Into this fray wades Nicholas Wade, who takes a clever, non-confrontational approach to the topic with his new book The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Matters. I find it to be a fascinating discussion, no matter what you believe. My sense is that both religion's defenders and detractors will find something here to help their argument. Hopefully everyone can do that in a smart, civil way.
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write this book?
Nicholas Wade: I wrote an earlier book about human evolution over the last 50,000 years and realized what a pivotal role religion played in the life of early peoples. Coming of age rites among Australian Aborigines can last for 2 months. Religion of this intensity is so costly that it must have offered some big advantage, and the behavior could have been favored by natural selection. So that gave me the idea of exploring whether evolution has endowed us with an instinct for religion.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
NW: I was surprised to arrive at a relatively benevolent view of religion's role in history. Basically it's a force that binds a community of believers together to embrace a common goal, and it can be used for good or ill. Leaders can choose horrific goals, like the Aztecs' sacrifice of thousands of human captives whose blood nourished their gods. But mostly religion has been used to improve the social fabric by getting everyone on the same page in terms of how to treat others.
JG: What would you be doing, if you weren't a writer?
NW: Well, it's the other way round - I'm a writer while deciding what to do for a serious career.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
NW: I'm reading a great spy story called Zoo Station, by David Downing, and I'm rereading Steven Pinker's wonderful book, How the Mind Works.
JG: What's next for you?
NW: I guess another book, except that one needs to forget the pain of the last one first.