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."

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