Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Draining Emotion from Religion


A recent online article by Stephen T. Asma, professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, claimed that religion’s 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.”

That’s typical philosophical rubbish.

Just how much emotional management does a starving child in Africa do?  How about the billions worldwide living on the margins of life, trying to eke out a living while a small percentage of the population wallows in luxury?

Emotion doesn’t drive them.  They are completely focused on such basic needs as food and shelter.

Emotion actually has very little to do with religion.  We can all enjoy a choir singing; the beautiful architecture of a religious structure; the wide-ranging rituals with their cultural and historical bases; and even a theological discussion.  So what?

What really moves people, though, is belief.  Emotion only plays a part when belief is challenged.

Does it ever.  

Asma recognized that science has undermined religion:

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.

But he’s wrong about that “fringe” part.  Just look at the pronouncements of elected officials who are fighting such scientific facts as climate change.  There’s no emotion.  Belief drives them – and, in some cases, economic concerns likely to be damaged by controls to reduce environmental impact.

Emotion didn’t send former astronaut James Irwin climbing Mt. Ararat to look for Noah’s Ark, even though the mount was “identified” as the supposed landing spot about 1,000 years ago, or thousands of years after the biblical sailor could have bumped into the peak.  Or that geologists had long destroyed the myth of a universal flood anyway.

Emotions didn’t cause a school board in Pennsylvania to attempt to impose Creationism teachings on students; or Oklahoma legislators from voting to allow Christian monuments on public land. 

Emotion played little, if any role, in similar efforts across this country.  Nor did it drive a single suicidal terrorist to immolate himself and anyone else in the vicinity.

Empty pews
Religion did that.

Yes, religion does provide comfort in times of crisis – the old part-truism that there are “no atheists in foxholes.”  It certainly “comforts the bereaved among us,” to quote from a Jewish funeral service.  It does impel sincere people to amazing and welcome altruistic feats.

Asma said:

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 effective 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.

But at what cost?

Religion continues to spur wars, divide society, disrupt normal discourse and  interfere with knowledge.

At one time, religion served as the societal glue.  In our isolated communities, we could accept the same tales and follow the same rituals to honor our invented deities.  That’s not the modern world. 

The world is becoming increasingly secular.  Religion has become wedges that is driving us apart, not bringing us together.

It’s time to move on, without a hint of emotion.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University.   He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at He is the author of the recently published novel The Great Seer Nostradamus Tells All as well as a variety of nonfiction books, including The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

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