When somebody says what sounds like “it’s only religion that keeps us from behaving like savages” I think: that person is afraid he will behave like a savage. And if he is turning to religion to save him from himself, he will find no salvation. He must first know himself, because only by that route can he allow himself to be saved (and I use “allow himself” deliberately; even if you don’t believe in God, and believe that all these dynamics are happening inside an individual person, there is such a thing as getting out of your own way). Religion may or may not help in that process; that, I think, varies between individuals. But there’s no short-cut. My text on this topic, as I think I’ve mentioned before, is Tolstoy’s short novel, Father Sergius….
Arguing that people “need” religion strikes me as an enormous waste of time. It will not convince anyone who really believes otherwise, and the people it does convince will have been convinced out of fear. And fear is a cancer; it is no stable ground for faith. The only thing – literally the only thing – to do if you care about your faith – including the faith that you don’t need God to be good, if that’s what you believe – is to live it, for its own sake. If you do that, you don’t need to do anything else. If you don’t do that, nothing else you do matters.
Noah Millman. I think Noah is exactly right about this. If you argue that the social order can only be sustained by a shared body of religious beliefs, you are implicitly but necessarily (a) making religion the instrument by which some other good is to be acquired, and (b) making an empirical claim for the value of religion that could conceivably be disproved. In regard to point (b), you’re just inviting people to try to come up with some alternative, non-religious means of creating desirable social or personal conditions — conditions that you’ve deemed to be desirable a priori. Religion then follows these a priori commitments rather that establishing them.
Shared religious commitment might be a strong, useful glue for the social order. Indeed I think it is likely to be, depending on which religion you’re talking about. But that’s no reason to believe in it. Follow this path and you’ll find it well-worn: it leads to a view embraced by so many intellectuals over the centuries: I have no religious belief, but I think it good that others in my society do.