The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures - Nicholas Wade In The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade argues that religion is a gene-based adaptation that allowed those groups that had it to survive where those without perished, “religion” being defined as “a system of emotionally binding beliefs and practices in which a society implicitly negotiates through prayer and sacrifice with supernatural agents, securing from them commands that compel members, through fear of divine punishment, to subordinate their interests to the common good.” (p. 15) Religion developed to promote group survival; and just as the human brain was built up from pre-existing structures, so too was religion built up from a foundation of (almost certainly innate) behaviors that includes a capacity for music and rhythmic movement, a moral instinct, and language; it wasn’t designed but is an agglomeration of adaptations that worked better than others. The first half of the book focuses on the evolutionary role of religion, and Wade builds a strong case for its adaptive utility (though not necessarily for its existence as a genetically determined characteristic; see below). The second half is practically another book as the author takes us on a historical overview of religion – chiefly the Abrahamic monotheisms though he manages to sneak in the Aztecs – which seems oddly out of place in the context of the preceding pages. I have sympathy for the theories that the book of Exodus is as much a myth as the labors of Heracles or that Pauline Christianity triumphed because its Jerusalem-centered rival perished in the Roman sack of AD 70 or that Muhammad is a fictional character who arose from a misreading of a Christian Arab inscription on the Dome of the Rock but these are not scientific theories about the genetic basis of religion or even its expression, they’re analyses of historical events.

I’ll discuss that aspect of the book in more detail below. Here, I’ll briefly give an overview of Wade’s contention that religion has a genetic basis, beginning with chapter two, where he discusses the “moral instinct.” Wade distinguishes between “moral intuition” and “moral reasoning.” The former is a person’s ability to make an instinctual judgment about the rightness or wrongness of something; a classic example is the almost universal abhorrence of incest. The latter is the conscious’ ability to articulate reasons for a choice, and plays no role in natural selection. Some form of moral intuition has evolved in the higher primates (& other mammals) “to provide the unity required to enable the group to compete successfully with other…groups.” (p. 32) With the advent of self-awareness in humans, we obtained the capacity to act against that intuition. To prevent these now-self-aware human groups from tearing themselves apart, evolution had to find a way to reinforce the moral sense and Wade believes that this was religion.

Chapter three explores the behaviors that characterize religion (or more properly what Wade calls the “ancestral religion”; in chapter six he talks about the transformation of practice that occurred with the rise of sedentary cultures). The author distinguishes five universal (or near universal) traits found in all religious practice:

1. Music/dance
2. Rites of passage
3. A way to communicate with the supernatural/divine and to influence its/their behavior
4. An afterlife (of some sort)
5. God(s) control(s) events

He then speculates that specialized structures exist in the brain that mediate religious behavior though he admits that there’s no evidence for such. (p. 43) This – for me – raised a red flag: That the bases for music, rhythmic movement, morality, language and the other components of religion are genetic, I can accept. But if no physical evidence of a “religious” area of the brain can be found then that suggests that it’s an artifact of cultural evolution rather than a biological imperative. And Wade tacitly admits this later when he discusses the success of other cultural institutions (such as the military or the nation-state) that exploit the same genetic foundations to create group cohesion, loyalty and self-sacrifice.

In “Music, Dance and Trance,” Wade considers the effects that rhythmic movement, music, language and trance states had on the development of the religious instinct. (A more extensive treatment of the subject of music & language can be found in Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body and of trance states in David Lewis-Williams’ Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods.) As with the moral instinct, these behaviors contributed to the creation of a group consciousness capable of subordinating an individual’s survival to its success.

Chapter five, “Ancestral Religion,” speculates on what form the ur-religion may have taken. As we can’t go back in time to study Stone Age hunter-gatherers, we must rely on extrapolating from the cultures of the few surviving hunter-gatherers in the modern world, including the !Kung San of Africa and the Aborigines of Australia. Thus “[t]he earliest religion seems to have taken the form of sustained communal dancing that invoked supernatural powers and promoted emotional bonding among members of the group.” (p. 98) And the following characterized it:

1. The whole community participated. There was no priestly caste, though there may have been shamans with special abilities re contacting the gods/spirit world.
2. The focus of worship was on communal activities. The modern idea of a personal relationship to God would have been foreign; there was no private spirituality (at least none that could be expressed or mattered to the community).
3. Sacred narratives (myths) conveyed both moral and practical lessons to their hearers.
4. There was also a focus on practical matters of survival over modern concerns of theology/dogma. It is perhaps ironic that religion’s strength – its survivability – lies more in the arbitrary rituals that create the “in” group than in the dogmas that priests devise.

“The Transformation” discusses the changed nature in practice and belief of post-agriculture religion. The most important changes being the development of a dedicated priestly caste and the consequent restriction of full participation to a smaller group and the suppression/control of the more ecstatic forms of worship (e.g., for the Roman Church, Theresa of Ávila was OK but the Spiritual Franciscans were beyond the pale).

As I wrote above, the second half of the book (chapters 7-12) turns from examining the genetics of religion to how different cultures expressed that behavior. There are interesting arguments concerning how religion makes possible (or eases) trade, regulates sex/reproduction, and both encourages war and ameliorates its effects but there’s nothing that really bolsters Wade’s thesis that humans have a gene-based instinct that we call “religion.” If anything, the latter half of the book reinforces the opposite – the idea that religion is a product of culture that builds upon common human instincts. The objectives and desires that religion satisfies can be accommodated by other means and have been, though he makes a strong case that religion has been the most successful mechanism produced so far.

Having read the book, I remain an agnostic at this point. The evidence and our understanding of how evolution works are still too meager to confidently claim that humans have a genetic predisposition to religion rather than that religious behavior is a cultural expression based on disparate factors of human nature. I lean toward the second explanation but The Faith Instinct remains an interesting survey of the current state of knowledge and provokes the reader into considering the possibility that god(s) is (are) in our genes.