Religion is Emotional Therapy by Stephen T. Asma

[Editor's Note: At a moment when religion is being blamed for Trumpism, it is good to hear some alternative perspectives. While the perspective presented is different from some of the reasons a portion of our readership embrace a wide variety of spiritually progressive religions (and many do not embrace any religion), it nevertheless deserves to be given serious attention.--Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor, Tikkun . rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com]

 

Religion is Emotional Therapy

by  Stephen T. Asma

Religious extremism comes in many forms. Sometimes it clings to arcane doctrines despite mountains of scientific evidence. Such was the case during the famous Scopes Monkey trial of 1925. John Scopes was slapped with a $100 fine for teaching evolution in Dayton Tennessee, violating a law making it a misdemeanor to “teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Even though Scopes lost the trial, his defense attorney Clarence Darrow successfully put prosecutor William Jennings Bryan on the stand and demonstrated the tortured and impossible logic of scriptural literalism.

On the stand, Bryan understood very well that he was being lampooned by Darrow and he dug in like a Trump-supporter against the slick, elite, city-folks, claiming that he was happy to be lumped with the so-called “yokels.” Still, Darrow nudged him from his staunch defense of Biblical literalism to an admission that “a day” in the six-day creation story of Genesis was not a literal 24-hour day. That was it. Christianity in the following decade split into an evangelical fundamentalist branch versus a modern reform branch that read scripture as symbolically true.[1] Today’s moderate Christians and Jews see the Bible as metaphorically true –containing vital teachings but not scientific facts. Whereas, the “Creation Museum” and “Ark Encounter” exhibits in Northern Kentucky are still proffering a Scopes-era literalism in 2018.

The other form of religious fanaticism is more frightening. It is extremism in the realm of action. It is the jihad radical, or crusader who spills blood for the sake of creed. This kind of fanaticism seeks to remake the world into some idiosyncratic ideal, sacrificing real humans on the altar of religious abstraction and puritanical impulse. These forms of religion are distortions, or failures of compassion, empathy, and wisdom.

It’s obvious why the fanatic is wrong about religion. Extremism shows its flaws quickly and clearly. Equally wrong but less obvious, however, is the Left’s hostility toward religion. The secular progressive dismissal of religion as intrinsically false, dangerous, and distracting is also misguided. The Left has confused the whole of religion with these more extremist trends. Contrary to conceptions on both the Right and the Left, real religion is about human flourishing, and the evolution of human culture confirms religion’s adaptive function.

Achieving our own joy and flourishing, while enacting charity toward others, is the whole purpose of religion and the fulfillment of God’s plan, according to Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Unlike philosopher Immanuel Kant and other religious ascetics, Moses Mendelssohn thought that God wants us to be happy and thrive –never to be so self-denying and self-sacrificing as to be wretched. In fact, he argued that the evils of religion, when they arise, are born of this confusion –the confused assumption that God wants or needs you to harm yourself or others (through pathological extreme sacrifice or through coercion). In the belly of bad religion is a misanthropic ulcer.

Contrary to many religious sects, Mendelssohn argues that God does not want us to be miserable. We cannot be in conflict with God –we cannot fail him, because he doesn’t need anything from us. The Old Testament covenant is not a contract where God lacks something and needs to make a deal with us.

Church and State should be separate, argued Mendelssohn, because that is the best way for pluralistic societies to thrive. Religious liberty is fundamental for practical reasons, but also philosophical. After all, coerced charity and forced belief, are oxymorons. In Mendelssohn’s book Jerusalem (1783), written at almost the same time as Thomas Jefferson’s bill for establishing religious freedom (Bill 82), he makes a powerful argument for the value of religion, properly understood.

The problem is that religion is rarely properly understood. Most people think religion is about holding specific cognitive beliefs, but it is not. And most people think religion is about subjugating your own happiness and even the well-being of your people to the higher demands of God’s interests, but it is not. Mendelssohn argued instead that religion is about action, not belief or faith. The rewards and punishments spoken of in scripture apply to our actions, not the strength of our orthodox or literal beliefs in theology. Indeed, scripture should inspire us, but it should not be taken as literally true in all cases. And as for the common view among zealots that God wants blood, or otherwise wants people blown-up, sacrificed, humiliated, or crushed into submission, Mendelssohn says “nonsense.” Following Spinoza, he says God permeates nature generally, and human nature specifically, so when we activate our rational powers and our capacities for joy and happiness we also fulfill or actualize God’s plan for us. My happiness is not a threat to God or a failure of subservience, or an act of selfishness. It is what God intends for us.  We have duties to other humans because they need our help (and sometimes this requires self-negation), but duties to God are not like that –He is not needful and so His expectations of me include my own self-actualization.

