Former Atheist Explains How Rationality, Not Emotion, Encourages Religious Belief

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I recently ran across an interview with author Stephen Asma in The Irish Times. Although an atheist, Asma is a rather unique atheist because he believes religion is necessary, a fact evidenced in his recent book Why We Need Religion.

According to Asma, a philosophy professor, religion does not make sense rationally, but it makes a lot of sense emotionally:


“Of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, he says: 'I agree with them that religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity, but we're at the wrong bar.; Religion is not necessarily meant to be true, he argues, but it's meant to be useful. 'Religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives' and especially cope with pain.

Asma goes on to say,


"'Rationality cannot do the heavy lifting that is required in the face of devastating loss. What is needed is positive emotion and pain-reduction - in a word, religion.'"

At first blush, such an admission seems like a backhanded compliment - a recognition that religion is a useful and needful element. On second thought, Asma's comment seems simply to echo Karl Marx's famous statement that religion is the opium of the people.

But one of modern history’s most famous former atheists would disagree with such a thought. In fact, he would likely say the exact opposite, namely, that religion is not an emotional exercise, but a heavily rational one.

Such is the case outlined by C.S. Lewis in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Tracing his journey from atheist to theist and finally to a Christian, Lewis sets forth several incidents which caused him to rethink his anti-religious stance.

One of these incidents was a comment by “the hardest boiled of all the atheists” Lewis ever knew. Despite his rejection of Christianity, Lewis’ friend couldn’t help but ponder the evidence and exclaim, “‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum [odd] thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’”

This statement got Lewis thinking, and in turning to “the intellect and the conscience,” Lewis pulled together pieces of his Pagan cultural literacy and his recognition of history and philosophy and was forced to recognize that the rational evidence lay much more in line with Christianity than with atheistic beliefs. In pondering the Incarnation, Lewis concluded:

“Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not ‘a religion’, nor ‘a philosophy’. It is the summing up and actuality of them all.”

Thus, great thought laid the groundwork for C.S. Lewis’ eventual conversion to Christianity. Yet, when it came down to the actual decision, Lewis surprisingly admits that emotional feelings did not play a role. Instead, Lewis seems to have experienced a simple awakening:

“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. ‘Emotional’ is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. And it was, like that moment on top of the bus, ambiguous. Freedom, or necessity? Or do they differ at their maximum? At that maximum a man is what he does; there is nothing of him left over or outside the act. As for what we commonly call Will, and what we commonly call Emotion, I fancy these usually talk too loud, protest too much, to be quite believed, and we have a secret suspicion that the great passion or the iron resolution is partly a put-up job.

Today’s atheists insist that religion and Christianity are necessary because they provide the emotional crutch for difficult times. But Lewis’ journey provides a different picture. Who do you think is right?

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