Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Evolution of God

The Evolution of God
Robert Wright (2009; Little, Brown and Company)

    “The Evolution of God.” Even with no subtitle, that’s a title of high promise, combining as it does two topics I’d almost always like to know more about. The book falls short on the promise in several ways, but I enjoyed it.

    In the first place, there’s just so much to say. After a quick tour through shamanistic religions, Robert Wright takes up the early histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, because they all have to do with the points he is trying to make. Combining all this with a dash of evolutionary psychology in a mere four hundred and eighty pages means that he has to sketch the history with a broad brush. (Of course, the additional sixty-five pages of notes and bibliography should more than satisfy those hungry for details.)

    Another shortcoming is the way Wright’s tone is set at the level of popular economic jargon. At times, he’s flippant, if expressively so: “(Deuteronomy alone celebrates the utter ‘destruction’ and ‘dispossession’ of infidel cities again and again, and the book of Joshua also takes a festive attitude toward urban mayhem.)” But if an expression like ‘non-zero-sumness’ makes your teeth hurt, you’ll have some difficulty here.

    Wright actually means something specific and useful by that expression; he wrote a whole other book about it. That is, people tend to be contentious if one side’s gain has to equal the other side’s loss, but if the sum of gains and losses is greater than zero, there may be advantages available to both sides through cooperation. Thus does self-interest drive altruism; and this, Wright says, is the great evolutionary engine of moral progress.

     Self-interest also drove the Abrahamic religions in the days of their founding. The Hebrew bible, the New Testament, and the Koran exhibit dramatic shifts between peaceful, globally harmonious messages about God, and texts that show his wrathful side. Wright shows how often these turns coincide with the needs of the group at the time of writing (or rewriting.) “This doesn’t mean they were consciously dishonest. It just means that memory is a funny thing – as is the process by which people decide whose memories have the ring of truth.”

    Wright is well aware that what he’s describing is not God’s evolution, as such, but rather the evolution of human ideas and conceptions of God. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? Whether we’re right or wrong about whether God ‘really’ ‘exists’, there are discernible facts about the history of our religions. One of the most important of these is that there’s an arrow of moral development: that it’s meaningful to talk about ‘better’ and ‘worse’ in how we treat each other. Wright says, “Built-in features of history, emanating from the basic logic of cultural evolution, give humankind a choice between progressing morally and paying a price for failing to.”

    This is true both individually and socially. Again, how could it be otherwise? “Social salvation may or may not be at hand, depending on the extent to which individual people, in working out their own salvations, expand their moral imaginations and hence expand the circle of moral consideration.” In a global society, can we see that we’re all in the same boat? We should hope, and work, for religion that abets that process, rather than standing in its way.