My book Why We Need Religion (Oxford, 2018) tries to deliver an updated version of Mendelssohn’s vision, brought up to date with neuroscience, psychology and even evolution theory. I am agnostic about the metaphysics of religion. To my mind, the true benefit of religion is that it provides needed therapeutic management of our emotional lives. Religion reduces stress and depression, consoles us during great suffering, glues together a community, provides meaning and purpose, focuses fear and even aggression on adversaries, and gives hope and inspiration. This is why religious people tend to live longer, stay healthier, stay married longer, commit less crime, and so on. But these advantages are not accomplished by beliefs per se. Rather, they are achieved by the social activity of the group, and the therapeutic behaviors of the individual.

Social activities and rituals in religion include communal prayer and meditation, communal singing, liturgical activities, collective story-telling, sacramental life-changes like marriage and coming of age, festivals and celebrations, and group acts of discipline and sacrifice –like fasting. All of this social activity creates the deep bonds that positive psychology now recognizes as the main element in the happy life (eudemonia). These activities produce positive emotional neurotransmitters like oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine. Strong social bonds and happiness, built by shared activity, are not just lucky accidents of religious life, they are the very point of religion.

Even though religious life comforts, it is not itself always comfortable. Religious life is often inconvenient for the devotee or practitioner, and that struggle is partly why it bonds people. Shared adversity amplifies our sense of connection with our congregation, our temple, our sangha, our church, our mosque. But there are consoling behaviors permeating all aspects of religion.

Consolation has a significant physiological aspect and should not be over-intellectualized. Yes, contemplative reflection on death and immortality is a uniquely human activity and religion alleviates such existential anxiety via magical thinking. But most daily religious activity calms and/or distracts the devotee through repetitive behaviors, which act as positive self-stimulation, or stimming. All humans engage in stimming behaviors (e.g., nail biting, hair twirling, rocking in a rocking chair, constantly checking our smartphones, etc.), but more intense forms can be seen in those on the autism spectrum. Temple Grandin (2011) points out, “When I did stims such as dribbling sand through my fingers, it calmed me down. When I stimmed, sounds that hurt my ears stopped. Most kids with autism do these repetitive behaviors because it feels good in some way. It may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment, or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety these kids typically feel every day. Individuals with autism exhibit a variety of stims; they may rock, flap, spin themselves or items such as coins, pace, hit themselves, or repeat words over and over (verbal stims).”[2] Neurotypical humans and other mammals also engage in calming, self-stimming behaviors, and certain cultural traditions (especially religion) formalize these behaviors into ready resources.

Calming or distracting forms of self-stimulation are part of the larger phenomenon, described in animal science as adjunctive behavior. In the course of natural and artificial conditioning, animals key into behaviors that are regularly paired with rewards, but which have no necessary connection or causal role in delivering the reward. Lab pigeons, for example, will peck a small light that turns on just before a food pellet is released. Eventually this irrelevant light-pecking behavior becomes a time-consuming intensive behavior in between feeding events.

The Pavlovian adjunctive behavior takes on a life of its own and persists even after experimenters omit the food reward when light-pecking occurs (i.e., punishing the behavior).  Similarly, rodents, cows, and other animals will engage in adjunctive water consumption when hungry. Ordinarily water consumption is naturally paired with eating, but when experimenters reduce food or extend the temporal intervals between food rewards, animals will drink double and triple the amounts that thirst would dictate. Adjunctive drinking is a kind of stimming behavior that may reduce stress and regulate dopamine and internal opioids while the animal is in a frustrated phase of anticipation. The stimming behavior is palliative when more productive or inducing behaviors do not work or cannot be executed.

Religion is filled with ritualized behaviors, including ceremonial body movements, routinized manipulations of prayer beads, phylacteries, talismans, and totems, candle lighting, supplications and prostrations, prayer recitations, collective singing, holy water rituals, pilgrimages, sacrifices, and so on. All humans have a neural circuit that comes online for our goal-directed behaviors, driving us toward resources in the environment. This dopamine-based system is called the SEEKING system.[3]  When our SEEKING systems are aroused (e.g., the promise of food, etc.) but there is no way to satisfy it, then we engage in adjunctive behaviors. But this is also true of long-range human seeking or the purpose projects that we might generally call “hope.” Our prayers are hopes for family benefit and other successes, both mundane and spiritual. For most mainstream religious believers, this long-range seeking or hope is not the juvenile desire to live forever, but more impressive and familiar. All parents, for example, want to protect their children from harm, but very quickly we encounter the impossibility of perfect protection. We cannot really protect our loved ones from all harm. However, the painful ache and urge to protect does not diminish accordingly. It burns quietly at all times, even while our realism acknowledges its inevitable frustration. Religious stimming is a significant psychological rescue.

