Fall 2011 / Spring 2012

Photo: Jacob Boll (BA ’12)
Photo: Jacob Boll (BA ’12)

“My argument is that religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives,” Dr. Asma says. “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.”

Religion, Science, and Morality: A Conversation with Dr. Stephen Asma

The Professor of Philosophy discusses his role in the Fall 2011 Dean’s Lecture, his controversial article published last January in The Chronicle of Higher Education, his new Honors class, and how billiards and beer help him lead a balanced life.

: This Fall, you’ll be debating Allen Turner, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, for the Fall 2011 Dean’s Lecture, “Are There ‘Morals’ in Morality?” Without giving too much away, what can the community expect during this debate between you and Mr. Turner?

Dr. Asma: It should be fun and thought provoking. Allen is keeping his cards close to his vest for now, so that will keep the debate fresh and genuine. We’re both really interested in ethical philosophy. I think we agree that there’s a lot of hypocrisy in our personal American morals and in the political morality of our foreign policies. Then question, then, is how do we cut through the pretended piety of talk-show culture, reality TV culture, and even religious culture, to discover our real ethics?

There’s some interesting data coming out of psychology and experimental philosophy, for example, showing how our moral convictions are frequently hidden from our rational, conscious minds. That has many people scratching their heads. As individual moral agents, we frequently construct “noble” rationalizations for doing what we do, and it’s probably no different when we look at the geo-political domain of humanitarian intervention, philanthropy, and sanctions. Allen and I going to dig into this heady stuff, but I know there will be lots of humor, too.

@LAS: The subject of our next Dean’s Lecture is timely, given some of your most recent work. Last January, you published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview”), in which you argue that, among other things, the strongest voices in New Atheism are incorrect in “imagining that the primary job of religion is morality.” As a self-described agnostic, what do you see as the primary function of religion?

Dr. Asma: I’ve lived and studied in Cambodia and China and traveled a lot in the developing world, and this gives me a different perspective on spirituality. Religion, even the wacky superstitious stuff, is an analgesic survival mechanism and sanctuary in the developing world. Religion provides some order, coherence, respite, peace, traction against the fates, and perhaps most importantly, it quells the emotional distress of human vulnerability. I’m sympathetic to religion as “opiate.” I’d gladly give my copies of Chairman Mao’s Red Book and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for a six-pack of good beer.

When people have their backs against the wall, when they are truly helpless and hopeless, then pleading and negotiating with anything more powerful than themselves is a very human response—a response that will not go away, and should not go away, if it provides some genuine relief for anxiety and agony. As Roger Scruton says, “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”

Religion is not really a path to morality, nor can it substitute for a scientific understanding of nature. Its chief virtue is as a “coping mechanism” for our troubles. Powerless people turn to religion and find a sense of relief there, and this helps them psychologically to stay afloat. Those who target religion and wish to abolish it seek to pull away the life preserver, mistakenly blaming the floatation device for the drowning.

Of course, both the developed and the developing worlds should examine their unique religions in light of larger human values. There are helpful and harmful ideas in all the religions, and the trick is to weed out the good from the bad. Religious ideas that encourage dehumanization, violence, and factionalism should be reformed or diminished, while those that humanize, console, and inspire should be fostered.

@LAS: You drew fire from various circles with the Chronicle article. In his well-read science blog, Pharyngula, University of Minnesota biology professor PZ Myers wrote that your article was “narrow,” “meandering,” and had an “erroneous worldview of what a [New] Atheist is” (January 27, 2011). This drew a long, written response from you, posted on his blog, in which you wrote that part of your argument is that “religion, like art, has direct access to our emotional lives in ways that science does not.” How so?

Dr. Asma: I respect PZ Meyers and Pharyngula, but he misunderstood my argument. So I had to set him straight. As you said, my argument is that religion, like art, has direct access to our emotional lives. 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.

The new atheists are evaluating religion at the neocortical level. Their criteria for assessing it come from a view of humans as rational decision-making computers. I agree with them: Religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity. But we’re at the wrong bar. The older brain was built by natural selection for solving survival challenges, but not rational deliberation.

Emotions like fear, love, rage, or even hope and anticipation, were selected because they helped early mammals flourish. Emotions are, in many cases, quicker ways to solve problems than is deliberative cognition. Moreover, our own human emotions are retained from our animal past and represent deep homologies with other mammals.

For 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? It turns out that our cognition is always floating in a sea of emotions or affects. 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.

@LAS: Taking the question a bit further, do you believe in the argument Sam Harris presents in his most recent book, The Moral Landscape, that moral truth and human well-being can—and should—be understood in the context of science?

Dr. Asma: It depends on what we mean by science. If we mean a general commitment to experiment and rationality, then yes, I agree. Science is a non-dogmatic search for an understanding of nature, and that includes humans. So, yes, the question of how we treat each other should be studied as a natural, rather than supernatural, question. On the other hand, scientific positivism is an extreme cartoon version of science that tries to reduce human life to genetics or chemistry, and that version of science is not helpful.

