What constitutes religious progress?


Big Think (“not all information is equal …. expertise is invaluable and should be shared”) visits with Robert Wright, author of the new chart-creeping tome The Evolution of God.

The question arises: “Is it valid to consider some faiths more ‘evolved’ than others, or are all such distinctions inherently biased?”

Wright responds:

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.

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Lionel Deimel

Not being omniscient, speaking of progress in religion always risks shortsightedness. Progress can be measured along any number of dimensions, and the area Robert Wright has focused on seems particularly subjective (and, as he admits, may not relate to religion at all). This is not to say that I am unsympathetic to his remarks, but, had I been asked the question, I would have addressed a more objective aspect of religion.

Religion makes progress, I assert, when it rejects religious explanations for phenomena adequately explained through other means, rejecting as well related rituals once thought to influence those phenomena.

Modern Americans observing a solar eclipse tend not to pray for the return of the sun, as we have knowledge that assures us that its return is inevitable. We do prayer, however, for the healing of cancer in particular individuals. Go figure.

I leave it to others to contemplate the significance of religious progress—on this front, in any case—being dependent on the retrenchment of religion.

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