Adjunctive repetitive behaviors may be byproducts of adaptive behaviors, since certain kinds of repetitive actions ordinarily produce helpful results –as in the case when repeated pecking on shiny trash releases food crumbs for city pigeons. Adjunctive light-pecking behavior in laboratory pigeons may be a byproduct of otherwise adaptive routines. For humans, prayer can be seen as an adjunctive version of the otherwise helpful habit of asking other people for help. But the prayer itself takes on a consoling life of its own. Jewish prayers like the Amidah, Buddhist chants of the sutras, Muslims Salah or Namaz prayers, the Catholic rosary, and so on; these are often ritualized activities that calm and focus the practitioner. Frequently they are in an ancient language that the practitioner memorized but does not understand, proving that the activity itself is the true medicine.

Prayer and other rituals like rain-dances are forms of adjunctive behavior that make people feel better in situations where they have no better action possibilities. They make us feel better because our emotional system (e.g., SEEKING, or rage, or fear, etc.) has been ramped-up to accomplish something, but there is nothing we can do in this circumstance –the pigeon cannot make the food come faster, the farmer cannot make the rain come, the mother cannot bring her baby back to life. “Could praying be an adjunctive behavior,” neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp asks, “that gives human beings the illusion that they are somehow able to magically change their fates?” (2012, p. 116)

Our hopes and desires are underwritten by the dopamine-based SEEKING system, but this animating and agitating state must be quieted and calmed back to physiological homeostasis, or it will malfunction. In most cases, our emotional state of anticipation is pacified when we attain the food or sex, or other reward we’re driven toward. But deeper existential hopes or profound separation anxieties (e.g. grief) cannot be recalibrated to homeostasis by earthly rewards, and this is where religion comes to the rescue. Ritual activities and social community reintroduce the internal endorphins that counteract debilitating grief for example, and the activities and stories of religion can provide consummatory satiety, so the dopamine anticipation and anxiety can reduce and recalibrate. These are the neural roots of religious beliefs that need further study.

I am suggesting that religious rituals are partly adjunctive behaviors (culturally sanctioned and transmitted) that help devotees to manage their emotional lives (e.g., hopes and vulnerabilities), and this makes sense out of many of the seemingly paradoxical behaviors of religion when considered from the inadequate rational agent model. Among other things, religion is a culturally structured set of psycho-behavioral perseverations, often providing some return to equilibrium when other resources and consumption activities cannot do the work. When a loved one dies, we feel an overwhelming need to “do something.” But, really, there is nothing to be done. Religion is helpful in those moments, not because it solves problems, or enlightens, or anesthetizes, but because it gives us something –usually very precise and elaborate –to do. It is not the beliefs that console, but the ritualized activities.

Oftentimes, the explicitly cognitive aspects of religion reinforce and further articulate the physiological forms of anxiety reduction. The grooming touch of a warm hand on the grieving or anxious person is recreated in linguistic form to bring relief to the troubled heart. Even a cursory survey of Christian gospel lyrics will make the case obvious. The consoling balm of a friend’s or parent’s care is transferred to God and made totalizing and absolute in the cultural poetry of religious song: “The Lord’s our Rock, in Him we hide. A Shelter in the time of storm. Secure whatever ill betide. A Shelter in the time of storm. (Trad., A Shelter In The Time Of Storm) And as the Book of Lamentations makes clear, suffering can be intense and unavoidable, but it will not be permanent. “Let him bury his face in the dust— there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” (Lamentations, 3)

If the key benefit of religious behavior is therapeutic emotional management, then why not strip away the religion part and just retain the social, psychological, and physiological exercises? Some of the healthy benefits of religious activity could be approximated by arts communities, or secular social hobbies and causes. But something crucial is missing from those nonspiritual alternatives. The Left is justifiably angry about the chauvinism, sexism, racism, and hypocrisy of traditional religious institutions, but the solution is to transform and ameliorate our traditions not abandon them. Holding on to our traditional faith (while ditching the prejudice and dogmatism) is preferable for three reasons.

First, religion is already waiting in the wings, so to speak, for our imminent troubles. My family and I might need help at any moment. Life is fraught with pending drama (e.g., life-changing decisions, deaths, failures, good fortune, and so on), and religion is a deep and wide cultural reservoir of advice, guidance, inspiration, and support. Judaism and Buddhism, for example, are over two-thousand-year-old systems that provide their practitioners with direction and counsel on everything from diet, family interaction, mental peace, compassion, and how to handle disaster. Imagine trying to dig and fill that wide and deep cultural reservoir from scratch, as a secular humanist? It’s been tried, but with paltry results. When I am at my lowest point –after the loss of a close loved one –I will not be cognitively or emotionally capable of composing a memorial system of consoling practices, stories, and traditions powerful and subtle enough to transform the grief of friends and family –let alone my own grief. Yet, there beside you lie the powerful religious systems –five stages of mourning in Judaism, or the mataka bana ceremony in Theravada Buddhism, and so on.

