Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The evolution of God

I had promised myself not to read (or write!) any more books on science and religion, and here I am plowing through Robert Wright's The Evolution of God. Wright is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades -- journalist, editor, teacher, blogger. In previous incarnations of my own life I read and favorably reviewed his three previous books, The Moral Animal, Three Scientists and Their Gods and Nonzero. He's sharp, knowledgeable, balanced, insightful. I decided to give his new book a go.

He pretty much does what I suggested last week as the course of my own intellectual development: Go back to the evolutionary roots of religion and bushwhack one's way to the present. And so he begins with tribal anthropomorphic gods, and follows the evolution of the divine from the animistic spirits of hunter-gatherers, to the pantheons of the first empires, and on from polytheism to "monolatry" to the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Wright sees these developments in a positive light, as movement towards a notion of the divine that is more compatible with science and with interfaith tolerance and understanding. Robert, good luck!

So what is the God he ends up with? It's not anthropomorphic. It doesn't answer prayers or jigger the course of history. It's…

Well, it's hard to say. Wright dismisses "ultimate reality" and Tillich's "ground of being" as uselessly vague. So how about "God is love"? That has the advantage of crediting God as the source of the moral order, and imbuing "Him" with an aura of metaphorical personhood. But Wright has already established to his (and our) satisfaction that the qualities of human love -- empathy, attachment, altruism, and so on -- are readily explained by natural selection, and are shared to some extent by other species. So what's the point? "God" then becomes just another word for something that already has a perfectly adequate name. After 450 pages of demolishing anthropomorphic notions of the divine, we are right back where we started.

To be fair, Wright is aware of these criticisms. In his last chapter he tries to pull God out of his (Wright's) own fire by a single hair of the Old Fellow's head, but his argument collapses into such a stew of equivocations and qualifications that an agnostic, or even a hard-boiled atheist, can close the book with a smug smirk.

Still, it's a good read. Wright has the skepticism of Dawkins, et. al., without the hostility. His interpretation of the history of religion is one of optimistic progress towards the true and good, with science and the Golden Rule as his useful guides.