The Evolution of God
© 2009 Robert Wright
Evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright uses the concepts of natural morality and the ‘moral imagination’ to understand the growth and (arguably) increasing maturity of the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He moves swiftly from primitive hunter-gatherer mysticism to Jewish monotheism and through to the rise of radical Islam in four hundred pages, engaging in a casual conversation with the reader about topics like salvation, sin, and God. In the final hundred or so pages, Wright offers concluding thoughts and expresses hope that the three “we’re so very special” religions will one day calm down and learn to work together. He believes this is possible, and even probable, because natural selection has equipped human beings with the ability to recognize potentially productive social bonds and either improve or move beyond religion and custom to engage in healthy relationships with other people.
In Wright’s view, religion developed to effect and maintain social cohesion and order. Religion grows, shrinks, and otherwise adapts to serve society’s needs. It can bring tribes together for productive purposes, or unite them against a common enemy. When a society needs peace and tolerance, the invented scriptures or interpretation of existing scriptures promote goodwill: when the society ‘needs’ or would profit by aggression and war, the creation and use of scriptures changes accordingly: thus, Muhammad promotes a live-and-live-live policy when attempting to lead a mixed Arab-and Jewish community, but shouts “Kill the infidels/polytheists wherever you find them” when leading assaults on his community’s enemies.
There’s much of value in The Evolution of God. Those completely new to understanding religion from a natural perspective should find it a fascinating introduction to the subject. I have been studying and attempting to understand the growth of Judaism and Christianity for several years ago, and enjoyed the refresher. There are some ideas in here that I’ve not heard of — for instance, that the biblical kingdom of Israel was formed by two unrelated tribe with similar gods, who merged their respective chief deities (Elohim and Yahweh) into one. He reveals some of the Hebrew scriptures’ mythological references, and turns evaluations of Jesus on their heads by making a distinction between the ‘real’ Jesus and the Jesus that matters. Sure, the historical Yeshua of Nazareth may have been an apocalyptic prophet who shared his people’s prejudices against non-Jews, but the Jesus the church created — gentle Jesus meek and mild, defender of the poor and preacher of peace — is the one people are inspired by. That is modernity’s Jesus. Religion is important for what it does for people and society — not for its initial revelations or the record of its sayings. This approach especially helped me to understand and appreciate the rapid growth of Christianity under Paul’s command, as he uses it to create a network of mutually-assisting communities across the eastern Roman empire.
At the same time, his emphasis on a given society’s use of religion sometimes detracted from the understanding of the religion’s history: there’s nary a mention of outside influences. I thought it rather odd to read about the evolution of Judaism without a single mention of Zoroastrian dualism and apocalypticism, for instance. The closest Wright comes to this in his chapters on Philo and the Logos, but even there he maintains that the idea of the Logos, that the universe itself was embedded with ideas about how people should live, occurred in other societies at the same time — so general Greek influences are ignored as well. Wright tended to make more concessions that he needed to towards religious readers, but I suspect this is to make up for the perceived hostility of his materialistic approach.
The Evolution of God is very readable, with a fair bit to offer those new to the subject. It is limited, though, so those interested would be well-served by reading further. I have my own recommendations, naturally:
- Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. Asimov examines the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as human literature, not revealed and holy truths. I’ve only read the first volume but have been well-served by it.
- God’s Problem, Bart Ehrman. Though the evolution of religion isn’t a theme for Ehrman in this book, it solved a major part of the puzzle of Judaism’s evolution and later spawning of Christianity for me: apocalypticism. Ehrman’s written other books of interest, but I haven’t read them.
- Reading Judas: the Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, Elaine Pagels and Karen King.
- The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong
- Persian Fire, Tom Holland. This won’t tell you a thing about Judaism, but Holland writes on Zoroastrian concepts that migrated into the Judeo-Christian worldview following Israel’s brief annexation by Babylon and Persia.