Donate to RNS

An atheist philosopher leaves the door open to religion’s power

Asma argues that religion is an emotional survival toolbox that resides in the limbic brain, headquarters of human emotions as true as love, or grief or fear.

Various religious-themed works of art by Stephen Asma. Images courtesy of Stephen Asma

Philosopher Stephen Asma in 2015. Photo by Brian Wingert

CHICAGO (RNS) — Stephen Asma plays life like he plays jazz – riffing on a theme, taking up a thread of an idea, then going further, leaning in to improvisation, which means saying “yes … and … ” to whatever comes in the door.

Philosophy professor, painter, blues/jazz guitarist, author, traveler, Buddhist/agnostic reared Catholic, Asma keeps all his doors open.

At Columbia College in Chicago, where he’s taught philosophy for nearly 20 years, the door stays open to his small sunny office. He has a ninth-floor view of Lake Michigan and a schedule so busy he sometimes forgets to look out the window.

The office is just a block from Buddy Guy’s Legends, the blues club where he played in the house band after working his way to a doctorate playing gigs and touring with a blues group on bills with Guy, Bo Diddley and B.B. King. Asma quit the band when teaching and traveling and writing – 10 books now and counting – overtook his time, but he still plays with friends and his teenage son.

“Why We Need Religion” by Stephen T. Asma. Image courtesy of Oxford University Press

Now, his latest book, “Why We Need Religion,” asks that readers’ minds stay open even as he writes things that send partisans in religion vs. science debates into a tizzy, such as:

  • “Religion doesn’t need to be true to save your life.”
  • “How one feels is as vital to one’s survival as how one thinks.”
  • “We are help-seeking mammals and religiosity is built into our brains.”

The week the book was released in June, Asma also posted a related essay in The New York Times, “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).” It provoked 1,200 comments, favorable and damning, in a matter of hours.

True believers look askance at his argument that the veracity of beliefs – a creator God, salvation through Jesus, the self-erasure of Buddhist enlightenment and so on – is irrelevant. Asma argues that religion evolved as a self-protective, adaptive, supportive, therapeutic and ultimately subjective practice. It is an emotional survival toolbox that resides in the limbic brain, headquarters of human emotions as true as love, or grief or fear.

True skeptics scoff at Asma’s idea that religion’s value is in offering solace, strength or delights science cannot match.

Atheist Jerry Coyne, a frequent critic of Asma for nearly a decade, blasted the philosopher on his blog, “Why Evolution Is True,” as an anti-science sales-grubbing author who produced “Why We Need Religion” because Asma is a “canny speculator about what the American populace wants to hear.”

Asma’s gray eyes crinkle as he laughs over Coyne’s comments.

“He really doesn’t look at what I am saying or understand that I love science. He treats me like I’m a gullible New Age twit,” says Asma, who just finished an upcoming textbook on the evolution of cognition that he co-authored with a psychologist.

Stephen Asma looks at an ancient sculpture of a god, titled “Shiva With Four Faces,” a fertility symbol from Rajasthan, India, during a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago on June 18, 2018. RNS photo by Cathy Lynn Grossman

Asma, 51, grew up as a Catholic altar boy, a painter and a guitarist. He discovered Aristotle when a priest came to talk to his eighth-grade parochial school class. When it came time for college, he planned to major in painting.

He often takes the easy walk from his office to the Art Institute, where he finds inspiration for his paintings in the Asian sculpture exhibits and the museum’s collection of “naïve but intense” medieval paintings.

“It’s like the blues – you can see the artists reaching, yearning. You can see the struggle in the technique,” he says.

But for Asma, philosophy won out.

“I realized I could always draw or paint on my own but I couldn’t understand Immanuel Kant without help,” he says.

Asma slid away from Catholicism during the years he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Northern Illinois University and doctorate at the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Once he was teaching, he also began traveling to Southeast Asia and later China on a Fulbright Fellowship.

“I had been drawn into Buddhism by reading about it but I wanted to see it on the ground. I saw that it is more psychological than traditional religions that posit a God or a soul. You work out your own enlightenment. It is very compatible with science, yet filled with ornate imagery and rituals and devotions. It’s not like the dry intellectual Zen Buddhism we Americans get from reading books.”

His observations fit with his growing interest in neuroscience and psychology. And a thread began weaving through his books, such as “The Evolution of Imagination” (2017), where Asma describes the emotional mind as a framework for transmitting values and connection within a social world, providing the story framework for everything from joy to existential suffering.

“I came to see religion as one of the earliest forms of culture and I realized it needed to be addressed in a systematic way.” And that prompted him to zero in and write “Why We Need Religion.”

Even so, Asma says, leaning his tall frame back in his office chair and ticking off his points, he has no problem writing off beliefs that collapse under the eye of science. After all, he is a founder and senior fellow of Columbia College’s Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture.

“If my students say evolution didn’t happen, I will try to teach them the facts. My argument is not that any belief that makes you feel good is all right.” However, beliefs that “are out of the realm of proof” – the existence of God or the soul or free will or the prospect of an afterlife – can be respected for their emotional sustaining roles.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American, recently asked Asma why he isn’t an atheist if he operates like one who doesn’t believe in God.

Asma  replied, “You can’t know for sure but in my own life, I suspect there is no God in the personal way that the monotheisms recognize. ” And so, in classic Asma way, he leaves the door open. 

He may not kneel in prayer like the Catholic schoolboy he once was. But, he says: “Sometimes there is no help by other human beings, and your emotions go out to the universe. We evolved things such as prayer to manage that spontaneous yearning. I’m not embarrassed. I don’t think it is intellectually cowardly. Religiosity is in human nature.”

Stephen Asma, right, performs on guitar at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago in 2013. Screenshot

(Cathy Lynn Grossman has covered religion, ethics and spirituality for 20 years. This story was written with support from a Templeton Foundation grant.)

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.


Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!