Is religion a pernicious delusion in world history?

In his book The God Delusion Dawkins proposes that a belief in God is an accidental by-product of evolution, a “mis-firing of something useful” [Dawkins2006, pg. 188]. Elsewhere he has written that a belief in God is somehow a “virus of the mind.”

Peter Turchin in the role of religion in world history

Yet other scholars dismiss this notion as hopelessly inconsistent with the cultural and archaeological record. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the new book Ultra Society: How 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth by Peter Turchin [Turchin2016, pg. 207]:

The modern idea of human rights is, thus, quite recent. But it would be a mistake to consider human history before the European Enlightenment as an unrelieved Age of Despotism. As we saw in this chapter, extreme forms of inequality and despotism began receding much earlier, during the Axial Age [1000-500 BC]. We see massive evidence of this in the writings of the Axial Age thinkers, from Greek philosophers and Old Testament prophets to Indian renouncers and Chinese sages. And the reign of Mauryan king Ashoka shows how these ideas influenced rulers and elites of Axial mega-empires. …

Although the ideas of the Enlightenment accelerated and depended the movement of humanity towards greater equality, the roots of the macro historical trend go back to the Axial Age. And the moving force behind the trend was not reason, but faith. Neo-atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who considers religion nothing but a pernicious delusion, will not like this conclusion. Nevertheless it’s true.

The Axial religions introduced several innovations that enabled post-Axial states to increase the scale of social cooperation. In this chapter I’ve been paying attention mainly to how Axial religions constrained rulers and elites to act in less selfish and despotic ways, thus decreasing inequality and promoting cooperation. Another Axial Age innovation was the shift from tribal, ethnically based religions to universal, proselytizing ones. …

Sincere belief in supernatural moralistic punishers is particularly important because of the way it can restrain the powerful. A monarch may not care very much what peasants think of him, but he would think twice before crossing an all-knowing omnipotent god. And if a ruler is an atheist, he risks getting overthrown by a coalition of elites who would prefer to be ruled by a godly person. Even today, in countries like the United States, an atheist has no chance of being elected to the presidency. This is a genuinely ancient prejudice — its roots go right back to the Axial Age. But it seems to work. As we have seen, religion has proved to be an excellent ideological foundation for empire.

The positive values of religion

Turchin is hardly alone in highlighting the crucial role played by religion in civilizing mankind over the ages. For example, historians Will and Ariel Durant (neither of whom were particularly religious) wrote that “Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. … There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.” [Durant1968, pg. 43, 51].

Along this line, Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic, has noted that religion has its undeniable positive side [Shermer2000, pg. 71]:

However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go largely unreported in the history books or on the evening news. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.

Here and there one can find some conciliatory comments in the writings of Dawkins and other of the “new atheist” school. Dawkins, for instance, recognizes that religion has valuable “cultural and literary traditions,” and suggests that we can give up dubious supernatural beliefs without “losing touch with a treasured heritage” [Dawkins2006, pg. 387]. But beyond this it is hard to find much balance in the writings of the “new atheists” — their treatment is almost entirely polemic.

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