This is not simply an argument about the convenience of established religious rituals. After all, those rituals are often inconvenient. Instead, I’m suggesting that religion is a uniquely strong safety-net –unlike other social activities, and built by thousands of years of cultural evolution. Religion is a meta-language undergoing eons of evolutionary tinkering, providing adaptive social-emotional development and communication. There are sometimes bad mutations (e.g., bigotry, sexism) in our specific religious “organism,” or traits that worked in an earlier environment but don’t work anymore. These mutations, however, can be reformed, reduced, or eliminated, from within the tradition itself.

Secondly, the tradition itself of Judaism, or Christianity, or Islam is uniquely vital for personal and group identity. I am not just in a tradition, I am of a tradition. Rituals are intimately tied with concepts (and stories) of God, spirits, and divine purposes, and these beliefs and practices reinforce each other. But today’s Jew, Hindu, or Christian is also a part of a unique historical group that struggled, survived and transformed for thousands of years. Our identity with our tradition is kept alive and strengthened by the regular retelling of our scriptural story and our socio-political story. This story –this history –is itself therapeutic, restorative, and fortifying. Being part of a tradition that knows adversity, perseverance, and mercy is a powerful thing. It’s the upside of tribalism.

Many people on the Left think there is no such thing as an upside to tribalism, but they’re wrong. Tribalism is not intrinsically evil. In most cultures tribalism is the coin of the realm. And it is helping us in American society every day too, even as we sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t benefit us. What people object to is not tribalism per se, but the abuse of it. This is hard to understand if you were raised in an official culture where every case of tribalism is portrayed as bigotry. In many face cultures (found in regions like China and the Middle East), tribalism is a matter of degree, and it becomes corruption only when it scales up to obnoxious excess. Middle-East scholar Lawrence Rosen relates a funny story of conversation with Berber friends in a Moroccan home. As they were eating their main meal after prayers on a Friday afternoon, Rosen’s friend Hussein asked him if there was corruption in the United States. At first Rosen suggested Watergate as an example, but Hussein and the others dismissed this as just siyasa, politics. When Rosen offered an example of nepotism, his Moroccan friends replied, “No, no, no…that is just ‘a’ila, family solidarity.”[4] When Rosen, slightly exasperated, pressed his friends to define corruption, they described it as a failure to share with one’s companions and allies. “Corruption is, in the Arabic idiom, ‘to eat’ the good things that should be shared with others.”

Being born into or converting to a religion gives us emotional and economic pre-commitments, and these are beneficial and good as long as they do not harm strangers or become corrupted by selfishness. Religion gives us a unique tribe, a larger family. Western cosmopolitan liberalism thinks we can do away with all tribes, but this is not only impossible from my point of view but undesirable as well.

Third, religion is uniquely potent and cannot be easily substituted by secularism because it is the best gravitas generator. Gravitas comes from the Latin word gravis, meaning serious, and religion generates it like nothing else. God is everywhere, and your existence, your future, and maybe the future of your fellow humans hangs upon how you perform today. That lends the kind of dignity, solemnity and seriousness that you’re not going to find in your bowling team, book club, or yoga class.

In the middle of the 20th century we had the crescendo of Existentialism (e.g., Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, etc.), which argued that God is dead and we must make the meaning of our own lives just as artists compose their paintings. These were liberating thoughts and they empowered some individuals to great things, but they have not taken deep hold at the larger scale of society.

Creating the meaning of your life like an existential artist is great if you’re in a prosperous elite class with no kids, but the rest of us don’t have the time, energy, freedom, or genius to be the Ubermenschen. We need help. Religion provides moral structure, existential value, universal purpose –in short, the gravitas of existence –premade and road-tested. Religion gives a transcendental luster to the mundane everyday experience.

The dismissal of religion by the progressive Left is often a luxury position of prosperous and comfortable groups, living in urban centers. Perhaps they have not suffered much, and for that I confess a mix of well-wishes and envy. For the rest of us, religion is vital to our well-being. There are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific or secular alleviation. Religion is a form of emotional management, and its value does not lie in whether it is true or false, but whether it consoles and humanizes us.

 

 

Stephen Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, and author of ten books, including Why We Need Religion (Oxford, 2018). He has lived and worked in Cambodia and China. He writes regularly for the New York Times and many other publications.



[1] Bryan usually plays the role of boob in these retellings of science victory, but he was actually a “good guy” in other regards. His misguided campaign against Darwin was actually motivated by his legitimate fears of Social Darwinism (more Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel) which he thought would lead to greater racism, classism, and less compassion for the poor.

[2] Temple Grandin, “Why do kids with autism stim?” Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2011 http://autismdigest.com/why-do-kids-with-autism-stim/

[3] Panksepp, Jaak and Lucy Biven (2012) The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (W.W. Norton and Co.).

 

[4] See Chapter One in Lawrence Rosen’s The Culture of Islam: Changing Aspects of Contemporary Muslim Life (University of Chicago, 2002).

