agnosticism, bible, Book Reviews, Christianity, evolution, fundamentalism, God, Islam, Judaism, Koran, Non-Believers, nonzerosum, psychology, Robert Wright, The Evolution of God
Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that my book reviews tend to be favorable. I’ve explained that as the result of not asking for books that I don’t seriously want to read because of the perceived reading matter or because of my experience with the author.
This is no exception to that, but where I might say, I recommend this book highly and you will enjoy it, in this case, I would state you NEED to read this book. And the people who need to read it are virtually everyone who cares about the future of this planet.
I thank Little Brown & Company for the opportunity to review Robert Wright’s latest book, The Evolution of God. Robert Wright needs no build up by me, his credentials are extraordinary. His books are regularly in the top or near top of the NYTimes 10 best books of the year. His book Nonzero was required reading by then President Clinton’s staff.
In a time when religion is facing some of it’s greatest challenges of how to deal with an increasingly global world, and not doing it very well in turning increasingly toward fundamentalist bunker mentalities, Wright offers us hope. And that hope is surprising in many ways.
Ironically, yesterday I took aim at what I consider intellectual stupidity, in the guise of atheism. Those who espouse such an intellectually devoid position need to read this book, as do agnostics. Believers as well need to face the truth of their religions. None will find complete comfort for their positions, none will be bereft of cause for some optimism.
Wright traces the “evolution” of God from the hunter-gather society, through chiefdoms and city states, and into nations. He makes a probing and well documented argument, that as writers about God have striven to help their respective peoples over the ages to achieve success, they have spoken of and defined God in a way that assisted that goal of success.
He pulls the Old Testament apart, rearranging it into a historical timeline and in so doing allows us to see the emerging God Yahweh grow and change as circumstances on the ground evolve and change. Successful religions do this, unsuccessful ones remain mired, digging in their heels as it were, and fall off the pages of history. In subsequent chapters he does the same for the New Testament and then the Koran.
The agnostic will exclaim that this “proves” that God is the manufacture of the human mind, developed to support whatever enterprise the human group wishes to undertake. And they would be right, to a point. The believer will find much that is satisfying to them as well. Religion tends to under gird moral necessities of survival. As our societies grow larger and family/friend restraints lessen as we engage with more and more strangers, religion can function as the means by which we curtail behavior that is counterproductive of what he calls non-zerosumness.
Non-zerosumness is that ground situation where groups who are different find advantage in tolerance to achieve win-win scenarios. In other words, if my God is tolerate of your God, then our respective peoples can trade goods and services that benefit both our peoples. This helps change the dynamic, allowing us all to achieve a greater understanding and empathy of “other.”
What is amazing about Wright’s presentation, is that he, a clear agnostic, who claims that he doesn’t have the background to take on the “is there a God” argument, ends up making the best case I’ve ever read for the existence of God. Or at least, enough of an argument that no one who is a believer should be criticized by anyone for being so.
What Wright argues is that we can demonstrate that over the history of humanity, there has been a real movement toward empathy and a morality, and he argues that this resulting truth is evidence of a divine causation. He doesn’t claim it must be divine, only that it can be. He uses as analogy the “existence” of an electron. Scientists have never seen one, but they claim to see the results of what they describe as an electron. It is somewhat like a particle, something like a wave, it is hard to describe, but it seems to have a result that is definable. So too God.
The result, Wright tells us, is that history moves toward good, truth, love, and all that that entails. He traces this through the Abrahamic religions, and how God has evolved in each of them from warrior, belligerent, retributive, to loving, tolerant, open to “other,” and inclusive. Here is where Robert Wright sees the hope.
