The faith instinct: How religion evolved and why it endures


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WHEREVER their investigations lead, all analysts of religion begin somewhere. And in the final lines of his densely but skilfully packed account of faith from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, Nicholas Wade recalls the place where he first felt sanctity: Eton College chapel. 

The “beauty of holiness” in a British private school is a far cry from the sort of religion that later came to interest him as a science journalist at Nature magazine and then the New York Times. To examine the roots of religion, he says, it is important to look at human beginnings. The customs of hunter-gatherer peoples who survived into modern times give an idea of religion’s first forms: the ecstasy of dusk-to-dawn tribal dances, for example. 

Charles Darwin, whose idea of the sacred also came from an English private school, witnessed religion at its most primordial when he went to Australia in 1836. He found it horrifying: “nearly naked figures, viewed by the light of blazing fires, all moving in hideous harmony…” 

Whatever Darwin’s personal sensibilities, Mr Wade is convinced that a Darwinian approach offers the key to understanding religion. In other words, he sides with those who think man’s propensity for religion has some adaptive function. According to this view, faith would not have persisted over thousands of generations if it had not helped the human race to survive. Among evolutionary biologists, this idea is contested. Critics of religion, like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, suggest that faith is a useless (or worse) by-product of other human characteristics. 

And that controversy leads to another one. Does Darwinian selection take place at the level only of individuals, or of groups as well? As Mr Wade makes clear, the notion of religion as an “adaptive” phenomenon makes better sense if one accepts the idea of group selection. Groups which practised religion effectively and enjoyed its benefits were likely to prevail over those which lacked these advantages. 

Of course, the picture is muddied by the vast changes that religion went through in the journey from tribal dancing to Anglican hymns. The advent of settled, agricultural societies, at least 10,000 years ago, led to a new division of labour, in which priestly castes tried to monopolise access to the divine, and the authorities sought to control sacred ecstasy. 

Still, the modifications that religion has undergone should not, in Mr Wade’s view, distract from the study of faith’s basic functions. In what way, then, does religion enhance a group’s survival? Above all, by promoting moral rules and cementing cohesion, in a way that makes people ready to sacrifice themselves for the group and to deal ruthlessly with outsiders. These arguments are well made. Mr Wade has a clear mind and limpid prose style which guides the reader almost effortlessly through 200 years of intellectual history. Perhaps, though, he oversimplifies the link between morality, in the sense of obedience to rules, and group solidarity based on common participation in ecstatic rites. 

All religion is concerned in varying degrees with metaphysical ideas, moral norms and mystical experience. But in the great religions, the moral and the mystical have often been in tension. The more a religion stresses ecstasy, the less it seems hidebound by rules—especially rules of public behaviour, as opposed to purely religious norms. And religious movements (from the “Deuteronomists” of ancient Israel to the English Puritans) that emphasise moral norms tend to eschew the ecstatic. 

Max Weber, one of the fathers of religious sociology, contrasted the transcendental feelings enjoyed by Catholic mass-goers with the Protestant obsession with behaviour. In Imperial Russia, Peter the Great tried to pull the Russian Orthodox church from the former extreme to the latter: to curb its love of rite and mystery and make it more of a moral agency like the Lutheran churches of northern Europe. He failed. Russians liked things mystical, and they didn’t like being told what to do. 

As well as giving an elegant summary of modern thinking about religion, Mr Wade also offers a brief, provocative history of monotheism. He endorses the radical view that the story of the Jews’ flight from Egypt is myth, rather than history. He sympathises with daring ideas about Islam’s beginnings: so daring that many of its proponents work under false names. In their view, Islam is more likely to have emerged from dissident Christian sects in the Levant than to have “burst out of Arabia”, as the Muslim version of sacred history teaches. 

At times, the book stumbles. In describing the interplay between Hellenic and Hebrew culture at the dawning of Christianity, Mr Wade makes exaggerated claims. He says there is no basis for a mother-and-child cult in the religion of Israel. In fact there are many references in the Hebrew scriptures to the Messiah and his mother; the Dead Sea Scrolls have made this even clearer. And his micro-history of Christian theology is inaccurate in places. 

These objections aside, this is a masterly book. It lays the basis for a rich dialogue between biology, social science and religious history. It also helps explain a quest for collective ecstasy that can take myriad forms. Perhaps his brief autobiographical reference to Eton should have noted the bonding effect not only of chapel, but also of songs like “Jolly Boating Weather”. 

Source: The Economist [December 17, 2009]



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