Friday, June 12, 2009

More on Robert Wright's The Evolution of God

A few more reviews of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God.

Light at the end of religion's dark tunnel

Faith is growing ever more extreme but a new book on the evolution of God gives Andrew Sullivan hope

The 21st century has not been kind to religion. It began with the mass murder of thousands of innocents by Muslim religious fanatics in New York city; it continued with the news that the Catholic hierarchy had operated and protected an international child abuse conspiracy for decades; and the Pew poll recently found that the Americans most likely to support torture of terror suspects were those who attended evangelical churches most frequently.

The intellectual onslaught has been just as severe, from Christopher Hitchens’s oddly persuasive massacre of a few fish in a small barrel, to the former believer Bart Ehrman’s detonation of scriptural accuracy and Sam Harris’s evisceration of religious moderates. It’s perhaps unsurprising that even in America, the most devout of all western nations, non-belief is soaring.

Worse, perhaps, the response of organised religion to all this has been not to take some self-confident steps in debating the validity of these critiques, but to dig in deeper and re-fundamentalise. From Pope Benedict’s attempt to freeze theological debate and reassert bald papal authority, to resurgent resistance to teaching evolution in America’s Bible Belt and the degeneration of Islam into the medieval madness of the Taliban, the polarisation seems to be gaining pace.

The possibility of a reasonable engagement between faith and reason, between doctrine and biblical scholarship, between a mature theology and a golden age of scientific research — all this seems very distant right now.

And that’s why a new book gives me hope. It reminds us that if you take a few thousand steps back from our current crisis, the long-term prognosis is much better than you might imagine.

The book is The Evolution of God (due out in the US next month) and it is by Robert Wright, a secular writer best known in America for thoughtful defences of evolutionary psychology and free trade. The tone of the book is dry scepticism with a dash of humour; the content is supple, dense and layered. What makes it fresh and necessary is that it’s a non-believer’s open-minded exploration of how religious doctrine and practice have changed through human history — usually for the better.

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Fundamentalism, in this reading, is a kind of repetitive neurotic interlude in the evolution of religion towards more benign and global forms. It’s not a linear process — misunderstanding, violence, stupidity, pride and anger will always propel human beings backwards just when they seem on the verge of progress. Greater proximity has often meant greater hatred — as one god has marshalled earthly forces against another. But in the very, very long run, as human beings have realised that religion is nothing if not true and that truth can be grasped or sought in many different ways, doctrines have evolved. Through science and travel, conversation and scholarship, interpretation and mysticism — our faiths have adapted throughout history, like finches on Darwin’s islands.

Wright’s core and vital point is that this is not a descent into total relativism or randomness. It is propelled by reason interacting with revelation, coupled with sporadic outbreaks of religious doubt and sheer curiosity. The Evolution of God is best understood as the evolution of human understanding of truth — even to the edge of our knowledge where mystery and meditation take over.

What’s subtle about the book is that while it makes a materialist case for how God evolved — as a function of trade and travel, globalisation and science — it does not reduce faith to these facts on the ground. Hovering over the book is a small sense that, far from disproving the existence of God, this evolving doctrine might point merely to humankind’s slow education into the real nature of the divine.

Today’s fundamentalists posit a doctrinal truth rooted in the past, in a moment of revelation we are always trying to capture, to nail down in a literal phrase. But what if the final word is not in the human past but in the human future — as we assimilate our global experiences of the divine and try to make sense of all of them? What if we are travelling towards our deepest moment of religious truth rather than away from it?

God, after all, is definitionally eternal and humans are definitionally temporal. Why should divine truth, however once revealed, be immune to human misunderstanding? Why shouldn’t time and thought and experience help us uncover the truth rather then taking us further away from it? In earlier eras, theologians were eager to see how new discoveries in human knowledge could inform their faith. Now such discoveries are seen as threats. That’s a function of insecurity, not faith. And why should we see ourselves as believers constantly trying to recover a pristine past instead of struggling towards a truer future?

My own view, as a struggling and doubting person of faith, is that truth matters in whatever mode we find it — but ultimate truth, because we are not ultimate beings, will always elude us. The search for this truth is the point, illuminated in my own faith by Jesus. Humans cannot live without this search, never have and never will. Our consciousness asks questions to which there will never be a complete answer; we are religious because we are human. And the challenge of our time is neither the arrogant dismissal of religious life and heritage, nor the rigid insistence that all metaphysical questions are already answered or unaskable, but a humble openness to history and science and revelation in the journey of faith.

This vision is beleaguered now both within religious life and outside it. But if we are to survive this era of technology with the potential of mass destruction, if we are to endure past the darkness of the Taliban and the religious right, this process of religious reform is not an option. It is a necessity. How relieving to have a sane, sober rationalist point this out.

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Lisa Miller

Let’s Talk About God

A new book redefines the faith debate.

The atheist writers Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have presented us with a choice: either you don't believe in God or you're a dope. "It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God, simply because that belief makes him happy," writes Harris in the 2005 "Atheist Manifesto" now posted on the Web site of his new nonprofit, The Reason Project. Their brilliance, wit and (general) good humor have made the new generation of atheists celebrities among people who like to consider themselves smart. We enjoy their books and their telegenic bombast so much that we don't mind their low opinion of us. Dopey or not, 90 percent of Americans continue to say they believe in God.

This iteration of the faith-versus-reason debate has gone on for years, with no real resolution. Men (yes, mostly men) of faith have published passionate defenses of God. (See Tim Keller's 2008 The Reason for God.) In response, believers have published accounts of journeys toward unbelief; atheists have testified to conversions. The latest entrant in this category is from the Marxist Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Yet despite the proliferation of viewpoints, I'm guessing few readers have ever closed one of these volumes and honestly declared themselves changed.

Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, which comes out next week, is about to reframe this debate. Wright doesn't argue one side or other of the "Is God real?" question. He leaves that aside. Instead, he grapples with God as an idea that has changed—evolved—through history. Wright is a journalist who specializes in evolutionary psychology, and his previous book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, was a reported meditation on the way human evolution changes us for the better. Over time, we've grown more moral, more responsible and more in-spired. In The New York Times Book Review, the British pale-ontologist Simon Conway Morris threw down the gauntlet: he accused Wright "of a failure of nerve." Why not, he asked (and this is my rephrasing), connect that sublime human capacity for moral behavior to the thing that some people call God? (Writing in Slate, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker took the opposite tack, accusing Wright of providing ammunition to advocates of intelligent design.)

Wright picks up the challenge in The Evolution of God. He argues that the scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths were written in history by real people who aimed to improve things—economic, social, geographical—for their constituencies. (And then he exhaustively, minutely catalogs who those writers were and what those specific aims might have been. This is not a book to read on the beach this summer.) But he never argues that what he calls a materialist view of scripture disproves God. Instead, he takes another approach: as our societies have grown more complex and more global, our conceptions of God have grown more demanding and more moral. This is a good thing, for religion can "help us orient our daily lives, recognize good and bad, and make sense of joy and suffering alike." Wright is optimistic even about Islam in today's world: "The ratio of good to bad scriptures varies among the Abrahamic faiths, but in all religions it's possible for benign interpretation of scripture to flourish."

Though he never comes right out and declares that the human propensity for morality—and, by extension, truth and love—is given by God (or is God), he comes awfully close. In an imaginary debate with a scientist, he compares God to an electron. You know it's there, but you don't know anything real about what it looks like or what its properties are. Scientists believe in electrons because they see the effects of electrons on the world. "You might say," he writes in his afterword, "that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn't have to be crazy to say it." (I can already hear Steven Pinker typing like mad.)

With those three sentences, Wright gives relief and intellectual ballast to those believers weary of the punching-bag tone of the recent faith-and-reason debates. The arguments are "fun, but they degrade the academy," said Great Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, at a dinner sponsored by the Templeton Foundation recently. What they miss, he says, "is that the meaning of the system lies outside of the system and the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe."

The Evolution of God admits this definition as a possibility. But there are other possibilities as well. In a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 60 percent of respondents said they believe in "a personal God." But what exactly do they mean? That God is like a person? That God talks to them, personally? And what of the others, who imagine God as "an impersonal force"? When people say they believe in "God," they might be talking about what Harris calls an absurdity. Or they might be talking about the mysterious, unknowable qualities in life (or outside of life) that make us strive toward our best selves.

Miller is NEWSWEEK’s religion editor.

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Questions for Robert Wright: Evolutionary Theology

The New York Times Magazine | May 29, 2009


"The Evolution of God," your new book on the history of religion, strikes me as a welcome antidote to the stream of books by atheists that have become best sellers in recent years. Doesn't it seem as if atheism has become its own form of fundamentalism?

I don't think it's a coincidence that the new atheists really got traction in the years after 9/11. The rise of fundamentalism in Islam, but also in Christianity in America, has so highlighted the dark side of religion that people denouncing religion as a whole have a receptive audience.

Like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. What do you think of their work?
I think they have naïve ideas about the importance of religion in the world. They just seem oblivious to the good that religion has done, and I guess one point in my book is how malleable religion is; it has the capacity for good, which tends to come out when people see themselves as having something to gain from peaceful interaction with other people.

Your approach to religious history is so nakedly materialist. For instance, you claim the Apostle Paul was a kind of marketing guru who dropped the more demanding requirements of Judaism, like circumcision and dietary restrictions, to attract more followers.
Do the math. How many Christians are there today and how many Jews are there? If his goal was to gain a large following, he seems to have made the right tactical decision there.

Do you have to make Christianity sound like a pre-electronic Facebook?
Institutions thrive when they can serve the interest of a bunch of people, and there's no reason to think the church is different. None of this is to say Paul didn't feel divinely inspired.

O.K., but where is the transcendence in your book?
Well, I wind up arguing that the drift of history, however materially driven, has enough moral direction to suggest that there's some larger purpose at work, and I guess you can call that transcendence.

You were born in Lawton, Okla., which sounds like a defining experience.
We left when I was 3 years old and moved to Midland, Tex., childhood home of George Bush, and then moved to a bunch of other places, mainly in Texas. My father was in the Army.

Did you ride horses and do other mythic Western things?
I rode a horse once while visiting a cousin who lived on an actual farm, and I felt scared and inept. I remember my uncles sitting under a weeping willow and whittling branches while they talked. They all had pocketknives. The height of my aspiration was to someday do that.

Were you a churchgoer as a child?
Southern Baptists don't fool around. At age 8 or 9, I chose to go to the front of the church in response to the altar call and accepted Jesus as my savior.

When did you begin to doubt?
I think it was roughly sophomore year in high school. I encountered the theory of evolution, and my parents were creationists. There was a clash. They brought a Baptist minister over to the house to try to convince me that evolution hadn't happened. He was not entirely successful, I would say.

Then you went off and studied science?
No, I'm not a scientist; I'm just a journalist. I don't have a doctorate in anything.

Do you ever pray?
I meditate, and occasionally that turns into a kind of prayer for help in being a better person. But so far as I know, I'm basically just talking to myself.

Do you have any insight into President Obama's spiritual life?
No, except that he seems to have the self-assurance of someone who believes that God is on his side.

That can be dangerous.
Thinking you're doing God's work is fine if you actually are serving humankind. And I think Obama has a better chance of doing that than most. He shifts between the professorial and the preacherly in a way that is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul, although Paul probably attended church more often and worked out less.

--Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Deborah Solomon

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