Reply to Thagard’s view on religion and grief.

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Earlier this month, Dr. Paul Thagard published an opinion piece in Psychology Today titled, “Science and Philosophy Offer More for Grief than Religion.” In it, he critiques Stephen Asma’s New York Times article, which advanced the utility of religion in personal and societal spheres, even for the secular. Asma’s case study dealt with the way religion rescued a family, after one of the sons was brutally murdered. To Asma, “Those of us in the secular world who critique such emotional responses and strategies [as religion] with the refrain, ‘but is it true?’ are missing the point.” The point is he wants the secular to understand is that Jesus saves…even if he doesn’t exist.

Thagard’s view is that religion is false comfort, and that science (and philosophy) can do better. He begins by outlining four major problems with Asma’s view:

  • “It depends on a view of how emotion works in the brain that has been rendered obsolete by advances in neuroscience.”
  • It underestimates how much science can help to understand the nature of grief and to point to ways of overcoming it.
  • It overestimates the consoling power of religion.
  • Finally, it neglects how science can collaborate with philosophy to suggest ways of dealing with grief.

Perhaps Asma’s understanding of the science of psychology and neuroscience is obsolete. I’m not in a position to affirm or dismiss the claim. Notice that Thagard’s second complaint seems to miss the target. Understanding how something works does not, in itself, provide power over its workings. More importantly, what Thagard misses here is the possibility that science might demonstrate religion to have great efficacy in helping individuals deal with loss and grief. That is, there is no reason to think that science and religion are mutually exclusive items. This is a false dichotomy.

The third claim is never actually supported in Thagard’s article (nor have I seen it elsewhere). To the contrary, I’ve not seen a study in which anything has been shown to be more effective than religion (faith) in dealing with the trials of life. I offer some scientific literature to this effect below. So, the third concern is simply an unsupported charge. It’s not that religion fails to rescue believers, but that Thagard feels the rescue is false hope. I also discuss below just how false the hope from secularism is.

The fourth complaint he advances sounds exactly like his second one, with the addition of philosophy. One might ask how science and philosophy differ on Thagard’s view. Philosophy often deals with abstract notions and objects, things beyond the material world. A thought or idea has no mass, volume or charge. Meaning, morality, even sense of autonomy and self, are simply not evidenced (or even approachable) by science. In fact, they are housed within that area of study Thagard finds anathema (metaphysics) and are the stuff of religion. Thagard wants to pilfer these into his secular elixir. He flatly writes, “philosophy that builds on science can help people to see that life can remain meaningful and morally valuable, even in the face of grief.” But, his own views disbar him from such things.

So what of the details of Thagard’s view? He wants to argue that, “science can suggest ways of dealing with grief without buying into the metaphysics of religion.” Thagard opens up, and tells us that he lost his wife to cancer when she was still quite young. This tragedy seems to have colored his ability to consider the utility of religion in dealing with grief. But what is his understanding of God?

“Religious people often react to horrible events by proclaiming ‘it’s God’s will,’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’. But what could possibly be God’s motivation for depriving a mother of her young son? The Christian God is supposed to be all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. But the constant onslaught of personal and public disaster in the world strongly suggests that any existing gods are malevolent or incompetent or both. What consolation is that?”

Notice that Thagard is offering the New Atheist version of God, and not really interacting with the views (or arguments in favor of) the God believers worship. He has resurrected an oft-used, but utterly refuted, argument against the existence of God; If God is all-powerful and all-good, evil should not exist. Evil exists, therefore God is either not all-powerful or He is not all-good. Again, this argument has been cutoff at the knees for more than a century. At some level, most Christians do agree with the view that all things are “God’s will.” But when we say this, most do not mean that He desired tragedy or suffering for an individual. Rather, we likely mean that God favors the freedom and autonomy of his created beings, and thus allows both good and evil to happen in a creation corrupted by sin.

Thagard also seems to be suggesting that it is God directly acting to take away a woman’s son. God didn’t do it, nor did He want one man to stab another. What Thagard is offering is a straw man version of God. And what is his alternative to “everything happens for a reason”? That everything happens for no reason (on atheism). What consolation is that? (It’s also worth noting that Thagard has pilfered in the moral notion that death, suffering and murder are ‘evil’ and therefor wrong. His science certainly won’t support this claim. To rescue it, his philosophy will have to go where religion already sits.)

