What Professor Asma Doesn’t Give Us About What Religion Gives Us

By Elliott Ruffin Crozat

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December 4, 2018

Abstract: In this paper, I critique Professor Asma’s article What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t). I raise a three-fold objection to his claim that religion is irrational, followed by three related points of assessment. In short, I argue that his claim that religion is irrational is unwarranted.


Introduction

In What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t), Professor Asma argues that, although irrational, religion is a needed and time-tested means for managing emotions. As he puts it: “I would like to argue here, in fact, that we still need religion…it is a road-tested form of emotional management.” He makes this argument despite his belief that “religion fails miserably at the bar of rationality.”[1]

While I agree that some aspects of religion can provide emotional support, and though I appreciate Asma’s compassionate perspective regarding human suffering, I object to his assumption that religion is irrational. Asma does not provide adequate reasons to support this claim.

In this paper, I raise a three-fold objection to Asma’s assumption, followed by three further points of criticism regarding: (i) his views about the benefits of emotionally therapeutic belief; (ii) his use of concepts associated with objective morality; and (iii) his apparent scientism.

Three-fold Objection

In this section, I articulate a three-part objection to Asma’s claim that religion is irrational. First, Asma does not define “religion.” Thus, his use of the term is ambiguous. By “religion,” he might mean belief in God (i.e., theism).[2] Or does he refer to a specific religion? But religions make different truth claims and involve various practices. Which specific claim or practice does he have in mind? Perhaps he means a general belief in an unseen order.[3] Given this ambiguity, it is unclear exactly what Asma takes as irrational.

Second, Asma does not define “rationality.” Hence, his use of this term is ambiguous as well. There are at least two senses of rationality: epistemic rationality, which concerns justified belief; and practical (or instrumental) rationality, which is about action. Consider practical rationality. This is a matter of selecting appropriate means to achieve one’s end. I.e., if one intends an end which requires certain means, then one wills those means. As such, a practically rational person uses the means necessary to achieve his end; practical rationality involves consistency between means and ends. Now, since Asma believes that religion is a necessary means to the end of emotional well-being, and since Asma employs language to suggest that he believes religion is intellectually unjustified, it is plausible to construe Asma’s assertion that religion is irrational as a claim that religion is epistemically rather than practically irrational. Indeed, Asma seems committed to the view that religion is practically rational but epistemically irrational.[4] This point sets up the final part of my objection.

Third, since it seems Asma’s position is either atheistic or agnostic, one might reasonably construe his claim that religion is irrational as an assertion that theism is epistemically irrational. The problem here is that he provides no argument for this claim. He merely asserts it. Considering the many plausible arguments for theism, his assertion is dialectically unwarranted. Moreover, Asma fails to recognize the philosophical position that one can form a properly basic belief which is thus rational although not based on evidence. A properly basic belief is one which does not rest on some other belief for its reasonability, though it may be formed on the basis of direct experience. For example, one can form a properly basic belief in the reality of the external world, in the redness of an apple located in one’s visual field, in the reality of a pain in one’s knee, or in the existence of other minds; these beliefs are properly formed in the context of pertinent experiences. In such cases, the beliefs are rational though not supported by something other than the relevant experiences. Philosophers have taken seriously the claim that one can have a properly basic belief in God.

Supposing Asma holds that theism is epistemically irrational, one might be inclined to wonder where and when he has been practicing philosophy. Is he not familiar with the work done in analytic philosophy in the areas of natural theology and philosophy of religion over the past few decades?[5] As the late Roderick Chisholm noted in a 1980 Time Magazine article, some of the brightest contemporary philosophers are theists. According to this article, the idea of God is thriving “in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers.”[6] And as the atheistic philosopher Quentin Smith has indicated, many contemporary philosophers are theists, most of them Christians. The existence and activities of organizations such as the Society of Christian Philosophers and the Evangelical Philosophical Society underscore this point. According to Smith, it is academically respectable for philosophers to defend theism. Some of the leading thinkers in philosophy are theists. For example, Alvin Plantinga writes “at the highest qualitative level of analytic philosophy.”[7] Contrast Smith’s points with Asma’s statement in What Religion Gives Us that respect for religion “has diminished in almost every corner of modern life — not just among atheists and intellectuals, but among the wider public, too.” Whether or not this is the case, respect for theism has increased in the discipline of philosophy, which is Asma’s own field.

How have philosophers defended theism in recent years? Consider two cases, though many others could be given. J. P. Moreland has written that a set of recalcitrant facts about human beings provides epistemically rational confirmation for Christian theism and poses an explanatory challenge to atheism. These facts include consciousness, free will, rationality, the self, intrinsic value, and equal moral rights.[8]

To elaborate, consider a line of reasoning not listed in the previous sentence: the kalam cosmological argument for God as the transcendent cause of the universe. William Lane Craig, its leading proponent, articulates the argument as follows: (1) whatever begins to exist has a cause; (2) the universe began to exist; thus, (3) the universe has a cause. Conceptual analysis of this cause indicates that it is uncaused, without beginning, timeless, changeless, immaterial, non-spatial, and plausibly personal.[9] The kalam argument is deductively valid. So, if Asma were to challenge it, he would need to refute one of its premises. Which would he target? (1) or (2)? Why?

