Posted by: Andrew G | April 21, 2010

The Faith Instinct – Nicholas Wade Part 2


There is a bit of a problem when it comes to quoting from this book. Nicholas Wade uses a reference or quote in nearly every single one of his paragraphs! So, this book is a conversation between the writer and reader as much as it is between Nicholas Wade and the modern anthropologists , the keen archaeologists of today, the dead poets of the ancients, the recent statistics gathered about society and even the drummer from the Grateful Dead! So, if the quote starts with a name, it’s not really Wade’s words but instead his source, or as close to his source as I wanted to get at this point.

It’s kind of a demonstration of the effort and care the writer has put into the work, and I want to respect that by using his own words and his own sources. As usual though, I think I went too far again. So, I will try to bold the provoking ones and the interesting-but-short-and-pithy ones. Depending of course on your whims, scan through quick to get the end, or slog through at your own pace.

Emile Durkheim: The faithful are not mistaken when they believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves. That power exists, and it is society… religion is first and foremost a system of ideas by means of which individuals imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it. (note – Wade uses Durkheim a lot, so I thought I would start here)

In the face of daunting fears, of famine, sickness, disaster or death, religion has always been a wellspring of hope.

There is no church of onself. A church is a community, a special group of people who share the same beliefs.

Religion is almost always prominent in a society’s response to external foes..

Roy Rappaport: Surely so expensive an enterprise [as religion] would have been defeated by selective pressures if it were merely frivolous or illusory… Religion has not merely been important by crucial to human adaptation.

That the mind has been prepared by evolution to believe in gods neither proves nor disproves their existence.

Religious behavior can be studied for its own sake, regardless of whether or not a deity exists.

People survive as social groups, not as individuals, and little is more critical to a social species than its members’ ability to communicate with one another. Because of the primacy of language the effectiveness of the other modes of communication, such as religion or gesture, often goes unappreciated. Just as language is a system for communicating thought, religious behavior is a way of signaling shared values and emotions.

Practical morality is not universal. Compassion and forgiveness are the behaviors owed to one’s in-group, but not necessarily to an out-group, and certainly not to an enemy. (note- is this like the hardest challenge put to us by individuals like Kant and Jesus, to be radically ethical?)

Religions are powerful creators of social fact. And it’s not merely facts they create, but a binding emotional knowledge that these facts are sacred truths.

Communities would not gain the social benefits of religious behavior unless people had strong personal motivations to participate. And indeed religion is attractive because it does bring many deep personal satisfactions. It is the source of some of the deepest emotions of which people are capable, such as feelings of awe, of exaltation, of transcendence, of rightness and harmony with the world. It gives people hope in adversity, because the faithful believe that through prayer and ritual they can exert some measure of control over unpredictable disasters like disease or bad weather.

Hunter gatherer societies don’t run prisons or have a penal code. You’re either in or you’re out, and if you are ostracized your prospects of surviving alone in the wilderness are unpromising. Better learn quickly to fit and conform… Without a police force of prison guards or judiciary, in any case impossible for hunter gatherers, early societies achieved through religion both social cohesion and effective compliance with the dictates of an invisible government.

Morality is older than religion – its roots can be seen in monkeys and apes—and religious behavior was engrafted on top of it in the human lineage alone. Understanding how the moral instincts evolved makes it easier to see that religious behavior too has an evolutionary origin.

Edward O Wilson: The time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized. Science for its part will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of the moral and religious sentiments. (note – philosophy, like any proud parent, is reluctant to give up the reins, but can find some satisfaction that biology is growing up and leaving the nest, as every child of philosophy eventually does. There is a long tradition of philosophy giving ground to other fields of study. And when they do come back, the bonds are all more mature, and all the more loving. If you love it, let it go…)

Edward O. Wilson: Sometimes a concept is baffling not because it is profound but because it is wrong.

Jonathan Haidt: Moral judgments appear in consciousness automatically and effortlessly as the result of moral intuitions… Moral reasoning is an effortful process, engaged in after a moral judgment is made, in which a person searches for arguments that will support an already made judgment. (note – best, simplest explanation of apologetics I have seen yet)

On arguing with someone’s moral intuition: The hope of changing his mind by reasoning is as futile as trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail for it.

The fundamental moral principle of “do as you would be done by” is found in all societies, as are prohibitions against murder, theft and incest.

The surprising idea that people might be inherently moral was difficult for biologists and others to accept because it conflicted with the usual assumption that human nature is selfish. Even harder to swallow, for those not steeped in the concepts of evolutionary biology, was the assertion that something as precious as morality could have blossomed from the murky soil of strife and warfare. (note – irony and contradiction are wrapped around the very heart of human nature)

Hunter gatherer societies are organized on a very different principle—they are completely egalitarian. It was during the transition from male dominance to egalitarianism that religious behavior emerged. (note – cycle? Male dominance reared itself up once again in ecclesiastical societies)

Charles Darwin: Nor should we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong an perhaps an inherited belief effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.

Hunter gatherers have no headman or chiefs, and no one is willing to give or take orders. Men like power and will seize it if they can. But if they can’t rule, their next preference is that no one rule over them.

Christopher Boehm: Weapons are great equalizers, and would have had the effect of flattening out the male hierarchy of a still apelike society. Another leveler would have been the cognitive ability of the weak to form coalitions against tyrannical leaders.

Lawrence Keeley:Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for social cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it.

It is striking that, with both ants and people, evolution should have made cooperation and warfare two sides of the same coin… With ants cohesion is secured by shared chemical signals that regulate their behavior and by the high degree of relatedness among members of a colony. Neither of these factors is compatible with human physiology. This is why ants don’t need religion but people do.

Auguste Forel: The greatest enemies of ants are other ants, just as the greatest enemies of men are other men. (note – I think I would disagree. For me, the greatest enemy is always found within.)

Why should human sexual affairs or dietary preferences matter in the least to immortal beings living in a spirit world? The assumption makes little sense unless the gods are viewed as embodying a society’s moral authority and its interest in having all members observe certain rules of social behavior…Gods die when people no longer worship them. (note – so then, do societies die when Gods no longer care for them?)

Earning a poor reputation in a small society is a bad idea.

Those who readily acquiesced to the possibility of moralizing gods, and who lived their lives in fear of such agencies, survived to become our ancestors.

… religion became universal long before priests existed.

David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson: Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

The insight explains why human nature is so contradictory, capable of both of the most sickening cruelty and of the most self-denying care for others: the roots of altruism and of aggression are inextricably intertwined in evolutionary history.

Sacrifice, prayer and ritual all have the same basic purpose, that of influencing the gods’ behavior.

It’s the sharing of information that binds a group of individuals together. This can be spoken information, but more important than words in the binding process is emotional information. This is conveyed by different, and probably much older, forms of communication than language. The vehicles of emotional information are gesture, such as dance, and evocative sounds, such as music, including wordless chanting and drumming.

Evidently chimps can conduct sophisticated coalitional politics without uttering a single word.

Geoffrey Miller: Group selection models of music evolution are not just stories of warm, cuddly bonding within a group; they must also be stories of those warm, cuddly groups out-competing and exterminating other groups that do not spend so much time dancing around their campfires. (note—We are Sparta!)

Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead: There have been many times when I’ve felt as if the drum has carried me to an open door into another world.

... The focus of their rituals is communal activity and needs, not individual psychic satisfaction…  primitive religions are little concerned with matters of theology.

In Protestant churches Sunday service may last an hour, and there is grumbling if the minister’s sermon goes on too long. But many aboriginal ceremonies lasted for days, with hours of singing through the night. An initiation ceremony performed by the Arunta tribe of central Australia in 1896 to 1897 “commenced in the middle of September, and continued till the middle of the succeeding January… (note – quote for my dad more than anything. He has commented on the length of sermons before. But, can you imagine the commitment and conviction needed for this?)

