Table of Contents
ALSO BY NICHOLAS WADE
The Nobel Duel: Two Scientists’ 21-Year Race to Win the W
orld’s Most Coveted Research Prize
Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science
(with William Broad)
Before the Dawn: Reco
vering the Lost Histo
ry of Our Ancestors
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
The faith instinct : how religion evolved and why it endures Nicholas Wade.
Includes bibliographical references andindex.
eISBN : 978-1-101-15567-7
1. Religion—Philosophy. I. Title.
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THE NATURE OF RELIGION
Religion is not a popular error; it is a great instinctive truth, sensed by the people and expressed by the people.
To call religion instinctive is not to suppose any particular part of its mythos is untrue, only that its sources run deeper than ordinary habit and are in fact hereditary, urged into birth through biases in mental development encoded in the genes.
EDWARD O. WILSON’
or the last 50,000 years, and probably for much longer, people have practiced religion. With dance and chants and sacred words, they have ritually marked the cycles of the seasons and the passages of life, from birth to adolescence, to marriage and to death.
Religion has brought meaning to millions in their personal lives. Its rituals have given believers assurance of control over unpredictable adversities. In the face of daunting fears, of famine, sickness, disaster or death, religion has always been a wellspring of hope. “Though thou art worshipped by the names divine Of Jesus and Jehovah,” wrote the poet William Blake, “Thou art still The son of morn in weary night’s decline, / The lost traveler’s dream under the hill.”
Religions point to the realm of the supernatural, assuring people that they are not alone in the world. Most religions teach that there is an afterlife and some promise a better existence there, often for lives lived correctly in this world or to compensate for its misfortunes. The Wana people of Sulawesi believe that as they are last on earth, so they will be first in paradise.
Faith brings personal rewards but it is as a social force that religion carves its place in history. In religion’s name, people have fed the hungry, cared for the sick, founded charities and hospitals. Religion creates circles of trust whose members may support one another in calamity or find hosts and trading partners in distant cities. In societies throughout the worl
d, religious rites are intimately associated with the communal activities of music and dance. Religion has fostered and inspired artists’ expressions of shared devotion, from medieval cathedrals, to the painters of the Renaissance and the masses of Palestrina, Bach and Haydn.
Religion, above all, embodies the moral rules that members of a community observe toward one other. It thus sustains the quality of the social fabric, and did so alone in early societies that had not developed civil authorities. It binds people together for collective action, through public rituals that evoke emotional commitment to a common cause.
There is no church of oneself. A church is a community, a special group of people who share the same beliefs. And these are not ordinary, matter-of-fact views but deeply held emotional attachments. By expressing the common creed together, in symbolic rituals, in group activities involving song and movement in unison, people signal to each other their commitment to the shared beliefs that bind them together as a community. This emotional bonding is captured in the probable derivation of “religion” from
a Latin word meaning to bind.
Religion may tie together the members of a village church, or of an entire country. It can unite people who may share neither common kinship, nor ethnicity nor even language. When nations feel their existence is at stake, they often define their cause by religion, whether in Europe’s long wars with Islam, or Elizabethan England’s defiance of Catholic Spain, or the Puritans’ emigration to New England, or the foundation of Israel.
So indelibly and distinctively does religion shape the fabric of societies that it has become the defining feature of the cultures around which great civilizations are built, such as those of Western Christianity or Islam or Hinduism.
Religion has a darker side too, drawn from excesses of the fierce loyalty it inspires. Acts of particular cruelty have been committed against internal foes, the perceived disrupters of orthodoxy. Under religion’s banner, societies have conducted inquisitions, murdered people deemed to be heretics or witches, and tortured or exiled those who worshipped different gods.
Religion is almost always prominent in a society’s response to external foes. It has routinely been invoked to justify and sustain wars, and has helped foment many, between Christian and Muslim, Protestant and Catholic, Shi’a and Sunni. Few religious wars have been more atrocious than the Aztec empire’s ravenous search for victims who were sacrificed every day, sometimes by the thousands in a single ceremony, so that the streams of their blood could nourish the Aztec sun god.
What is religion, that it can evoke the noblest and most sublime of human behaviors, yet also the cruelest and most despicable? Is religion just a body of sacred knowledge bequeathed from one generation to the next? Or does religion, being much more than just a cultural heritage, spring from a deeply ingrained urge to worship?
“Like any other human activity,” writes the historian
of religion Karen Armstrong, “religion can be abused, but it seems to have be
en something that we have always done. It was not tacked on to a primordially secula
r nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity.”1
Religion is so natural to humanity that it seems to be part of human nature, as if a propensity for belief in the supernatural were genetically engraved in the human mind, and expressed as spontaneously as the ability to appreciate music or to learn one’s native language. “No society known to anthropology or history is devoid of what reasonable observers would agree is religion, even those such as the former Soviet Union which have made deliberate attempts to extirpate it,” wrote the anthropologist Roy Rappaport.3
Given the time, energy and treasure spent on building religious monuments, fighting holy wars and offering sacrifices to the gods, Rappaport wrote, he found it hard to imagine that religion had not contributed positively to human adaptation, the process of genetic change that occurs in response to natural selection. “Surely so expensive an enterprise would have been defeated by selective pressures if it were merely frivolous or illusory.... Religion has not merely been important but crucial to human adaptation,” he wrote in 1971.4
But Rappaport’s insight was not followed up for many years, in part because of a reluctance by anthropologists to believe that any part of human behavior might be genetically shaped.
The Nature of Religion
The emergence of religious behavior has long been hard to reconstruct because of the severe lack of evidence. The people of 50,000 years ago, the period when modern humans dispersed from their African homeland, have vanished, leaving behind no material trace of their existence, let alone of their religious beliefs. People at that time lived as hunters and gatherers, and continued to do so until 15,000 years ago. Only then were the first permanent settlements built, by which time religion had long been an established feature of human societies.
But many new strands of evidence have been accumulating. These now make it possible at least to sketch out a possible origin for this most mysterious of human behaviors, as well as a rough time line for its development. Recent work by students of human evolution has provided the context in which a new form of social coordination would have been needed, a requirement that religion would have filled well. By analyzing the DNA of living people around the world, it is possible to identify societies that have long been isolated from others and whose religious behaviors may reflect those of the ancestral human population. New i
nterpretations by archaeologists record how this early form of religious behavior, practiced by hunters and gatherers, was modified for the more sophisticated needs of settled societies.
Thus from a growing body of work by researchers in several different fields, it is now possible to piece together a reasonable account of how and why religious behavior evolved to be an ingrained part of human nature, and to trace some of the cultural innovations by which the early religion of hunter gatherers was shaped to the different needs of settled societies.