Stephen T. Asma

Lots of news stories linked to this one: Does modern science rule out religious faith?

Lots of news stories linked to this one: Does modern science rule out religious faith?

THE QUESTION above, in the headline, and current developments depicted below, involve skeptics’ long-running assertion that modern science makes religion outmoded and it should be discarded as irrational.

Is faith still credible in our scientific age? How do devout scientists view this supposed “war” between science and religion?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Gary Saul Morson, a Russia expert at Northwestern University, offers an important analysis of why the purportedly “scientific” — and horridly bloodthirsty — Soviet regime worked zealously to exterminate all religion (see the October issue of Commentary Magazine). But here The Guy will bypass political atheism’s track record.

Nor will this item survey the continual scientific and anecdotal evidence that religious involvement fosters physical and emotional well-being and positive life outcomes. Philosophy professor Stephen Asma, for one, hails these benefits even though he’s an agnostic bordering on atheism (see “Religion Q & A” for August 11).

Instead, The Guy focuses first on new research by British scholars Michael Buhrmester at the University of Oxford, Jonathan Lanman at Queen’s University, Lois Lee at the University of Kent, Valerie van Mulukom at Coventry University, and Anna Strhan and Rachael Shillitoe at the University of York.

Lee, who studies why youths become atheists, says non-believers usually think this results strictly from rational inquiry. But “science increasingly shows that atheists are no more rational than theists,” and thinking otherwise is unscientific — indeed “irrational”! She finds that people on both sides of the God divide are shaped similarly by environmental influences like group-think, charismatic individuals, and how their parents raised them.

Atheistic parents pass on their outlook like religious believers do, more through shared culture than rational arguments, she reports. Non-religious parents often say children should choose for themselves but inevitably convey attitudes about religion. Not surprisingly, 95 percent of children from atheistic homes “choose” atheism.

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Not all religions are the same, you know: Can a faith be good if it’s not true?

Not all religions are the same, you know: Can a faith be good if it’s not true?

THE QUESTION:

Are various religions good for individuals and for society even if, as skeptics contend, their beliefs are not really true?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Time for a skepticism update. Never before in history has there been such a concerted effort to question the value of religious faith like we now see across the West’s free societies (as distinct from artificially enforced atheism under Communist tyrannies).

For instance, the common conviction that religion is important for shaping youngsters’ morals is questioned in a recent qz.com article by Annabelle Timsit, a writer on early childhood. “Parents who decide to raise their kids without a religion shouldn’t worry,” she assures us. “Studies have shown that there is no moral difference between children who are raised as religious and those raised secular or non-believing. Moral intuitions arise on their own in children.”

Admittedly, terrorism by Muslim cults raises doubts about the moral credibility of religion in general. Yet even Timsit acknowledges there are “well-documented” potential benefits from religiosity, such as “less drug, alcohol, and tobacco use; lower rates of depression and suicide; better sleep quality; and greater hopefulness and life satisfaction.” Faith also provides a “buffer” against stress and trauma, she says, not to mention fostering “better test scores” for students.

Stephen T. Asma, philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago, takes a similar stance. The above question is The Religion Guy’s blunt distillation of the intriguing scenario in his new book “Why We Need Religion” (Oxford University Press). He summarized it in a June 3 nytimes.com opinion piece “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).”

Say that again: “We need religion.”


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