Notice that Asma cannot dismiss the kalam argument as “trading in magical thinking” – a phrase he uses to describe religion in What Religion Gives Us. Nor can he brush aside the kalam argument as the “loudest and dumbest,” or as an attempt to “revitalize the corpse of natural theology” despite its supposed “obituary notice.”[10] Such question-begging epithets are philosophically unpersuasive.

Three Additional Points of Assessment

Having articulated a three-fold objection to Asma’s claim that religion is irrational, one might proceed to query him on three related points. First, he seems to assume that if a belief is emotionally therapeutic, it is thus good even if epistemically irrational and/or false. Why believe this? Suppose one’s negative emotions are palliated by forming the false belief that one is Napoleon Bonaparte intent on achieving his conquest of Russia, that one is an ancient Spartan hoplite during the Battle of Thermopylae, that one need never work because he has fifty billion dollars in his savings account, or that one’s vocation in life is to start forest fires in California. Although therapeutic, it is questionable that these false and epistemically irrational beliefs are objectively good.[11]

To extend this point, consider its religious implications. Suppose that Asma is correct that religion is epistemically irrational, and that by ‘religion’ Asma means all religious claims. In this case, all religious claims would be epistemically irrational. What if a religious claim that promotes harm to humans were to be therapeutic for someone, and thus useful for managing his negative emotions? For example, suppose a religiously motivated terrorist believes that slaughtering 1,000 people will usher him into a postmortem paradise, and that this belief assuages his negative emotions despite its epistemic irrationality. Suppose also that the terrorist acts on this belief. Arguably, it would be prudent not to encourage such religious beliefs even if they were such that believing them would alleviate someone’s emotional distress. Asma’s article provides no clear statement for handling this problem.[12]

Now, Asma suggests that emotional therapy is conducive to human flourishing, implying that this conduciveness makes the therapy useful, which thus makes religion an instrumental good even if false and epistemically irrational. Perhaps some forms of emotional therapy are conducive to human flourishing.[13] But on the assumption of atheism, it is plausible that such flourishing has no objective value. Asma provides no reason for believing the proposition that our flourishing is objectively good on atheism. Rather, he tacitly assumes the proposition. Indeed, the term ‘flourishing’ contains an objectively normative significance which is hard to justify on atheistic terms. This factor provides a segue to a second point.

Asma seems to use the language of objective morality in What Religion Gives Us. For example, he refers to the “bad behavior” of some who claim to be religious. And he indicates belief in the objective goodness of caring for others, of philanthropy, of emotional health, and of human well-being. I agree that these are objectively good. However, it is unclear how an atheistic worldview can ground belief in the existence of objective morality. Plausibly, the existence of God is a necessary condition for the existence of objective morality, although belief in God is not necessary in this respect. If this is right, it follows that on atheism there is no objective morality. Thus, one might object that Asma illicitly borrows moral concepts from a theistic worldview in which they fit but which he (apparently) rejects. He then expresses a non-theistic worldview into which he unjustifiably inserts these concepts, which are inapt in his ontology. One might then reasonably ask how his non-theistic position supports these moral concepts.

Consider a final point. The tone and language of Asma’s article suggest a position of scientism. This is the view that a proposition or theory is true or rational if and only if it is empirically verifiable. Note two problems with scientism. First, scientism is self-refuting; it is a proposition which is not itself empirically verifiable. Second, science presupposes several philosophical propositions which are not empirically verifiable (e.g., that there is an objectively real external world, that there is truth, that there are laws of logic and mathematics, that the external world can be known, that inductive logic is reliable, that the material world is such that the future will resemble the past). Scientism would prevent science from presupposing these propositions, which would thus preclude the enterprises of science and of philosophy. In short, scientism is a philosophical claim about science which undermines both scientific and philosophical investigation. Scientism is an obstacle to intellectual inquiry, and therefore an unpromising position to take for someone who is worried about – as Asma put it in What Religion Gives Us – “slouching toward irrational chaos.” Since Asma’s article is an attempt at scientific and philosophical reasoning, it is plausible to suspect that his tacit scientism undercuts his own article.

But how does Asma’s article suggest scientism? For one thing, Asma writes that a good theory should correspond to empirical facts. While this is a plausible position to take for a scientific theory, it is not a reasonable criterion for a philosophical theory. Indeed, his claim (namely, that a good theory should correspond to empirical facts) is itself a philosophical assertion about theoretical thought, and it is an assertion which does not itself correspond to any empirical facts. Furthermore, Asma’s suggestions that emotional therapy and human flourishing are objectively good do not correspond to empirical facts. If the claim “human flourishing is objectively good” is true, then a theoretical claim can be good (true) even though it is not empirically verifiable.

