by Zoe Pollock
Stephen T. Asma argues that the developing world needs religion, and specifically animism:
The belief that nature is loaded with invisible spirits that live in local flora, fauna, and environmental landmarks is generally characterized by Westerners as "primitive" and highly irrational. Even religious devotees of monotheism in the developed West look down their noses at animism. Animism is the Rodney Dangerfield of religions. But most of the world is made up of animists. The West is naïve when it imagines that the major options are monotheistic. In actual numbers and geographic spread, belief in nature spirits trounces the One-Godders. Almost all of Africa, Southeast Asia, rural China, Tibet, Japan, rural Central and South America, indigenous Pacific Islandspretty much everywhere except Western Europe, the Middle East, and North Americais dominated by animistic beliefs. ...
Contrary to the progress-based story the West tells itself, animistic explanations of one's daily experience may be every bit as empirical and rational as Western science, if we take a closer look at life in the developing world.
Religion, even the wacky, superstitious stuff, is an analgesic survival mechanism and sanctuary in the developing world. Religion provides some order, coherence, respite, peace, and traction against the fates. Perhaps most important, it quells the emotional distress of human vulnerability. I'm an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation, but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously. I'm not naïveI don't think it did a damn thing to heal him. But when people have their backs against the wall, when they are truly helpless and hopeless, then groveling and negotiating with anything more powerful than themselves is a very human response. It is a response that will not go away, and that should not go away if it provides some genuine relief for anxiety and agony. As Roger Scruton says, "The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation."
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.