There’s a very interesting article on The Edge, by psychologist Jon Haidt, called “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.” Haidt takes some ill-conceived cheap shots at the so-called “New Atheists,” but that that shouldn’t get in the way of some important questions he raises. Haidt suggests that in some ways, religiosity is more socially useful than liberal nonbelief, and argues that religion is beneficial on a personal level as well.
surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right.
. . .
surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities.
Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood. The bottom line, Brooks concludes, is that all forms of giving go together, and all are greatly increased by religious participation and slightly increased by conservative ideology (after controlling for religiosity).
Note that this is not just Haidt; in many social science circles, such conclusions are fairly routine. (So much so that it’s been picked up in religious apologetics; I often hear self-congratulatory conservative Christian references to their superior generosity.) There are always some difficulties in interpreting such results, as, for example, P.Z. Myers points out in his response to Haidt. In particular, it is difficult to sort out what in the personal benefits and prosocial behavior being considered is due to supernatural commitments and what is due to people enjoying a supportive community where they are in the majority. It is also fair to ask how much of religious prosocial behavior is directed toward their own community of belief, distinguishing between in-group and out-group. But such questions occur to social scientists as well, as you can see, for example, by Haidt mentioning that the benefits of religion appear in secular Europe as well as the religion-mad United States, and Brooks pointing out that religious people do more secular giving as well.
Now, this still is a murky area of research, with far from certain conclusions. Many atheists insist that we should be able to construct better societies if we minimize the influence of religion; it would certainly go too far to say that our current scientific knowledge precludes this. It may even be true that a mere cultural falling away from organized religion, as in Western Europe, is all we need, and that we can successfully organize prosocial behaviors such as generosity and the health and psychological benefits of communities even in such a secular environment.
But there is also reason to be doubtful. There is a body of research suggesting that supernatural commitments are an integral part of the most common, least costly human mechanism to bring about such social benefits. Saying that we can separate the supernaturalism and irrationality from the community and benefits will not work if religion just happens be the way that our species of ape organizes its moral communities. In the end, I’m not entirely convinced by the most aggressive opponents of religion, mainly because while I agree with how they highlight the nasty aspects of supernatural belief, they also downplay or ignore the significant costs of the kind of rationality and naturalism we favor.