No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of crime. But the magical thinking that she is going to see her murdered son again, along with the hugs from and songs with fellow parishioners, can sustain her. If this emotionally grounded hope gives her the energy and vitality to continue caring for her other children, it can do the same for others. And we can see why religion persists.
Those of us in the secular world who critique such emotional responses and strategies with the refrain, “But is it true?” are missing the point. 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. 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 are not the criteria for measuring a healthy emotion. Unlike a healthy theory, which must correspond with empirical facts, a healthy emotion is one that contributes to neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing.
Finally, we need a word or two about opiates. The modern condemnation of religion has followed the Marxian rebuke that religion is an opiate administered indirectly by state power in order to secure a docile populace — one that accepts poverty and political powerlessness, in hopes of posthumous supernatural rewards. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature,” Marx claimed, “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Marx, Mao and even Malcolm X leveled this critique against traditional religion, and the critique lives on as a disdainful last insult to be hurled at the believer. I hurled it myself many times, thinking that it was a decisive weapon. In recent years, however, I’ve changed my mind about this criticism.
First, religion is energizing as often as it is anesthetizing. As often as it numbs or sedates, religion also riles up and invigorates the believer. This animating quality of religion can make it more hazardous to the state than it is tranquilizing, and it also inspires a lot of altruistic philanthropy.
Second, what’s so bad about pain relief anyway? If my view of religion is primarily therapeutic, I can hardly despair when some of that therapy takes the form of palliative pain management. If atheists think it’s enough to dismiss the believer on the grounds that he should never buffer the pains of life, then I’ll assume the atheist has no recourse to any pain management in his own life. In which case, I envy his remarkably good fortune.
For the rest of us, there is aspirin, alcohol, religion, hobbies, work, love, friendship. After all, opioids — like endorphins — are innate chemical ingredients in the human brain and body, and they evolved, in part, to occasionally relieve the organism from misery. To quote the well-known phrase by the German humorist Wilhelm Busch, “He who has cares has brandy, too.”
We need a more clear-eyed appreciation of the role of cultural analgesics. It is not enough to dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee. Religion is the most powerful cultural response to the universal emotional life that connects us all.