In so far as we continue to propel forth those positive “attributes” of “God,” we can find solutions to our present growing chaos. We are at the moment fighting fundamentalism in all three of our major religions of “The Book.” Rightly seen, we cannot kill all the terrorists, and to the degree that we kill too many innocents in our attempts to do so, we fuel the recruitment of more terrorists. We must, as it were, realize, accept and embrace that most Muslims are like we are, desiring the same things we desire out of life. To the degree that most Muslims are happy with their lives, the less likely they are to strap on suicide vests. Of course, Muslims need to work from the other side, as do Jews. In other words, we, the majority who are moderate people in all faiths, must see our commonality and band together in a non-zerosum game of mutually assured salvation.
In all, Wright makes a rather brilliant argument, and provides his own non-zero sumness in showing us how we can proceed. Nobody, agnostic or believer, gets everything they want from this book, but we get enough, and we, if we try, can see the other point of view in a clearer, more empathic way. That is where we can start. We have a long way to go, but we have a history that is, despite the slides and dips, ever upward. Shall we continue to climb? That is the question Robert Wright asks us.
*** I don’t usually do this, but I read two other fine, fine reviews of this book. Since I am not a professional, lest there be any doubt in your mind about whether you should buy it, please read the reviews of :
Andrew Sullivan, well known academic, author and writer,
Lisa Miller, Newsweeks religious editor.
Sherry, thanks for this review. I’d forgotten that one of my professors at Oblate School of Theology recommended this book! With both of you suggesting it, I’ll have to read it. Plus, you haven’t steered me wrong yet on a book.
Jan, it is a breathtaking new look at things. Sure to upset a lot of people, but also recall us to so real hope as well. I don’t agree with some of his take on the NT and Jesus, but other than that, I thought it excellent. Also I think not everyone agrees on his take on evolutionary psychology. Some question how much can be concluded.
rick allen said:
Just a few observations.
First, there is a difference between “the idea of God” and “God,” and there is a huge difference in meaning between “the evolution of the idea of God” and the “evolution of God.” It strikes me as false advertising to title your book one thing and then have it be about the other.
Secondly, I am sorry that the biological theory of evolution keeps being put into the service of unrelated ideas, in what I can only imagine is an attempt to give those other ideas some kind of punch. Poor Darwin asserted that existing species produce random variations, and that those which happen to increase the chance for suvival in the struggle for life get passed on, thus leading, ultimately, to speciation. It has nothing to do with ideas or purposes or spiritual beings, and, if the general public is confused about evolution, and doesn’t know what to make of it, I have to say I’m not too surprised, and on the whole I don’t think the fundamentalists bear the lion’s share of the blame for that confusion.
Third, I just don’t know what to do with this:
“…history moves toward good, truth, love, and all that that entails. He traces this through the Abrahamic religions, and how God has evolved in each of them from warrior, belligerent, retributive, to loving, tolerant, open to “other,” and inclusive.”
This strikes me as so blinkered, ignoring, generally, history, and ignoring, specifically, the bible. Is God in John’s Apocalypse really more “loving, tolerant, and inclusive” than God in the first chapter of Genesis? I know, that’s a cheap shot, but this plays so much into the old, flawed “Old Testament God bad, New Testament God good” paradigm. And we of course stand at the pinnacle of history (no, certainly not in the world I see around me).
Rick I’m not sure if you’ve read this book or not by your comments. I can tell you that it does indeed trace an evolution of God, but is honest in that it is equally easy to say that it is all a human construct. On balance Wright makes a rather excellent case for the former I think. It may be exactly how we can best relate to God in the end.
Wright marries two things I think, evolutionary psychology which helps us understand how we develop religion, and how economics and politics also help shape religion and of course then vice versa.
All I can tell you Rick, is that you are wrong in thinking that it simply says that OT is bad god and NT is good god. It’s extremely more sophisticated than that. There was plenty of the Good God in the OT and Wright points it out again and again.
He far from ignores the bible, he uses it with great talent, drawing on some of the best scholars in Judaism and Christianity. He does the same for Islam.
Again, I think it’s hard to defend a book to someone who I don’t think has read it. I urge you to. I doubt you will think the same as you do now. Wright is an exceptionally talented and respected thinker and writer. I urge you to give it a chance.
