Gregg Sapp's Reviews > The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade
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In their famous paper “The Spandrels of San Marco,” Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin argue that many functional traits that appear to be precise evolutionary adaptations are, in fact, byproducts of selective processes that may not, themselves, provide any advantage. For example, the chin is a byproduct of evolutionary forces that created the human head, nose, and mouth, so in order to have a fully equipped head, human beings must have chins. Adaptationist theories about the function of the chin may be nothing more than “just so stories,” which attempt to explain observations with unprovable speculation.

While granting that Gould and Lewontin have many detractors, their general supposition that not each and every minute trait must be evolutionarily programed for a specific function makes sense to me. Some things just are. And that gets to the heart of my skepticism regarding “The Faith Instinct” by Nicholas Wage.

I can’t help but wonder if innate religiosity is not a spandrel of evolved intelligence. Human beings can think; thus, they are aware of the human condition; therefor, they create elaborate belief systems to ameliorate the fear, ignorance, and despair that comes from being mortal. All else is just embellishment.

For evolutionary biologists, though, such a simple supposition does not suffice. By their way of thinking, because religion is universal among human cultures and supports many essential social institutions, it absolutely must be a product of natural selection. Wade thus invests considerable time exploring the origins of religion among the hunting and gathering cultures of our remote ancestors. In their egalitarian social structure, religious experience was focused on solidifying the social order and expressed primarily through group, ritual dance. While it is clearly true that a shared belief system provided identity and cohesion among ancient humans, any underlying mechanism of natural selection is harder to discern. Did “religious” genes that facilitated this kind of communal bonding survive, while others less sociable die out? Possibly.

Wade discusses how, as agriculture gradually emerged, the egalitarianism of hunters and gathers broke down, and a class of priests appeared whose function was to mediate between humans and their gods. These priests were very concerned about maintaining a docile and unquestioning social order, for their privileges depended on it. Since they could not keep an eye on everybody, they conceived of an omniscient God to do the job for them. Over centuries, up to this day, God has proven extremely diligent about enforcing compliance to priestly – oops, I mean divine – rules and regulations.

Wade examines how our species’ genetic predisposition toward theism has played out in societies as diverse as the Aztecs, the major monotheistic traditions, and even oddball mystery cults. He walks a thin line, though. By connecting the origins and continued existence of religion primarily to its social utility, he blurs the distinction between the individual and societal evolution. We can say that a genetic mutation might enhance the survivability of an individual, but to argue that whole societies evolve by favoring individuals mentally and emotionally inclined to be religious seems a stretch. Isn’t it simpler just to suppose that religion is an artifice of the human mind? If so, it seems possible that even the most elaborate doctrines of religion are likewise contrived, for good or ill.

“The Faith Instinct” is full of intriguing suppositions, worthy of discussion, although not always persuasive.

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Reading Progress

October 28, 2019 – Started Reading
November 17, 2019 – Shelved
November 17, 2019 – Finished Reading

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