WHY WE NEED RE­LI­GION

Foreword Reviews - - Spotlight Religion Books—nonfiction - JEFF FLEISCHER

Stephen T. Asma, Ox­ford Univer­sity Press (JUNE) Hard­cover $29.95 (272pp), 978-0-19-046967-2

Stephen T. Asma’s Why We Need Re­li­gion de­scribes it­self as “a Dar­winian de­fense of reli­gious emo­tions and the cul­tural sys­tems that man­age them,” and that’s an ac­cu­rate as­sess­ment. The book is less an en­dorse­ment of re­li­gion than a study of the role it plays in the hu­man mind.

Asma is a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor by trade, and the book works as a philo­soph­i­cal ex­er­cise. He kicks things off with a visit to the in­fa­mous cre­ation­ist mu­seum in Ken­tucky, which de­picts hu­mans rid­ing di­nosaurs and con­cocts the­o­ries for how Noah fit them on the ark. While point­ing out that these ideas are ob­vi­ously in­cor­rect, Asma tries to ex­plain the faulty rea­son­ing be­hind them and why cre­ation­ists are not swayed by sci­en­tific proof. He uses this as a jumping-off point to look at other, less ex­treme ex­am­ples of how peo­ple process reli­gious in­for­ma­tion.

In the most com­pelling analy­ses, Asma is writ­ing less about re­li­gion specif­i­cally and more about emo­tional adap­ta­tions. He takes an in­ter­est­ing look at grief, in­clud­ing the ways that non­hu­man mam­mals re­act to death or to their off­spring be­ing taken away. Asma then de­tails how hu­mans have created reli­gious (and even tra­di­tional but non­re­li­gious) cer­e­monies as a way of cop­ing with that grief—an emo­tional cathar­sis that doesn’t ac­tu­ally af­fect the out­come of death. He also ex­plores lust and how reli­gious and tra­di­tional mores have helped hu­mans chan­nel it dif­fer­ently than other mam­mals do.

In these ways and oth­ers, Asma posits that re­li­gion as a con­cept has played a cen­tral role in so­cial co­he­sion, mak­ing it a key piece of civ­i­liza­tion and an im­por­tant step in the evo­lu­tion of hu­man con­scious­ness. He makes an in­ter­est­ing ar­gu­ment, and Why We Need Re­li­gion raises a num­ber of en­gag­ing ques­tions about why mankind created its gods.

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