Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

Grade: B+
Concepts: B
Writing quality: A

Robert Wright comes through with yet another marvelously conceived thesis, thoroughly referenced and masterfully constructed. Admittedly, I had misgivings about the title, fearing yet another heist of biological Evolution (capital E) for some social theme, but my fears were unfounded. Wright delves into the growth and maturation of the Abrahamic God through it's various tribal, regional and, finally, worldwide iterations. Having read much of Karen Armstrong's work, I would say Wright does a better job of conceptualizing God as a social and cultural construct.

Make no mistake, Wright, an admitted agnostic, paints a vision of God as something manufactured by humans and transformed consciously and unconsciously to fit society. He looks at the political and economic milieu of the Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the ages to see how God was adapted in order to fit the various purposes of the various cultures. Believers may have some problem with Wright's concept of God as reliant on the human condition and changing according to the facts on the ground, but readers could just as easily see the causation emanating from God as well, I suppose. Wright grapples with the idea that morality has a direction, an evolution of sorts, and God can be defined as that moral order.

Yahweh was a tribal God that incorporated Baal and other minor gods from the polytheistic sects into one Being. For centuries this God protected the Jews and gave them cover to destroy enemies and claim territory for His chosen people. Wright teases out the language to demonstrate the various words used for God, with one motive to include or exclude other ethnicities according to the interests of the Jews. This was not a universal religion and represented a departure from the more tolerant milieu of the polytheistic societies.

Paul the Apostle (although he never knew Jesus personally) seized on the idea of Christ in order to create a new worldwide religion, potentially inclusive of any convert: Gentile, Jew, or otherwise. Wright makes the point that this era was marked with an established globalization borne from the Pax Romana with roads, shipping and commerce. Early Christianity provided a religion that emphasized universal goodwill among its members, something sorely needed for the economic growth to flower across the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Conversely, Wright conjectures also that an inclusive religion like Christianity was borne from this need for more nonzero sum relationships throughout the civilized world. The Roman Empire was already begrudgingly tolerant of the various local religious practices and thus had provided the commercial, military and legal structure that served as the perfect birthplace for the nascent religion that Paul developed. Was Christianity the cause or the effect of the integrated commercial network? Wright feels that if Paul had not disseminated Christianity, then some other inclusive religion would have eventually been developed.

While Christianity under Paul, and then Constantine and future regimes, allowed converts, the Church actually became less tolerant of other religions and those who refused to convert to Christianity; this is in contradistinction to the previous tendencies of the Roman Empire.

“Why did Paul become the point man for a God whose love knows no ethnic bounds? Is it because he was naturally loving and tolerant, a man who effortlessly imbued all he met with a sense of belonging? Unlikely. Even in his correspondence, which presumably reflects a filtered version of the inner Paul, we see him declaring that followers of Jesus who disagree with him about the gospel message should be ‘accursed’—that is, condemned by God to eternal suffering.”

This "with us or against us" policy threw down the gauntlet to non-Christians, and the gamble (of sorts) paid off as Christianity flourished with new faithful members. Was their conversion primarily based on theology, economics, or political survival?

Likewise, Muhammad's divine revelations were conveniently inclusive of various Arab sects, thereby increasing cooperation through nonzero sum relationships among the groups. Wright reviews the timing of the Koran's suras to show that the revelations alternated from warrior ethos to compassion to cooperation depending on the needs of the Muslims and their leader at a given time. God's dictates evolved into a more or less inclusive religion as the Muslims required.

Wright's thesis will not be universally accepted by believers. Even non-believers have trouble with many of the concepts: evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne called it "Creationism for Liberals." Wright took issue with Coyne, claiming that many of his arguments were misrepresented, and I'd have to agree with Wright on this. The Evolution of God is a long book (>500 pp) with a lot of history and a solid thesis about how Western human cultures have steered theism toward the extant morality of our current Western civilization. To imagine our culture without monotheism is impossible, and vice versa. Like Wright's other books, it's written in an easy to understand conversational tone.

I'll finish with a quote from Robert Wright in response to Jerry Coyne's criticism of an apparent moral direction, or progress. The reason I bring this up is that the same concept was broached in our church group's discussion of The Evolution of God. Does morality as demonstrated in monotheistic religions, have an inexorable direction, ie, a progressive evolution? Wright says,

"Though I argue in this book that all three Abrahamic religions... generally get more tolerant, less belligerent, in response to non-zero-sum dynamics—I emphasize that there’s no guarantee that, as social organization approaches the global level, humankind will make the necessary moral adaptation; we may instead see social chaos on an unprecedented scale."


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