisal (‘This is very sad’), the secondary appraisal assesses our ability to deal with the situation: ‘This is too much for me’ – or, positively: ‘I will survive this.’ Part of our ability to cope with suffering is our sense of power or agency: more power generally means better coping ability. If I acknowledge my own limitations when faced with unavoidable loss, but I feel that a powerful ally, God, is part of my agency or power, then I can be more resilient.

Because religious actions are often accompanied by magical thinking or supernatural beliefs, Christopher Hitchens argued in God Is not Great (2007) that religion is ‘false consolation’. Many critics of religion echo his condemnation. But there is no such thing as false consolation. Hitchens and fellow critics are making a category mistake, like saying: ‘The colour green is sleepy.’ Consolation or comfort is a feeling, and it can be weak or strong, but it can’t be false or true. You can be false in your judgment of why you’re feeling better, but feeling better is neither true nor false. True and false applies only if we’re evaluating whether our propositions correspond with reality. And no doubt many factual claims of religion are false in that way – the world was not created in six days.

Religion is real consolation in the same way that music is real consolation. No one thinks that the pleasure of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is ‘false pleasure’ because singing flutes don’t really exist. It doesn’t need to correspond to reality. It’s true that some religious devotees, unlike music devotees, pin their consolation to additional metaphysical claims, but why should we trust them to know how religion works? Such believers do not recognise that their unthinking religious rituals and social activities are the true sources of their therapeutic healing. Meanwhile, Hitchens and other critics confuse the factual disappointments of religion with the value of religion generally, and thereby miss the heart of it.

Why We Need Religion: An Agnostic Celebration of Spiritual Emotions’ by Stephen Asma



The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rev. 12: 1-4) by William Blake

The Opiate of the Masses? Not So Fast…

by Todd May LA Review of Books Oct 14, 2018

In recent years, we have been treated to a variety of attacks on religion, especially organized religion, by thinkers like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and A. C. Grayling. In response to these attacks, several non-religious thinkers have sought to show that religion cannot accurately be painted in the broad negative paint strokes applied by these critics. Recently, Tim Crane argued in The Meaning of Belief religion provides both a sense of the transcendent and the structure of a community that are unavailable to atheists and agnostics like him.

Stephen Asma follows this path with his latest book, Why We Need Religion. Although not himself a believer, Asma argues that religion answers to a deep emotional need — or, better, a set of emotional needs — and therefore plays an irreplaceable role in societies.

Asma thinks it is a mistake to focus on the cognitive content of religion, a mistake New Atheists make consistently in their interpretation of religion. Rather, we should think of religion as operating at a more primitive level — that of our emotions. To say that religion operates at such a level is not to say that it is anachronistic or inferior. It is to claim that, as humans, we have not only intellectual but also emotional needs, and the latter cannot always be satisfied by satisfying the former.

As Asma puts it, 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.” There is, in other words, a “real tension […] between the needs of one part of the brain (limbic) and the needs of another (the neocortical),” and this tension cannot be resolved simply through a view that is satisfying to the neocortical. Religion, in short, can meet our emotional needs even when it contradicts our intellectual ones.

Asma often tacks back and forth between discussion of religion and of biology. He offers biological definitions of various phenomena such as rage or shame, and then goes on to show how religion is supposed to help us cope with them. Before turning to examples, however, it is worth pausing over another aspect of his approach, one that emerges as the book progresses. In Asma’s eyes, we need to see religion as a bottom-up rather than top-down phenomenon.

Religion is often looked at as a broader social phenomenon, one that operates on society as a whole. But that is not where Asma thinks it has its fundamental effects. Rather, it is locally, and particularly within the family, that religion operates. Religion works, as he says in his conclusion, “not by top-down cultural policing, but by natural forces of familial affection, small group cooperation, and the demands of domestic life.”

As a bottom-up phenomenon, religion can foster a healthy emotional balance in a number of areas. Asma discusses grief and sorrow, forgiveness, mental training in peacefulness and resilience, joy and play, and fear and rage. In all of these, religion can help us calibrate our emotional reactions, particularly to ourselves and those around us, the more immediate the more effective.

Take grief and sorrow, for example. We all lose loved ones or fail in important projects or regret paths not taken. The emotions associated with these losses, especially the first, can be hard to process, leaving us paralyzed or in longer-term depression. This is where religion comes in.

“Sorrow,” Asma writes, “is elemental for us, and, as such, needs emotional management. The task of cultural technologies like religion is not to repress sorrow, deny it, or repudiate it. The task is to process it in a manner that leaves the grieving person relatively vital, functioning, and even potentially happy, albeit transformed by the nontrivial loss of a loved one.”

