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The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  520 Ratings  ·  92 Reviews
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.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published November 12th 2009 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published 2009)
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Jul 06, 2014 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: people interested in religion, evolution, or history
Shelves: science, history, religion
TL;DR: Wade’s book is worth the purchase, but there are some severe problems that the reader should watch out for.

I want to be kind to this book. I really do. Part of me thinks this book has greatness in it.

Wade presents so much useful information about the subject of religion and evolution. For instance, he shows compelling biological reasons that religion might evolve in the human species, offers a brief history of the three major monotheisms in the context of this discussion, and offers insig
Jun 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011
At the wedding I attended last weekend, I was a bit disappointed there was only one hymn because, despite being nonreligious and a terrible singer, I love hymns. Why, though? What itch is scratched by hymn-singing that isn't scratched by karaoke or listening to an Orlando di Lassus CD? In this book, Nicholas Wade talks about the purposes and methods of religion from an evolutionary point of view and concludes that the most fundamental ingredients of religion are singing and dancing together. Bec ...more
Jul 31, 2010 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People interested in religion & evolution
Recommended to Terence by: Library New Book shelf
In The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade argues that religion is a gene-based adaptation that allowed those groups that had it to survive where those without perished, “religion” being defined as “a system of emotionally binding beliefs and practices in which a society implicitly negotiates through prayer and sacrifice with supernatural agents, securing from them commands that compel members, through fear of divine punishment, to subordinate their interests to the common good.” (p. 15) Religion deve ...more
Rod Hilton
Sep 07, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: audiobooks, religion
The Faith Instinct is not a bad book, but it may not be what you're expecting. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting.

Based on the title, "How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures" I was expecting some pretty hard scientific data. Brain imaging, scientific experiments, and psychological case studies, however, are not to be found in this book. Instead, author Nicholas Wade approaches the question of religion not from a scientific or psychological perspective, but an historical one.

In this way, i
Julie Ellis
Oct 18, 2009 rated it it was ok
The first half of this book was interesting. The author reviews the evidence for the evolution of morality and religion. He gives an interesting and believable argument in favor of group selection in evolution under special circumstances. Group selection is very controversial in biology. He makes a good case for it. After that, however, things start to go awry. After his discussion of the evolution of morality, he then goes on to say that religion is the source of all morality in society. Furthe ...more
Andrea McDowell
Jan 07, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: religion, science
This book had untold potential to tell the story of the evolution of religion, biologically and culturally, within human societies. Wade squandered it through chapters full of navel-gazing anecdata tortured into pretending to support his theses.

The first half of the book was slow and repetitive but interesting. The book's central hypothesis is that religion evolved through forms of kin selection, by providing advantages to societies largely in the form of greater cohesion and conformity. Keep i
Ben Babcock
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 o ...more
Steve Van Slyke
Apr 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I had recently read and enjoyed the author's Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors and so when I first considered reading this book on the evolution of religion I was fairly confident that I was not going to be lead down a pseudo-scientific garden path leading to some startling revelation like “science proves that God exists!” And indeed, such is not the case, in fact Wade never capitalizes the word god and more often than not uses the plural as in “they negotiated with t ...more
Jan 07, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: ideas, science, history
The author wanders awkwardly from biology to sociology to history. The chapter on "The Tree of Religion" is especially interesting and reveals some interesting points about the development of Islam, previously unknown to me. I think I agree with the author that we are sadly stuck with religion. His observations on the relationship of dancing and music with belief hit close to home. I recently had to endure a Springsteen concert. It really didn't have that much to do with the music. It was all ab ...more
Morgan Blackledge
Aug 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
Wile I personally do not 100% resonate with all of the conclusions Wade makes in this book. ( I am currently pretty far out on the Dawkinsiean atheist tip and am subsequently more
skeptical and hostile towards religion than Wade ) I did thoroughly enjoy this book and I also learned a lot. If anything, this book has brought me back to a more rational, balanced, less hostile view of religion and it's apparently necessary role in human culture. Great stuff.
Linas  Vaitulevicius
May 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorite
Glad I came across this book and picked it up. Could have been a huge eye opener if read 10 years ago. Still a very compelling read, similar to Cambell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces in terms of intellectual insight. The book offers helicipter view of the multi-facet phenomenon we call 'religion'. Unless you are totally devoid of reason, you will find yourself in agreement with the author on nearly every page. I've seen the complaints about the author's writing style (short sentences and stuff ...more
Mouldy Squid
Nov 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: students of religion and history, readers interested in religion and society
A fascinating exposition of a theory sure to stir controversy. Nicholas Wade carefully and convincingly puts forth the hypothesis that religion, far from being a delusion, or "mental illness" as Dawkins claims, is actually an evolutionary adaptation that selects at the group level. Wade argues that the ubiquitousness of religion, which must pre-date all civilization and perhaps language, could only have survived the crucible of Darwin if it conferred some advantage to the ancestors of human bein ...more
Nov 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
i think people in general spend so much time actively engaged WITHIN their religion that they never really develop an appreciation for the HOW's, WHY's, and WHERE's of their religion, or for religion as a whole.

