Of course, sane, rational people know this already but now the esteemed Scientific journal Nature has weighed in with a report on some interesting research.
Notions of civic responsibility also promote cooperation, suggesting that religion might encourage altruism by invoking an omniscient judge of behaviour.
"One idea that we seriously considered was that God, to those who believe, is a supernatural policing agent," says psychologist Azim Shariff of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "We started to wonder whether civic [responsibilities] and religion operated all that differently within the unconscious mind."
To investigate how belief in supernatural agents might influence cooperation, Shariff and his colleague Ara Norenzayan used a word game to stealthily introduce religious concepts to their subjects.
Participants had to unscramble five-word sentences, dropping an extraneous word from each to create a grammatical four-word sentence. For example, "felt she eradicate spirit the" would become "she felt the spirit," and "dessert divine was fork the" could become "the dessert was divine." A control group unscrambled sentences made up of non-spiritual words.
After this exercise, the participants played an economic decision-making game. Each player was given $10 to share with an anonymous recipient.
Participants primed with religious concepts gave their partner an average of $4.22, compared with only $1.84 in the control group. But those who declared themselves religious before the study were no more generous than non-believers.
I think there are some fascinating possible ramifications of this study - particularly in the last test where the 'established' believers showed no advantage over the non-believers but the primed group did.
Clearly the response of Hitchens will be entirely predictable - and it is actually important to pre-empt this and see exactly where he is coming from (for those who don't know).
He will argue that generosity is NOT a positive for society necessarily and that it is purely a religious (ie enforced or constructed) concept and that society could perfectly function without it had things developed differently. After some random foaming he will probably babble incoherently about the Ik tribe.
But this is because he is an extreme right-wing Straussian and his views should be appraised in the light of that noxious creed. I'd like to see similar tests with 'atheistic' words introduced into the groups and see what that tells us.