The question arises: “Is it valid to consider some faiths more ‘evolved’ than others, or are all such distinctions inherently biased?”
Well, religious beliefs have evolved over time such that there are some kinds of beliefs that are more characteristic of large civilizations that existed only after the invention of writing. I wouldn’t say that that fact makes them better. The fact that they are more evolved in that sense is not a value judgment. On the other hand, it’s true that as time has worn on, especially in situations where people have had productive contact with different kinds of people – people with different ethnicities, different nations – that has tended to kind of broaden their moral horizon. This is something Peter Singer has documented in his book, The Expanding Circle. So, they tended to start thinking, “Well maybe it isn’t just people of our group that are human beings and deserve to be treated decently. Maybe people who speak a different language, people of a different ethnicity.”
I think that constitutes moral progress, and sometimes that has been associated with religion. In other words, it doesn’t have to be, you can have a sheerly secular philosophical version of that belief, but given how pervasive religion has been in the belief system of most societies, that kind of moral progress has shown up in the evolution of religion. And I think you can call it moral progress. It’s not confined to religion, and I think it’s a product of concrete forces – it happens in recognition of enlightened self-interest. But I think it’s good. It’s one of the hopeful things about the direction of history that a belief that a lot of us take for granted now, the idea that people everywhere are human beings and deserve to be treated decently did have to be kind of invented, and was invented. And I think history was on the side of the eventual discovery of that moral truth.
So if we’re hearing him right, then the notion of treating others well – especially those who are not like us (the second half of what’s often termed the Greatest Commandment) – is a big indicator of the progressive side of religion, and one that history will judge kindly. And (again, if we’re hearing him correctly) that’s the positive force of the evolution of religion.
A “hopeful thing” indeed.