Sadly, Thagard never acknowledges this most critical power provided by religion. He writes, “Asma rightly suggests that one of the benefits of religion is that it provides a means of social support through religious rituals such as funerals. But there are many secular alternatives, including celebrations of life and social memorials that can occur without religious trappings.” But this misses the real thrust of Asma’s case (and what any serious “scientific” mind would engage): Stephen Asma claims,

“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… [the mother] would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife where she was certain his body would be made whole…[this] gave her strength to continue raising her other two children.”

I don’t think there can be any doubt that this omission by Thagard was not accidental. The eternal mercy, justice and salvation represent the real lifeblood and vitality of faith, and they are things no secular alternative can supply.

Sadly, my suspicion is that Thagard remains bitter at a God he doesn’t believe in. His suggestions as to how the secular should cope with grief leave much to be desired. He first suggests that, “Coping by repressing emotions is sometimes effective.” He then adds that, “people’s lives can retain meaning through pursuit of satisfaction of their vital needs,” which he identifies as relatedness, competence, and autonomy.

“Distraught people can recognize that the loss in relatedness that bereavement brings can be compensated for by other relationships…the need for competence can still be satisfied by work and other forms of achievement, and autonomy persists as long as people retain the capacity to direct their own lives.”

All three of these are distractions that enable repression. But, the last (autonomy) is actually off limits given Thagard’s atheism; if our conscious lives are just molecules in motion, there is no autonomy, mind or free will. As Sam Harris has put it, we are nothing more than “phenomenological glockenspiels. . . The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain.” As Francis Crick put it, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Thus, Thagard once again must pilfer in non-scientific metaphysics to even power his prescribed alternatives to religion!

If we actually spend some time in the science of psychology and its interface with religion, we find some things that run quite counter to Thagard’s thesis. One of the well-demonstrated facts is that religion works. Consider a recent study by David B. Newman and colleagues, which curiously reported that political conservatives have a greater sense of meaning to life than their liberal counterparts. This pattern exists across sixteen developed nations. Newman et al. also referenced several studies suggesting that conservatives report greater “life satisfaction” and other measures of well-being. The real headline in the study was that religiosity was a much better predictor of participants’ sense of meaning in life. As they explained,

“Because conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals (Feldman & Johnston, 2014), and because religiosity is a strong predictor of meaning in life (e.g., Steger & Frazier, 2005), we statistically adjusted for levels of religiosity in each study to determine the unique predictive effect of political orientation on meaning in life.”

John G. Messerly (a former professor at the University of Texas, and author of a book titled The Meaning of Life) admitted that, “The question of the meaning of life is the most fundamental question of human existence.”

Thagard’s view is based on a secularism that sees no overarching purpose to the existence of the universe, let alone little hominids bound to one small speck (our “pale blue dot”). It follows that the overwhelming external (objective) evidence is that life is absurd. This phrasing has actually been incredibly popular among the secular cognoscenti. This is the central position of existentialists, as illustrated in Camus’s famous comment, “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning.” For the famed physicist Steven Wienberg “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” Or, we could get the same line from Richard Feynman: “The great accumulation of understanding as to how the physical world behaves only convinces one that this behavior has a kind of meaninglessness about it.” Rivka Weinberg (a professor of philosophy at Scripps College) recently conceded in the New York Times that, “The absurdity of human life poses a challenge to its meaning. Absurdity and meaningfulness don’t go together.” This problem is well understood. The philosopher (and atheist) Thomas Nagel has written,

“In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality. . . . The sense that life as a whole is absurd arises when we perceive, perhaps dimly, an inflated pretension or aspiration which is inseparable from the continuation of human life and which makes its absurdity inescapable, short of escape from life itself.”

The view that, “Life is short.  Life is meaningless. Life is delicious. Grab a spoon,” will never be a satisfactory grounding for our lives. The secular program of modernist thought has had more than a century to offer its replacement for conventional religion (some would say they’ve been trying since the period of Enlightenment). We have more “knowledge” than at any other point in human history, and yet the people have never been so confused. Those living in developed nations are more comfortable than they ever have been, and yet we comprise a “Prozac nation,” where mental illness and disillusionment have never been higher. Whereas Marx once called religion the opiate of the masses, atheists now routinely advise the unbelieving seek opiates in coping with reality. I’m not making this up. Leading physicist (and atheist) Alex Rosenberg suggests that we deal with the reality of life by “Tak[ing] a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them till they kick in.” This would be a joke if not echoed sincerely by atheist philosopher Philip Kitcher:

“Fear [of death] can be directed not toward the state itself, but at the process of dying. . . . Support need not—probably should not—come from religion but from humane deployment of medical resources. . . . Fear of being dead is misplaced, fear of decaying and dying belongs to the anxieties of life, to be addressed with sympathy by whatever techniques of amelioration medical practice can provide.”