Emperor Vespasian, joking on his deathbed: “Vae, pute deus fio.” Drat, I think I’m becoming a god.

... adherents of the ancestral religion sough to secure survival in the real world; those of modern religions are more focused on salvation in the next.

… hunter gatherers had found what seemed to them a window into the realm of the supernatural. Through the window, it seemed, they could communicate with the spirit beings that controlled vital matters in the world of the living, such as the gift of children, or fair weather and fine harvests, or fortune and war. They seem not to have considered the possibility that the beguiling magic surface might have been no window, just a distorting mirror.

Zeno of Greece: The human intellect was the true temple and no others were needed.

Frank Lambert: When white Christians attend black worship services, they often comment on the power of the music and the ‘mystical ecstatic experience’ that transports the singers to the very throne of God.

Divination [through animal entrails for example] clearly had limitations as a means of communicating with the supernatural. (note – well, yea… clearly!)

With the advent of literacy, religious narratives could now be written down and studied. The sacred text became an increasingly prominent part of religious practice, matching the shift in emphasis from ritual to belief.

Pope Gregory: For it is undoubtedly impossible to cut away everything at once from hard hearts, since one who strives to ascend to the highest place must needs rise by steps or paces and not by leaps. (note – good attitude towards change?)

History, unfortunately, did not take the course the Bible’s authors had hoped for.

People often convert if approached by or through close friends or family members. Cold calls seldom succeed.

The Christians’ willingness to help one another was particularly noticeable in a society like that of the Roman empire which was severely lacking in social services.

Despite the occasional sparring with Pharisees depicted in the gospels, Jesus seems to have been a conventional Jew, observant of the Jewish law. (note – something just makes me smile about the description of  Jesus as a conventional Jew…)

The first known historical reference to Muhammad may occur on an Arab-Sassanian coin minted in Damascus in 690/691, depending on how the coin’s legend—muhammad rasul allah—is translated. “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” is the obvious translation but another is “The messenger of God is to be praised.”

Religions may in fact be essential for social cohesion. No society yet known has lasted long without a religion.

… religion retains, even in modern economies, an essential role in establishing the trust on which all economic transactions ultimately depend… many intelligent Americans and Europeans have no clear idea of the complex institutions that underpin their own economies.

Robert Bellah (channeling Michel Foucault and Joseph Campbell, in my opinion): We are inclined to think that sacred texts, canonical texts, have in themselves an intrinsic meaning and are by nature qualitatively different from other texts, but this is in error. In fact, sacred texts must be read or listened to in the context of a community for which they are sacred: it is in the ritual practices of a living community that they become sacred. Ritual is the place where meaning occurs… The ritual of reciting the Lord’s Prayer reiterates the meaning of our worship of God.

When trust is high, social and economic transactions proceed easily and efficiently.

Religion induces so powerful an urge to trust members of the same faith that rational calculation can be swept aside. (note- especially  when it comes to bringing authority figures to justice?)

The issue is not whether atheists understand moral rights and wrongs but whether or not they will act on this understanding if they harbor no fear of divine punishment. (note – this experiment is kind of going on right now in some parts of the world)

Just as a vaccine may achieve what immunologists call herd immunity, by immunizing merely enough people to break a pathogen’s chain of transmission, religion can help create a moral community if enough people either are believers or behave as if they were… the morality of religions cannot be reduced to texts, especially ancient anecdotes that play no role in daily practice. Religions are based on rituals that generate emotional commitment to behave in certain ways.

Few human bonds are stronger than those of family, but the prophet’s dictates induced parents to abandon and exile their teenage children. Once the innate susceptibility to fear supernatural justice is triggered, people will go to almost any lengths to obey what priests or rulers tell them is the gods’ will.

