Stephen Asma: understanding animism’s appeal

In a recent post, I reported research that using Western subjects for cognitive behaviour studies might not generate conclusions which could be applied accurately to people of other cultures, with other experiences.

A similar concern underlies Stephen Asma’s claim that Western neo-Atheists, particulary the so-called “Four Horsemen” — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens — undervalue non-monotheistic religions like Buddhism and animism because these writers overstate the importance of empirical reason and undervalue the emotional comforts religions offer to people whose third-world lives consist of experiences unsuited for Western ways of thinking. Writing in the Chronicle Review, Asma states:

I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate how re­li­gion func­tions quite dif­fer­ent­ly in the de­vel­op­ing world—where the ma­jor­ity of be­liev­ers ac­tu­al­ly live. The Four Horse­men, their fans, and their en­e­mies all fail to fac­tor in their own pros­per­i­ty when they think a­bout the uses and a­buses of re­li­gion.

Asma thus takes the standard postmodernist view that Western rationalism is but one belief system among many — and not always the most likely or reasonable approach to one’s life experiences. Even if one grants him much of this point, treating religion as one way of interpreting reality, Asma doesn’t stop when the stopping’s good. He turns to animism, the belief that we share the world with countless benign and malign spirits, and makes a claim that, to make any sense at all, requires a torturous twisting of the ordinary definitions of several key words:

Con­trary to the progress-based sto­ry the West tells it­self, an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one’s dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and ra­tional as West­ern science, if we take a clos­er look at life in the de­vel­op­ing world.

The key words which Asma redefines are, of course, “empirical” and “rational.” His main argument is that the experiences of many third-world people are dominated not by the kinds of structured and linear systems familiar in the West but rather by capricious and random occurrences which are outside personal control:

Con­sid­er an­i­mism in con­text. An in­di­rect way to see the geo­graph­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion of an­i­mism is to look at the UN’s map of the Hu­man Development Index—a com­pos­ite statistic for each coun­try that con­tains data on per-cap­i­ta GDP, life ex­pec­tan­cy, and edu­ca­tion. There is a strik­ing cor­re­la­tion be­tween an­i­mism and the indexes for coun­tries designated “de­vel­op­ing” and “un­der­de­vel­oped.”

it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the dai­ly lives of peo­ple in the de­vel­op­ing world are not filled with the kinds of in­de­pend­ence, pre­dict­a­bil­i­ty, and free­dom that we in the de­vel­oped world en­joy. You do not often choose your spouse, your work, your num­ber of chil­dren—in fact, you don’t choose much of any­thing when you are very poor and tied to the sur­viv­al of your fam­ily.

In the de­vel­op­ing world, an­i­mism lit­er­al­ly makes more sense. The new atheists … have failed to no­tice that their me­chan­istic view of nature is in part a prod­uct (as well as a cause) of pros­per­i­ty and sta­bil­ity.

While it may be true that people with little experience of material success or control over their lives will be less likely to appreciate and incorporate a world view in which things are ordered and sensible, it doesn’t make sense to claim that this different view is therefore “empirical” or “rational.” Things aren’t “empirical” simply because we can observe their practice, nor are they “rational” merely because they can be understood. Making sense as Asma’s uses the term is not in any way “rational.” Asma’s point is weakened by this sloppy use of language.

He does much better when he moves from an attempt to “match up” the non-rational with the rational to the argument that there’s more to us than the rational functions of our cognitive faculties. Asma writes with greater clarity and to better effect when he highlights the different components and different processes of our complex brains. Cerebral thought is combined with limbic emotions, and Asma argues that what satisfies the one — reason, and its offspring science and logic — doesn’t satisfy the other — fear, anger, wonder, love and the rest. Understanding that thought and feeling have different origins and different needs, Asma says, should cut religion more slack than those with a cerebral bias are willing to give. Take the destructive dogmas out of religion, Asma writes (he is a self-described agnostic, and a self-described non-doctrinal Buddhist), but acknowledge and celebrate its power to soothe and comfort. Reason won’t comfort a grieving parent, Asma writes, but religion can, and that part of it he wants the neo-Atheists to accept:

But I’d advance a much more rad­i­cal ar­gu­ment as well. Not only should the more rational and therapeutic elements be distilled from the opi­ate of re­li­gion. But the wacky, su­per­sti­tious, cloud-cuck­oo-land forms of re­li­gion, too, should be cherished and preserved, for those forms of religion some­times do great good for our emo­tion­al lives, even when they com­pro­mise our more-rational lives.

Asma is not arguing for religion, he strives to make very clear. He is arguing that as one rises above one’s own Western, monotheistic or atheistic, rational biases, the value of religion as an emotional stabilizer becomes more understandable:

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.

Asma’s is a carefully-balanced approach — but one that will surely displease many theists, who won’t like its characterization of religion as a response to limbic needs rather than as an expression of a separately-existing supernatural reality; and one that will just as surely displease many atheists, who will interpret its sympathy for religion’s positive emotional functionality as an unacceptable breach in the lines of reason’s assault on superstition.

I’m certainly in the second doctrinal camp, but I appreciate Asma’s attempt to tease out the appeal of religion from claims for its truth. Too bad not everyone who writes on these subjects is as willing to apply Asma’s delicate touch.