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The Evolutiin of God: A Summary to this Point
We're going to be moving pretty soon from the holy Bible to the holy Koran. A few days pause for anyone who might have been late in starting to read might be helpful. In the meantime, we could have questions about the ground Wright has covered so far, and it has been a lot of ground. We could also read some reactions to the book from other people and react to them. Let's try that first. Here are two.
Stephen Prothero in the Washington Post , August 2, 2009.
"Preaching the Gospel of Maybe"
Thank God for agnostics. Over the past decade, our public conversation about religion has all too often degenerated into a food fight between the religious right and the secular left. Now comes journalist Robert Wright with a gentler approach: a materialist account of religion that manages (sort of) to make room for God (of a sort).
"The Evolution of God" is a big book that addresses a simple question: Is religion poison? Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, much ink and many pixels have scrutinized the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington's prophesy of a coming "clash of civilizations" between the Christian West and the Islamic world. Is Islam a religion of war? What about Judaism and Christianity? The assumption underlying many answers to these questions -- an assumption shared by fundamentalists and "new atheists" alike -- is that religions are what their founders and scriptures say they are, rather than what contemporary practitioners make them out to be....
....Wright rejects this assumption. No religion is in essence evil or good, he writes. Scriptures are malleable. Founders are betrayed. At least for historians, there is little provocation here. The provocation comes when Wright claims that religious history seems to be going somewhere, as if guided by an invisible hand. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all appear to have a "moral direction," and that direction is toward the good....
...Yet all Wright's talk of "business models" and "algorithms" and "positive network externalities" somehow opens up the conversation about God rather than closing it down. In this oddly old-fashioned book, which recalls Hegel more than anyone else, Wright speaks repeatedly of "design" and "goals" and "purposes" in human history....
In the end, Wright allows himself to wonder whether the evolution of "God," the concept, might provide evidence for the existence of God, the reality. "If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer," he writes, "then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe -- conceivably -- the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity."
Whether this Gospel of Maybe will make many converts is doubtful. There are bones thrown here and there to atheists and believers alike, but no red meat. So the final judgment may be that the book is too hard on faith to please religious folk and too easy on dogma to please secularists. Still, it is hard not to envy Wright for his Obamaesque hope. There is reason to hope, he writes, that the Abrahamic religions can get along with one another, with science and with the modern world. But Wright also exhibits an even more radical hope: that human beings might learn to talk about religion in a manner that is both civil and intelligent.
For decades the faithful and the faithless operated in the United States under a gentlemen's agreement to leave one another alone. Yes, we had our Bryans and our Menckens during the Scopes trial in the 1920s, but after that, belief and disbelief retreated to their respective corners. Then came the religious right and church buses for Reagan, to which Harris and Hitchens and Dawkins and Dennett rightly cried foul. If God is going to be used to prop up Republican policies, it is perfectly legitimate for people with different politics to try to cut the Republican God down to size. And so we find ourselves in the sort of scuffle between believers and unbelievers that hasn't been seen since evolution and the Bible went toe to toe in Dayton, Tenn.
In American religion, as in U.S. politics, however, the middle is far bigger than the extremes combined. Most Americans don't believe God and evolution are at war. And only fools want another crusade against Islam. So thank God or "God" or whatever matters most to you for this book, not so much for its arguments as for its tone, which offers the sort of hope even unbelievers can believe in: that we can somehow learn to talk about religion without throwing our food.
By Paul Bloom, NY Times, June 24, 2009
Wright’s tone is reasoned and careful, even hesitant, throughout, and it is nice to read about issues like the morality of Christ and the meaning of jihad without getting the feeling that you are being shouted at. His views, though, are provocative and controversial. There is something here to annoy almost everyone...
...In sharp contrast to many contemporary secularists, Wright is bullish about monotheism. In “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny” (2000), he argued that there is a moral direction to human history, that technological growth and expanding global interconnectedness have moved us toward ever more positive and mutually beneficial relationships with others. In “The Evolution of God,” Wright tells a similar story from a religious standpoint, proposing that the increasing goodness of God reflects the increasing goodness of our species. “...