How does religion do this? Asma discusses five different ways: the placebo effect of certain beliefs, the social traditions of funeral rituals, the bond it creates for us with other grieving individuals, the belief that the lost individual is still alive in soul, and the shaping of our emotional reactions. Those who are skeptical of religion will balk at several of these procedures, since they involve the commitment to beliefs that they hold to be false. Asma does not disagree, these beliefs may be false.

However, a central theme of the book is what works on the cognitive register will often not do in the emotional one, and in order to have healthy lives we need to be able to satisfy both registers. This might sometimes leave a “tension,” as he puts it, between the two registers. This tension, though, does not detract from and in fact might be necessary for overall flourishing. Or, as he puts it elsewhere in the book, some knowledge is “indicative,” seeking empirical verification, while other knowledge is “imperative,” seeking to undergird action. These two forms of knowledge need not be convergent, and in fact in a healthy human being they may even be dissonant.

As with his other discussions, Asma sees a biological — in this case, neurological — grounding to the emotional work done by religion. In an ironic inversion of Marx’s famous dictum about religion, he writes:

If affective neuroscience is correct, then the lion’s share of our social life also is underpinned by internal opiates. Our brains evolved an endogenous opioid system that blocks pain and produces euphoria, and this feedback loop became the motivational system underlying our social interactions. Maybe religion is the opiate of the masses, but then so is friendship and love.

Religion, for Asma, has the potential to offer a healthy balance of living when it is taken up as a bottom-up emotional (and neurological) contributor to aspects of our lives that cannot be addressed solely cognitively or indicatively. One might want to object here that his view would seem to imply that without religion we cannot achieve emotional balance in our lives. This would be mistaken, although the book’s title might contribute to such an understanding. To say that religion contributes to emotional health does not imply that such health cannot be achieved in the absence of religion.

What Asma’s view points to, and I think this is an important contribution of the book, is we have emotional needs that can go unrecognized if we focus solely on our cognitive relationship to the world. Recent research by Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Prinz, and others, points to the importance of emotion in our actions and relations. Asma’s approach follows this in showing how religion can be a source of emotional health. However, he need not — and, in my reading, he does not — insist religion is the only way to achieve such health.

I do have a concern about Asma’s approach, but it lies elsewhere. The book often sets up dichotomies that, to my mind, erase nuances that need to be considered. Let me briefly address two of them. The first one is central to the book: the distinction between the cognitive and the emotional or, neurologically, the neocortical and the limbic. These are, to be sure, two different categories or brain areas. However, we need not see such a stark contrast or tension between them. On the one hand, the emotional can lead us toward cognitive insights, a fact that feminist moral philosophers and others have insisted upon for some time. A sympathetic feeling for someone’s pain can help one recognize their fellow humanity.

On the other hand, a cognitive insight, for instance, that Mark Rothko’s paintings are supposed to induce a spiritual experience, can lead one to orient oneself to such an experience and open oneself up emotionally to it.

Allowing these nuances would complicate the project of the book, since it raises the question of whether there need be the distinction between the indicative and the imperative, which in turn gives an opening to religion’s role as Asma understands it. Perhaps that tension need not exist. If so, instead of asking how to address both areas of our lives and our brains in ways that often conflict, we might ask how best to reconcile the two. Where might we find practices and engagements that are, at once, cognitively and emotionally satisfying?

The other, less central, place this dichotomy appears is in the chapter on fear and rage. Religion, Asma points out, can be mobilizing against one’s enemies by creating an in-group versus out-group sensibility. He concedes that this sensibility is not always helpful; it has fueled profound violence. On the other hand, he argues, people “who dismiss religious-fueled rage as intrinsically evil or primitive, have usually never faced real enemies […] Sometimes enemies must be fought and stopped, and religion has played a role in mobilizing loose collaborators into a unified defense front.”

The either/or here, while less important for structuring the book as a whole, is in some ways more worrisome. Certainly, there are enemies that must be confronted. But haven’t the theories and practices of nonviolence over the past century taught us that there are often other forms of confrontation than a religious- or otherwise-fueled rage? The trick in nonviolent action is to oppose the adversary without seeing them as entirely outside one’s moral concern. And, as the Indian Independence and American Civil Rights movements have shown us, such confrontations can be had even with “real enemies.”

This worry about dichotomies aside, Why We Need Religion is a valuable contribution to an area of reflection that is too often driven by its own dichotomy between Religion Bad and Only Religion Good. Asma’s appeal to the role of emotions in our lives and his discussions of their neurological bases adds nuance to debates that could use a little more subtlety. For those who would like to dismiss religion as archaic, irrelevant, or deleterious to our lives — as Asma himself confesses he used to do — the book presents a significant and forceful challenge.

(Header image: Jacob’s Ladder by William Blake)

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