Jack Miles wrote a similar book years ago…”God, a Biography”…it was quite controversial. I am not sure how these two differ, been too long since I read “God”…and Karen Armstrong also wrote a book, “A History of GOd” that looks at God through the lenses of Christianity, Judism, and Islam.
Wonder how these three books would compare and contrast?
I have both Mompriest. I haven’t read either in some years either, and I agree, I probably need to to see the comparisons. I recall Miles book as being literally mindblowing on Job, my favorite book in the OT. I learned more from him that I ever had before.
Too much to read, too little time!
Randal Graves said:
All I got out of this review is that I should slaughter my enemies. Was I close?
Cheeky brat. No Randal, And be serious for a change huh? I’m always serious on your blog and I expect the same in return. Heathen anarchist! HEHEHEHEHEHEHE.
rick allen said:
“I think it’s hard to defend a book to someone who I don’t think has read it.”
I always question whether I should comment on a book I haven’t read. Lord knows there was a time when I would try to read stuff–back in the day when everybody was talking about the latest “Historical Jesus” portraits–Shorto, Funk, Crosson, Sheehan, and Gawd-help-us the whole “Five Gospels” thing–I guess that it was helpful that I sat down and read them, but usually I just see it as wasted time. The last thing I read because it was being “talked about” was the Da Vinci Code–well, you can imagine how I felt about time spent on that.
Nevertheless, if you are giving an accurate account of a book’s thesis, it’s argument, it’s tenor, I don’t know why I necessarily need to read the whole thing to ledt you know that the whole approach, as you lay it out, seems chuckle-headed. I’m no great fan of Carl Jung, but at least in his memoirs he was clear about distinguishing the idea of God from God himself. Nothing you’ve said indicates that what this guy is doing isn’t another abuse of the evolutionary paradigm, to the detriment of the real science of evolutionary biology (don’t get me started on sociobiology or evolutionary psychology). And this idea that God becomes progressively more inclusive–as if “inclusivity” weren’t the most devisive issue on the table today, the very thing that is tearing Christian communities apart.
So, I haven’t read the book, but in your comments I hope I can glean what the book has communicated to you, and I of course have tried to communicate to you my own more critical approach to those ideas that you find somewhat more splendid. As you know, I don’t think that every day in every way we’re getting better and better, and I think there’s great danger in our thinking so. As someone who doesn’t hold with reincarnation I see the world as a place where we’ve all started from scratch, all within a single generation. We’ve only got our fourscore and ten (more or less) to get it right, and if we’re good students we spend much time with history and see how our ancestors got it wrong, but being human we continue to find spectacular new ways to get it wrong ourselves (recent innovations include National Socialism, thermonuclear weapons, and reality TV). I am no Calvinist, but, this being the Old Man’s 500th I’ll cut him some slack and at least give him this, that I prefer those who think themselves wholly depraved to those who think themselves wholly wonderful.
Rick, I suspect if you are not a fan of evolutionary psychology, you won’t much care for Wright. His biggest books that have garnered so much aclaim were on non zero sum in the world. He posits essentially here that there is hope for true reconcilliation between Jews, Muslims and Christians,in we can see that we are all benefited by cooperation.
I think he makes an excellent case that in the long sweep of history we have moved to greater and greater tolerance and inclusion of “other” within our framework of “us.” I find this essential to survival. I’m not at all one who things anybody is helped by religions being doctrinally pure.
I agree, we still have far to go, but I do see that history is not chaotic and haphazard in movement. We are able to empathize in greater and greater degree over the long haul.
I very much want to read his other books. I think he’s a rather outstanding thinker and he looks at the world in a new way. you might want to check out the website for the book, perhaps you can read a bit more and see some of the conversation. I don’t need to push this book, but I do think its an important one.
But as I said, if you are very much against the idea of evolutionary psychology, then perhaps you won’t find much of interest to you.
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