Monday, May 9, 2011

Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct": Book Review

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.

(Posted to Amazon US 4-4-11. See also my review of Michel Onfray's barbed counterpart, speared with venom if wit as "Atheist Manifesto: the Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam" in PopMatters Re:Print featured 4-28-11 and a review in a simpler, shorter version the same day at or Amazon US.)


AM said...

A fine review and as always a reviewer does his job when he persuades - without consciously trying - the reader to get the book. These type of works are essential for our understanding of religion as a social phenomenon that has evolved like everything else in the world, rather than the outcome of some divinity. It will now go into the Amazon basket!!

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Thanks, AM. I wanted to give Wade's book the benefit of careful explanation (similar to the previous polemic I reviewed by Michel Onfrey, whom your fellow scribe Liam O'R castigated on FB as "third-rate Nietzsche"!). I liked Wade's ability to calmly set out his points, as I found this approach, for all its inevitable detail, more persuasive than Onfrey's passionate, fulminating but rather shrill diatribe. As a social and cultural phenomenon, indeed, I find myself as fascinated by religion as ever, despite what my family would say about my current state of fidelity!