It's easy to understand why human societies throughout history were vastly religious. So many things left unexplained, the most annoying of all being our own existence. Consciousness -- a gift and curse at the same time --- had to come to terms with all the overwhelming things life and nature threw at people, so religion was invented to create a more manageable framework. It certainly has its ups and downs. Personally, I'm a firm believer that religion has been largely a driving force for good -- at least if we're to judge common people, ancient or contemporary. One study seems to confirm this hypothesis as it found belief in a super deity promotes cooperation among strangers, something anthropologists believe paramount to the development of civilization as we know it.
The team assessed 600 participants hailing from Vanuatu, Fiji, Brazil, Mauritius, Siberia and Tanzania who had diverse beliefs like Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, animism and ancestor worship. Interviews were conducted, then two games were played that involved the distribution of coins to participants or other believers based locally or in distant communities. A die was thrown that determined who would get the coins, but anonymous players could override the throw and give coins to whomever they wished. Those who reported a belief in an all-seeing good who knew about their thoughts and behaviour, and would punish any wrongdoing, were much more likely to play by the rules, as well as dole out coins to strangers.
"Certain kinds of beliefs—involving gods who are aware of human interactions and punish for moral transgressions—can indeed contribute to the evolution of human co-operation," said lead author Benjamin Purzycki, a postdoctoral research fellow at UBC's Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture.
"If you think you're being watched, and expect to be divinely punished for being too greedy or thieving, you might be less inclined to engage in anti-social behavior towards a wider range of people who share those beliefs."
It's hard to make this the last word, but it does seem very convincing. After all, almost any important site of ancient civilizations from ancient Rome, to Babylon, included temples. There was no escaping religion, and almost all beliefs have a vengeful component for wrongdoings or straying away from 'the code' or 'path'. This begs the question: are morality and atheism mutually exclusive? That would be nonsense, and I would argue that atheists are capable of the highest morality because they choose to do the 'right thing' out of inherent goodness, not fear of repercussion at the hand of a superpotent deity. This is a lengthy and controversial discussion which I'd rather stay out of, but for those who haven't already I recommend you read Richard Dawking's "The God Delusion" and the underlying chapters on morality.
But if atheists can be moral, how can we explain the influence of religion in shaping civilization? Well, forgive my intrusion since this is just speculation at this point, but it seems clear to me vengeful gods worked well at forging communities because they acted as judges. For thousands of years, few civilizations had a working justice system. There was no police to protect you and no prosecutors. These were times when you would have been at the whim of whomever you came across. The Greeks were among the first to institutionalize it, but it's only in the last hundred years or so that we can say justice works.
"Our findings suggest the threat of punishment from a god if that individual did not reach out to help strangers may have been one reason for the close bonds that developed between different communities across the world," the researchers concluded in Nature.