Does organized religion, as we know it, help or hinder the progress of human societies? For those engaged by that grand debate, this month brought two new books of interest. The first is “An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist,” a memoir by famed evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins, who is arguably the world’s most prominent atheist (now that Christopher Hitchens is dead). The second is “Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict,” in which author Ara Norenzayan argues that a belief in (and fear of) omniscient, interventionist deities provided the sociological adhesive that originally allowed humans to make the transition from small kin-based societies to sprawling, anonymous rules-based civilizations.
In an interview with Dawkins, who is on tour promoting his new book, I questioned him about Norenzayan’s thesis. Putting aside the anti-scientific attitudes that often are associated with devout religiosity, I asked, is there not some value in an overarching creed that binds millions, or even billions, of people to the same moral code?
“Religious societies can become more coherent, yes that much is true,” he tells me. “But that is largely because these societies’ members often are terrified people — who then go out and kill [outsiders]. Islam, for instance, originally was spread throughout [much of] the world through violent warfare. When a society worships the same ‘big god,’ [this can help them] become militarily powerful. But I would separate that from any sort of [shared] moral code. And if it’s true that humans need [a ‘big god’] to be moral, that’s reprehensible. Being fearful of god isn’t a very good reason to do the right thing. Moreover, I’m not sure there is any evidence that atheists are less moral than religious people — I’d say it is the reverse.”
“Criminals aren’t scared of god,” he adds. “They’re scared of the police. As Steven Pinker has written, when Montreal police went on strike [in 1969], there was mass looting — until the Mounties came in. This suggests that a real-world overseer is effective at enforcing order. A ‘big god,’ not so much.”