this is an incredibly fascinating look at the origins and evolution of religion from the religions of nomadic tribes to the three monotheisms of today's civilizations.

as reportage, it's stellar, and wade makes this stuff compelling through a variety of histories, anecdotes, and distillat
David Teachout
Feb 12, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: audio, psychology
I'm not entirely convinced that the point of this book was to detail how religion evolved. Confusion reigns from the title itself, seeming to connect "faith" (a way of knowing) with "religion" (a social process with varied traits). The confusion is not helped by the author defining religion as both a process manifesting in particular cultural traits including rites and rituals, and as an instinctive propensity for people at the level of genetics. It would seem that this confusion is deliberately ...more
Rob Dewitte
This comes on the heels of Wade's "Before the Dawn", which traced the evolution of human groups along mitochondrial DNA, which remains unmodified since modern humans left Africa thousands of years ago.

Wade's thesis, based in part on the fact that it is universal among human populations, is that on the whole, religion conferred an adaptive advantage to its believers, and thus is the result of evolution. He focuses his efforts on the concrete parts of religion that can be measured: religious beha
Darla Stokes
Nov 16, 2012 rated it liked it
The first half of the book, describing how and why religions evolved, was fascinating, engaging, and well-researched, with contradictory theories presented, and his reasons for preferring one over the other well-explained. The second half, describing his conclusions, was vastly less so. He dismissed studies backed up by evidence without either refuting those studies or providing evidence for his own counter theories. He also blatantly contradicted himself--for example, earlier in the book, he st ...more
Dec 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
It's an important book and a good read, though more broad and speculative than it is scientific. The thesis described in the title, that religion in the human individual and society is the result of natural selection, is barely discussed before Wade moves on to support a different claim, that shared religion the the glue that binds the individuals in a society. But both topics are interesting and Wade brings a lot of reading and thought to bear on each subject, so I was happy with the book.

May 04, 2010 rated it liked it
Wade presents the idea that religion evolved biologically and culturally as an adaptive aspect of humanity. This book has many critics on both sides of the debate. Religious fundamentalists find his assertion that religion is a product of natural laws unsettling, while many non-theists find his assertion that religion is essentially an adaptive trait misleading. Religion is obviously not the product of a single genetic trait, and Wade fully acknowledges this; however, he does argue that a comple ...more
JoAnn Jordan
Mar 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This is a very good book that gives some insight into the origins of faith.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how faith evolved.
I was a bit torn when starting this book. Although the subject seemed particularly interesting, I was a bit apprehensive of Wade’s arguments seeing how I had disliked more than a few he put across in “The Red Queen”. As I feared, Wade starts leaning quite heavily on group selection theory for the arguments in this book as well. While my skepticism of group selection comes from the writings of its critics (Dawkins, Pinker, etc.) the arguments against it do seem solid enough to me (groups don’t pa ...more
Reid Mccormick
I don’t even remember when I bought this book. It was a several years ago, I know that for sure. I read the first half, and then life kind of got in the way and it got lost for a bit. After moving, I picked it up again and finished it. Finally.

