Thursday, December 03, 2009

Robert Wright - The Evolution of God (My Review)

Many months ago now, I had posted some reviews of Wright's new opus, The Evolution of God, here on IOC, most of them from major newspapers. Robert Wright emailed me and asked if I would like a review copy of the book and, of course, I said yes.

It's taken a very long time for me to get through the book (what with school, work, and all the other reading I do), but finally, at long last, here is my review of the book.

In a nutshell, the main point Wright is making is this: We create God in our own image.

Now that isn't exactly what he says, but that is the gist I get from the book, especially as a reader well grounded in Jean Gebser, Clare Graves, Robert Kegan, and Ken Wilber, among others. He is most clear on this in the Appendix: How Human Nature Gave Birth to Religion. In fact, this is how he puts it:

And yet, you might say, religion does have the hallmarks of design. It is a complex, integrated system that seems to serve specific functions. For example, religions almost always handle some key “rites of passage”—getting married, getting buried, and so on—whose ritualized handling is probably good for the society. How do you explain the coherence and functionality of religion without appealing to a designer—or, at least, a “designer”?

You don’t. But biological evolution isn’t the only great “designer” at work on this planet. There is also cultural evolution: the selective transmission of “memes”—beliefs, habits, rituals, songs, technologies, theories, and so forth—from person to person. And one criterion that shapes cultural evolution is social utility; memes that are conducive to smooth functioning at the group level often have an advantage over memes that aren’t. Cultural evolution is what gave us modern corporations, modern government, and modern religion.

For that matter, it gave us nonmodern religion. Whenever we look at a “primitive” religion, we are looking at a religion that has been evolving culturally for a long time. Though observed hunter-gatherer religions give clues about what the average religion was like 12,000 years ago, before the invention of agriculture, none of them much resembles religion in its literally primitive phase, the time (whenever that was) when religious beliefs and practices emerged. Rather, what are called “primitive” religions are bodies of belief and practice that have been evolving—culturally—over tens or even hundreds of millennia. Generation after generation, human minds have been accepting some beliefs, rejecting others, shaping and reshaping religion along the way.

He is actually making a more complex point in this Appendix, having to do with evolutionary psychology, but this passage captures the overall sense I had in reading this book.

Considering this passage, and the overall flow of the book, I am somewhat surprised that people like Gebser, Graves, and perhaps even Jared Diamond, do not get a mention in the book or in the bibliography -- each of them has made some of the same points Wright is making, and Gebser did so more than 65 years ago.

In his LA Times review, Jack Miles, who wrote God: A Biography, which read the Bible's Old Testament as a narrative biography of God, is not very charitable to Wright's project, rejecting outright Wright's notion that God has been evolving along with the people and cultures who worship and believe in him:
Wright's title notwithstanding, his God does not evolve. He is rather a constant, the C-factor without which human evolution does not compute. His book, despite many protestations to the contrary along the way, is finally an argument from design for the existence of God, and as such it does not convince.
I hate to dismiss a scholar of Miles standing, especially since he is much more educated than I am in this area, but he is wrong.

Ignoring the first section of the book, which takes a somewhat cursory look at primal religions, such as shamanism, Wright seems to convincingly demonstrate that as human cultures have evolved from tribal structures to power and conquest, from mythic-authoritarian to rational cooperative, and now into egalitarian communal views, so has God evolved.

If we were to look at these same five stages through the lens that Gebser suggested, we would see this structure:
  1. The archaic structure
  2. The magic structure
  3. The mythical structure
  4. The mental structure
  5. The integral stage
Or perhaps more accurately, we could also use the Graves/Beck model, known as Spiral Dynamics (I left out the color codes, for those familiar with this model):

Animistic-tribalistic magical-animistic Tribal order

  • From 50,000 BC on
  • "Sacrifice to the ways of the elders and customs as one subsumed in group."
  • This is the level of shamans, spirit animals, and medicine men

Egocentric-exploitive power gods/dominionist

  • From 7000 BC on
  • "Express self (impulsively) for what self desires without guilt and to avoid shame."
  • Expressed by the mentality of gangs, the vikings, etc

Absolutistic-obedience mythic order—purposeful/authoritarian

  • From 3000 BC on
  • "Sacrifice self for reward to come through obedience to rightful authority in purposeful Way."
  • Embodied by fundamentalist religions.

Multiplistic-achievist scientific/strategic

  • From 1000 AD on (as early as 600 AD according to Graves and Calhoun)
  • "Express self (calculatedly) to reach goals and objectives without rousing the ire of important others."
  • Expressed in the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution.


  • From 1850 AD on (surged in early 20th century)
  • "Sacrifice self interest now in order to gain acceptance and group harmony."
  • Expressed in 60s pluralism, and systems theory
Graves referred to his model as a biopsychosocial evolutionary system of central values, or collective intelligences, which applies to both individual human beings and to whole cultures. At each of the five stages above, how God is defined and experienced is filtered through the current lens of the developmental stage. Wright's argument follows this same series of stages.

If there is a failing in Wright's book, as far as I can see, it is that it relies to heavily on evolutionary psychology and does not offer adequate attention to the socio-cultural element in the evolution of God. But he does make these same points I am highlighting from other authors (I'm just not a fan of evolutionary psychology, so I'd rather see much less of it in any book). Paul Bloom offers this clear summary of my main point (we create God in our image) in his New York Times review:
Cultural sensibilities shift according to changes in human dynamics, and these shape the God that people worship. For Wright, it is not God who evolves. It is us — God just comes along for the ride.
And this is the immense value of the book in a time when the New Atheists are condemning ALL religion through their books and articles, and when evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Muslims are becoming ever more dogmatic and archaic in their interpretations of their faith, Wright is showing us how our conception of God is a mirror of our own cultural values.

At its most basic level, religion is a culturally agreed upon value system based on our subjective internal experience and definition of the sacred, which in turn is a facet of our own developmental stages as individuals and cultures. We can only conceptualize God through the filters of our biopsychosocial developmental level (as Graves, and earlier Gebser to a lesser extent, have stated).

That is what Wright is saying, as well.

With this book, Wright has earned a place in the integral pantheon alongside Gebser, Graves, James Fowler (Stages of Faith), and Wilber.

This book is highly recommended, both for its ideas that support the integral model, and for the ways it may challenge some of our beliefs about monotheism.

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