01 August 2009

Ruminations on Robert Wright's "Evolution of God"

I just finished reading "The Evolution of God" by Robert Wright, an intriguing and exhaustively well researched book. Wright is a devout materialist who, to the dismay of many of his atheistic friends, sees a directionality in religion and human history towards something which can meaningfully and objectively be ascribed as moral truth and divinity. In introducing his book and worldview he states:

"In this book I talk about the history of religion, and its future, from a materialist standpoint. I think the origin and development of religion can be explained by reference to concrete, observable things-human nature, political and economic factors, technological change, and so on...On the one hand, I think gods arose as illusions, and that the subsequent history of the idea of god is, in some sense, the evolution of an illusion. On the other hand: (1) the story of this evolution itself points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity; and (2) the "illusion," in the course of evolving, has gotten streamlined in a way that moved it closer to plausibility. In both of these senses, the illusion has gotten less and less illusory."

He uses this explanatory framework to explain the evolution of religion from early pantheism and polytheism, to more recent monolatrism (belief in many gods, but worship of only one) and monotheism. By doing this he recognizes a clear trend in history, one that is leading to a universalistic theology. To do this however, he deconstructs many of the religious texts using recent religious and archaeological scholarship. For example, he suggests that contrary to popular belief, Judaism has highly polytheistic origins. It was only due to geopolitical circumstance that brought it first into monolatry and finally monotheism.

He suggests that many of the attributed sayings of Jesus, especially those concerning universal love (ie. "love your enemies"), were added after the fact by Paul and others as a expansion strategy in the highly cosmopolitan Roman empire. He points to the fact that the earliest gospel of Mark, written approximately four decades after the Crucifixion, has many fewer miracles, universalistic sayings, and theological underpinnings than the later gospels, written five to seven decades after. The introduction of the "Logos" in John might have been influenced by Philo's attempts to reconcile Jewish and Greek traditions.

He suggests that the timeline of the Quran matches almost perfectly with the plight of Muhammad. For example, the earlier attributed writings include a greater moral consideration for even polytheists, possibly because his group was small and he needed to reach out to others. His later writings are much more militaristic and intolerant, possibly because he commanded great military power and he no longer needed to compromise his theology.

The bottom line in his whole book is that religion is an expression of facts on the ground. To say that one religion causes people to be tolerant or intolerant is not correct. There is room in all scriptures for tolerance when the believers see themselves in non-zero sum situations with their neighbors. There is also room for intolerance when believers see others as a threat to their livelihoods and beliefs. He gives the example of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In his mind, the "New Atheists", who point to this as an example of why religion is bad, are mistaken. Instead the root causes are highly non-religious, having much more to do with zero sum claims to land and historical grievances.

He ends the book on an optimistic note, asserting that the direction in history clearly points to the development of a peaceful global civilization, and concurrently, a more universalistic theology. In fact, he states that given the pace of technological advancement, this is the only choice if we are to avoid catastrophe.

In the conclusion he writes,

"At the core of each faith is the conviction that there is a moral order, and for the Abrahamic conception of God to grow in this fashion (universalism) would be yet more evidence that such an order exists. For Jews, Christians, or Muslims to cling to claims of special validity could make their faiths seem, and perhaps be, less valid...

Is it crazy to imagine a day when the Abrahamic faiths renounce not only their specific claims to specialness, but even the claim to specialness of the whole Abrahamic enterprise? Are such radical changes in God's character imaginable? Changes this radical have already happened, again and again. Another transformation would be nothing new

Surprisingly, he also affirms the validity of personal conceptions of God as proxies for an abstract conception of higher purpose. In the afterword he goes into the implications of his narrative for belief in God. Instead of trying to summarize it, I will quote it at length.

"Given the constraints of human nature, believers in God are interacting with the moral order as productively as possible by conceiving its source in a particular way, however imperfect that way is. Isn't that kind of like physicists who interact with the physical order as productively as possible by conceiving of its subatomic sources in a particular way, however imperfect that way is...

Maybe the most defensible view-of electrons and of God-is to place them somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception. Yes, there is a source of the patterns we attribute to the electron, and the electron as conceived is a useful enough proxy for that source that we shouldn't denigrate it by calling it an "illusion; still, our image of an electron is very, very different from what this source would look like were the human cognitive apparatus capable of apprehending it adroitly. So too with God; yes, there is a source of the moral order, and many people have a conception of God that is a useful proxy for that source; still that conception is very, very different from what the source of the moral order would look like were human cognition able to grasp it...

