How does belief in God influence individuals, society?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 21 2012 10:08 a.m. MDT

Our take: Atheism is on the rise, and those who identify with this position are becoming increasingly vocal about their opinion on God. However, a group of scholars featured in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education think the atheism vs. theism discussion needs to be redefined. The question for them is not "Does God exist?" but "Is it beneficial to believe he does?"

When a moth flies at night, it uses the moon and the stars to steer a straight path. Those light sources are fixed and distant, so the rays always strike the moth's multilensed eyes at the same angle, making them reliable for nocturnal navigation. But introduce something else brighta candle, say, or a campfireand there will be trouble. The light radiates outward, confusing the moth and causing it to spiral ever closer to the blaze until the insect meets a fiery end.

For years Richard Dawkins has used the self-immolation of moths to explain religion. The example can be found in his 2006 best seller, The God Delusion, and it's been repeated in speeches and debates, interviews and blog posts. Moths didn't evolve to commit suicide; that's an unfortunate byproduct of other adaptations. In much the same way, the thinking goes, human beings embrace religion for unrelated cognitive reasons. We evolved to search for patterns in nature, so perhaps that's why we imagine patterns in religious texts. Instead of being guided by the light, we fly into the flames.

The implicationthat religion is basically malevolent, that it "poisons everything," in the words of the late Christopher Hitchensis a standard assertion of the New Atheists. Their argument isn't just that there probably is no God, or that intelligent design is laughable bunk, or that the Bible is far from inerrant. It's that religion is obviously bad for human beings, condemning them to ignorance, subservience, and endless conflict, and we would be better off without it.

But would we?

Read more about how believing in God influences individuals and society on The Chronicle for Higher Education.

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