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Book review: 'The Faith Instinct' by Nicholas Wade

By Carolyn See
Friday, December 25, 2009


How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

By Nicholas Wade

The Penguin Press. 310 pp. $25.95

Nicholas Wade, who has worked as an editor and reporter for the New York Times, Nature magazine and the journal Science, is part scholar and part journalist, but he's also 1,000 percent red-blooded contrarian. You can tell he loves to rile up his readers -- perhaps in order to make them think -- and in my case he certainly succeeded.

"The Faith Instinct" is not what its title claims it to be, and the book doesn't do what the jacket copy says it will do: "Nicholas Wade traces how religion grew to be so essential to early societies in their struggle for existence that an instinct for faith became hardwired into human nature." If Wade had actually done that here, people of faith might be justifiably annoyed, but he didn't, so they don't have to be.

Instead, the book is devoted to quotations from anthropologists, sociologists, economists, historians, psychologists, commentators and pundits. Quotations from geneticists are as scarce here as the proverbial hens' teeth. Safely tucked away in a footnote comes this throw-away caveat: "Because most genetically based human behaviors are flexible, not deterministic, it is probably unrealistic to require that a behavior be exhibited by every known society in order to be accepted as having a genetic basis."

Elsewhere, Wade suggests that evolutionary or genetic evidence of the religious instinct is hard to pin down precisely because it is ubiquitous -- does the fish identify the water in which it swims? In other words, all this promised "new evidence" about religion being part and parcel of the evolutionary process and genetically hard-wired into our brains is something the author certainly wishes were true, and indeed may be true, but he cites no convincing data or proof; he just keeps repeating his opinions, perhaps in the hope that they may become true somewhere down the line. (I'm not against his premise; I'd just like to see more scientific proof!)

What "The Faith Instinct" actually seems to be is a set of loosely constructed essays that maintain that religion is, indeed, ubiquitous or universal and, from the human point of view, timeless: "For the last 50,000 years, and probably for much longer, people have practiced religion. With dance and chants and sacred words, they have ritually marked the cycles of seasons and the passages of life, from birth to adolescence, to marriage and to death."

This certainly seems to be true enough, but it isn't exactly world-shaking news. Anthropologists have been pondering this since the first great ethnographers went intrepidly out to find what they called "savage" tribes and tried to figure out what those people were actually doing and believing. Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas and many more of those Golden Oldies are copiously quoted here, but just in case you might get really interested in this narrative, there's also plenty of dull Émile Durkheim, who, if he were a comic book character, would manifest as Novocain Man.

Religion's main function, the author suggests, is to make society cohere. And, again, in what is not exactly new information, he maintains that what we know now as religion stemmed from all-night dance marathons staged by hunter-gatherer societies back in prehistoric times in an attempt to make contact with the gods. To substantiate this claim -- hunter-gatherers being few and far between these days -- the author extrapolates from the behavior of people who were studied by the first wave of anthropologists: Australian aborigines observed by Darwin himself, the population of the Andaman Islands and the !Kung tribe of the Kalahari desert. In other words, if I read correctly, these tribes danced and sang, and in a dizzying flash forward, there came the Presbyterians! They had to appear, even though they loathe dancing, because it was genetically programmed, literally in their blood.

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