Review of The Evolution of God by Robert Wright
The Evolution of God
by Robert Wright
The Evolution of God comes close, in many ways, to my ideal Platonic conception of a "non-fiction book." It is thick and weighty (all the better to use against zombies, should the apocalypse happen while reading it). It is organized into a series of logical parts, which are in turn each organized into a series of logical chapters, providing convenient stopping points for a respite. Last, but not least, it has endnotes. Pages upon pages of endnotes. I loves me my endnotes.
And Robert Wright's endnotes aren't just about quantity; they have quality too (some might say too much). Wright's recounting of the genesis of Abrahamic religion is far from objective—and I didn't expect objectivity, since Wright makes it clear that he has a thesis, and therefore an agenda when it comes to interpreting the texts. Nevertheless, Wright mentions dissenting views, and he often has alternative interpretations in the endnotes, complete with page references to books that disagree with him. That is the kind of scholarship I appreciate in my non-fiction!
I quite enjoyed the historical parts of The Evolution of God. Wright makes a good case for development of religion going hand-in-hand with the transition from hunter-gatherer society to agrarianism. While religion-as-social-control is a motif that appears throughout philosophy, Wright offers up interesting historical anecdotes that help reinforce the point. Later, Wright connects this to his brainchild notion of "nonzero-sumness" and how human interaction can be best explained by game theory.
I don't quite buy into the entirety of Wright's nonzero-sum thesis, and I kind of which he didn't say "zero-sumness" and "nonzero-sumness" every second page. It got annoying! However, much of his thesis does make sense. For instance, if two neighbouring cities have a mutually-beneficial trade relationship (Wright's "nonzero-sumness"), then it makes sense that each would tolerate the other's god(s). Shouting, "Death to you infidels!" followed by, "Oh, may I please have some cabbage?" does not quite work in the marketplace.
Indeed, Wright's decision to look at the development of religion as a reaction to the sociopolitical situation at the time (the "facts on the ground," as he so repetitively puts it), is compelling. If we try to analyze the growth of, say, Christianity purely from a theological standpoint, it is easy to get confused. There is a lot of contradictory stuff in the Bible, and inventing a theological explanation for all those contradictions is precisely that: invention. Instead, the political climate at the time (we think) each book of the Bible was written gives us insight into why that book has a certain tone and takes a certain theological stance.
Although I've long been aware that the Bible is one of history's oldest mash-ups, The Evolution of God drove this point home. Wright draws attention to the differences between the Gospels, as well as the larger change in God's behaviour between Old and New Testaments. Whether one agrees with Wright's explanations for these differences, The Evolution of God presents them in historical context (rather than simply saying "oh look, these are contradictory!"), something I found helped me better understand how diverse the authorship and themes of the Bible are. Moreover, Wright definitely has an agenda when it comes to explaining these differences, but he's quick not to insinuate that the Bible's various editors have been manipulating the text for outright nefarious purposes.
While the title is somewhat worrying, it's rather obvious within the first few pages that Wright's goal is not to debunk religion as an anomaly of evolution. Quite the opposite: Wright sees the development of religion, its growth in a moral direction, as an indication that there is a "moral force" to the universe. And, if we like, we can call this moral force God.
I balk a bit at this argument, especially when Wright begins comparing God to an electron. Wright makes several good points, but the argument just rests on too many assumptions that are, in my opinion, unfounded. Even if one thinks that humanity is becoming "more moral" (which I don't), why does there need to be any mechanism beyond evolution? The afterword is called "By the Way, What Is God?", but the better question is "By the Way, What Is Morality." Then again, that question is worth another entire book, and I didn't expect Wright to tackle it here. So while Wright's argument is interesting, some of its premises seem dubious to me.
Fortunately, most of Wright's discussion of God as the universal moral force is confined to the last part of the book. It runs through The Evolution of God, as a thesis ought to do, but Wright's historical analysis, while influenced by it, is still useful without it. I loved reading about the origins of Yahweh, the networking of Paul, and the doctrine of Jihad. That's what I want to emphasize about this book: I found its history useful, and its philosophy interesting—stimulating, but not necessarily persuasive.
The Evolution of God is well-written, precise, and detailed. Even as he advances his own thesis about the moral growth of the Abrahamic religions, Wright shows us how conceptions of God (and Gods) have changed as the politics and economics of a region changed. Believers and non-believers (I belong to the latter category) might come away from this book with very different opinions, but it behoves both categories to read it. For I do think Wright correct in this: if we want to understand the religions of today, we must understand how they came to be. The development of religion is a large part of the history of human civilization; The Evolution of God addresses my ignorance in that area in an academic yet readable style.