Religion is Emotional Therapy

By Stepehn T. Asma

Stephen T. Asma

 

Religious extremism comes in many forms. Sometimes it clings to arcane doctrines despite mountains of scientific evidence. Such was the case during the famous Scopes Monkey trial of 1925. John Scopes was slapped with a $100 fine for teaching evolution in Dayton Tennessee, violating a law making it a misdemeanor to “teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Even though Scopes lost the trial, his defense attorney Clarence Darrow successfully put prosecutor William Jennings Bryan on the stand and demonstrated the tortured and impossible logic of scriptural literalism.

On the stand, Bryan understood very well that he was being lampooned by Darrow and he dug in like a Trump-supporter against the slick, elite, city-folks, claiming that he was happy to be lumped with the so-called “yokels.” Still, Darrow nudged him from his staunch defense of Biblical literalism to an admission that “a day” in the six-day creation story of Genesis was not a literal 24-hour day. That was it. Christianity in the following decade split into an evangelical fundamentalist branch versus a modern reform branch that read scripture as symbolically true.[1] Today’s moderate Christians and Jews see the Bible as metaphorically true –containing vital teachings but not scientific facts. Whereas, the “Creation Museum” and “Ark Encounter” exhibits in Northern Kentucky are still proffering a Scopes-era literalism in 2018.

The other form of religious fanaticism is more frightening. It is extremism in the realm of action. It is the jihad radical, or crusader who spills blood for the sake of creed. This kind of fanaticism seeks to remake the world into some idiosyncratic ideal, sacrificing real humans on the altar of religious abstraction and puritanical impulse. These forms of religion are distortions, or failures of compassion, empathy, and wisdom.

It’s obvious why the fanatic is wrong about religion. Extremism shows its flaws quickly and clearly. Equally wrong but less obvious, however, is the Left’s hostility toward religion. The secular progressive dismissal of religion as intrinsically false, dangerous, and distracting is also misguided. The Left has confused the whole of religion with these more extremist trends. Contrary to conceptions on both the Right and the Left, real religion is about human flourishing, and the evolution of human culture confirms religion’s adaptive function.

Achieving our own joy and flourishing, while enacting charity toward others, is the whole purpose of religion and the fulfillment of God’s plan, according to Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Unlike philosopher Immanuel Kant and other religious ascetics, Moses Mendelssohn thought that God wants us to be happy and thrive –never to be so self-denying and self-sacrificing as to be wretched. In fact, he argued that the evils of religion, when they arise, are born of this confusion –the confused assumption that God wants or needs you to harm yourself or others (through pathological extreme sacrifice or through coercion). In the belly of bad religion is a misanthropic ulcer.

Contrary to many religious sects, Mendelssohn argues that God does not want us to be miserable. We cannot be in conflict with God –we cannot fail him, because he doesn’t need anything from us. The Old Testament covenant is not a contract where God lacks something and needs to make a deal with us.

Church and State should be separate, argued Mendelssohn, because that is the best way for pluralistic societies to thrive. Religious liberty is fundamental for practical reasons, but also philosophical. After all, coerced charity and forced belief, are oxymorons. In Mendelssohn’s book Jerusalem (1783), written at almost the same time as Thomas Jefferson’s bill for establishing religious freedom (Bill 82), he makes a powerful argument for the value of religion, properly understood.

The problem is that religion is rarely properly understood. Most people think religion is about holding specific cognitive beliefs, but it is not. And most people think religion is about subjugating your own happiness and even the well-being of your people to the higher demands of God’s interests, but it is not. Mendelssohn argued instead that religion is about action, not belief or faith. The rewards and punishments spoken of in scripture apply to our actions, not the strength of our orthodox or literal beliefs in theology. Indeed, scripture should inspire us, but it should not be taken as literally true in all cases. And as for the common view among zealots that God wants blood, or otherwise wants people blown-up, sacrificed, humiliated, or crushed into submission, Mendelssohn says “nonsense.” Following Spinoza, he says God permeates nature generally, and human nature specifically, so when we activate our rational powers and our capacities for joy and happiness we also fulfill or actualize God’s plan for us. My happiness is not a threat to God or a failure of subservience, or an act of selfishness. It is what God intends for us.  We have duties to other humans because they need our help (and sometimes this requires self-negation), but duties to God are not like that –He is not needful and so His expectations of me include my own self-actualization.

My book Why We Need Religion (Oxford, 2018) tries to deliver an updated version of Mendelssohn’s vision, brought up to date with neuroscience, psychology and even evolution theory. I am agnostic about the metaphysics of religion. To my mind, the true benefit of religion is that it provides needed therapeutic management of our emotional lives. Religion reduces stress and depression, consoles us during great suffering, glues together a community, provides meaning and purpose, focuses fear and even aggression on adversaries, and gives hope and inspiration. This is why religious people tend to live longer, stay healthier, stay married longer, commit less crime, and so on. But these advantages are not accomplished by beliefs per se. Rather, they are achieved by the social activity of the group, and the therapeutic behaviors of the individual.

