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Wired For God
on 9 February 2010
Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct" begins promisingly but fizzles out, its argument unproven. It is lucidly written and contains several thought-provoking passages, but it is also padded with whole sections of pop-science banalities.
Wade is a science journalist (New York Times, Nature and Science magazines), not a scientific researcher. He draws on evidence from a broad range of fields, including archeology, sociology, anthropology, biology, neurology, religious scholarship and so on, to build his argument.
Wade argues that since a) religion has been a universal facet of human society for at least 50,000 years and b) religion enhances the survival of societies through building "emotional commitment to the common good" and reinforcing behavioral patterns around such things as planting crops, then c) religion is "written into our neural circuitry" and that it is an "adaptive behavior" which was advanced through natural selection. Neither a) nor b) is an original observation, and Wade is unable to deliver conclusive evidence for c). Science has not, at least yet, established either specific genes or a specific region of the brain associated with religion. He is thus forced to concede that "in the absence of direct evidence about.... genes...(the argument) can only be assessed indirectly." Also, Wade's case rests on theories of group selection, which are not accepted by mainstream evolutionists.
As Wade's main argument runs out of steam, he adds chapters on such things as the marketplace of religion, the ecology of religion, religion and warfare, religion and nation and the future of religion. These chapters are superficial and not particularly original; they contain some interesting snippets but do nothing to clinch his argument. Throughout, he focuses on the group or societal aspects of religion and not on the individual experience of faith or encounter with the spiritual.
There is one area in which Wade recaptures the reader's interest and pokes a stick into an anthill. He takes a wide swing at the" three great monotheisms" and the discrepancies between scriptural versions of history and those developed through historical and archeological research. Christianity escapes only slightly dented, but Judaism takes a direct hit: historically, he pronounces, there was "no exodus from Egypt.... no conquest of the promised land." In other words, there was no Passover. As for Islam, Wade draws heavily on a revisionist school of scholarship (conducted mainly, it seems, by academics with Israeli or German sounding names, some of them wisely pseudonymous) which asserts that there is very little objective evidence for Koranic versions of history: "As for Mohammed, there is a strange paucity of independent historical evidence about his life; some scholars doubt whether he lived in the Hijaz, where Islamic texts locate him, and a few wonder if he lived at all."
Wade justifies these fascinating diversions (I at least am interested in learning more) in the context of his thesis by citing them as examples of how religions mould their narratives to serve societal ends and enhance group survival. Could be, and one is tempted to draw parallels, in light of recent scandals, to our current "secular religion" of climatology. In any case, I recommend that Wade not publish a cartoon version of this "alternative hypothesis about Islam."