Stephen Asma responds

He has sent me a response to my criticisms of his criticisms of the New Atheism. Look below the fold for what he sent me.

A lot of online feedback is remarkably angry, hostile, and generally melodramatic. Every time I write an online piece I get an army of people calling me a “moron,” or telling me I’m too smart for my own good, or I’m too stupid for my own good. People vent spleen and project all kinds of things onto the article and the writer. I find all this amusing and don’t take it personally.

As a regular contributor to publications like SKEPTIC magazine, the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER and THE HUMANIST, I have received a lot of mail from vitriolic theists telling me I’ll burn in hell for my atheistic views. Before the digital days, they were urgent hand-written letters with cribbed scrawling that ended at the bottom of the page and then turned sideways to continue up and around the margins. I have a whole file of these hilarious screeds. Now, I have a digital file of similar histrionic rants, only these are from the atheists.

Since I also got some very thoughtful and well-reasoned comments about my article, I will endeavor to respond and clarify my position. First, I’m actually a fan of some of Sam Harris’s arguments (most of which are actually David Hume’s and Bertrand Russell’s arguments), and I also respect some of the important work by Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens.

There’s a common confusion among my more melodramatic atheist readers that my criticizing them must make me a naïve theist or an apologist for God. I don’t really need to answer this, since my own six books and dozens of articles make my twenty-years of skeptical agnosticism quite clear. A Democrat who criticizes another Democrat, does not automatically become a Republican. That said, I’m trying to help some otherwise very smart people (the Four Horsemen) appreciate an aspect of religion (a core aspect) that they have not properly addressed -namely, the emotional virtues of religion.

My argument is that religion, like art, has direct access to our emotional lives in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder and the majesty of nature, but there are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific alleviation. Different emotional stresses require different kinds of rescue.

A student told me recently of how his brother had been brutally stabbed to death five years ago. He and his whole family were utterly shattered by the loss. He told me that his mother would have been institutionalized if it were not for her belief that her son was in a better place now and that she would see him again.

For the more extreme atheist, all this looks irrational and therefor unacceptable. But I’m arguing something more delicate; yes, I agree, it’s irrational, but that doesn’t render it unacceptable or valueless. Why not? Because the human brain is a kludge of three major operating systems; the ancient reptile brain (motor functions, fight or flight types of instincts, etc.), the limbic or mammalian brain (emotions), and the most recent neocortex (rationality).

The new atheists are evaluating religion at the neocortical level -their criteria for assessing it is the hypothetico-deductive method. Now, I agree with them –religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity. But we’re at the wrong bar. The older brain –built by natural selection for solving survival challenges -was not built for rationality. Emotions like fear, love, rage, even hope or anticipation, were selected for because they helped early mammals flourish. Fear is a great prod to escape predators, for example, and aggression is useful in the defense of resources and offspring. Care or feelings of love (oxytocin and opioid based) strengthen bonds between mammal parents and offspring, and so on. Emotions are in many cases quicker ways to solve problems than deliberative cognition. Moreover, our own human emotions are retained from our animal past and represent deep homologies with other mammals (see the empirical work of Jaak Panksepp, father of Affective Neuroscience).

Now for we humans, the interesting puzzle is how the old animal operating system of emotions interacts with the new operating system of cognition. How do our feelings and our thoughts blend together to compose our mental lives, and our behaviors? Our cognitive ability to formulate representations of the external world, and manipulate them, is immersed in a sea of emotions. When I think about the heinous serial killer, my blood runs cold. When I call up the images of my loved ones in my mind’s eye, I am flooded with warm emotions. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has shown that emotions saturate even the seemingly pure information-processing aspects of rational deliberation.

My argument is that religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives. And while it doesn’t do very much for me and other skeptics (I prefer art), I would be very inattentive if I failed to notice how much relief and comfort it gave to other people. No amount of scientific explanation or socio-political theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. But the irrational hope that she would see her murdered son again sustained her, according to my student. And it’s reasonable to suggest that such an emotional belief may have given her the energy and vitality to continue caring for her other children (so we can imagine a selective pressure for such emotional beliefs at the “group” or “kin” level of natural selection).