Social activities and rituals in religion include communal prayer and meditation, communal singing, liturgical activities, collective story-telling, sacramental life-changes like marriage and coming of age, festivals and celebrations, and group acts of discipline and sacrifice –like fasting. All of this social activity creates the deep bonds that positive psychology now recognizes as the main element in the happy life (eudemonia). These activities produce positive emotional neurotransmitters like oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine. Strong social bonds and happiness, built by shared activity, are not just lucky accidents of religious life, they are the very point of religion.

Even though religious life comforts, it is not itself always comfortable. Religious life is often inconvenient for the devotee or practitioner, and that struggle is partly why it bonds people. Shared adversity amplifies our sense of connection with our congregation, our temple, our sangha, our church, our mosque. But there are consoling behaviors permeating all aspects of religion.

Consolation has a significant physiological aspect and should not be over-intellectualized. Yes, contemplative reflection on death and immortality is a uniquely human activity and religion alleviates such existential anxiety via magical thinking. But most daily religious activity calms and/or distracts the devotee through repetitive behaviors, which act as positive self-stimulation, or stimming. All humans engage in stimming behaviors (e.g., nail biting, hair twirling, rocking in a rocking chair, constantly checking our smartphones, etc.), but more intense forms can be seen in those on the autism spectrum. Temple Grandin (2011) points out, “When I did stims such as dribbling sand through my fingers, it calmed me down. When I stimmed, sounds that hurt my ears stopped. Most kids with autism do these repetitive behaviors because it feels good in some way. It may counteract an overwhelming sensory environment, or alleviate the high levels of internal anxiety these kids typically feel every day. Individuals with autism exhibit a variety of stims; they may rock, flap, spin themselves or items such as coins, pace, hit themselves, or repeat words over and over (verbal stims).”[2] Neurotypical humans and other mammals also engage in calming, self-stimming behaviors, and certain cultural traditions (especially religion) formalize these behaviors into ready resources.

Calming or distracting forms of self-stimulation are part of the larger phenomenon, described in animal science as adjunctive behavior. In the course of natural and artificial conditioning, animals key into behaviors that are regularly paired with rewards, but which have no necessary connection or causal role in delivering the reward. Lab pigeons, for example, will peck a small light that turns on just before a food pellet is released. Eventually this irrelevant light-pecking behavior becomes a time-consuming intensive behavior in between feeding events.

The Pavlovian adjunctive behavior takes on a life of its own and persists even after experimenters omit the food reward when light-pecking occurs (i.e., punishing the behavior).  Similarly, rodents, cows, and other animals will engage in adjunctive water consumption when hungry. Ordinarily water consumption is naturally paired with eating, but when experimenters reduce food or extend the temporal intervals between food rewards, animals will drink double and triple the amounts that thirst would dictate. Adjunctive drinking is a kind of stimming behavior that may reduce stress and regulate dopamine and internal opioids while the animal is in a frustrated phase of anticipation. The stimming behavior is palliative when more productive or inducing behaviors do not work or cannot be executed.

Religion is filled with ritualized behaviors, including ceremonial body movements, routinized manipulations of prayer beads, phylacteries, talismans, and totems, candle lighting, supplications and prostrations, prayer recitations, collective singing, holy water rituals, pilgrimages, sacrifices, and so on. All humans have a neural circuit that comes online for our goal-directed behaviors, driving us toward resources in the environment. This dopamine-based system is called the SEEKING system.[3]  When our SEEKING systems are aroused (e.g., the promise of food, etc.) but there is no way to satisfy it, then we engage in adjunctive behaviors. But this is also true of long-range human seeking or the purpose projects that we might generally call “hope.” Our prayers are hopes for family benefit and other successes, both mundane and spiritual. For most mainstream religious believers, this long-range seeking or hope is not the juvenile desire to live forever, but more impressive and familiar. All parents, for example, want to protect their children from harm, but very quickly we encounter the impossibility of perfect protection. We cannot really protect our loved ones from all harm. However, the painful ache and urge to protect does not diminish accordingly. It burns quietly at all times, even while our realism acknowledges its inevitable frustration. Religious stimming is a significant psychological rescue.

Adjunctive repetitive behaviors may be byproducts of adaptive behaviors, since certain kinds of repetitive actions ordinarily produce helpful results –as in the case when repeated pecking on shiny trash releases food crumbs for city pigeons. Adjunctive light-pecking behavior in laboratory pigeons may be a byproduct of otherwise adaptive routines. For humans, prayer can be seen as an adjunctive version of the otherwise helpful habit of asking other people for help. But the prayer itself takes on a consoling life of its own. Jewish prayers like the Amidah, Buddhist chants of the sutras, Muslims Salah or Namaz prayers, the Catholic rosary, and so on; these are often ritualized activities that calm and focus the practitioner. Frequently they are in an ancient language that the practitioner memorized but does not understand, proving that the activity itself is the true medicine.

