The Evolution of God: Brilliant and Maddening

The Evolution of God: Brilliant and Maddening August 17, 2009

Robert Wright, in his latest book The Evolution of God, promises up front that he will make a plausible case for the existence of some force or intention behind the universe that could be called “divinity,” and does so in the midst of making a different case altogether: that our notions of the illusory “one true god” (and Wright does call the idea of God an “illusion”) adapt over time to the circumstances of the people believing in him.

On the second argument, he succeeds brilliantly. Not so much in that this is a revelation (is it a surprise to anyone that religious notions change to fit the times and situations of the humans inventing them?), but in the fluid, accessible, and vivid way in which he makes his case and educates the reader. 90 percent or so of The Evolution of God is utterly engrossing and fascinating in this way.

On the first argument, however, he fails, and it leaves one utterly puzzled. He writes:

Maybe, in the end, a mercilessly scientific account of our predicament—such as the account that got me denounced from the pulpit of my mother’s church—is actually compatible with a truly religious worldview, and is part of the process that refines a religious worldview, moving it closer to truth.

It’s a valiant effort he makes, but not a coherent one.

Wright has a brilliant way of weaving together elements of history and constructing a guiding principle or theory to explain its dynamics. He did so inNonzero in regards to human interactions over time. Whether or not one thinks Wright reaches cogent conclusions in either book, it is hard to deny that he has taken his subject terribly seriously and constructed plausible and thought-provoking narratives in following history’s thread.

I don’t claim the religious or historical scholarship to be able to weigh his reconstruction of religious history for thoroughness or veracity, but I can say that at the very least he lends a fresh perspective to the evolution of religion that, if nothing else, is brought to life by his wit and passion for the subject. (Certainly worth further exploration is his comparison of financial analysts to shamans, people who show no evidence of genuine connection to an incomprehensible phenomenon — be it the stock market or the spirit world — and yet we imbue them with a kind of priestliness, assuming they possess knowledge that they likely do not.)

At the center of Wright’s examination of the evolution of religion is what he sees as religion’s expanding moral circle — as time goes on, religions and notions of God begin to accept a greater and greater share of the human species into the sphere of those we deem worthy of moral consideration. (He is careful to note, wisely I think, that gods were not originally conceived as moral arbiters at all, but merely as explanations for natural events and good and bad fortune.) There are fits and starts to be sure, big ones, and Wright does not hide them, but he posits that the overall trend is one of expanding and deepening tolerance.

That this occurs is difficult to argue with, but it immediately seems odd to lend this characterization to religion in particular, rather than seeing religion’s evolution as a byproduct of the wider culture’s evolution. Yes, the interpretations and dictates of various religious philosophies may be growing more tolerant and humanistic, but Wright fails to prove that this moral expansion is a product of the religion itself, and not vice versa (and truly, it is not always clear in what direction he wishes us to go). Does it not make more sense to say that as society becomes more diverse and sophisticated, and as disparate cultures are intermingling for the first time, that the accompanying religions are simply being adapted to that end? The religions aren’t making us more moral, our increasing and deepening sense of morality is being reflected in our religions (and Wright does not rule that out, either). One may reinforce the other, of course, and Wright doesn’t outright declare that religion’s moral growth is the only reason we don’t slaughter each other in the streets today (oh wait), but whatever his ultimate point, religion deserves less credit for our tolerance than Wright implicitly gives it.

This is all to say that Wright constructs a case through his narrative that religion changes with the times, and illustrates what forms it takes, but then seems to see this evolution as an innate property of religion; a guided human phenomenon that grows in moral scope over time (“there is a moral order out there—and it’s imposed on us.”). But were he not to proffer that conclusion, one would simply read his book as an excellent explanation of how human morality has changed and improved, independent of religion, and how religion then changes to suit.

But then we come to the maddening 10 percent of the book, in which Wright tries to take his assembled case about the evolution of religion and use it to prove that behind this evolution is some intentional force, some Logos, that is driving the change. The Abrahamic scriptures in particular “reveal the arrow of moral development built into human history.” The word “built” being key. Wright tells us again and again that there is some trove of evidence that at least suggests that a power “out there” is pushing human history in a particular direction, but fails to provide it, citing only the adaptations religion (an entirely human-borne phenomenon) has made over the millennia. Our developing and evolving notions of morality are not, to Wright, byproducts of increased human and societal sophistication, they are proof of something not unlike God. “The fact that there’s a moral order out there doesn’t mean there’s a God. On the other hand, it’s evidence in favor of the God hypothesis . . .”

But wait. Wright insists he is not stretching logic in his arguments, calling them “materialist” and that “no mystical force . . . has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.” No need for one, but he puts it there anyway, which is unfortunate. In a response to Jerry Coyne’s review of his book (which I think is quite a bit too harsh on Wright), he reminds us:

I don’t argue that religious belief is a pre-requisite for this moral progress; atheists are presumably just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers. The values system in question—religious or secular—is a kind of “neutral medium” through which underlying social dynamics find their moral manifestation.

This is true, and Wright’s critics often unfairly attack him for supposedly trying to imply that we should all start believing in the unprovable in order to join in with Wright’s “moral axis.” But if anything, Wright sees any underlying divinity to the universe as, well, universal, and more importantly, unavoidable. Atheists would not be able to resist the moral arc of history even if we wanted to (and I, for one, wouldn’t, if it existed, which it doesn’t).

Perhaps most intellectually offensive is Wr

ight’s comparison of people’s belief in a cosmic superbeing with scientists’ understanding of electrons. Electrons can’t be “seen” in the usual sense, but we see evidence of their existence in other ways. So it is with divinity, says Wright. We can’t look at God in the face, but one can say that we see evidence of his/its presence.

Only we don’t. Or if we do, Wright hasn’t come close to proving it. Electrons, on the other hand, are known to exist through decades of rigorous study and experimentation by thousands upon thousands of scientists in all fields of study. The “divine” is a foggy notion that doesn’t have much of a definition, the evidence for which being, at best, extremely suspect, subjective, and remote.

And another important distinction: Were the scientific community to discover it was wrong all along about electrons, so be it. Science would accept its new understanding and go from there. Those who are told that there is no proof for a cosmic consciousness are rarely so open to disproof. I suspect the same is true for Wright, who has glommed onto his idea of a mystical force behind the universe without any kind of reasonable foundation. It’s a shame, because it taints what is on the whole a wonderful book. Had he kept his exploration to the “facts on the ground,” and wholly derived his conclusions from those foundations, The Evolution of God would be an unabashed triumph.

But, oh, that 10 percent. Get a hold of the book, read it, feast on it, enjoy it, and then get ready to be taken a bit off the rails. Though his quasi-deism is disappointing, the book is still very much worth the ride.


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