...This sounds pro-religion, but don’t expect Pope Benedict XVI to be quoting from Wright’s book anytime soon. Wright makes it clear that he is tracking people’s conception of the divine, not the divine itself. He describes this as “a good news/bad news joke for traditionalist Christians, Muslims and Jews.” The bad news is that your God was born imperfect. The good news is that he doesn’t really exist...
...Similarly, he argues that it is a waste of time to search for the essence of any of these monotheistic religions — it’s silly, for instance, to ask whether Islam is a “religion of peace.” Like a judge who believes in a living constitution, Wright believes that what matters is the choices that the people make, how the texts are interpreted. Cultural sensibilities shift according to changes in human dynamics, and these shape the God that people worship. For Wright, it is not God who evolves. It is us — God just comes along for the ride...
...Or consider the modern Sunday School song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” (“Red and yellow, black and white, / They are precious in his sight.”) Actually, there is no evidence that he loved all of them; if you went back and sang this to the Jesus of the Gospels, he would think you were mad. But in the minds of many of his followers today, this kind of global love is what Christianity means. That certainly looks like moral progress....
...But God still has some growing up to do, as Wright makes clear in his careful discussion of contemporary religious hatred. As you would expect, he argues that much of the problem isn’t with the religious texts or teachings themselves, but with the social conditions — the “facts on the ground” — that shape the sort of God we choose to create. “When people see themselves in zero-sum relationship with other people — see their fortunes as inversely correlated with the fortunes of other people, see the dynamic as win-lose — they tend to find a scriptural basis for intolerance or belligerence.” The recipe for salvation, then, is to arrange the world so that its people find themselves (and think of themselves as) interconnected: “When they see the relationship as non-zero-sum — see their fortunes as positively correlated, see the potential for a win-win outcome — they’re more likely to find the tolerant and understanding side of their scriptures.” Change the world, and you change the God
For Wright, the next evolutionary step is for practitioners of Abrahamic faiths to give up their claim to distinctiveness, and then renounce the specialness of monotheism altogether. In fact, when it comes to expanding the circle of moral consideration, he argues, religions like Buddhism have sometimes “outperformed the Abrahamics.” But this sounds like the death of God, not his evolution. And it clashes with Wright’s own proposal, drawn from work in evolutionary psychology, that we invented religion to satisfy certain intellectual and emotional needs, like the tendency to search for moral causes of natural events and the desire to conform with the people who surround us. These needs haven’t gone away, and the sort of depersonalized and disinterested God that Wright anticipates would satisfy none of them. He is betting that historical forces will trump our basic psychological makeup. I’m not so sure.
Wright tentatively explores another claim, that the history of religion actually affirms “the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity.” He emphasizes that he is not arguing that you need divine intervention to account for moral improvement, which can be explained by a “mercilessly scientific account” involving the biological evolution of the human mind and the game-theoretic nature of social interaction. But he wonders why the universe is so constituted that moral progress takes place. “If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe — conceivably — the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.”
It is not just moral progress that raises these sorts of issues. I don’t doubt that the explanation for consciousness will arise from the mercilessly scientific account of psychology and neuroscience, but, still, isn’t it neat that the universe is such that it gave rise to conscious beings like you and me? And that these minds — which evolved in a world of plants and birds and rocks and things — have the capacity to transcend this everyday world and generate philosophy, theology, art and science?
So I share Wright’s wonder at how nicely everything has turned out. But I don’t see how this constitutes an argument for a divine being. After all, even if we could somehow establish definitively that moral progress exists because the universe was jump-started by a God of Love, this just pushes the problem up one level. We are now stuck with the puzzle of why there exists such a caring God in the first place.
Also, it would be a terribly minimalist God. Wright himself describes it as “somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception.” It won’t answer your prayers, give you advice or smite your enemies. So even if it did exist, we would be left with another good news/bad news situation. The good news is that there would be a divine being. The bad news is that it’s not the one that anyone is looking for.
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun.