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215 of 226 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2009
Nicholas Wade established himself years ago as one of the country's best science journalists but The Faith Instinct is his finest book. Indeed, it is by far the best book on religion written from an evolutionary perspective, far surpassing the cranky and deeply flawed works of Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins. I say this because these other books fail to acknowledge that religion is universal and must have been adaptive, while Wade starts with that fact and it informs the whole book. As he puts it early in the book, "Many of the social aspects of religious behavior offer advantages--such as a group's strong internal cohesion and high morale in war--that would lead to a society's members having more surviving children, and religion for such reasons would be favored by natural selection." (p.12).

After the introductory chapter on the nature of religion, the book has an excellent chapter on the work of moral psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and Mark Hauser. The work of moral psychologists at this point vindicates Hume over Kant because the evidence is overwhelming that sentiments are more important than reasoning in morality. This chapter is followed by three chapters that are at the crux of Wade's argument--"The Evolution of Religious Behavior", "Music, Dance and Trance", and "Ancestral Religion." All three chapters deal chiefly with ancestral religion drawing mainly from research on three contemporary hunting and gathering societies--the !Kung San, the Andaman Islanders, and Australian Aborigines. He says, "With all three peoples, religion was a major part of their daily lives. Religious practice involved all-night ceremonies with vigorous singing and dancing and intense emotional involvement. The emphasis was on ritual rather than belief...And the central purpose of the rites in all three groups was to bind the community together and fortify the social fabric"(p.118). Religion excites emotional attachment to one's group and manages to sometimes subsume self-interest to the good of the whole group, while at the same time, and for these reasons, fostering hatred of other groups.

The remainder of the book treats religion after the domestication of plants and the eventual emergence of states. Of course such religion is important but it is ancestral religion that is alone significant to comprehending how and why religion evolved and is adaptive. Unlike highly unequal agricultural societies, foraging societies were and are egalitarian, and religion more than anything else provided/provides the social glue that made it possible for societies to out-compete and/or defeat their neighbors. Ancestral religion was about social cohesion and cohesive social groups defeated other social groups when at war.

One of the most important sections in the book, titled "Religious Behavior and Group Selection" (pp.67-74), contained in the chapter "Evolution of Religious Behavior," describes the selective advantages of groups unified by religion. Wade discusses a recent article by David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson arguing for the plausibility of group selection. David Sloan Wilson has been making this case for decades and ten years ago E.O. Wilson scoffed at the argument. The remarkable comeback of group selection is strongly indicated by the conversion of one of America's most influential evolutionary thinkers, E.O. Wilson.

This may seem an odd point to share a criticism of this superb book, but Wade fails to distinguish group selection of genes--which is theoretically possible but likely extremely rare--and group selection of (human) cultural variants. The latter has been the main focus of group selection theorists focused upon human beings, thinkers such as Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, William Durham, and Herbert Gintis. This is, in fact, a significant and surprising lacuna, given how widely Wade reads, but one easily remedied by the eager and energetic if they read Wade first and then move to the work of these other thinkers.

Brad Lowell Stone
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60 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2010
Nicholas Wade cleared up a mystery for me. The more I read about and thought about religion, the more trouble I had understanding how educated people could overlook the inconsistencies and contradictions in their religions and simply accept them uncritically as a given, Modern scholarship and science would seem to make traditional religion obsolete, yet it thrives.

Wade's, The Faith Instinct: How religion evolved and why it endures offers a fascinating theory: The tendency toward religious belief has genetically evolved as an adaptive mechanism to help early human societies survive. Early belief in supernatural agencies, along with the associated rituals, made early hunter gather bands more cohesive, giving them the sense of community necessary to work together for their mutual benefit and to make them willing to risk their lives for the group during the many wars that have always been a fact of life.

Wade supports his argument with references from biology, sociology, anthropology and historic scholarship, quoting sources like Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, Samuel Huntington, Emile Durkheim and the Bible.

While neither supporting or denigrating religion, Wade systematically spells out how it has had survival benefits, which continue to operate into modern times. He traces the evolution of religion, using early studies of isolated, primitive tribes, historical accounts of how new religions developed from older ones and the evolution from preliterate rituals to modern text based faiths.

The issue of group selection was a sticking point, with many biologists arguing against the idea that natural selection could operate at the group, rather than the individual level. However, it does seem that group selection need not be proposed for hunter gathers willing to risk their lives in warfare. A warrior does not fight assuming he will die, and in fact the majority survive. However, a brave warrior elevates his status, allowing him more opportunities to mate and pass on his genes to the next generation. War heroes make attractive mates.

