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The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures Hardcover – Bargain Price, November 12, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Taking up where he left off in Before the Dawn (2006), an engaging examination of human evolution in light of explorations in the human genome, longtime New York Times science reporter Wade deftly explores the evolutionary basis of religion. He draws on archeology, social science and natural science as he vigorously shows that the instinct for religious behavior is an evolved part of human nature because, like other human social traits that have evolved over many thousands of years, the practice of religion conferred a decided survival advantage to those who practiced it. Natural selection operates according to principles of survival and reproduction of offspring with heritable traits. Many of the social aspects of religious behavior offer advantages—such as internal cohesion—that lead to a society's members having more surviving children. More importantly, since religions have evolved as their societies have developed, is it possible, Wade asks, for religions to be reworked so that as many people as possible can exercise their innate religious instincts to their own and society's benefits? Sure to be controversial for its reduction of religion to a product of natural selection, Wade's study compels us to reconsider the role of evolution in shaping even our most sacred human creations. (Nov. 16)
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From Booklist

Evolutionary studies have accumulated enough convincing explanations based on enough factual discovery for it to be indisputable that religion is biologically rooted. Wade, a science journalist whose vita includes stints with the revered journals Nature and Science before he joined the New York Times science section, draws on the most famous and influential researchers to synthesize the story of religion through the ages. While religion has utility for the individual, it is overwhelmingly important for group cohesion and loyalty, as evidenced by the mass dancing, chanting, and trance-seeking of hunter-gatherer cultures, in which what much later Christian idealists called the priesthood of all believers genuinely obtained. When stationary communities arose, hierarchies followed in all enterprises, including religion, and if anything, religion’s community-binding function became more crucial as populations and then technology burgeoned. By now, it should be obvious that religion not only won’t but can’t be expunged. There is so much more in this compact account, including cultural-evolutionary explanations of the three great monotheisms—enough, in fact, to make it a cornerstone of popular religion-and-science studies. --Ray Olson

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (November 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202281
  • ASIN: B003B3NVZY
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 1 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,241,202 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nicholas Wade is the author of three books about recent human evolution. They are addressed to the general reader interested in knowing what the evolutionary past tells us about human nature and society today.
One, Before the Dawn, published in 2006, traces how people have evolved during the last 50,000 years.
The second book, The Faith Instinct (2009), argues that because of the survival advantage of religion, an instinct for religious behavior was favored by natural selection among early human societies and became universal in all their descendants.
A Troublesome Inheritance (2014), the third of the trilogy, looks at how human races evolved.
Wade was born in Aylesbury, England, and educated at Eton and at King's College, Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences. He became a journalist writing about scientific issues, and has worked at Nature and Science, two weekly scientific magazines, and on the New York Times.

Customer Reviews

Excellent read, very thought-provoking.
Louise Radanovich
Wade has done a masterful job of illustrating the common elements in many religions and tracing them to their historic roots.
Daniel Dundon
I'm personally an atheist, but Wade is careful not to promote or denigrate religion.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

206 of 217 people found the following review helpful By R. Stone on November 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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...
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56 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Meade Fischer on January 14, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover
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.
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