For another thing, notice the terms Asma uses in What Religion Gives Us to describe science and religion. He suggests that science “aligns with evidence” and claims that science is a “rational standard.” He says neuroscience “shows” that certain things are the case, and he suggests that scientists can “explain” suffering and crime. These are terms indicating intellectual strength and reliability. But when the discussion turns to religion, although he recognizes its therapeutic benefits, he uses different language regarding its intellectual status. He calls religion “tough to defend,” “of diminished respect,” and “hostile” to certain ideas. He claims that religion is “incoherent,” “irrational,” “mere yearning,” “magical,” “mostly not true,” and “miserably failing to be rational.” Although he does not support these criticisms of religion, but merely assumes them in a question-begging manner, they convey an assumption that religion is intellectually suspect.

For a third thing, Asma’s plaudits of science (as if philosophers were clear on exactly what science is) as the standard of rationality suggest scientism. For example, his claim that religion fails at the bar of rationality is preceded by the assertion that the very bar of rationality is “the rational scientific method.” And his references to what scientists have said about the human brain and the human mind (as if these were clearly the same) suggest a tone of scientism.

Conclusion

In this paper, I have presented a three-fold objection to Asma’s What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t), followed by three additional points of critique. In sum, though commendable for its sympathy to the human emotional condition, Asma’s article is not philosophically persuasive. It reads more like a metaphysical naturalist’s suggestions for emotional well-being than like an article in philosophy. What Asma fails to give readers is an adequate reason for accepting his claim that religion is irrational.


Notes

[1] See What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t), The New York Times/The Stone, June 3, 2018, accessible at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/why-we-need-religion.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fthe-stone&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=4&pgtype=collection

[2] I will address this alternative in detail later in the paper.

[3] See William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

[4] One suspects that Asma takes the human mind and the human experience to be fundamentally disjointed. On his view, it seems the human intellect is at odds with human emotional needs. The intellect seeks truth and epistemic rationality, but the emotions need falsehood and epistemic irrationality to cope with the difficulties of life.

[5] One example of such work is The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

[6] See Modernizing the Case for God, Time, April 7, 1980

[7] See The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism, Philo 4, no. 2, 2001

[8] See The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (SCM Press, 2009), p. 5

[9] See William Lane Craig and James D. Sinclair, “The Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology for a thorough discussion of the kalam argument.

[10] Asma uses such language in Teleology Rises from the Grave, Philosophy Now, 2018. Asma’s language and tone in Teleology Rises from the Grave and in What Religion Gives Us suggest that theism has somehow been conclusively proven false, and that everyone knows about this accomplishment. One might be inclined to ask Asma to cite the peer-reviewed article in which this proof has been published. Moreover, in Teleology Rises from the Grave, Asma seems to conflate the entire enterprise of natural theology with one version of the design argument. He does not mention that there are arguments in natural theology that are not teleological arguments. He also neglects to mention that there are teleological arguments for God that have nothing to do with biology. For example, there is the fine-tuning argument.

[11] It may be noted here that Asma’s discussion of the Marxist critique of religion as the opiate of the masses fails to recognize that this critique is plausibly an example of the genetic fallacy. Even if it is true that some people adopt religious beliefs (e.g., theism) because it makes them feel good, it does not follow that those beliefs are false, despite Asma’s bare assertion that “Most religious beliefs are not true.”

[12] One could attempt to address this problem by appealing to some version of consequentialism, such as moral egoism or utilitarianism. But there are serious objections to these moral theories. A non-consequentialist might take an attempt to address this problem via consequentialism as a reductio ad absurdum against consequentialism.

[13] One might argue that certain religious beliefs are sufficient for emotional alleviation, but that pace Asma, religious belief is not necessary to allay negative emotions. For example, suppose one experiences emotional turmoil at the thought of death. One can believe that one’s soul is immortal, and thus mollify the turmoil, without adopting a religious belief. The belief in human immortality is a metaphysical belief, but not necessarily a religious one. One can form a belief in immortality on the basis of philosophical argument. For example, Plato poses several of such arguments in Phaedo. William James provides an argument in Human Immortality. I am not here defending or critiquing these arguments, but merely indicating that one can adopt a philosophical belief in human immortality without adopting a religious belief.

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About the Author

By Elliott Ruffin Crozat

Elliott R. Crozat is a full-time faculty member in the humanities department at Western Governors University and teaches philosophy part-time at Purdue University Global. His philosophical interests include metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, ethics, and the meaning of life. He also enjoys walking at the beach with his wife and playing soccer with his sons. He lives in Sarasota, FL.