In today’s New York Times, Judith Shulevitz reviews The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures by Nicholas Wade:
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.
Read the entire review here.