Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Evolving God

Two more reviews of The Evolution of God. Yes, I have also bought it - but it is second on the reading list as I have just started reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I have to read it now as its big screen version is coming out this October and it is directed by the same guy who did the brilliant Australian western, The Proposition. If you like intelligent westerns (and can tolerate screen violence), do check it out - its screenplay is by Nick Cave! Oh - but I digress. Here is the first review: Paul Bloom in NYT:
In his brilliant new book, “The Evolution of God,” Robert Wright tells the story of how God grew up. He starts with the deities of hunter-­gatherer tribes, moves to those of chiefdoms and nations, then on to the polytheism of the early Israelites and the monotheism that followed, and then to the New Testament and the Koran, before finishing off with the modern multinational Gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Wright’s tone is reasoned and careful, even hesitant, throughout, and it is nice to read about issues like the morality of Christ and the meaning of jihad without getting the feeling that you are being shouted at. His views, though, are provocative and controversial. There is something here to annoy almost everyone.
But here is the key bit about the evolving concept of God tied to our own changes over time:
Wright makes it clear that he is tracking people’s conception of the divine, not the divine itself. He describes this as “a good news/bad news joke for traditionalist Christians, Muslims and Jews.” The bad news is that your God was born imperfect. The good news is that he doesn’t really exist.

Wright also denies the specialness of any faith. In his view, there is continuous positive change over time — religious history has a moral direction — but no movement of moral revelation associated with the emergence of Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. Similarly, he argues that it is a waste of time to search for the essence of any of these monotheistic religions — it’s silly, for instance, to ask whether Islam is a “religion of peace.” Like a judge who believes in a living constitution, Wright believes that what matters is the choices that the people make, how the texts are interpreted. 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.
Read the full NYT review here.

And here is a bit from the Boston Globe review that talks about the evolution of the three monotheistic religions:
Wright’s narrative shows a “Yahweh’’ alternatively compassionate or vengeful, mercurial or wise. The God of the Hebrews takes a while to differentiate from the El of the Canaanites and the Baal of the Phoenicians. In doing so, his story gradually sheds remnants of polytheism; the god Pestilence, for instance, becomes mere pestilence. Under Persian influence, Abrahamic monotheism eventually shifts “from a nationalistic and exclusive theology’’ to “a more international and inclusive one.’’

In short, the Hebrew God shakes off his adolescent belligerence and assumes a kinder, gentler persona. While regarding the Jews as his favorite, this God presides benevolently over all the world’s people.

Wright charts a similar evolution in the chapters grouped under the title “The Invention of Christianity.’’ Mark, the earliest Gospel, is surprisingly devoid of the New Testament’s supposed hallmark, love. There are no beatitudes, no turning of the other cheek, no “love your enemy.’’ The neighbor you are obliged to love is defined narrowly, most likely one of your fellow followers of Jesus. Not until Matthew and Luke is love enlarged; the Good Samaritan does not appear until the last of the Gospels, Luke.

It was under St. Paul’s charismatic leadership that the fledgling Jesus movement was transformed into a vehicle of interethnic brotherly love. Wright’s description of Paul as an entrepreneur brilliant at expanding his Jesus “brand’’ throughout the polyglot Roman Empire may put off some Christians, but it provides a convincing account of why early Christianity was able to succeed among a Babel of competing deities.

As for the Koran, Wright’s task is admittedly harder. The young preacher Muhammed, reaching out to Jews and Christians, comes off as far more likable than the mature politician-warlord who rids Medina of Jews - some of them by hacking off their heads. Wright has to balance all the Koran’s injunctions to “kill the infidels’’ with its counsel of “to you your religion; to me my religion.’’

Can we all live together in peace? Over history’s long haul, Wright believes we can. In the meantime, believers need to feel themselves not in a zero-sum game but a win-win situation. That’s when scriptural bases for tolerance trump those counseling belligerence. Westerners fearful of radical Islam should therefore do all they can to encourage Muslim moderates, and the reverse.


Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

"The bad news is that your God was born imperfect. The good news is that he doesn’t really exist."

I have a book in my hand in a library. I can not see the author anywhere in the library. The book is made up of paper, with some mixture of lead-salts of different colours, spread over the paper to make a definite aesthetic pattern. The paper itself is made up of cellulose - organic monomers, resembling glucose, beautifully arranged to make fibers. Yes after a good deal of hard work, I finally know what the book is made up of. Hey, I cannot still see the author nor any evidence it was written by someone. And yes, it is a poetry book and I disagree to what it says. The bad news is that this book is imperfect. The good news is that there is no author. Because I know what the book is made up of. Hahaha...I can't stop laughing, can you?

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Let me tell you another joke.
There was nothing. Then the nothing decided that there should be something. Then from nothing and nowhere, everything came into being. Good. Is there any room for sanity left in this Universe? (which of course we know - is made up of subatomic particles and energy interacting through infinitely complex laws of nature - hence there is no God, because we know it)

Tom Rees said...

Here's a question. Is the success of modern religions down to the fact that there is so much scope for interpretation, so that they can be adapted to fit a very wide range of societies? Obviously they struggle a bit in the modern world, but they're still popular.

Are the religions that fell by the wayside too prescriptive? Maybe some were too vague as well. The only ones to make it are the ones that are 'just right'.

Salman Hameed said...


"Here's a question. Is the success of modern religions down to the fact that there is so much scope for interpretation, so that they can be adapted to fit a very wide range of societies? Obviously they struggle a bit in the modern world, but they're still popular."

I guess this is where the question of fitness comes in. David Sloan Wilson looked at different variables to search for religious fitness in his book Darwin's Cathedral. I don't now remember the specifics.

But, as you say, a malleable form of religion will be more successful. Also, many of the successful religions were providing an improved social justice system relative to its time. Perhaps, that is the reason we see an improvement in the moral systems provided by religions - as Wright is pointing out. By the way, wouldn't this be more Lamarckian rather Darwinian evolution?

Salman Hameed said...


Sure, you raise the issue of the "First Cause". It is a valid issue. However, that does really boils down to belief and I don't think either side is crazy one way or the other. But it is all limited to the question of "why is there something instead of nothing?" (or what or who formulated the laws?). But after that physical causes do take over - and a reliance on the design argument or fine-tuning arguments don't really work.

By the why, on the question of the origin of physical laws, check out this lecture by Paul Davies.