While scholarship is divided on many of the points Wade raises, he makes a coherent case for the evolutionary benefits of religion, while illuminating its history, without addressing the thorny issue of the existence or non-existence of supernatural beings.

In the end I came away with a broader and deeper understanding of the issue, and that's the best thing one can say about a book. I consider this a must read for anyone interested in the subject of religion.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Wade seeks "to try to understand religious behavior from an evolutionary perspective." That our minds carry an instinct "to believe in gods neither proves nor disproves their existence." (5) We're descended from those who, 50,000 years ago, began to develop, in slow order: dance, music, proto-religion based on ritual, language, and then "religion based on shared beliefs about the supernatural." (92) Against external threats, religion binds together a tribe or clan or nation to protect itself; against internal freeloaders, religion provides a deterrence against those who dare to violate the dictates of "a stern overseer of their actions": divine enforcers who can read the thoughts of the guilty and punish those who resist subordinating their gain so as to help the common good. (52)

Pleasures of prayer or goodness may fill the believer, but these, Wade reasons, are secondary to the evolutionary rationale for religion. It's not to provide personal satisfaction so much as to bind people together, to make them "put the group's interests ahead of their own." (58) Those who disobey are punished, now and in the retributory afterlife; those who obey tap into a reward system that, unlike fundamental and primal drives for eating and reproduction, are relatively recent in evolution. Therefore, rewards for faith are "pitched at a far higher cognitive level," and religious behavior gets perceived as sensually satisfying, enhanced by communal celebrations passed down over thousands of years full of music, dance, and ritual.

Wade shows how after the prehistoric traces, often surmised due to lack of material evidence from studies of traditional cultures surviving today (he fills the book with case studies), a tension between ancient ecstatic expressions of spontaneous or dramatic faith and civilized ecclesiastical insitutions of doctrine and order persisted, and why it still does today. We're wired for the revivalist tent more than the upright pew, it seems.

The middle of his narrative steers us past familiar landmarks: the three monotheisms. But, in each, Wade finds fresh insights. Judaism is shown to be a Canaanite tribe's late invention, in the Bible texts "found" when the Temple was renovated. The concepts now packaged as Judaism were backdated to the Pentateuch and other sacred texts from around the 7th c BCE, to justify the attempts of Judah to reclaim the destroyed kingdom of Israel and to build a nation based on one god and not the many who once were shared by the Hebrews and their neighbors in what's now Palestine and the Middle East. The Exodus may have happened if it did to a few stragglers; archeological and historical evidence asserts that Hebrews barely invaded any of their Promised Land, practiced polytheism for centuries, and lagged long before asserting their Torah as law.

Wade illustrates how rare a totally new religion is if it wants to survive. Even the Mormons follow the three monotheisms somewhat, grafted onto their own innovations. Converts generally seek out a religion to enter that provides advantages, and familiarity, so it's usually related to their marital or social networks. Those who accept converts may raise the bar high-- as with circumcision, kosher, and prohibitions on exogamy-- to keep out spies and freeloaders.

Christians benefited from their affinities with Jews until the Jesus-followers, among those still practicing Judaism who did not accept a divine Christ-- were decimated in the destruction of Jerusalem and their community in 70 CE. Then, the Christ-followers triumphed, and Paul's letters, written if genuine between 49-55, carried Greek notions into the new faith, which accepted Gentiles. The Gospels then followed into print, all after the Temple had been destroyed, and then Jesus' predictions were retroactively written into the tales told of Jewish perfidy and punishment meted out to their former nation. The break with Jewish tradition enabled then Christianity to appeal as a transformed mystery cult of sacrifice, resurrection and messianic promise to Hellenized cultures and across Roman lands to all nations.

In turn, in what for me was a new revelation, Wade spends a lot of time discussing recent theories about the origins of Islam not in Arabia, but in the Syriac-Christian regions around Palestine. He suggests according to one scholar who understandably writes under a pseudonym of "Christoph Luxenberg" that the very word "muhammed" is not a proper name but is "servant of God, his messenger" (184) referring (and only named four times in the Qu'ran compared to 24 for Jesus, 79 for Abraham, and 136 of Moses) to Christ and not a prophet from the then backwater of the Hijaz.

