Thankfully, the vast majority of the books I’ve featured on this blog over the last several years have been pretty darn good. But every so often I encounter a book that fails to live up to my expectations. Sometimes it’s because the book was poorly written or poorly edited. Not often, but every once and awhile I encounter a book that’s, well, redundant. Nicholas Wade’s 2009 book The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures is that kind of book. While his writing is fine and his arguments are intelligent and compelling, he shoots himself in the foot by repeating the same supporting information over and over. In the end his book feels like an excellent New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly article that’s been stretched out and padded to book length in order to satisfy the wishes of some misguided publishing executive.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty about Wade’s book to like. He makes a credible and convincing claim that the instinct for religious behavior originated as a mechanism to grant a survival advantage to our primitive ancestors by promoting group cohesion, altruism, increased reproduction and other salutary benefits. His supporting information is both deep and wide, touching upon the disciplines of history, anthropology, religious studies and archeology. I especially enjoyed reading his discussion of how the three Abrahamic faiths fit within his evolutionary scheme of things.
But unfortunately, while Wade’s theory has a lot going for it, the packaging of that theory into his 300 page book just doesn’t work. It’s a great notion and certainly worthy of at least one book. But unfortunately as Wade presents it, his book is a slight disappointment. Too bad. Maybe the next book on the evolutionary origins of religion will be a bit better.