In my recent post on the concept of the noble lie I cited (approvingly) David Berlinski's contention (based on intuitions about human nature and on historical evidence) that religious belief - in particular belief in a just, all-seeing god - is conducive to good behavior and so socially beneficial.
I have just come across a report on some research which seems to support this point of view. The researchers found that one particular doctrine - a belief in punishment after death - was the most significant factor in determining whether a society had a low level of crime. Other studies have delivered similar findings, with one even finding that a belief in supernatural punishment promoted productive business activity. (Gross domestic product was found to be higher in developed countries when belief in after-death punishments was widespread.) Old time religion seems to trump the more liberal, postmodern varieties hands down when it comes to being socially useful.
This is an uncomfortable truth for those of us who reject such religious ideas, but it is also useful insofar as it exposes unrealistically optimistic views about human nature and society for what they are: wishful thinking.