Wade cites Michael Cook and Patricia Crone's studies that support an accretionary process of the earliest Islamic writings, one rejected by the Muslims themselves, but advanced by Western revisionist scholars. Islam we know it may not have appeared until a dynastic change long after 632, perhaps under the Abbasid caliph who ruled 813-833. Similar to what the higher criticism of the Bible did for Jews and Christians, fundamentalists reject it, but as with mainstream believers, perhaps in time, Muslims may accept another version of how their attenuated, orally transmitted long before written around 800, foundations are set more in myth as "salvation history," less in fact as if a documentary chronicle.

Later chapters survey anthropological research among primitive peoples and religious denominations. Morality, trust, trade, ecology, warfare, and nationalism all find analysis, if often via case studies rather than extended treatments as theories. Wade keeps these sections short, and sometimes he lurches from sub-topic to sub-topic with little preparation but for a general reader, he presents lots of information accessibly.

In passing, he may make points meriting elaboration he does not offer. Yet, reminders that religion can serve, as in the Middle East now, as the only "robust" force able to challenge autocracy when secular institutions are weak remain more relevant than ever. In an aside, he observes how-- unlike bilingualism and multiethnic identity-- a religious allegiance resists fission, and how emotionally binding it can be for those who grow up with it, or who take it on. It responds to deep-seated behaviors that all of us share, even if we deny them.

Those who now deny this religious impulse keep growing worldwide. As with music, some may refuse to tap into an instinctive appeal that others promote. Modern people appear to be losing their "innate propensity for religious behavior." (284) They grow up unfulfilled, for better or worse, with the lack of this capability for what their ancestors passed down to all of us; those refusing or unable to accept the faith instinct died off or were killed off. Those who accepted faith passed on their genes to all of us, thousands of years ago. But an atavistic leaning towards faith may no longer flourish in a secular, scientific mindset. We may grow out of it.

Therefore, the spirit of a once lively religion languishes when its structures and worldviews are unable to keep up with social complexity and intellectual advances in organized knowledge. Wade cites the Pew 2008 Survey that tallies American Catholics as 24% of the population, while 31% were born into that faith; this is the sharpest decline of any group, and this may show the inability of a faith to keep up with cultural shifts, as perhaps "ill-considered reforms" of Vatican II weakened the cultural distinctiveness of Catholicism while also refusing to adjust to contemporary attitudes about sexuality and clerical inclusion. (258)

Still, billions say they believe. No society ever managed to suppress religion, and Wade finds it a universal trait that we all inherit, whether or not we choose to indulge in its mysterious promptings within our very being. "In the progression from tribe to nation to civilization, religion has remained the most fundamental and binding of all social binding mechanisms. Rationality and security may moderate the expression of religious behavior. Warfare and uncertainty may fill the pews. Religion sustains the essential means whereby people associate in solidarity with one another and in defense against their adversaries."(274-5)

God is still called upon to guide the destiny of one very modern nation. American Civil Religion, the invocation of a semi-Protestant, somewhat secularized Deity and Power to guide citizens and informed leaders, Wade shows, serves as a case study in a modern religion that to those who observe it, even as it appears almost invisible in our culture. The tension between "legal secularists" enforcing a separate status for believers and those advocating a fundamentalist resurgence continues, even as the marketplace theory of religion (take it or leave it, switch brands, mix and match) competes more and more globally. (See my review of Olivier Roy's recent study on how culture and religion part ways, "Holy Ignorance.")

A "propensity for religious behavior" appears "genetically embedded in the human neural circuitry." (270) Oddly, Wade answers Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris but not the evolutionary biologist Daniel Dennett, whose "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (all three authors reviewed by me) is a glaring absence from this narrative. Dennett shares with Wade a detached, careful examination of why so many varieties of religious experience persist, whether atheists, skeptics, and believers like it or not. The problem, Wade concludes, is that religions have not kept up with culture; by refusing to yield on values or principles, the "three monotheisms" risk losing their tenacious hold on modern folks. They may not last forever, as today's religious adherents and leaders who could negotiate adjustment to culture often refuse to evolve.

I found this a stimulating book. I wish a bibliography and not only an end-note list had been given, for ease of reference. Also, the index does not cover every fact entered or source cited. Stiil, this is a diverse collection of ideas from scientists and scholars who have advanced what we know about why we are drawn to belief.
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111 of 138 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2011
I was highly disappointed in this book. I was hoping for something that pulled together much of the recent research on the genetic basis for religious beliefs, which is interesting (though says little about where religion came from per se). Sadly, this book is truly awful in its "scholarship." Anthropological knowledge is treated as though it is timeless. Studies that happened a hundred years ago are cited as though they can be uncritically accepted today and the people described are still like that, and the underlying theme seems to be that anthropology only changes because of fashion, and not because new knowledge shows that older ideas aren't accurate. As an example, Wade's treatment of hunter gatherers, both past and present, is dreadful. It would take a whole book just to take apart the stereotypes presented here as fact, but one example is how the hundreds of hunter gatherer societies that existed over the entire Old World in the past are treated as a single culture. So "hunter gatherers" have a particular kind of religion, or "hunter gatherers" have a particular kind of society, as though hunter gatherers in, say, Namibia 50,000 years ago are the same as hunter gatherers in Europe 15,000 years ago, or hunter gatherers in China 8000 years ago. Modern hunter gatherer people are treated as direct representatives of the past without any consideration of the hundreds of pages of anthropological debate about exactly if and how this should be done. Chimpanzees are used in the same way, as representative of our ancestral condition, despite millions of years of their own evolution and similar critical debate. The truly bizarre notion that genetics can be used to identify cultures whose traditions have stayed essentially the same over 50,000 years is just plain inexplicable. This use of modern peoples to represent the past is chosen instead of considering the large amount of archaeological evidence for ancient religion in the form of Paleolithic art and artifacts. However, culture doesn't stay the same over hundreds of year, much less tens of thousands, and genetics and culture are hardly stand-ins for each other anyway.

Instead of arguments, Wade uses assertions, such as the idea that Neandertals were violently wiped out by modern humans or that, among hunter gatherers, all rituals were communal and open to everyone. Most significant is the assertion that, if religion is still around, then it must be adaptive. Marriage is equally as universal as religion, and yet no one would assert that this is proof that marriage (as opposed to the biological desire to reproduce) is based in genetics. It may have social advantages, but that doesn't mean it's biologically based. He asserts that hunter gatherers lack religious specialists even though they have shamans and others individuals who clearly benefit from their status as such. And probably worst of all, the consistent treatment of religion presupposes that it has an advantage rather than arguing the fact; the only argument is that, since it's still around it must be true. Thus anything positive religion does is foregrounded as its essential nature while anything negative that it does is either ignored or is an exception or extreme.

This book is a mishmash of popular stereotypes (the frequent use of the word "primitive" shows just how little anthropology the author has read), and reads like an after-the-fact justification for religious beliefs. Religion has been responsible for both great good and great evil, suggesting that it has no essential nature. Instead, people use religion to further their own aims, whether they are good or bad. Yes, religion is pervasive in human society, and yes, it has been around for a long time (though it's worth pointing out that modern humans, biologically speaking, have been around for 200,000 years, and yet there is no clear evidence for religion until about 35,000 years ago, another reason to question the genetic imperative argument). But the idea that anything which has survived in human society must therefore be adaptive was long ago refuted by anthropology. It's indicative of the superficiality of the author's anthropological knowledge that he doesn't seem to have encountered this fact, either.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2012
Nicholas Wade laments early on in his book that this volume may please no one:

"People of faith may not warm to the to the view that the mind's receptivity to religion has been shaped by evolution. Those who regard religion as an obscurantist obstacle to rational progress may not embrace the idea that religious behavior evolved because it conferred essential benefits on ancient societies and their successors"

It is the second statement (and the implication that his premise may be spurned by unbelievers for 'ad consequentiam' reasons) that I find more interesting. While the debate about religious metaphysical claims can now be left to the 'flat earth' realm of obruscating apologists, the debate about whether religion is (on balance)a positive force is still very much alive and relevant. Unlike Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker (cited in the book) who largely view religion as an unfortunate maladaptive bi-product of evolution, Wade makes a compelling case that there is adaptive value in our religious instincts. More specifically he argues that religion allowed early societies to coalesce and form strong tribal bonds of trust and impedices for sacrifice, traits which presumably allowed them to overrun any irreligious rival groups. When one considers the modern lament about organizing atheists being akin to "herding cats", his premise is not difficult to see. He also argues that belief in a supernatural overseer was critical in enforcing altruistic morality, particularly in early societies.

Wade does not address the concept of memetic evolution explicitly (treatment of religious ideas and creeds themselves as the evolving entity rather than their hosts). If there is one criticism I would level, it is that he implies often that religions were deliberatly developed and manipulated to mirror the needs of the society in question. This was probrably true in some cases, but I think he has it backwards in the majority of cases where it was the religious memes that manipulated the society in question. The societies with the most successful memes were the ones that had enough of a lasting impact to be mentioned in this book. The memetic view also gets around the objections to 'group selection' mechanisms put forward by Dawkins and others that Wade attempts to but doesn't fully address. Nevertheless, what's good for the host is usually good for the meme (at least in the evolutionary sense of leaving more progeny), so there should be something in it for the host. That is where Wade's book comes in. After all, it is unfair to argue that central human traits are adaptive when it suits you and then write them off as unfortunate byproducts when they don't.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2010
The Faith Instinct tackles several issues and discusses the history of religion. At its heart it attempts to describe the belief that there is a "God gene". By that i mean that religion is an evolutionary trait that has arisen due to its ability to promote human survival. The book also discusses other cultural phenomenon that might have genetic basis, for example music and dance. There is a substantial part of the book that the describes the author's views on the history of religion and its evolution from being tribal at heart to being large scale encompassing. It discusses the conflicts and power struggles that arise from organized religion and what he sees as its purpose. The author even describes what he sees as the economics of religion and that there is a marketplace for it.

Ill discuss what I think are the major themes. First is the idea that the propensity to be involved in a religion is genetic. It is argued that most people have been religious for human history and the ability to be religious enabled people to have something to sacrifice themselves for. In a sense its argued that religion prevented a tragedy of the commons solution to human behaviour by a)having their actions being judged by an unseen power thus enforcing a reasonable social contract and b) helping groups form that do better in survival than merely a bunch of individuals acting in self interest. That is most likely correct, but that is not any evidence that religion is genetic. The argument should be that humans are joined in rituals and people coordinating in groups is a powerful social glue. Religion is a category of that. To say that something survives generations is not evidence its genetic, furthermore, that a blank slate person born in the jungle might consider spirits to exist is also no evidence that religion is genetic, merely that the world is complicated and people seek to construct a framework in which they see their reality. Had the argument been that people have a natural disposition to feel empathy and reciprocity and form groups and have rituals and then argue that religion is an outgrowth of natural genetic tendencies that cause various cultural phenomenon, that would have been more compelling. Religions take many forms and ancestral religions share very little in common with todays to the extent that its not deity worship that defines religion, then how can one argue that religion is genetic. In anycase, there are interesting ideas, that, at a more foundational level, as described in the trance and music section, seem to hold strong weight, it should have been these that were focused on rather than complex cultural evolutions of more basic building blocks.

The book also describes in detail the authors perspective on religion. I am sure most religious people would not be too fond of the writing, it tends to argue that most religions are based on fairy tales. There is interesting historical analysis, a lot of it can be argued, but i'm not sure the point of a lot of it. It doesnt seem to try to help convince on the fundamental point that there is a natural disposition to believe in god and join organized religion, it mainly seems to attempt to debunk some very deep beliefs of people. Part of the point of it is to set the seeds to discuss religion today and where it is going, ideas about the US and it having a marketplace for religion and how competetive religion sparks higher degree of natural faith is presented. The relationship between uncertainty and religion are pondered and the conclusion is drawn that religions are out of date and need to be adapted.

All in all i recommend reading the book, but I definately would read a lot more than this book to draw real conclusions about the subject matter. Interesting ideas are presented but the breadth of the statements are too wide, there should be much more refined analysis done on what in particular gives rise to the propensity to follow religion. As stated by the author it is a function of uncertainty so clearly its not some religion gene, i guess one could argue that the gene is activated by an environment of uncertainty but then prove it by taking a non-religious person who changed geography and see if their behaviour changed, do a case study. Dont just hypothesize about something so important to so many people. The author stretches and makes conclusions that are not rigorously argued by a long way, but he does present ideas that are interesting and can be built upon, I recommend reading, but with a critical eye.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2009
Wade has done a masterful job of illustrating the common elements in many religions and tracing them to their historic roots. To me, the book shows how much we have in common with people of other faiths around the world. We (Christians) don't have the market cornered on religious tradition as we are sometimes led to believe.
Wade's book is a must read for anyone who has a narrow view of religion believing their interpretation of God is the one and only "true" faith.
If everyone could have benefit of the "big picture" when it comes to religion, we as a civilization might do a better job of tolerating other religions that are different from our own.
Thank you for your revealing, thought-provoking book.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2009
For once, someone stopped asking "Does God exist", and asked the right question: "What human need makes us want Gods to exist?".
The author says, it's not biology, since we know nations that don't bother with religion, yet nurture happy people. But I wonder if he has considered that human nature is also served by sociobiology, and that the tribalism we evolved in can be served, in our times, by religions or by nations. The traits that "ordered" tribalism over evolutionary times, developed both ingroup cooperation and outgroup competition. Both had superior survival value that would favor sociobiological inheritence.

