The Evolution of God


Andrew Sullivan reviews The Evolution of God (due out in the US next month) by Robert Wright:

… a secular writer best known in America for thoughtful defences of evolutionary psychology and free trade. The tone of the book is dry scepticism with a dash of humour; the content is supple, dense and layered. What makes it fresh and necessary is that it’s a non-believer’s open-minded exploration of how religious doctrine and practice have changed through human history — usually for the better.

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Wright’s core and vital point is that this is not a descent into total relativism or randomness. It is propelled by reason interacting with revelation, coupled with sporadic outbreaks of religious doubt and sheer curiosity. The Evolution of God is best understood as the evolution of human understanding of truth — even to the edge of our knowledge where mystery and meditation take over.

What’s subtle about the book is that while it makes a materialist case for how God evolved — as a function of trade and travel, globalisation and science — it does not reduce faith to these facts on the ground. Hovering over the book is a small sense that, far from disproving the existence of God, this evolving doctrine might point merely to humankind’s slow education into the real nature of the divine.

Read the whole review here.

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Good that somebody is finally talking about something between orthodoxy and humanism. But I don't see how anybody can seriously argue nowadays for progress in religion, as if religion were a science and one gradually uncovered more and more truths about divinity. What about indigenous religions? Are they mere animism in need of being replaced by some monotheistic cult? And what about a person who says he actually wants precisely what the tradition has called animism?

Wittgenstein said it is impossible to make a mistake in religion. I take his approach as meaning that religion is not about factual claims but is rather a gesture of respect toward others.

As most ethnogaphers will tell us, the nonWestern, nonmonotheistic is not primitive. The "primitive" is a myth invented by the West in its dealings with other cultures. These other cultures are just as rich, varied, and evolved as the so-called West is--in their religion, that is. Wittgenstein was making this point in his essay on Frazer's Golden Bough.

It reminds me of Lévi-Strauss who said that history was a myth the West invented. By this, I take him to have been attacking a cult of History as a source of ultimate meaning and justification.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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