Getting It Wrong

Ophelia Benson

The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, by Nicholas Wade (New York: Penguin, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59420-228-5) 310 pp. Cloth $29.95.


Recently, Pope Benedict XVI told his followers and other Christians, “While we are on the path towards full communion, we are called to offer a shared witness against the ever more complex challenges of our time, including secularization and indifference.” The struggle against “secularization,” and the perception and characterization of it as a bad thing on a par with indifference or worse, have been at the forefront of the concerns of the current papacy. There is a similar note of hostility to secularism in Nicholas Wade’s book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, as in this rather tendentious question: “If religion still has many valuable roles to play, how might religious leaders protect its foundations from erosion by the rising tides of secularism?” (p. 278).

The question is representative as well as loaded; it could stand for the book as a whole, whose thrust could be summed up as follows: religion has been socially useful in some ways, therefore it is desirable and must be protected from secularism. Secularism of course means not the destruction of religion but its separation from government; Nicholas Wade, whether he intends to or not, seems to be urging more theocratic governance in countries that are currently secular.

Wade’s overarching factual claim is that religion is such a pervasive (he says universal) feature of human societies that it must be genetic. “Because of the decided survival advantage conferred on people who practiced religion, the behaviour had become written into our neural circuitry by at least 50,000 years ago, and probably much earlier” (p. 6). The bulk of the book is occupied with expanding on that claim and attempting to back it up.

It’s a strong claim but one that many biologists and social scientists disagree with, as Wade briefly acknowledges. The more cautious view is that religion is not itself adaptive but a by-product of a much more basic and general feature that is adaptive. This is an epistemically conservative approach; it is risky to claim that very specific behaviors are themselves “written into our neural circuitry” rather than elaborations of more fundamental capacities.

Wade frequently compares the putative instinct for religion to the instinct for language, but this is not convincing. Language is genuinely universal, and religion is not. A child does not fail to learn language unless she is profoundly handicapped or radically socially isolated, but many children don’t learn religion. There are no “a-languageists” as there are atheists. Wade’s claim is that religion is historically and socially universal (which is itself questionable), but that’s not the same as personally universal.

Wade almost confronts this problem at one point but somehow manages to get it wrong. In disputing Steven Pinker’s claim that religion is not adaptive but rather a by-product, he discusses three tests that Pinker says a trait or behavior should meet to be considered adaptive. The first is that it should be shown to be innate: universal and developing across a range of environments. “Speaking, for instance,” Wade explains, “meets this criterion but reading does not, since children learn to read only when taught to do so.” Exactly—and religion is like reading in that way, so it is not adaptive. Yet Wade somehow draws the opposite conclusion. “Religious behavior too would seem to meet the criterion quite well, given that religion is universal and the propensity to learn it appears reliably in every culture around the age of adolescence” (p. 65). But religion is not universal in the sense he means there—like reading, it has to be taught.

Some of Wade’s core claim is reasonably persuasive, though far from new. The pragmatic, not to say cynical, idea that fear of the gods’ wrath keeps people in line goes back to Polybius and beyond, and it informs the settled modern prejudice that atheists must be immoral and unprincipled. Wade puts the basic idea crisply: “Fear of an omnipresent supervisor is of utmost practical benefit to a group, particularly in primitive societies that lack courts and police forces. Fear of divine retribution keeps almost everyone in line with the prevailing rules and moral code. . . .” (p. 14).

Wade further argues that this mechanism, along with intense emotions invoked and intensified through ritual, music, and unified rhythmic movement, creates what he calls “social cohesion.” One advantage of this, he claims, is “high morale in warfare—that would lead to a society’s having more surviving children, and religion for such reasons would be favored by natural selection” (p.12).

Would it? Always, necessarily, to the exclusion of the opposite effect? That doesn’t seem obvious. “High morale in warfare” can, surely, lead to reckless wasteful aggression as well as defensive solidarity. It’s not really self-evident that high morale in warfare leads to a society’s having more surviving children, and many of Wade’s rather easy claims have this iffy character. The conditional tense is pervasive, indicating a level of speculation that sometimes strains belief past the breaking point. Something always “would have” something else, and after a few pages the reader can’t help wondering how Wade knows.

In some places, it becomes embarrassingly clear that Wade doesn’t know, as when he contradicts himself or else absent-mindedly says his claim is true both if P and if not-P. On page 17, for instance, he tells us that socially “religion has long been seen as essential to morality and probably still is. For even though individuals can behave morally without religion, most atheists and agnostics take good care to observe the moral standards of their community, which even in highly secular countries are influenced by religion.”

That’s confusing enough, and near the end of the book we get: “the fact that atheists are as moral as anyone else does not mean that religion is unnecessary, as some atheists contend. In most European countries, less than half the population attends church regularly. But people seem to treat one another with much the same level of concern as when churchgoing was de rigueur” (p. 208). The last few chapters of the book frequently collapse into this unfalsifiable, ad hoc kind of claim in which everything supports his case: the presence of religion, the absence of religion, everything.

Less startling but more fundamental is Wade’s underlying cynicism and his failure to notice it, much less come to grips with it. It is no doubt true that threats are a powerful way to compel obedience and that “an omnipresent supervisor” is a particularly labor-saving kind of threat. As Wade convincingly argues, cheaters, liars, and free-riders always represent a large social cost, and it is useful to have a reliable way to frighten people out of attempting to cheat. But it is also worth noticing that there is no evidence that such an omnipresent supervisor exists and that there is something insulting to all of us in insisting on the social value of living by invented supernatural threats.

Possibly even more surprising is Wade’s uncritical view of “cohesion.” He tells us repeatedly that religion promotes group and national cohesion without apparently worrying that the ideal of cohesion has a coercive side—another word for it would be simply conformity. Further, cohesion based on fear of a supernatur
al prison guard is coercive in a way from which one can never escape, not even in the privacy of one’s own thoughts, since the whole point is that the invisible cop is always watching and misses nothing. There is something wrong with Wade’s thinking, that he embraces the notion of this cosmic enforcer so cheerfully.

But then this is a Templeton Foundation book. The foundation, as is well known, is a great fan of religion, and it not only gave Wade a “generous grant” to write the book, it also supervised and provided assistance. He artlessly admits this in the acknowledgments, where he thanks the Foundation not only for the grant but also “for the advice of its expert reviewers, who scrutinized the project at its outline and first-draft stages.” He also thanks the only one of Templeton’s reviewers who was not anonymous and whose conversation “allowed me to close several conceptual gaps in the argument.” This seems an unusually activist role for a foundation.

This is a very agenda-driven book, and if one is not in sympathy with the agenda, it simply fails to convince.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).


The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, by Nicholas Wade (New York: Penguin, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59420-228-5) 310 pp. Cloth $29.95. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI told his followers and other Christians, “While we are on the path towards full communion, we are called to offer a shared witness against the ever more complex …

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