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.