Religion is useful, but Genetically Modified Skeptic misses the real point and fails to understand a lot about the scientific study of religion.
I might have to edit this rebuttal later, because I am writing it while a little ticked off at having lost the entire thing when I accidentally closed the tab I was writing in, but Genetically Modified Skeptic makes a number of incorrect claims about religion that really need to be addressed. There are three main ideas that I want to address for now. The first is the idea that something has no real merit if something else can provide the same or similar benefit. The second is the citation of a poorly conducted study on religiosity and altruism. The third is religiosity among scientists. I am not going to cite many scientific studies directly in this article, but my other articles that I cite do link to specific peer reviewed literature used to justify my positions.
The first one is simple. Maybe there are other institutions besides religion which provides benefits similar to the ones religion provides. I would say that any collectivist system provides many of the benefits that organized religion does. But religion does offer a lot of different benefits that might be achievable only through multiple other means. First, organized religion induces altruistic tendencies by connecting sacrifice and some kind of religious belief, such as that of an afterlife. Ancient Egypt, for instance, was highly redistributive society, and that was largely maintained by the idea that the Pharaoh was a god. Religion also tends to have some kind of artificial kin system. This can stem from a creation myth, or the use of familial terms in religious practices such as brother, sister, mother, father, etc. This artificial kin system piggybacks off of the existing psychology of kin altruism. A benefit which does seem to be specific to religion, or religion like beliefs is analgesic enhancement. Indeed, I specifically mention “An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system” in my description of what constitutes a religion. It may be that other beliefs have a similar effect, but it has not been shown.
GMS mentions Decety et. al. 2015, a study which looks at the relationship between altruism and religiosity. This study is highly flawed for a number of reasons. First, it uses religious self identification. Unless everyone agrees on what religion is, self identification does not actually measure true religiosity. The study also tends to conflate atheism with non-religion, but this is incorrect. Because of these two mistakes, the study defines China as being essentially non-religious, but religious self identification in China is dangerous, and even illegal for members of the communist party. Many Chinese believe in afterlives, ancestral spirits, and especially vital life force, which is one reason why traditional Chinese medicine is still so important in China. Therefor all we can ascertain from the study is that those who identify with specific known major religions tend to be less altruistic, not that religion and religiosity are negatively associated.
GMS then jumps to war. He seems to indicate a high degree of relationship between war and religion, but as I mention in “The Pervasive Nature of Religiophobia,” most war is not causd by religion. Also, people need to be aware of emic vs etic perspectives. The emic perspective is what those within a culture believe, while the etic perspective is the scientific perspective on the nature of cultural practices. For instance, within a culture, people might believe that a harvest festival ingratiates the people with the gods, while the etic perspective is that it helps unify the people for a successful harvest. I do not wish to go into politics too much on this site, but religion and war are political. It is argued that ISIS et. al. are the result of radical Islam, but in all honesty, that does not make sense. It does not explain why radical Islam exists where it does and why it emerged when it did. But as I explain in “Middle East Turmoil: Radical Islam or Reaction to Imperialism?” there is a parsimonious answer to the aforementioned questions: radical Islam is a direct response to and rally against western imperialism.
Regarding polytheism and religious war, it did not happen all that much. Polytheists tended to merge pantheons readily. While cities within a polytheistic culture might have had a patron deity that they were proud of, there was little forced conversion. The other polytheists accepted the other gods, they just did not worship them as much as heir own patron deity. It is also incorrect to assign religion to the cause of war campaigns in Rome, etc, which while brutal, were about gaining resources, not about religious conversion.
Finally, GMS mentions religiosity among scientists. First off, there have been many brilliant scientists who were religious, including Sir Isaac Newton. There still are many, including Freeman Dyson. There is nothing inherently anti-scientific about religion, though there are dogmatic religious elements which do contradict science. The real issue is two fold. One thing is that religiosity may be under reported, as Religious Rejectionism seems to be more common among the academics. Religious Rejectionism is a religion, as classified by the unified model of religion that I cited earlier. The belief that there are no gods does seem to be religioid, as identified by multiple fMRI studies. The belief is integrated with numerous cultural dimensions from Smart’s seven dimensions of religion. But there is another issue beyond failure to identify Religious Rejectionism. As I mentioned in my discussion of Religiophobia, academia itself rejects Christians. It discriminates against Christians and the stigma reduces the ability for Christian students to learn, as the ability for Christian scientists to be hired. Additionally, Christianity, and organized religion itself has more utility when one is of lower socioeconomic status. Therefore a person who is from a lower class is more likely to be Christian, but that same person is less likely to excel in academia and therefore less likely to become a scientist.
Overall, Genetically Modified Skeptic uses much of the same invalid reasoning that other New Atheist religiophobes use to attack religion. It is at best poor science and at worst dogmatic ignorance. While there are issues with highly dogmatic religions, and much of the same can be said about a lot of highly collectivist systems, the arguments that he presents are just bad. I am not arguing that we should all go out and become religious. For one thing, we cannot control our own beliefs; we can only make decisions which affect them. Personally, I cannot accept any position which does not have a scientific and mathematical justification, up to axiom, and choose axioms based on what seems like the only way to make decisions in life. I am not religious, and as long as my view on reality does not change, I never will be. But to each his or her own, so long as that world view is not forced upon me.