Marked with a cross of black ash on her forehead, a Catholics woman prays during an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle February 22, 2012 in Washington, DC. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the 40-day penitential period before Easter when Christians celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. One of seven Ash Wednesday services at the cathedral, the noontime mass was packed with worshippers, leaving many to stand in the back and the aisles of St. Matthew. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The last decade has seen a preponderance of scientists and intellectuals arguing that we’d be better off without religion, but a different group of scholars wants to know whether religion is as much a part of human survival as binocular vision and bipedalism. Contrary to voices like the late Christopher Hitchens, who asserted that religion “poisons everything,” and biologist Richard Dawkins, who equates the tendency towards religious belief with the suicidal impulses of a moth, these scientists have become concerned that those who argue that religion has a negative overall effect just don’t have the evidence to support their claims. Under the loose identification of “evolutionary religious studies,” this group points to studies that indicate societies are actually more successful when religion is present: people are more generous, commit less crime, and are considered more empathetic.
Is too much of the blame for society’s ills being placed on religion? Is most of the country actually more tolerant when it comes to the value of belief than the media portrays? What is the argument for the necessity of religion from an evolutionary standpoint?
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