Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:
One thing that religions typically do — although certainly not the only one — is to make claims about how the world works. How important are those claims to what religion really is, and how we should think about it?
PZ Myers has posted a very interesting letter from Stephen Asma that talks about this issue. Asma earlier wrote a critique of New Atheism in the Chronicle of Higher Education, to which PZ responded, but I think the new letter is more interesting than the previous salvos. Russell Blackford has also chimed in.
This is a very healthy discussion to be having — moving a bit beyond the caricatures of atheism by believers, and of religion by atheists. Much of what Asma says I find quite persuasive. The crux is something like this:
My argument is that religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives. And while it doesn’t do very much for me and other skeptics (I prefer art), I would be very inattentive if I failed to notice how much relief and comfort it gave to other people.
Asma wants to consider the aspects of religion that are closer to those of art or literature than those of science. There’s no question that religions have beneficial effects along with their bad ones. If we’re being rational about it, we should try to understand how those effects work, even if our only agenda is to find some sort of acceptable substitute.