Editor's note: Since I read this back in 2012, Wade has gone on to write more openly racist and eugenical books. For what it’s worth, I don’t think his views are so overtly on display in Before the Dawn. Nevertheless, as a result of his more recent writing, I do not recommend reading this book or any of Wade’s books. This review is preserved for posterity.
There is a conciliatory tactic in the trenches of the science versus religion debate that tries to separate the responsibilities of the former from the latter. Despite its attempts to stay out of religion, though, science can’t. It has a job to do: it has to explain religion. Religion is a human behaviour, and humans are part of the physical universe. Therefore, science should have room for an explanation of religion as an emergent phenomenon. Historically, religion has tended to be the domain of sociologists and cultural anthropologists, part of a pushback against the forebears of evolutionary psychology that were also responsible, in part, for social Darwinism and the spectre of eugenics that haunted the early twentieth century. In The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade examines religion using evolutionary theory, and particularly evolutionary biology, to see if religion could be an evolutionary adaptation.
The possibility for explaining religion through evolutionary theory comes as a result of religion’s universality. It is not something that just a few groups do here and there: religion has been with us for our entire recorded history, and religious activity exists in some shape or form in every culture we study. In more recent centuries there have been some attempts, such as those in Russia and China, to create societies without religion. These have not succeeded. What keeps bringing us back to belief? More importantly, when examined from an evolutionary perspective, religion is costly. All that time and energy spent worshipping a deity or a pantheon, building temples, finding sacrifices of some kind … that’s an expensive endeavour, so for it to exist, let alone thrive, suggests it provides a significant advantage for survival.
Historically we associate organized religion with the advent of agriculture. The ability to settle and farm land created the potential for a class of people who did not provide food—a class that could include people responsible for religious duties. Agriculture gave us priests and divine monarchs, but Wade argues that religion would still have been prominent, albeit more egalitarian, in hunter-gatherer cultures. He cites anthropological studies of extant hunter-gatherer cultures; in particular, he explores the connections between music, dance, and trance and how they bring a society closer together. Wade’s thesis overall is that religion could be an adaptative way of promoting social cohesion.
So far, so good. Wade makes a good case for looking at religion using evolutionary theory, and his idea that it promotes social cohesion sounds plausible. However, his evidence to support this idea is less impressive. I enjoyed his previous book, Before the Dawn, because its analysis of our migrations is founded in genetics. As such, Wade can point to specific genes that are common to a population and make inferences about that population’s journey out of Africa. Although Wade assembles explanations from archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, genetics, and neuroscience, this composite corpus of evidence is rather underwhelming. For instance, Wade discusses how, much as with the capacity for language, there may be a neurological basis for religious belief. He notes that excessive activity in the temporal lobe often results in increased religiosity. However, he has to concede that we just don’t know yet.
This proves to be the recurring theme: we don’t know. We don’t have enough archaeological evidence to draw conclusions about ancient religions. We don’t know enough about how the brain or consciousness works to understand its role in religion. (I do find it interesting that Wade does not mention, at all, Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. Though controversial and similarly lacking in evidence, it seems pertinent to the discussion.) Despite our best efforts, we can’t link religion to any particular genes. Wade’s theories are fascinating and his reasoning is laid out in an organized way … but without that evidence to back it up, The Faith Instinct is more thought experiment than anything else.
I suppose this is to be expected from a book that describes itself on the back cover as nonpolemical. Wade isn’t contending much beyond the fact that religion might provide an evolutionary benefit. He acknowledges perspectives that differ from his own, offering useful insight into some of the changes to the climate of anthropology and evolutionary biology in the twentieth century. Similarly, he devotes time both to the positive aspects of religions (their sense of community, their emphasis on moral behaviour) and to the negative aspects (their creation of the Other, wars and crusades and persecution). Set against the backdrop of more charged and controversial tirades for or against religion, The Faith Instinct stands out sheerly because of its level-headed and somewhat non-committal approach to the entire affair.
Wade tacitly recognizes he doesn’t have enough biological evidence for his thesis and devotes the second half of the book to an archaeological examination of various religions, mostly of the Abrahamic line of descent. This is fascinating, but all it did was make me want to re-read The Evolution of God, which does the same thing in more depth (and with more detailed endnotes!). I quite enjoy reading about sacred texts from an archaeological standpoint, but it’s a little out of place in a book about the evolutionary origins of religion…. On one hand, Wade uses these chapters to demonstrate how people have shaped their religions over time to respond to the needs of society in terms of morality, fertility, and cultural identity. On the other hand, his treatment is too general to do the subject justice.
In what is perhaps the most contentious part of the book, Wade examines religion’s link to morality. Although careful to point out that athiests can be moral individuals, Wade wonders if this is a consequence of their existing in a community whose moral standards are largely derived from one religion or another. Would a society composed entirely of atheists who are ignorant of religion still have moral standards and be able to maintain order? Wade cannot draw a conclusion one way or the other, for no such society has existed, and he argues that the innate tendency towards religious behaviour means no such society will exist in the near future.
It’s this last part, that idea that religious belief seems to be innate, that might rankle some atheists. Yet the very nature of the word atheist is a philosophical declaration against belief in a deity. It speaks of a need to differentiate oneself in the negative, something we don’t often see. As Neil de Grasse Tyson points out in a video where he explains why he identifies as agnostic, non-skiers don’t get together and talk about not skiing. Atheism is an active rather than a passive form of disbelief—and it is that way because religion is so pervasive a human behaviour.
I understand why Wade did not digress further into his discussion of the morality of a society of atheists, for that delves into philosophy rather than evolutionary biology. If such a society were to develop today, it would still possess the historical and philosophical traditions of morality, including those handed down by religion. In that case, it seems reasonable to conclude that such a society could develop secular moral tenets, albeit tenets that might descend from those proposed by religion. So Wade might have a point after all, when he claims that religion could have a necessary purpose in the development of our species. This doesn’t mean that atheism or secularism are wrong. After all, perhaps religion was necessary before but will gradually disappear, just as we evolved tails and then eventually discarded them. I don’t see that being the case, but you never know.
Part scientific speculation, part philosophical rumination, The Faith Instinct is an intriguing look at religion from a rational, science-based perspective. It seeks to prescribe neither an attitude toward religion nor a prognosis for its future role in society. Instead, Wade taps evolutionary theory to explain the universality of such a complex and diverse human behaviour. At times his explanations, while interesting, lack the necessary evidence to be persuasive. I can’t help but feel like The Faith Instinct is somewhat premature—in a few more decades, who knows what secrets of the brain we might uncover? For what it is, however, this book is good but not great. It shines the light in that one spot where we can’t, no matter how we try, separate science and religion. If you are already very interested in this subject, there are some books, like The Evolution of God, that might leave you more fulfilled. Neophytes, however, will probably find The Faith Instinct a welcoming way to begin looking at religion in this light.