… Haidt, an atheist since his teens, argues that scientists often misunderstand religion because they home in on individuals rather than on the way faith can bind a community.
Haidt cites research showing that a fear of God may make a society more ethical and harmonious. For example, one study found that people were less likely to cheat if they were first given a puzzle that prompted thoughts of God.
Another study cited by Haidt found that of 200 communes founded in the 19th century, only 6 percent of the secular communes survived two decades, compared with 39 percent of the religious ones. Those that survived longest were those that demanded sacrifices of members, like fasting, daily prayer, abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, or adopting new forms of clothing or hairstyle.
“The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship,” Haidt writes.
No one ever argued religion wasn’t powerful. Hell, if you tell kids that Santa knows whether they’re being naughty or nice, they’ll act better, too. But the “New Atheists” are right that religion is harmful and irrational. More importantly, religious beliefs are untrue. There’s no credible evidence Jesus rose from the dead, people go to heaven and hell, that your prayers get answered, or that God talks to you.
I loved Geoff Berg‘s response at Partisan Gridlock:
Nobody disputes that religion, which is an organizing principle and a political philosophy, can unify people, and occasionally to the greater good. Every major religion can point to a charitable arm that passes out food, builds hospitals, and clothes the poor.
Religion also unifies the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the belief that burying adulterers to their necks and stoning them to death will spare the rest of society god’s wrath. It unifies members of al-Qaeda in the belief that flying planes into buildings is the execution of god’s will. It unifies leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the belief that forcing children to mutilate and murder members of their own families is a divinely ordained mission. Religious belief unifies Jewish fundamentalists in the belief that evicting families from their homes in the West Bank and taking their land is justified because the territory was deeded to them in perpetuity by the almighty.
… Is it really a scientific revelation that fear forces people to act in accordance with what they believe to be the wishes of an omnipotent, jealous, and vengeful being who condemns the non-compliant to everlasting torment if they refuse (as described by his helpful earthly proxies, of course)?
Sounds a lot like a dictatorship, which as Kim Jong Un and his late father and grandfather can attest, is a great way to keep people in line.
For what it’s worth, atheist communities have grown dramatically in the past few years. Members of those groups can tell you how great it is to be part of a like-minded community, whether it’s at a college campus ever week or at a once-a-month discussion at a coffee shop.
Religion doesn’t have a monopoly on ethics, kindness, or community.