Source: New Scientist
RELIGION has given us Bach’s cantatas and pogroms, algebra and the Spanish Inquisition. The debate over whether religion lifts humanity higher or brings out our basest instincts is ancient and in some ways reassuringly insoluble. There are so many examples on either side. The last word goes to the most erudite – until someone more erudite comes along.
The latest round of the eternal conundrum was triggered by the seemingly religiously inspired 9/11 attacks in the US, after which “new atheists” rose to prominence. The likes of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and neuroscientist Sam Harris argue that rational beings following the evidence must inevitably conclude that religion is harmful. They, in turn, have been accused of cherry-picking their evidence.
You might conclude that it is impossible to make a moral judgement about such a multifaceted cultural phenomenon. Nevertheless, in recent years, there have been attempts to dissect the question using a scientific scalpel. Researchers have tried to work out how humanity has been shaped by things like moralising philosophies, world religions, all-seeing gods and rituals. The studies offer intriguing insights, but each presents just a fragment of the full story, and sometimes they generate competing ideas. What is needed is a way to assess them and to build a more holistic picture of the role religion has played in the evolution of human societies. And that is what I and my colleagues have been doing.