For the past decade atheist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have been answering that question with an emphatic, poorly-informed, orchestrated-for-the-media ‘No.’
According these New Atheists (self-proclaimed ‘Brights’) religion is bad for us, leading to ignorance, subservience and conflict. Of course, those charges are not without merit and while they have ample historical evidence to draw from it’s curious how they refuse to level the same charges against a different straw man, say ‘the state.’ There’s ample evidence there too.
Now, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a group of cross-disciplinary scholars are attempting to shift the debate. Rather than asking ‘Does God exist?’ they’re trying to apply evolutionary theory to answer the question ‘Is it helpful to believe God exists?’ In other words, might there be a good produced by religious belief that would explain how faith evolved as a component to our worldview? Does belief in God lead to stronger or more peaceable societies? Does religion foster stability in families thereby perpetuating the race?
Some of the experiments performed by these scholars yield interesting, if unsurprising and inconclusive results. For example, one study found that the belief that ‘God is watching over you’ tends to make people more generous with their money. Another study suggests religious people may treat strangers more fairly.
All this is good, I think, if it means the debate about God’s existence can shift from the cartoonish broadsides of people like Richard Dawkins.
On the other hand, reading the article in the Chronicle, I can’t help but think what an incredibly modern, American premise lays behind the study. What’s really important here, now, isn’t whether God actually exists or whether what people of faith believe is actually, you know, true. Instead all that matters is religion’s utility. Does it make us happier more productive members of society? In this sense God’s no different than the 3-in-1 kitchen tools I see hawked on television at 3 am.
As interesting as the studies may be, I can’t help thinking, to my chagrin, that even if he’s a jack#$%, at least Richard Dawkins knows the stakes in the debate; that faith matters matter.