First of all I have to raise up my hand and admit that I haven’t actually read The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade. I’ve merely read a review in The Economist. However, this paragraph in the review got me thinking:
“Mr Wade is convinced that a Darwinian approach offers the key to understanding religion. In other words, he sides with those who think man’s propensity for religion has some adaptive function. According to his view, faith would not have persisted over thousands of generations if it had not helped the human race to survive.”
In other, other, words, Wade is of the view that group evolution is going on as well as at the level of the individual. This is very ironic as the groups he refers to tend to deny evolution goes on at any level.
But let’s return to the idea and ask ourselves what contribution religions – religious based groups – might play in terms of selection. Surely the implication is that religions, if they do indeed have a role to play in selection, are designed to compete with each other – are designed to outdo each other. In short, religions may, indeed, be designed to destroy each other. Because that, surely, is the basis of selection i.e. survival of the fittest. That’s quite a compelling idea.
There might be some basis of truth in Wade’s argument. At a biological level it is not hard to see parallels with human religious groups. Ants have a Presbyterian approach to social order. Ditto communities of bees or shoals of fish. There is an inherent advantage to social order in terms of competing with the environment and other preditors in claiming scarce resources.
But let me now change direction slightly and focus on the local manifestation of religion where religions have become intwined with politics. Here we have a supra-manifestation of religion that is ingrained not just in our society’s weekend church attendance – but also in terms of our social fabric. We have a legislative assembly that insists that its members declare themselves as one religion or the other: Catholic/Irish Nationalist or Protestant/British Nationalist. Our media systematically reminds us of our socially divided structure. The names of our children marks them as being from one tribe or another. Our political leaders are steeped in one culture or another. And the dominant political debate is about one ‘side’ gaining high ground over the other based on pseudo-moralistic posturing.
However, here’s the good news for Christmas. I’m not sure Wade is right. Because, as I’ve said before, I don’t believe that people are born sectarian. Rather people are artificially pushed into groups and sometimes they just don’t appreciate being pushed. Sometimes the innate basis of selection kicks in i.e. basic human intelligence allows people to define themselves in ways that the groups cannot articulate.
That’s why, increasingly, ours is a peacful society. That’s why people tend to get on with each other because mutual respect, at a basic, atavistic, genetic level prevails. People are able to define themselves on the basis of their mutual humanity rather than on the basis of the perverted social ‘norms’ of religion.
This last year this island started the process of ridding itself of at least some of the shackles of religion. The state-sponsored paedophilia of the Republic of Ireland has shaken Catholic Irish society to the bones and has caused people to question the very basis of their adherence to absurb religious ‘teaching’ and authority. There are calls for greater secularisation of the Irish state and perhaps some of these calls might start ringing in the ears of our so-called political leaders here in Northern Ireland (who are, frankly, little more than Church elders).
Wade is wrong, in my view. I’m with Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Faith is a useless by-product of human imperfection. But ethics, altruism and decency – these are the wonderful by-products of our intelligence.