In our multicultural America, religions serve as the ingroup of "people like us" who we feel we can trust. For nations like Denmark, the homogeniety of the nation can do that. Further, we seem to have a human need for community with "those like ourselves", and we might well remind ourselves that there never was a time when humans survived as isolated individuals. Our human experience has always been in families/groups/tribes, where we could count on cooperation and leadership that we could not provide for ourselves.

Perhaps that is the "need" we feel for community with "those like ourselves" as well as for trusted human leaders and parental Gods to guide us. Our thinly veiled tribalistic human nature shows through all our recently acquired modernity.

Even existentialists seem to have a "God sized hole" that needs to be filled, often with science, learning, or humanism. This is not to say there are Gods that exist "out there", but may help explain why we keep inventing them in human form.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2011
As a physicist with a strong interest in and respect for religion, this is the best of the dozen or so books I've read on religion in the last few years. It gives a fascinating and compelling view of what religion is, how it arose, how it has evolved, and how it has benefited the groups that have adopted it. It is far more compelling - including in its scientific basis - than the books by Dawkins, Hitchens, and the like.

I've read several of the negative reviews of this book. Many misrepresent the scientific points made by Wade, and misunderstand the broader implications of his arguments for, e.g., understanding religions other than the western monotheisms or the rise of the secular state.

I found the discussion of the roots of Islam especially fascinating. I had always assumed Muhammad was a historical figure whose life and battles were well documented by the historical record outside of Islam - but this apparently is not true.

The last quarter of the book, that deals with more recent trends, is weaker than the rest. But overall, this is a fascinating book that - if you approach it with an open mind - will transform how you think about religion.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2010
It seems self evident. Any trait which persists in a species for tens of thousands of years must have survival value. Wade takes that as a given and attempts to show exactly why religion has its roots deep in mankind's past and is still viable today. The survival value of faith, according to him, is its "cohesive force." He recognizes that, in defending such a thesis, he's faced with a dilemma. He argues that, in early hunting and gathering societies the threat of supernatural punishment by all-seeing entities would prevent deviation from cultural norms and thus evince well-developed religious enforcement of cultural values. Unfortunately, he ignores the fact that those societies are the very ones which need little help from other-worldly forces to keep their members in line. In these small and very intimate groups, everyone knows what everyone else is doing and such mundane pressures as shame, shunning, ostracism and the like are really all that's needed.

On the other hand, in societies such as ours, where anonymity is the rule, grotesque violations of the mores can persist for years without the neighbors even being aware of what's going on.

Similarly, Wade is faced with the fact that religion can be used to actually perpetuate what the society frowns upon. He turns that problem on its head by claiming that the very ease with which fellow believers can be exploited simply illustrates the strength of the "instinct." He chose a poor example to support that point, however. Bernard Madoff did recruit victims from his own ethnic group, but it seems unlikely that many of them were "believers", and he found plenty of investors who were non-Jews. One might simply argue that he exploited friends and friends of friends. Certainly, a far more reasonable explanation for his success was his steady delivery of seven-percent returns on investments.

More seriously, Wade seems to fall into the trap which snared so many of the early evolutionists in the social sciences, and that's the notion that, over time, natural selection results in some sort of progress. He even slips into the use of "primitive" and "advanced" with reference to societies. On the scale of religious belief, this would place America at the primitive end and Switzerland at the more advanced end of the continuum, since the religious instinct seems impressively strong in the former country, but of negligible importance in the latter. Do Americans have more social cohesion as a result? Perhaps some sub-groups in America do have greater cohesiveness, but it would be difficult to argue that religion, rather than some other features of contemporary American life are the basis of it.

Recognizing that THE FAITH INSTINCT is not intended to be a scholarly treatise (and it does have extensive, though somewhat haphazard, documentation) Wade depends too much on cherry picking examples in support of his points--especially in his use of old anthropological sources which have been heavily critiqued by scientists in that field.

There's still much of value here, both in its being a thought-provoking essay and in treading on ground that may be unfamiliar to many readers.
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