Many religious people believe that faith in God (or some other divine entity) makes for a better society -- more moral, law-abiding, productive, and so on.
Well, like lots of beliefs, this one is highly questionable. In a recent issue of Newsweek, Sharon Begley wrote in her "(Un)wired for God" article:
In brief, the number of American non-believers has doubled since 1990, a 2008 Pew survey found, and increased even more in some other advanced democracies. What's curious is not so much the overall decline of belief (which has caused the Vatican to lament the de-Christianization of Europe) as the pattern.
In a paper last month in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology, Gregory Paul finds that countries with the lowest rates of social dysfunction—based on 25 measures, including rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, unemployment, and poverty—have become the most secular. Those with the most dysfunction, such as Portugal and the U.S., are the most religious, as measured by self-professed belief, church attendance, habits of prayer, and the like.
The exact cause and effect relationship isn't known. Does religion lead to social dysfunction, or does a higher rate of social dysfunction lead to more people turning to religion?
I lean toward the latter hypothesis.
It makes sense that if someone is living in a society where life is uncertain and difficult, embracing religious dogma would offer a sense of security in an otherwise insecure world.
This morning I finished Robert Wright's "From Polytheism to Monolatry" chapter in his book, The Evolution of God.
His overall thesis is that there is no evidence that the God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism exists as an objective reality. But there is plenty of evidence for the evolution of the idea of God in human history.
The Israelites, for example, moved from polytheism (many gods, essentially equal), to monolatry (many gods, but one favored), to monotheism (only one god).
Most Christians and Jews seem to think that a revelation of One True God popped into the heads of prophets straight from a divine source. But Wright persuasively shows that political and social factors had a strong influence on Israel's movement from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism.
Even before the Yahweh-alonists had triumphed, Yahweh was the divine focus of king and court, the master of state affairs. If there was any single god you could get the king to tie his fate to, it was Yahweh.
...In ancient Israel some of the king's most important advisers were prophets. Their advice emanated from the divine. If they argued for or against launching a war, they didn't just talk about enemy troop levels; they talked about Yahweh's will, which they'd fathomed firsthand, perhaps by actually watching the divine council in action.
...In short, supernatural pluralism was an enemy of royal power. If every prophet of every god went around broadcasting divine decrees, and every clan in Israel consulted the spirit of its most revered ancestor on policy matters, the king would have trouble staying on message.
...One of the most reliable laws of political science is the "rally-round-the-flag" effect. When a nation faces a crisis, whether the outbreak of war or a shocking terrorist attack, support for the nation's leader grows. In ancient times -- before separation of church and state, back when a nation's ultimate political and military leader was a god -- this rule presumably worked at the level of divine allegiance.
...From the earliest times of Israelite history, Yahweh had been the god of foreign affairs, the god who could authorize and guide his people through it (or, instead, could counsel restraint); he was the commander-in-chief god. So Yahweh would naturally draw popular allegiance from international turmoil. And because divine devotion is a finite resource, some of this attention would naturally come at the expense of other gods, including those with domestic pedigrees.
So it seems that Sharon Begley and Robert Wright are pointing toward the same phenomenon: whether in ancient times, or today, people are more likely to hold strong religious beliefs when their society is in turmoil and they feel a need to have god on their side.
I'll end with a mention of Begley's central theme in her article. That religiosity doesn't appear to be a "hard-wired" part of the human brain, but rather is stimulated by various external factors -- such as social dysfunction.
Before we decide that a behavior is innate and wired into our neurons, it would be a good idea to examine whether it withstands changes in our circumstances. If the new neuroscience has taught us anything, it's that the lives we lead can reach into, and change, our very brain circuitry.