Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures by Nicholas Wade

It's the second week of April and I haven't written about a single book I read in March yet. So here we go...

I bought this at Borders in Beverly during the bankruptcy sale. Local residents fought to keep the store open by protesting and petitioning and whatever other futile means they thought could influence the dying corporation. Of course, in retrospect their efforts became pointless when the entire chain imploded a few months later. Anyway, this was only my second visit to the store since I rarely venture deep into the South Side.* I picked out some unusual titles that day, The Faith Instinct among them.

Wade asserts that religion is a product of evolution and natural selection. His argument is based on the ubiquity and fundamental similarities of religions worldwide as well as their benefits to the survival of the species: religion gives societies structure, a moral framework, and community support. Most of this is covered early in the book, and then the author examines Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in depth. He also takes down Richard Dawkins a couple of times, much to my amusement.** Wade does not argue for or against the existence of God, and the answer is irrelevant in this context.

I had a hard time reading this book, which took about two weeks (considering I finished a book every three days last year, that's a long time for a book under 300 pages). My mind wandered often, pondering the concepts in the book as well as ruminating on my own faith or lack thereof. I have read several reviews likening The Faith Instinct to The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, another book that took me a long time to read as I became lost in thought (of the two, by the way, The Faith Instinct is much more about evolution in the Darwinian sense).

I don't really understand how the in-depth discussion of the origins of Western religions belongs in this book. I found it very interesting and learned a lot, but it seems tangential at best. If one is discussing religion as a part of evolution, the past few thousand years is a pretty short time period. Wade's informative analysis of the similarities among primitive religions seems more relevant to the survival of the species.

* I don't count driving the expressways since those are just ways to get somewhere else. Unlike many North Siders, however, I do acknowledge that the South Side exists and is in fact much larger than the North Side, even if it lags behind in the critical fratboy-bars-per-capita metric.

** I have nothing against atheists, but Richard Dawkins strikes me as kind of a dick, pun intended. That goes double for Christopher Hitchens but without the pun (evangelical atheists annoy me even more than evangelical Christians). Dawkins doesn't think religion is evolutionary, but Wade points out that he is biased by his hatred for religion. Also Dawkins claims that being a moral atheist proves that religion is unnecessary (an argument I've heard from others), but this ignores the role of religion in shaping and enforcing those morals.

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