@LAS: One final question on this matter. Oxford University professor Rodger Trigg recently concluded work on a three-year project he co-directed that looked at forty different studies conducted by researchers from China to Poland and Micronesia to the United States. His findings support the contention of theologians, who have long argued that humans, across time and cultures, are inherently religious. Do you agree?

Dr. Asma: I suspect that religious belief is, in part, a survival adaptation—not much different, in origin, from an opposable thumb or bipedalism. Not only does religion act as an emotional medication, but we’re also now starting to understand the cognitive inevitability of religion. All humans develop a “theory of mind” at about four years of age. There are some exceptions, such as in the case of autism. When a kid develops theory of mind, she is able to ascribe mental states to others. She begins to understand that other agents have different beliefs, desires, and information than she has.

This ability to ascribe intentions to another was a great leap forward in the social evolution of our ancestors, because it helped them predict the behaviors of other members of their tribe. Now some theorists are suggesting that our animistic religious impulses—to ascribe divine power to the thunderstorm or the volcano eruption—are just natural applications of this theory of mind ability. The brain seems wired to see other creatures as agents with intentions, and we just generalize that tendency to see invisible gods at work inside nature.

But I think the real instinctual engine of religion is emotional, and the cognitive stuff is secondary. Some of the new atheists who critique religion with the smug question, “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. Unlike a healthy theory, which must correspond to empirical facts, a “healthy emotion” might be one that contributes to lower blood pressure or other affective states that promote biological flourishing. Often an accurate belief also produces thriving, but frequently there is no such happy correlation. Mixing up these criteria, truth and usefulness, is a common category mistake that fuels a lot of the theist and atheist debate.

The tension between science and religion reflects the endless struggle between the needs of one part of the brain, the 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.

@LAS: This Fall semester, you’re teaching an Honors course called “Emotions” with Dr. Rami Gabriel. How are you approaching teaching an Honors course differently, and what can students expect from this class?

Dr. Asma: I’m very excited to start teaching in our LAS Honors Program. We’ll be pitching the course a little higher than usual, so it should be challenging but also fun. Students will be expected to contribute more to the direction and focus of our discussions, and the readings will be a bit more demanding. I find that many students respond well to rigor and high expectations, and the topic of emotions is going to prove very stimulating.

@LAS: You’ve published several books. Your latest, Against Fairness: In Favor of Favoritism (University of Chicago Press), comes out in 2012. What’s it about?

Dr. Asma: The book starts with a weird case from Confucian philosophy. The Duke of Sheh told Confucius, “In my land, there are Righteous men. If a father steals a sheep, the son will testify against him.” Confucius replied to him, “The Righteous men in my land are different from this. The father conceals the wrongs of his son, and the son conceals the wrongs of his father. This is Righteousness!”

I say this is a weird case because I think most of us recognize the tension here between our duties to our favorite people, a father in this case, and our more egalitarian duties toward impartial justice. My book explores this tension, and argues that virtues like nepotistic loyalty have suffered a bum rap in modern culture. I try to rescue the idea of nepotism—privileging one’s family—from its usual misinterpretation as “corruption.” It’s a provocative book that will probably incense both liberals and conservatives.

@LAS: What is the goal of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture, and how do you see it contributing to Columbia’s academic landscape?

Dr. Asma: The research group takes a holistic approach to the study of the human mind. Our research emphasizes the continuity across mammalian brains by focusing on the integral role of emotion in social interaction and cognition. Our goal is to create bridges connecting affective neuroscience, evolution, and philosophy of mind. For example, we recently presented at the International Cognitive Science conference on the implications of recent brain science for criminal law policy, selfidentity theory, and philosophy of biology.

Our practical purpose in establishing the Mind, Science, and Culture Research Group is to create a fertile space for research, discussion, and exploration of the mind, from its biological roots to its cultural fruits. The group emphasizes a cross-disciplinary dialogue, through independent and collaborative research, public presentations, and group publications. We won a small grant to help us create video podcasts about some of our themes, and we’re embarking on that project now. These vodcasts will eventually go out on our Web site and other new media venues. We’re also starting to look for funding opportunities to help us develop a visiting distinguished lecture series so that we can bring prominent figures to campus.

@LAS: Outside of teaching, publishing, and lecturing, you have a number interests: You travel often, you’re a professional musician, and you’re an artist. How do you balance these interests with your position as a professor in the Department of HHSS?

Dr. Asma: I’ve been fortunate to have many non-academic interests, and these keep me sane. I’ve played guitar with Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley, worked as a professional illustrator, and studied Chinese in Shanghai. My main nonacademic life is spent with my son, who reminds me to be in the present moment as much as possible. Also, one of my philosophical heroes, David Hume, recommended that intense philosophical thinking should always be punctuated by trips down to the local pub for drinks and billiards. I try to live by that.