Religion is no longer a comprehensive guide to daily life… Time and place are now predominantly secular, with the sacred often pushed into a tiny corner of both.

On Christianity with Constantine: As it began to share in the responsibilities of empire, the once peaceful church became habituated to the use of force in the state’s interest.

Far from beginning as a persecuted sect, Islam was shaped as a religion of empire… the religion specified only an Islamic state, not a separate church within it.

There are many Islams, just as there are many Christianities.

[Religion] is usually no more a cause of war than are weapons; both are primarily means of war. Even when the formal cause of war is expressed in terms of religion, the underlying motives are usually secular.

One of the most surprising achievements of the secular state, though it is generally taken for granted, is the ability to induce men to sacrifice their lives in battle without any explicit religious incentive.

… people in modern societies are probably easier to discipline and mold into a cohesive fighting force than were people in early societies.

… human nature is part angel and part brute. And individual may be either or the other, but societies and nations are inextricably both.

In the United States… religions must evangelize to survive, or competitors will lure away members of their flock. Americans switch religions (or denominations) with surprising frequency: no less than 44 percent of people profess a religious affiliation different from that in which they were raised.

Samuel Huntington: What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest.

Human societies have several kinds of linkage but religion is the only one that binds people on an emotional level, signaling who has common values and whose values are alien. Language and ethnicity can be split—a person can be bilingual, or half French and half Dutch—but religion confers an indivisible identity. It’s hard to be half Catholic and half Muslim.

Is religious behavior in fact unnecessary in the modern secular state? Should we thank the gods for their tutelage and bid them farewell? If history does not end in secularism, what is the future of religion?

Religion is about symbolic communication The sacred texts of the three monotheisms include themes that symbolize the values and traditions of each religion… But the assertions of historicity present a problem because they make it much harder for each of the monotheisms to adapt to changing times and needs… The fixed texts of Christianity and Islam have made both religions hard to update, and this in turn has led to clashes with modernity. In the long run, it would seem that both religions need to adapt to new knowledge or be undermined by it.

But is belief in a supernatural power—the stumbling block for many people in today’s highly educated societies—an essential feature of religion?

The role of human choice in shaping human evolution is far form understood, in part because it has been found only recently that culture can feed back into the genome… For generation after generation, people have passionately sought the better course for themselves and their families and their community and, despite many dead ends and reverses, they have in general attained it.

There is another cultural creation that stirs the emotions, conveys wordless meaning, and exalts the mind to a different plane. This strange parallel to religion is music. Like the propensity for religious behavior, the appreciation of music is a universal human faculty. Like religion, music is primarily a social activity, though it can be pursued privately too. As with religion, music draws people together. And religion of course draws heavily on music, from which it may once have developed.

Conservatism has its virtues. People like their religion to embody values and principles that do not shift or yield. (note – this kind of pained me to quote. But, I have to open myself up to wisdom once in a while…)

Religious behavior evolved for a single reason: to further the survival of human societies. Those who administer religions should not assume they cannot be altered… [Religions] are shaped in implicit negotiation with supernatural powers who when give instructions to promote society’s interests. Much of course depends on the craft and inspiration of the negotiators. But first it is necessary to understand that negotiation is possible.

Recommendations and Final Thoughts

The Faith Instinct is a book for students.  It deserves more time and care than what I can give it in just one week. Nicholas Wade tries to keep an inoffensive, factual tone throughout the book but the conclusions are uncomfortable and challenging to any uncompromising or implacable religionists that may look at it. Students enter in to student life with a willingness to grow and change through the challenge of fitting together new and old ideas. As Wade demonstrates with this book, the conversation around religion is getting richer and deeper but it is your participation in the ethical rituals that will decide the world’s grace and salvation, not your beliefs.

 Don't call me a mindless philosopher,
you overweight glob of grease! Now
come out before somebody sees you.

That's funny, the damage
doesn't look as bad from out here. 



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