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Marked with a cross of black ash on her forehead, a Catholics woman prays during an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle February 22, 2012 in Washington, DC. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the 40-day penitential period before Easter when Christians celebrate Christ's resurrection from the dead. One of seven Ash Wednesday services at the cathedral, the noontime mass was packed with worshippers, leaving many to stand in the back and the aisles of St. Matthew.
The last decade has seen a preponderance of scientists and intellectuals arguing that we'd be better off without religion, but a different group of scholars wants to know whether religion is as much a part of human survival as binocular vision and bipedalism.
Contrary to voices like the late Christopher Hitchens, who asserted that religion “poisons everything,” and biologist Richard Dawkins, who equates the tendency towards religious belief with the suicidal impulses of a moth, these scientists believe that those who argue religion has a negative overall effect just don’t have the evidence to support their claims.
"I think that religion basically was instrumental in getting large-scale societies in place in the first place," said anthropologist Scott Atran on the Patt Morrison program. "Religion provides a sort of transcendental reason for societies to hold themselves together and gives a purpose, a meaning in life that's greater than one's self. But in modern times there are other ways to do this."
Under the loose identification of “evolutionary religious studies,” Atran and his colleagues point to research that indicates societies are actually more successful when religion is present: people are more generous, commit less crime, and are considered more empathetic.
Although there's no hard evidence that stone-age societies believed in deities similar to the gods people worship today, there is still evidence that ritual and religion became important as societies developed.
"If you look at the formation of states in Mesoamerica, in Mesopotamia and in China beginning about 7,000 years ago, proto-states, you find an increase in investment in ritual forms. Just take something like pyramids that require an incredible amount of labor, seemingly for nothing except to house dead bones, and quite significant evidence of ritual sacrifice, and the beginning of high moral gods," said Atran. "Gods who are like big brothers out there who see everything even when nobody else is watching...So, beginning at least with proto-state formation there's clear evidence the religious rituals and religious ideologies were holding these great states together."
But is religion necessary to hold together modern societies? Some say no.
"Our country really is the first experiment in that, that it doesn't matter what religion you are… here's the rules and if you don't obey them we're going to have justice now, not in the next life… basing the rules on reason and logic and rationality and science, so although religion got a head start by thousands of years over the Enlightenment thinkers of reason and science, there's a better way to do it and I think that's what we're seeing unfold now," said Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine.
"The propensity for Americans to want to have religion embedded in their politics is just a reflection of those ancient tribal impulses," continued Shermer. "Politics and religion have always been mixed, so it's an uphill battle to say no, keep religion out of it. It's hard for people to want to do that, especially when they're in the dominant religion."
Is too much of the blame for society’s ills being placed on religion? What is the argument for the necessity of religion from an evolutionary standpoint? Is most of the country actually more tolerant when it comes to the value of belief than the media portrays?
Scott Atran, anthropologist ; author of “In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion” and “Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to Be Human”
Michael Shermer, founding publisher, Skeptic magazine; monthly columnist for Scientific American; author of “How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God”