So you might say that the evolution of the human moral equipment by natural selection was the Logos at work during a particular phase of organic aggregation; it was what allowed our distant ancestors to work together in small groups, and it set the stage for them to work together in much larger groups, including, eventually, transcontinental ones.

If you accept this argument-if you buy into this particular theology of the Logos-then feeling the presence of a personal god has a kind of ironic validity. On the one hand, you're imagining things; the divine being you sense "out there" is actually something inside you. On the other hand, this something inside you is an expression of forces "out there"; it's an incarnation of a non-zero-sum logic that predates and transcends individual people, a kind of logic that-in this theology of the Logos, at least-can be called divine. The feeling of contact with a transcendent divinity is in that sense solid."

As a Baha'i, this book is especially interesting for two reasons. First, Wright's understanding of the progressive evolution of God is very similar to a Baha'i understanding of "progressive revelation". Both would agree that religion changes based on the cultural and scientific capacity of people, and that the destiny of religion today is to be universalistic in nature. A difference would appear to be the emphasis on "revelation" that Baha'is place on religious evolution. For Baha'is, we live in a cycle of "revelation", in which God reveals new teachings through a "manifestation" of God. When this happens a new energy is manifest in the universe, and new capacity for spiritual and scientific development is made possible. While this would seem to contradict Wright's materialistic explanations of religious evolution, a more subtle understanding of "revelation" might seem to bridge the gap. Wright dedicates a whole section of his book to the thinking of Philo of Alexandria. Philo was a Jewish philosopher in the time of Christ who, according to Erwin Goodenough, "read Plato in terms of Moses, and Moses in terms of Plato, to the point that he was convinced that each had essentially the same things."Philo endeavored to bridge the gap between Judaism and Greek philosophy by developing the concept of the Logos. Wright uses Philo's approach to bridge the gap between "revelation" and a scientific account of human evolution in his own mind.

"The Logos...had in Philo's view given history a direction-in fact, a moral direction: a history moved toward the good. a Logos-driven history would eventually unify humankind in political freedom; the Logos would work 'to end that the whole of our world should be as a single state, enjoying the best of constitutions, a democracy.' At the same time, Philo believed the Logos had existed before humans or the earth or, for that matter, matter. Prior to creating the universe, God formulated the Logos the way and architect might conceive of a blueprint....First God conceived the Logos in his mind. Then, upon creating the world, he, in a sense, uttered the Logos, infusing matter with it. He spoke to the universe at its beginning, and, via the ongoing guidance of Logos, he speaks to us now...The Logos is humankind's point of contact with the divine. This is how the Logos reconciles the transcendence of God with a divine presence in the world. God himself is beyond the material universe...Yet...the algorithm...is an extension of a designer, a reflection of the designers mind...The job of human beings, you might say, is to in turn cooperate with the divinity. The Logos, he said, was reflected in the Torah, the Jewish law...it didn't just tell you how to behave in order to harmonize yourself with the principle that governs the universe...the rules of living laid out in the Torah were part of the Logos.

So if "revelation" is seen as a manifestation of a Logos, a design manifesting itself in the world through the process of biological and cultural evolution, then Wrights concept of progressive evolution is compatible with the Baha'i view of "progressive revelation".

The second reason this is so interesting to me is that it comes from the point of view of a skeptical materialist. Wright became known for writing about evolutionary psychology, yet comes to almost the same theology as the Baha'i Faith. Baha'is believe in the harmony of science and religion, and often it is easy for us to claim this without fully accounting for the scientific interpretations of spiritual experience, and spiritual evolution. If, like Philo, we can continue to develop a language that fully accounts for the knowledge inherent in both the scientific process and revealed scripture, then we can collectively manifest this principle.


  1. One strong connection between the traditional Baha'i perspective and what, from what I can tell, is Wright's perspective is that the arrival of a new Manifestation is not so much the initiation of a new stage in human evolution as it is a response to things already in motion. The new teachings a Manifestation brings are not a bolt out of the blue. Rather, they are suited to the needs of that age. This of course assumes that humanity has been evolving in the interim between Revelations in a manner consistant with what Wright appears to advance.

  2. thanks for writing this... I should read his book.

  3. Thanks very much for this review! Another interesting quote from Wright's book: "Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don't conduce to the salvation of the world is a religion whose time has passed."

  4. Interesting review, but...Wright is not a scientist, skeptical or otherwise. And his "background in evolutionary psychology" is that he wrote a book about it. He's never done research of any kind; he's a journalist who wrote a very good book (The Moral Animal).

  5. John,

    thanks for the clarification. I will update the post with this information.