The Faith Instinct: Book summary and reviews of The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade

The Faith Instinct

How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

by Nicholas Wade

The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade X
The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade

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Book Summary

Noted science writer Nicholas Wade offers for the first time a convincing case based on a broad range of scientific evidence for the evolutionary basis of religion.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"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." - Publishers Weekly

"Instead of attacking or defending religion, as so many have done lately, the biggest challenge is to explain how we became the only religious primate. In a spell-binding and wide-ranging account, Nicholas Wade offers a natural history of religion and convincingly explains why the phenomenon is here to stay." - Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy

"It is a rare book that will be read as eagerly by religion's defenders as by its detractors. Building on his rightly admired Before the Dawn, Nicholas Wade has written just such a book." - Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography

"As he did earlier for human prehistory in Before the Dawn, Nicholas Wade has delivered the most balanced and fact-based account available of a subject fundamental to human self-understanding. His scholarship is thorough, and his writing crystalline and exciting." - Edward O. Wilson, author of Consilience and The Future of Life

"The Faith Instinct is a big winner! Its highly intelligent and much-needed narrative about why religions have proved essential to human success kept me engrossed from its beginning to its final pages." - James D Watson

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Reader Reviews

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Brad Lowell Stone

Finally, a first-rate evolutionary account of religion
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, Hutchins, 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 which 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 inegalitarian post-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.

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Author Information

Nicholas Wade

Nicholas Wade is a longtime reporter for The New York Times's Science section, which studies by the Times have shown is the most popular section of the paper around the country. Before writing for the Times, he was the deputy editor of Nature magazine in London, one of the world's most prestigious science publications, and a reporter for Science magazine, the world's premier science journal. He is the author or coauthor of five previous books. His most recent book, Before the Dawn, tells the story of human origins in terms of new insights from the human genome.

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