Funny enough, I found the first half book rather fascinating and the last half rather boring. I’m not exactly sure why. The first half of the book is more about the evolutionary aspects of religion while the last half is about human involvement with religi
Sep 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book could have used a better editor, because although the content is excellent, the writing is sometimes pretty terrible, especially at the beginning.

A couple of quotes that sum up the book:

"Religion can be seen, from one perspective, as a high form of creativity. Music appeals to the auditory part of the brain, poetry to the language faculty, dance to the centers of rhythm and movement, art to the visual cortex. Religion plays on all these faculties, and through them arouses the deepest e
Scott Cinsavich
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Scott by: Scientific American
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Roger Neyman
Nov 08, 2017 rated it liked it
An interesting and semi-thorough survey of thinking about the evolution of religion - which is to say - how human evolution and religion helped shape each other. Typical of others in the field, this survey suffers from the fallacy of considering only the social-cohesiveness aspect of religion as it binds society closely together. No doubt that is a big factor, but it is not the only one. Consequently, it just assumes and helps perpetuate a rather materialist theory of religion.
David Becker
May 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Well-reasoned, multidisciplinary argument for religion as an evolutionary advancement hard-wired into our genes. Wade does a superb job of weaving together insights from biology, sociology, history and more and is quite careful about describing rather advocating. Highly enjoyable.
Feb 05, 2015 rated it liked it
A few years ago I would have only read a book like this if the subtitle was something like "why people believe in such stupid things and how we can make these idiots stop." My views toward religion have sort of warmed a little bit as I came to realize how equally destructive the scientific crusade has been. People like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins pretend that there's no harm in it because it's not based on superstition but that alone doesn't make it benign. There are still sacrificial victims ...more
Feb 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The need for new religions in the modern world

With a broadly accessible even-tone, the author surveys the historical and social experience of human religions mainly in the theistic tradition, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Without being polemic nor overly passionate, the author explores the role that religion had performed in coalescing human societies through various stages of development. The book concluded on the religion’s current impediments in the modern world. The philosophic vi
Kristi Thielen
Jun 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Nicholas Wade makes the case that an instinct for faith became hardwired in humans, when it proved to be vital to the survival of early societies. He then goes on to build on this premise with an exploration of how religion binds people together - or, conversely keeps us separate from those who don't share our religion - and why this has shaped culture.

One of his most absorbing statements is that as humans began to live in larger and larger groups there was a greater and greater need to enforce
Sep 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
"Does it matter that each of the three monotheisms asserts a historical basis not wholly in accordance with the textual and archeological facts? In many ways it does not matter. Religion is about symbolic communication. The sacred texts of the three monotheism includes themes that symbolize the values and traditions of each religion. Their longevity is a testament to their emotional truth and their enduring value for the civilizations constructed around them.

But in other ways the assertions of h
Why belief in religion is possible, and prospering, in our species. Starts off with the attributes that are associated with religion. These were the topics I was expecting. Things like, a child that entirely believes that which authority figures tell him, is more likely to survive. A useful trait. The social importance of what a religion can provide is surprisingly high. Such as it serving as a signal of involvement in moral affairs. Hence, why so many in modern society do not trust atheists, ev ...more
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Nicholas Wade is a British-born scientific reporter, editor and author who currently writes for the Science Times section of The New York Times. Wade was born in Aylesbury, England and educated at Eton College and King's College, Cambridge. Wade has been a correspondent, based in Washington, and deputy editor, based in London, of the journal Nature. He also reported from Washington for the journal ...more
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“poetry.” 0 likes
“ancient Greek word mousikē, from which the English word music is derived, means any art over which the Muses presided, hence included dance, music and recited poetry.” 0 likes
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