People who critique such emotional responses and strategies with the refrain “But is it true?” are missing the point. I agree with the atheists: Most religious beliefs are not true. But here’s the crux. The emotional brain doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on the grounds of true and false. An emotion is not a representation or a judgment, so it cannot be evaluated like a theory. Emotions are not true or false. Even a terrible fear inside a dream is still a terrible fear. This means that the criteria for measuring a healthy theory, is not the criteria for measuring a healthy emotion. 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. The intellectual life answers to the all-important criterion: Is this or that claim ACCURATE? But the emotional life has a different master. It answers to the more ancient criterion: Does this or that feeling help the organism THRIVE? Often an accurate belief also produces thriving (how else could intelligence be selected for?). But frequently there is no such happy correlation. Mixing up these criteria is a common category mistake that fuels a lot of the theist/atheist debate.

Some people have suggested that my appreciation of emotional well-being (independently from questions of veracity and truth) is tantamount to “drinking the Kool-Aid” and “taking the blue pill” (from the Matrix scenario). But the real tension is not between delusion and truth -that’s an easy one. The real tension is between the needs of one part of the brain (limbic) and the needs of another (the neocortical). Evolution shaped them both, and the older one does not get out of the way when the newbie comes on the scene.

Now many people have confused my attempts to describe and understand emotional religion as a defense of religion, when in fact I am really trying to defend the emotions. The new atheists tend to adopt the traditional dismissive view of emotions that one finds in neocortex-based neuroscience, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology. My own view is heavily influenced by theories of embodied cognition and affective science (e.g., Antonio Damasio, Richard Davidson, and Jaak Panksepp in neuroscience, Mark Johnson in philosophy, etc.). There is nothing spooky, or mystical, or magical about the idea that the mind is more than just rational consciousness. I am simply acknowledging that the logical neocortex is built on top of a subcortical emotional mountain. Science and rationality are not best suited to navigate some of those crags and chasms of feeling, but other human cultural tools (like religion and art) can engage them effectively.

My description of animism was not an endorsement of it. I used this example to demonstrate two things -one, the emotional comforts religion can provide, and two, the way that empirical rationality must take its starting point from a specific CONTEXT. More importantly, my overall DESCRIPTION of emotional religion should also not be taken as a NORMATIVE endorsement. I agree with all the good folks who pointed out that it would be better to have a medical clinic in a poor village than a shaman. I said as much in the article. But until the medical clinic gets there, let’s tolerate the shaman. And if the shaman is “in the way of” the coming clinic, then by all means let’s campaign against him.

Ultimately, my goal in the article is to contribute to our UNDERSTANDING of religious people -like a Democrat tries to understand a Republican, or vice versa. I’m not yet in a position to make many substantial normative claims, but I’ll venture this important provisional one. If you want to get rid of religion, you can’t ARGUE it out of existence with rationality. Instead, you have to “feed” the hungry emotions something new as a healthier replacement. The emotional brain has a voracious and different dietary appetite than the rational brain. And until we create some new emotional superfood, religion will continue to feed it. But the emotions should not be seen as some inconvenient garbage-eating monster in the basement of the brain. The emotional life provides the vitality and the dynamism that we mammals require. Science itself would not be successful if it wasn’t driven by the passions of inquiry. The passions of inquiry, however, will be cold comfort to certain sorts of suffering, and that is why we have other kinds of culture (including religion).

I think he’s still missing the boat, and is arguing here against a lot of things that weren’t present. I didn’t see much insult being thrown around (at least not for here!), and I know I certainly didn’t assume he was a Jebus-freak — his essay is pretty plain on the subject of his own views. I would be the last person to claim that emotion wasn’t an important part of the human experience, and I’ve told people that we need more appeal to those lower centers of the brain…but this idea that atheists are all a bunch of Spock-like uber-rationalists, or that we aspire to a coldly logical society, is simply an annoying stereotype that isn’t true. And the whole point of what I wrote is that “it makes me feel good” is inadequate support for a complex set of beliefs about the world—”it’s true” is also essential. His reply doesn’t really address that.