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Publisher's Summary

For at least the last 50,000 years, and probably much longer, people have practiced religion. Yet little attention has been given, either by believers or atheists, to the question of whether this universal human behavior might have an evolutionary basis. Did religion evolve, in other words, because it helped people in early societies survive?

In this original and controversial book, Nicholas Wade, a longtime reporter for the New York Times Science section, gathers new evidence showing why religion became so essential in the course of human evolution and how an instinct for faith has been hardwired into human nature. This startling thesis is sure to catch the attention of both believers and nonbelievers.

People of faith may not warm to the view that the mind's receptivity to religion has been shaped by evolution. Atheists may not embrace the idea that religious expression evolved because it conferred essential benefits on ancient societies and their successors. As The Faith Instinct argues, however, both groups must address the fact, little understood before now, that religious behavior is an evolved part of human nature. How did we evolve to believe? Wade shows that the instinct for religious behavior is wired into our neural circuits much like our ability to learn a language. Religion provided the earliest human societies with the equivalents of law and government, giving these societies an edge in the struggle for survival. As a force that binds people together and coordinates social behavior, religion supported another significant set of social behaviors: aggression and warfare. Religious behavior, both good and ill will remain an indelible component of human nature so long as human societies need the security and cohesion that belief provides.

Social scientists once predicted that religion would progressively fade away as societies advanced in wealth and education. They were wrong.

©2009 Nicholas Wade (P)2009 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"Sure to be controversial...Wade's study compels us to reconsider the role of evolution in shaping even our most sacred human creations." ( Publishers Weekly)

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Adam
  • Easton, MD, United States
  • 08-16-10

If you're religious or into religion read this

This book helped to change the way I think about religion as a secular/atheist activist and change it for the better.
In The End of Faith, (also available here on Audible ;-) Sam Harris wrote,

"...one of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith."

As an atheist I simply took this statement as if it were saying, "religion deserves no respect at all if we wish to have a rational discussion." The Faith Instinct brought it home to me that religion (and by association religious faith) when put under rational scientific scrutiny should be respected but not in the/a way we traditionally accord them respect. My only qualm with the book is that the author makes little distinction between morality and moral value and their association to religion. However, since I cannot address that in 2000 characters I'll simply leave it at this: A must read for any person into religion whether they're religious or not.

21 of 24 people found this review helpful

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I want to be more clear...

than the other reviewer concerning what this book is--and isn't about. Just to start, it is NOT a book about religion, so interest in religion is not a prerequisite. It is a book about genetic inheritance. (I read this book on the heels of Wade's very compelling A Troublesome Inheritance, in which he discusses race/society and genetics.) Taking up the work up Pinker, Newberg and other neo-Darwinians with a neurological bent, Wade explores the biological tendencies toward religious and philosophical thought. Brain science has shown that those with greater right temporal lobe development tend to have greater religious tendencies than others and that those with right temporal lobe epilepsy tend to experience great flights of fancy, philosophical and artistic insights--and religious visions (think Van Gogh). Now, does this mean religion is the representation of an empirical reality? Of course not! It simply means humans are evolutionarily geared for ideas about philosophical and religious principles, and, for that, reason (sorry Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins!) religion, for good or for bad, is probably not going away any time soon. But there is no value judgment here, simply a description of the tendency in humans for religion. As I said of Newberg's The Spiritual Brain: there are two groups of people who will misunderstand this book--the religious...and the non-religious.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Decent book with interesting topics

The narrator is quite distracting with his deep bass voice. It's like listening to a movie trailer for hours on end. The information is fairly non bias whether you're religious or atheist.

That said, it certainly isn't going to reaffirm religious beliefs if you already have them. Whether the religions are right or not isn't really addressed much, rather the book is much more about the utility and origin of religion and why it may be necessary, and even inherent, in humans.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Interesting Subject (if you tolerate the narrator)

This book begins with an interesting premise: given the universality of religions of various sorts with all human populations, is there some evolutionary advantage this commonality could have conferred such that religion could be said to be genetic in some sense?

If you're looking for a well written, up to date, and understandable survey on this topic, then this is a good place to start. (Several of the reviewers that pan this book seem be say either that they disagree with the conclusions or they already know everything presented.) Perhaps not the definitive treatment of this subject, but a good survey. For example, I found the discussion of how altruism and aggression/warfare could have developed together to be fascinating (if depressing!).

My problem with this book was the narrator. Maybe this is just a personal thing that will not bother others, but I found the narration so annoying that I could not finish the audiobook. No offense, but the narrator sounds like a chain smoker with a basso profundo voice recorded too early in the morning. Gasping for air before each sentence, he drove me crazy. He would be great for a political attack ad ("John Smith... wrong for America"), but not non fiction audiobooks.

But again, maybe it's just me: try the sample before you buy, and if you're fine with the narrator, then enjoy this interesting book.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful