The Economist reviews evolutionary biologist Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures:
In what way, then, does religion enhance a group’s survival? Above all, by promoting moral rules and cementing cohesion, in a way that makes people ready to sacrifice themselves for the group and to deal ruthlessly with outsiders. These arguments are well made. Mr Wade has a clear mind and limpid prose style which guides the reader almost effortlessly through 200 years of intellectual history. Perhaps, though, he oversimplifies the link between morality, in the sense of obedience to rules, and group solidarity based on common participation in ecstatic rites.
All religion is concerned in varying degrees with metaphysical ideas, moral norms and mystical experience. But in the great religions, the moral and the mystical have often been in tension. The more a religion stresses ecstasy, the less it seems hidebound by rules—especially rules of public behaviour, as opposed to purely religious norms. And religious movements (from the “Deuteronomists” of ancient Israel to the English Puritans) that emphasise moral norms tend to eschew the ecstatic.
Max Weber, one of the fathers of religious sociology, contrasted the transcendental feelings enjoyed by Catholic mass-goers with the Protestant obsession with behaviour. In Imperial Russia, Peter the Great tried to pull the Russian Orthodox church from the former extreme to the latter: to curb its love of rite and mystery and make it more of a moral agency like the Lutheran churches of northern Europe. He failed. Russians liked things mystical, and they didn’t like being told what to do.
Read the full review here.