Prayer and other rituals like rain-dances are forms of adjunctive behavior that make people feel better in situations where they have no better action possibilities. They make us feel better because our emotional system (e.g., SEEKING, or rage, or fear, etc.) has been ramped-up to accomplish something, but there is nothing we can do in this circumstance –the pigeon cannot make the food come faster, the farmer cannot make the rain come, the mother cannot bring her baby back to life. “Could praying be an adjunctive behavior,” neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp asks, “that gives human beings the illusion that they are somehow able to magically change their fates?” (2012, p. 116)

Our hopes and desires are underwritten by the dopamine-based SEEKING system, but this animating and agitating state must be quieted and calmed back to physiological homeostasis, or it will malfunction. In most cases, our emotional state of anticipation is pacified when we attain the food or sex, or other reward we’re driven toward. But deeper existential hopes or profound separation anxieties (e.g. grief) cannot be recalibrated to homeostasis by earthly rewards, and this is where religion comes to the rescue. Ritual activities and social community reintroduce the internal endorphins that counteract debilitating grief for example, and the activities and stories of religion can provide consummatory satiety, so the dopamine anticipation and anxiety can reduce and recalibrate. These are the neural roots of religious beliefs that need further study.

I am suggesting that religious rituals are partly adjunctive behaviors (culturally sanctioned and transmitted) that help devotees to manage their emotional lives (e.g., hopes and vulnerabilities), and this makes sense out of many of the seemingly paradoxical behaviors of religion when considered from the inadequate rational agent model. Among other things, religion is a culturally structured set of psycho-behavioral perseverations, often providing some return to equilibrium when other resources and consumption activities cannot do the work. When a loved one dies, we feel an overwhelming need to “do something.” But, really, there is nothing to be done. Religion is helpful in those moments, not because it solves problems, or enlightens, or anesthetizes, but because it gives us something –usually very precise and elaborate –to do. It is not the beliefs that console, but the ritualized activities.

Oftentimes, the explicitly cognitive aspects of religion reinforce and further articulate the physiological forms of anxiety reduction. The grooming touch of a warm hand on the grieving or anxious person is recreated in linguistic form to bring relief to the troubled heart. Even a cursory survey of Christian gospel lyrics will make the case obvious. The consoling balm of a friend’s or parent’s care is transferred to God and made totalizing and absolute in the cultural poetry of religious song: “The Lord’s our Rock, in Him we hide. A Shelter in the time of storm. Secure whatever ill betide. A Shelter in the time of storm. (Trad., A Shelter In The Time Of Storm) And as the Book of Lamentations makes clear, suffering can be intense and unavoidable, but it will not be permanent. “Let him bury his face in the dust— there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace. For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” (Lamentations, 3)

If the key benefit of religious behavior is therapeutic emotional management, then why not strip away the religion part and just retain the social, psychological, and physiological exercises? Some of the healthy benefits of religious activity could be approximated by arts communities, or secular social hobbies and causes. But something crucial is missing from those nonspiritual alternatives. The Left is justifiably angry about the chauvinism, sexism, racism, and hypocrisy of traditional religious institutions, but the solution is to transform and ameliorate our traditions not abandon them. Holding on to our traditional faith (while ditching the prejudice and dogmatism) is preferable for three reasons.

First, religion is already waiting in the wings, so to speak, for our imminent troubles. My family and I might need help at any moment. Life is fraught with pending drama (e.g., life-changing decisions, deaths, failures, good fortune, and so on), and religion is a deep and wide cultural reservoir of advice, guidance, inspiration, and support. Judaism and Buddhism, for example, are over two-thousand-year-old systems that provide their practitioners with direction and counsel on everything from diet, family interaction, mental peace, compassion, and how to handle disaster. Imagine trying to dig and fill that wide and deep cultural reservoir from scratch, as a secular humanist? It’s been tried, but with paltry results. When I am at my lowest point –after the loss of a close loved one –I will not be cognitively or emotionally capable of composing a memorial system of consoling practices, stories, and traditions powerful and subtle enough to transform the grief of friends and family –let alone my own grief. Yet, there beside you lie the powerful religious systems –five stages of mourning in Judaism, or the mataka bana ceremony in Theravada Buddhism, and so on.

This is not simply an argument about the convenience of established religious rituals. After all, those rituals are often inconvenient. Instead, I’m suggesting that religion is a uniquely strong safety-net –unlike other social activities, and built by thousands of years of cultural evolution. Religion is a meta-language undergoing eons of evolutionary tinkering, providing adaptive social-emotional development and communication. There are sometimes bad mutations (e.g., bigotry, sexism) in our specific religious “organism,” or traits that worked in an earlier environment but don’t work anymore. These mutations, however, can be reformed, reduced, or eliminated, from within the tradition itself.

Secondly, the tradition itself of Judaism, or Christianity, or Islam is uniquely vital for personal and group identity. I am not just in a tradition, I am of a tradition. Rituals are intimately tied with concepts (and stories) of God, spirits, and divine purposes, and these beliefs and practices reinforce each other. But today’s Jew, Hindu, or Christian is also a part of a unique historical group that struggled, survived and transformed for thousands of years. Our identity with our tradition is kept alive and strengthened by the regular retelling of our scriptural story and our socio-political story. This story –this history –is itself therapeutic, restorative, and fortifying. Being part of a tradition that knows adversity, perseverance, and mercy is a powerful thing. It’s the upside of tribalism.

Many people on the Left think there is no such thing as an upside to tribalism, but they’re wrong. Tribalism is not intrinsically evil. In most cultures tribalism is the coin of the realm. And it is helping us in American society every day too, even as we sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t benefit us. What people object to is not tribalism per se, but the abuse of it. This is hard to understand if you were raised in an official culture where every case of tribalism is portrayed as bigotry. In many face cultures (found in regions like China and the Middle East), tribalism is a matter of degree, and it becomes corruption only when it scales up to obnoxious excess. Middle-East scholar Lawrence Rosen relates a funny story of conversation with Berber friends in a Moroccan home. As they were eating their main meal after prayers on a Friday afternoon, Rosen’s friend Hussein asked him if there was corruption in the United States. At first Rosen suggested Watergate as an example, but Hussein and the others dismissed this as just siyasa, politics. When Rosen offered an example of nepotism, his Moroccan friends replied, “No, no, no…that is just ‘a’ila, family solidarity.”[4] When Rosen, slightly exasperated, pressed his friends to define corruption, they described it as a failure to share with one’s companions and allies. “Corruption is, in the Arabic idiom, ‘to eat’ the good things that should be shared with others.”

Being born into or converting to a religion gives us emotional and economic pre-commitments, and these are beneficial and good as long as they do not harm strangers or become corrupted by selfishness. Religion gives us a unique tribe, a larger family. Western cosmopolitan liberalism thinks we can do away with all tribes, but this is not only impossible from my point of view but undesirable as well.

Third, religion is uniquely potent and cannot be easily substituted by secularism because it is the best gravitas generator. Gravitas comes from the Latin word gravis, meaning serious, and religion generates it like nothing else. God is everywhere, and your existence, your future, and maybe the future of your fellow humans hangs upon how you perform today. That lends the kind of dignity, solemnity and seriousness that you’re not going to find in your bowling team, book club, or yoga class.

In the middle of the 20th century we had the crescendo of Existentialism (e.g., Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, etc.), which argued that God is dead and we must make the meaning of our own lives just as artists compose their paintings. These were liberating thoughts and they empowered some individuals to great things, but they have not taken deep hold at the larger scale of society.

Creating the meaning of your life like an existential artist is great if you’re in a prosperous elite class with no kids, but the rest of us don’t have the time, energy, freedom, or genius to be the Ubermenschen. We need help. Religion provides moral structure, existential value, universal purpose –in short, the gravitas of existence –premade and road-tested. Religion gives a transcendental luster to the mundane everyday experience.

The dismissal of religion by the progressive Left is often a luxury position of prosperous and comfortable groups, living in urban centers. Perhaps they have not suffered much, and for that I confess a mix of well-wishes and envy. For the rest of us, religion is vital to our well-being. There are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific or secular alleviation. Religion is a form of emotional management, and its value does not lie in whether it is true or false, but whether it consoles and humanizes us.

 

 

Stephen Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, and author of ten books, including Why We Need Religion (Oxford, 2018). He has lived and worked in Cambodia and China. He writes regularly for the New York Times and many other publications.

 



[1] Bryan usually plays the role of boob in these retellings of science victory, but he was actually a “good guy” in other regards. His misguided campaign against Darwin was actually motivated by his legitimate fears of Social Darwinism (more Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel) which he thought would lead to greater racism, classism, and less compassion for the poor.

[2] Temple Grandin, “Why do kids with autism stim?” Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2011 http://autismdigest.com/why-do-kids-with-autism-stim/

[3] Panksepp, Jaak and Lucy Biven (2012) The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (W.W. Norton and Co.).

 

[4] See Chapter One in Lawrence Rosen’s The Culture of Islam: Changing Aspects of Contemporary Muslim Life (University of Chicago, 2002).

 

 
tags:   
Tip Jar Email Bookmark and Share RSS Print
Get Tikkun by Email -- FREE

COMMENT POLICY Please read our comments policy. We invite constructive disagreement but do not accept personal attacks and hateful comments. We reserve the right to block hecklers who repost comments that have been deleted. We do have automated spam filters that sometimes miscategorize legitimate comments as spam. If you don't see your comment within ten minutes, please click here to contact us. Due to our small staff it may take up to 48 hours to get your comment posted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*