[4 August 2009]
The modern conception of God is that of an eternal, unchanging force, defined by its consistency and utter perfection. It’s a convenient image, one that provides a sturdy foundation for religious dogma and belief. It’s also the end result of a process that has spanned thousands of years, a process that shaped a pure, omniscient, abstract deity out of a hodgepodge of potential traits, features, and personalities. As the human race grew and matured, so too did our ideas about what God is and what the role of a deity is in our lives.
In The Evolution of God, author Robert Wright plots the history of religious belief from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies to the present, in an attempt to explain how modern religions came into being and what the future might hold for them. Though written from the perspective of an agnostic or secular humanist, Wright’s book is not in league with the pointed, often militant atheism of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. The Evolution of God is a “third way” approach to theology, one that attempts to treat both faith and reason with respect and reframe the debate in a new, less contentious context. Wright allows for the possibility of divinity, though not in a recognizable sense.
The thesis of The Evolution of God has its roots in Wright’s previous book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. In that work, Wright argued that the ability to recognize and capitalize on non-zero-sum situations is a key feature of biological evolution. Natural selection thus favors those who can see the value in win-win, cooperative scenarios and act on them to the benefit of all parties. The increasing complexity of organisms, culminating in human intelligence, is a result of this.
In Wright’s view, biological evolution is an engine for the development of higher intelligence, which contrasts with the more traditional, scientific view that higher intelligence is merely a lucky break in a chaotic and complicated process whose only concern is the propagation of species. It’s a theory that drew criticism from the scientific community even as it garnered praise from thinkers like Bill Clinton, who admired Wright’s advocacy for global cooperation.
The Evolution of God uses what Wright calls “non-zero-sumness” to explain why particular sects and systems of belief were able to thrive when others failed. Adaptation, openness, and universality are not terms that immediately leap to one’s mind when thinking about the modern incarnations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but they were defining traits of each in their fledgling early years. Wright believes that recognizing this is important to improving global relations in the here and now.
However, the non-zero-sum argument is merely a loose thread in a greater, far more compelling historical narrative in which Wright depicts the birth and growth of religious thought. The core of the book deals with the three aforementioned Abrahamic religions and the pivotal moments in the histories of each that allowed them to thrive, even in times of adversity and competition. Combining a close reading of religious texts with ample archaeological and anthropological research, Wright untangles the truth from fiction in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Koran and presents readers with an uncertain landscape in which many ideas about god (or gods) exist, any of which could have seized dominance in the ancient world.
The Jewish Yahweh begins his journey as but one of a rich pantheon of local gods which include Marduk, the powerful patron deity of Babylon and the always fearsome Canaanite deity Baal. St. Paul, shepherd of early Christian thought, must contend with competing forms of Jesus worship by sects like the Ebionites in order to establish what would become mainstream Christianity. Mohammad threads the needle in his development of Islam, seeking to appeal to Jews, Christians, and pagans alike without alienating any potential converts who may have conflicting interests.
All three forms of Abrahamic worship encountered resistance and competition, and Wright shows that the reason the early Jewish Yahweh-proponents, St. Paul, and Mohammad were able to succeed and overcome their opposition was a keen sense of how to build coalitions and expand their spheres of inclusiveness. Jewish monotheism began as a pan-Mesopotamian political movement to unite and absorb the various pagan gods under the aegis of a single, all-encompassing entity, Yahweh. Christianity triumphed when it abandoned restrictive Jewish law and tradition to become more appealing to pagans, which allowed it to spread like wildfire through the Roman Empire. Islam succeeded in a similar fashion, acknowledging its spiritual connections to Judaism and Christianity to establish credibility and build a base while providing pagan Arabs with a new form or worship of their own.
The Evolution of God slows down only when the author attempts to inject his non-zero-sum theories into the mix. Wright never seems to adequately connect non-zero-sumness to the subject at hand; he simply asserts that the narrative demonstrates such situations. As a result, the overarching attempt at structure feels tacked on, almost as an afterthought. He also digresses into shallow metaphysics by trying to ascribe “divinity” to the non-zero-sum motivators, claiming that the persistent progress toward moral ethics and win-win situations could possibly be evidence of a higher, guiding power, albeit one with little connection to a traditional God.
It doesn’t spoil the rich and enlightening material he has compiled here, but it does present a few frustrating moments. Wright’s exploration of religious evolution and the historical and political factors which played a role is fascinating and compelling; a must-read for anyone with the slightest bit of interest in how modern theological thought came to be and where it might be headed.