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Nicholas Wade


How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Not everyone who tries to account for the universality of religion thinks that it is functional, but Wade does and his book is an extended argument for this point of view. In brief, he thinks that it exists because it enhances the survival of groups that practise it. This is therefore a group selection theory. Group selection was first proposed by Darwin but is out of favour today among most modern evolutionists.

Since little evidence of religion among our remote ancestors can be found in the archaeological record, Wade attaches a lot of importance to the practices of modern hunter-gatherers. These peoples almost always seem to go in for dancing, moving rhythmically and vigorously to music or drumming. Ceremonies of this kind can last for many hours or even days and often culminate in trance states in which the participants say they make contact with spirits.

A principal reason for this behaviour is preparation for warfare, which Wade finds is omnipresent among hunter-gatherer groups. Together with painful initiation ceremonies, the dancing serves to unite the members of the group in a common purpose and so to make them more effective fighters.

As hunter-gatherer society gave way to settled establishments and later to agriculture, religion became institutionalised. No longer was everyone more or less equally involved in the rituals; instead, there were now specialists— priests— and different grades of expertise. But warfare continued and was often given a religious significance— see the Old Testament for plenty of examples. And, as armies began to be formed, they continued to use rhythmic group movement in the form of drill and marching to music.

Wade finds, I am sure correctly, a similarity between religion and language. When our ancestors left Africa to populate the rest of the world, 50,000 years ago, they presumably spoke a language from which all later languages are descended. The same argument can be applied to their religion, so there is, in a sense, only one religion. But, of course, modern world religions are only distantly related to that putative founding religion, and this is where I find difficulty with Wade's argument, when he seeks to show how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed from earlier forms.

For Judaism, Wade follows the view of a number of modern scholars who hold that the Biblical account of the origins of the Israelites is not historically accurate. There was no exodus from Egypt and no conquest of the Promised Land; instead, the Israelites were already there— they were Canaanites, in fact. The Biblical account was compiled later, during the Babylonian captivity, to provide a narrative to explain the sufferings the people were enduring.

Wade sees Christianity as arising from a blending of Jewish monotheism with Hellenistic ideas. The initial success of Christianity would have been among Hellenised Jews of the diaspora and "God fearers"— Gentiles who were attracted by Judaism but were not fully converted to it.

There are, I think, some difficulties with Wade's thesis here. The suggested derivation of Judaism from earlier religions connected with warfare perhaps works fairly well, and it is true that both Christianity and Islam, which are descended from Judaism, have been used in support of wars. But they do much more than this: for example, they help many people to cope with the fear of death. It is characteristic of evolution that structures may acquire quite new functions in the course of time and the same may have happened with religion. The great world religions serve purposes much wider than those of early hunter-gatherer religions, and I don't think that Wade's account fully caters for this.

In his description of Islam, Wade follows a minority group of historians who reject the standard account of the early years of that religion. According to this radical hypothesis, the Qur'an was not uttered by Muhammad, and the four Rightly Guided Caliphs who succeeded Muhammad as leaders did not exist. Instead, the earliest ruler of whom we have independent evidence is Mu'awiya, who founded the Umayyad dynasty.

According to this hypothesis, the Umayyad dynasty started life as an Arab Christian empire biased towards monotheism. So where did Islam come from? It is supposed to have begun when the Umayyads were overthrown around 750 by the Abbasids, under whom Islam was more or less invented as an Arabised replacement for Christianity. This whole thesis seems to me to be extremely far-fetched and would probably have been better omitted. I cannot see that its inclusion does anything to support Wade's basic argument.

The discussion of Islam takes us to the end of Chapter 7. There are five more chapters, in which Wade looks at the way religion influences trade, warfare, and nationhood in the modern world, and concludes that it has a future, though probably not without undergoing considerable modification. I found in these concluding chapters to be less interesting than what preceded them.

This is an uneven book. There is a lot of good material in the early chapters in which Wade makes his case for saying that religion has a functional value for hunter-gatherer groups. But I am not persuaded by his argument that a propensity for religion is encoded in the genome like Chomsky's "language organ" (itself a theory that is coming increasingly under fire today), and he does not discuss alternative hypotheses, such as Pascal Boyer's idea of religion as a by-product of the way the mind functions that has no survival value in itself. Nor was I persuaded by his attempt to extrapolate from hunter-gatherer society to modern world religions, which begs too many questions.

Religion is such a hugely complex phenomenon that it seems improbable that it can be explained by any single hypothesis, and I think there are many difficulties with the argument that Wade advances here. But he writes well and maintains the reader's interest most of the time.

22 August 2010

%T The Faith Instinct
%S How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures
%A Wade, Nicholas
%I The Penguin Press
%C New York
%D 2009
%G ISBN 978-1-59420-228-5
%P 310pp
%K religion, evolution

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