While once an ardent critic of religion, the philosopher Stephen Asma came to a more nuanced appreciation of it as a necessary part of human life, even if he did not himself become a believer. “Such a non-conversion to ‘religion,’” Nick Spencer writes, often leads to a “patronizing exercise in religious non-defense.” Asma, however, achieves something more substantive in his book Why We Need Religion, as Spencer writes in his review:
Asma . . . views religion—his focus is primarily on Christianity and Buddhism, but much of what he says applies more widely—as natural, beneficial, humanizing, and, indeed, indispensable.
The key is the body. Why We Need Religion takes our embodied and affective nature very seriously and shows, in detail and with impressive supporting evidence, that religious commitment—beliefs, practices, rituals, etc.—help protect and manage our emotional life with unparalleled and probably irreplaceable success. Religion is, in effect, a management system for our emotional lives that helps the human organism stay healthy and well. . . .
All that being so, it seems to me to be a natural step to move (or at least to edge) from religion’s affective importance to its cognitive reliability; i.e. from the kind of goodness (or at least usefulness) of which Asma writes, to its truth.
Now, to be clear, this move need not be made. Just because something is (or can be) good, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. However, we should, at least, pause here. You can make a very strong argument that religion has played a positive role in human evolution, enabling individual and group survival, strength, and cohesion, and thereby being selected for in the evolutionary process. True, evolution selects for survival, not truth—but the two are hardly independent.