Responding to Marx’s claim that religion “is the opiate of the people,” Asma writes,

“If the 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.”

His point is that the atheist is just as in need of an opiate as those who find comfort in faith. Moreover, faith seems to work better. The tried and true, “road-tested” belief in God works. That is, if we’re really interested in the pragmatic efficacy of worldviews in powering a state of well-being, belief in God works, even if you don’t think God exists.

It turns out that atheists like Thagard, while wanting to claim the rational high ground, are often driven by emotion, and the very science they worship has demonstrated this. The average atheist/agnostic believes (s)he has come to doubt the existence of God for purely objective reasons. But, numerous surveys and studies have demonstrated the source of this doubt—and subsequent rejection of God—is very often emotional. In one recent study, Bradley and colleagues asked non-believers to imagine a hypothetical god, and then describe that god’s characteristics. One of the striking dichotomies the researchers observed was that,

“Despite the fact that most people who believe in gods believe in a god that is primarily loving (Exline, Grubbs, et al. 2015), many popular books written from a nonbelief perspective argue that the dominant conception of God in Western culture is truly cruel rather than loving (e.g., Dawkins 2006; Hitchens 2007).”

That is, the efforts of the so-called New Atheists to recast religion (namely, Christianity) as the irrational worship of a moral monster have succeeded in completely distorting public perceptions of faith in God. These atheists have offered a rendering of God that in no way matches what believers understand of the God they worship. In the Bradley et al. study, “a plurality of participants” used this skewed view of God to form their own hypothetical god (as opposed to drawing from the past or personal images of God). In fact, participants that used a past (historical) rendering of God were significantly more likely to see their hypothetical god as loving, not cruel or distant. Conversely, those using these popular renderings of God to form their own were statistically more likely to see their god as cruel. Another interesting aspect of the study was that it contrasted personality profiles of the participants with the characteristics they assigned to their hypothetical god. Parsing through the results presented in the study, “agreeableness” of the participants was strongly statistically correlated with hypothetical gods that were loving, but was strongly negatively correlated with those seeing gods as cruel and/or distant. Participants with healthy “secure” attachment profiles were negatively correlated with cruel hypothetical gods, while those with “dismissive attachments” were negatively correlated with loving gods.

In the end, what can we say of Thagard’s article other than it entirely ignores the true power of faith, dismissing even the science that supports the efficacy of religion in helping individuals cope and find a greater sense of well-being. While I don’t really want to psychoanalyze the man, it seems fairly apparent that he carries with him repressed bitterness and rejection due to his own experience of loss. His worldview has been deeply tainted by a view of God that is wholly inconsistent with the God believers actually worship. The reason I have targeted him in this blog is that we must begin 1) to see when emotional and intellectually dishonest rhetoric is being sold as “scientific” thinking and 2) to make the positive case for the pragmatic utility of religion. Beyond the evidence in favor of holding religious views will soften skeptics to a point where they might actually ask if they’re true. Pray for and love Thagard, and do not see him as the enemy. It is not the man, but his ideas, that are to be rejected.


*as with all of my blogs, I speak for only myself, and in no way represent the views or opinions of Waynesburg University or any other affiliated entity.

*correction (7/27/18). Dr. Messerly contacted me, and made me aware of a place in which I misquoted him. I had originally attributed the statement “the faithful have a place—perhaps wrongly placed, but a place nonetheless—to ground meaning, and then sites several forms of atheism that do not.” I gleaned this from a set of notes I had developed in reading Messerly (and many others in the industry). Upon reviewing those notes, I could not track down the origin of this quotation, and Dr. Messerly assures me that he said no such thing. I apologize for wrongly attributing the statement to him, and have removed it from the post.


2 thoughts on “Reply to Thagard’s view on religion and grief.”

  1. This is Dr. John Messerly. You quote me incorrectly in your blog. While the first sentence you attribute to me is mine, the second is not and I have never written such a sentence nor anything remotely like it. It is the opposite of what I believe. I would appreciate if you would delete it. JGM


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