Posted by: Andrew G | April 19, 2010

The Faith Instinct – Nicholas Wade


Nicholas Wade has some considerable credits to his name. He has been a writer and editor for such magazines as Science and Nature. He has also written for The New York Times and has at this point about six other titles of his own.

In a curious aside, not really related to this book, Nicholas Wade has moved on to bigger, woollier things — he is part of a group intending to recreate a woolly mammoth from genetic material. Here is the interview with Stephen Colbert (Comedy Network). For American readers, here is  a link to the video on Nicholas Wade’s own website (Comedy Central).

Technical Bits

The Faith Instinct is less than 300 pages long and broken into twelve somewhat evenly spaced chapters. Wade is using a wide lens right from the start, looking at world history and world religions, and drawing from a lengthy set of resources and cultures.

He is a scientific writer and the chapter titles give a little a taste of his style (examples: The Moral Instinct, Music, Dance and Trance, The Tree of Religion, The Ecology of Religion). Wade isn’t using the intricate, careful sentences of Jack Miles or the vocabulary-rich parry-and-riposte work of Christopher Hitchens. Wade remains even and tempered with objective sentences that communicate his successive points. He is exploring what is before him and, to use the phrase, following where the evidence seems to lead him.

As a note of caution, I would suggest that the reader would have to be at least comfortable with the idea of evolution. There are pages where the words ‘evolution’ or ‘adaptation’ come up in ever paragraph. This book is certainly not an attack on some worldview or anything, but it is a science-writer using  scientific explanations in order to understand how religion has changed and why religions endures.


Mea Culpa

I have to admit that at first I was reluctant to look at this book. I had a poor assumption that this was  a defense for specific religions. Let me say, in plain and simple terms, I was wrong. This book isn’t a persuasion so much as an exploration. It is an attempt to remove the filtering lenses of cultural bias, temporal assumptions or exclusive truths and examine what is really happening in the conscious, unconscious, emotional and intellectual activities bound up in religion.

Wade’s general idea is that we can look at religion the way we look at language or how we look at more directly scientific stuff like genetics. He wants to look at religion from an evolutionary perspective. It is an adaptation that has affected the way we gather as communities, share emotional bonds and distribute loyalties.

Wade relies quite heavily on the work of anthropologists and archeologists. He spends a great deal of time on the subject of hunter-gatherer societies and their rituals. Dance and music were of supreme importance in achieving trance-like states or transcendent experiences to commune with the supernatural.

The change to agricultural societies and then to city-states and nations led to a nearly systematic specialization from what Wade refers to as the ecstatic connection to the supernatural (where any individual could access the supernatural) to the ecclesiastical (where the divine could only be accessed through a priesthood with control of a sacred text). There was a shift in interests too. As Wade puts it, “adherents of the ancestral religion sought to secure survival in the real world; those of modern religions are more focused on salvation in the next.” But Wade does point out that in every religion there is an attempt to negotiate with the other power for some personal gain. The idea of a supernatural power is an extremely efficient way to regulate behaviour within a community.

Wade does a pretty good job in presenting a case for the evolutionary advantages of religion, in my opinion. But by no means is he advocating some specific religion. Drawing from archeological research and other sources, he does (with some cool, impersonal detachment) discuss the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For each he describes evidence that shows how each sacred text was a political piece of propaganda ‘created’ for specific rulers interested in expanding regional borders, creating national cohesion or establishing emotional solidarity.

He spends a great deal of time on the topics of ritual and community. There are some amazing, fascinating little illustrations on smaller and nearly lost cultures. The island-dwelling Trobriands near Papua New Guinea had a tradition of exchange for honour and prestige. Ceremonial armbands made from shellfish were given as gifts around the islands in a counterclockwise direction. Necklaces made from disks of a red shell were given as gifts around the islands in a clockwise direction. As part of the trade system, islanders would travel hundreds of miles on rough seas to carry out these ceremonial transactions. And in a number of years the armband or necklace would make its way around the islands as a gift back to the original owner. On the Island of Bali a complex system of farming, flooding and then burning rice fields was developed in order to control pests that could ruin the crop. By the gate of each flood canal is a temple, and all the coordination and timing comes from a central priesthood in continual communication with the farming groups.

What I found most interesting in Wade’s book is that he does not shy away from the contradictory nature of religion. In terms of evolution, the main measuring stick is found in an individual’s passing on of genes to the next generation. But with religion, the individual is compelled and even justified in sacrificing his or her own life for the benefit of the group or the higher power. Death can really cramp your chances of passing on your genes. But Wade addresses this by suggesting several explanations. In some respects, it is actually a control that allows balance. Overpopulation causes as many problems to the progress of a species as a lack of population. Also, such beliefs and demonstrations of self-sacrifice can be used as ways to identify loyal individuals and  ‘free-loaders’ (Wade’s term for people that take much more than they give). As a result, rewards can be distributed accordingly. As well, Wade suggests ways to look at the idea of group evolution. The community and the religion can carry on because of the sacrifice and loyalty of the individuals.

As I said earlier, Wade is mostly interested in ritual and community and the adaptive advantages gained from them. I tend to be more interested in symbol and story (as can be seen by my explorations on world religions in March). However, I can already tell that this book is one well-spring of information that I will be dipping my bucket back into again and again.

I will continue with The Faith Instinct on Wednesday with some quotations and a final wrap-up.



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