How religions learned to get along
The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Little, Brown, and Company, 2009. $25.99, 576 pgs.
When does God command holy war, and when is he a peacemaker? Robert Wright proposes an answer in The Evolution of God, tracing God’s propensity for intolerance and tolerance through a sweeping history of the Abrahamic faiths. Along the way, he looks for a solution to the two most hyped conflicts of the new century-the “clash of civilizations” and the clash between science and religion. As fascinating as Wright’s history is, his solution to the “clash of civilizations” will irritate plenty of believers, and his solution to the conflict between science and religion won’t satisfy many skeptics.
Evolution of an Illusion?
God, of course, does not evolve, but rather “God,” people’s conception of the divine. As Wright tells it, belief reflects human nature, for good and ill. Drawing on the principles of his best-selling world history Nonzero, Wright proposes that religions’ attitudes toward unbelievers depend on whether or not the faithful believe themselves to be interacting with worthless infidels, or potential partners in non-zero-sum games, situations in which both sides benfit. See yourself as locked in mortal combat with rivals, and your theology becomes vengeful; find yourself at peace, and your theology becomes accommodating.
Wright traces this pattern in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For instance, the infamous chapters of the Hebrew Bible that relate the Israelites’ scorched-earth conquest of Canaanite tribes reflect the views of scribes promoting the agenda of King Josiah, who sought to consolidate power by enforcing the exclusive worship of Yahweh. In more conciliatory passages, though, the Israelites respect foreign gods when they need to negotiate peace with the neighboring Ammonites. In Wright’s New Testament, Paul preaches a message of universal love, adapting Jesus’ Jewish nationalist message to the multinational audience of the Roman Empire. And the Koran’s calls for violence against infidels alternate with calls for tolerance, reflecting Mohammed’s varying stints as military leader in Medina or a powerless preacher in Mecca. Throughout, non-zero-sum situations help religion extend moral dignity to more and more people.
This ability of connectedness to evoke religious tolerance gives Wright hope for our globalized world. But, recognizing the very palpable threat of worldwide catastrophe, he offers us lessons from his history to help forestall crisis.
On a practical level, Wright says, Westerners should recognize that they are in a non-zero-sum relationship with moderate Muslims and seek their cooperation against Islamist radicals. This is not, as he admits, “an especially arcane piece of logic,” but conventional wisdom that has been expressed innumerable times since September 11th. More broadly, he maintains that a true international community requires agreement on a basic “moral compass.” More problematically, though, Wright posits that for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to coexist peacefully in a worldwide community, their faiths will need to abandon their claims to special revelation of Truth. The problem is obvious; those people likely to concede their religion’s particularity are not exactly those willing to die for the unique message and teachings of their faith. There are also innumerable believers from Turkey to Texas who cling to the special revelations of an organized religion without causing mayhem.
And when he advances a religious worldview compatible with modern science, Wright is even less compelling. He holds that the underlying theme, that extending moral consideration to more and more people promotes social harmony, and that religions have evolved to get closer to this “moral truth,” may point to an underlying purpose to the universe. At the same time, he insists that his history of religion is materialist and requires no transcendent truth or being, leaving us with nothing but a tentative, unfalsifiable deism. In the end, Wright will only go so far as to say that it is “not crazy” to believe in some sort of Higher Purpose. While Wright’s humility may be refreshing in an age of angry “New Atheists,” it’d be nice to see a bit more boldness in a work of such ambition. But even if you’re not satisfied with where Wright ends up, though, his epic history and eye for telling details makes The Evolution of God is an exhilarating journey.
How religions learned to get along