How is a church like a can opener? Among the pleasures of using evolutionary logic to think about matters nonbiological, one is getting to ask questions like that. The evolutionary take on a cultural fact like religion or warfare can cut through the fog of judgment and show how a social institution solves some mechanical problem of human co-existence. What function did intergroup violence serve? What are gods good for?
Nicholas Wade’s book “The Faith Instinct” is at its best when putting us through such exercises and sidelining the by-now tiresome debates about religion as a force for good or evil. According to Wade, a New York Times science writer, religions are machines for manufacturing social solidarity. They bind us into groups. Long ago, codes requiring altruistic behavior, and the gods who enforced them, helped human society expand from families to bands of people who were not necessarily related. We didn’t become religious creatures because we became social; we became social creatures because we became religious. Or, to put it in Darwinian terms, being willing to live and die for their coreligionists gave our ancestors an advantage in the struggle for resources.
Wade holds that natural selection can operate on groups, not just on individuals, a contentious position among evolutionary thinkers. He does not see religion as what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin called a spandrel — a happy side effect of evolution (or, if you’re a dyspeptic atheist, an unhappy one). He does not agree with the cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer that religion is a byproduct of our overactive brains and their need to attribute meaning and intention to a random world. He doesn’t perceive religious ideas as memes — that is to say, the objects of a strictly cultural or mental process of evolution. He thinks we have a God gene.
So how did this God gene flourish? Wade’s counterintuitive answer repurposes an old social-scientific analysis of religion as a saga of biological survival. Rituals take time; sacrifices take money or its equivalent. Individuals willing to lavish time and money on a particular group signal their commitment to it, and a high level of commitment makes each coreligionist less loath to ignore short-term self-interest and to act for the benefit of the whole. What are gods for? They’re the enforcers. Supernatural beings scare away cheaters and freeloaders and cow everyone into loyal, unselfish, dutiful and, when appropriate, warlike behavior.
Wade walks us briskly through the history of religion to show how our innate piety has adapted to our changing needs. Hunter-gatherers were egalitarian and, shamans aside, had direct access to the divine. But when humans began to farm and to settle in cities and states, religion became hierarchical. Priests emerged, turning unwritten rules and chummy gods into opaque instruments of surveillance and power. Church bureaucracies created crucial social institutions but also suppressed the more ecstatic aspects of worship, especially music, dance and trance. Wade advances the delightfully explosive thesis that the periodic rise of exuberant mystery cults represent human nature rebelling against the institutionalization of worship: “A propensity to follow the ecstatic behaviors of dance and trance was built into people’s minds and provided consistently fertile ground for revolts against established religion,” he writes.
There’s a safari-hatted charm to Wade’s descriptions of what he calls, a little jarringly, “primitive” religion, filled with details of the rites of tribes cut off from the modern world but still available for anthropological observation. But his sketches of Judaism, Christianity and Islam rush by quickly and confusingly and offer only superficial accounts of the spread of those faiths, which was in each case a dicier process than Wade makes it sound. (What if Constantine had held out against the Roman Empire’s Christian factions, instead of converting?) Judaism’s strict moral codes, he argues, held together the rival states of Israel and Judah in Biblical times and provided comfort to Jews in exile, but failed to accommodate the more diverse Jews of the first-century Hellenic world. Early Christians adapted Judaism’s attractive but exclusivist mores to a society that had outgrown tribalism, succeeding “so well that they captured an empire and defined a civilization.” Wade embraces a radically revisionist approach to Islam, which holds that it evolved out of a Syriac branch of Christianity whose members believed that Jesus was human and rejected the Trinity. This sternly monotheistic remnant was Arabized when a new dynasty needed to differentiate itself from a previous one. If the revisionist version of Islam is correct, Wade writes, it “furnishes a case study of how a religion can be adapted with great success to a state’s purposes.”
Judith Shulevitz’s book, “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time,” will be published in March.