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.
and here is key strength of the book:
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.
For whatever definition of divine one may hold. Read Andrew Sullivan's review here.
Similarly, Lisa Miller in Newsweek thinks that this book will reframe some of the current polarizing science-religion debates:
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.All of this seems quite reasonable. Then, there is this bit about comparing God to an electron. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on Lisa Miller's interpretation. I think here its important to parse out a Newton's version of God versus Einstein's version of God. It seems to me that Wright is closer to the Einstein version - but I'll comment on it again after reading the book. In any case, here is what Lisa Miller has to say:
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'm looking forward to reading this Wright's book. Read the review by Lisa Miller here and by Andrew Sullivan here.