Science and Philosophy Offer More for Grief than Religion

Bereavement is horrible, but religion is false comfort.

Posted Jul 16, 2018

In a recent New York Times column, Stephen T. Asma claims that religion can help people to deal with grief much better than science can. His case for religion over science has four flaws. 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.

Public domain.
Edvard Munch, The Scream.
Source: Public domain.

Asma tells the heartbreaking story of the murder of a teenager and its devastating effect on his mother, brother, and sister. I know how overwhelming grief can be, having lost two parents and a beloved wife who died young of cancer. But Asma’s reasons for looking to religion as consolation are not convincing. 

He claims that science can only reach the recently evolved rational part of the brain, the neocortex, whereas religion can access the older emotional part of the brain, the limbic system. This view of the brain as sharply divided between cognitive and emotional systems has been overthrown by decades of research. Brain scanning and other methods find enormous integration between the prefrontal cortex and parts of the limbic system such as the amygdala. Luiz Pessoa’s book,The Cognitive-Emotional Brain, thoroughly reviews the effects of the amygdala and other parts of the limbic system on many kinds of perception, cognition, and motivation. These cortical functions also affect the amygdala, so science with its evidence-based approach to theory and rationality can influence emotions by helping people to evaluate the situations that generate emotions. Understanding grief can help people to recover from it. 

There is good scientific research on grief that can help people understand its process and prospects. For example, Ruth Davis Konigsberg's The Truth about Grief cites studies that most people substantially recover from the horrors of grief within about 18 months. For those who have greater difficulty, there are psychotherapists who are skilled at helping people deal with underlying emotional problems. There is no scientific backing for the famous five-stage model of grief based on denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Coping by repressing emotions is sometimes effective. So science can suggest ways of dealing with grief without buying into the metaphysics of religion.

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 disasters in the world strongly suggests that any existing gods are malevolent or incompetent or both. What consolation is there in that?

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

Missing in Asmas's discussion is the important role that philosophy can play in connecting science with people's personal lives. In the depths of grief, it becomes hard for people to see how life can remain meaningful despite the huge loss that they have suffered. Science does not directly address normative questions concerning right, wrong, and the meaning of life, but philosophy can deal with these questions in ways that are well informed by scientific findings.

For example, people's lives can retain meaning through pursuit of satisfaction of their vital needs, which are much more fundamental than transient wants. Extensive psychological research, summarized in Richard Ryan and Edward  Deci’s book, Self-Determination Theory, identifies three basic human needs, for relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Distraught people can recognize that the loss in relatedness that bereavement brings can be compensated for by other relationships, including friends and other family members. 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. So philosophy that builds on science can help people to see that life can remain meaningful and morally valuable, even in the face of grief.

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