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Review of The Evolution of God

The Evolution of God
By Robert Wright
Little, Brown, 2009

At one point in Robert Wright’s new book The Evolution of God, he invokes a classic Twilight Zone episode to illustrate the mutability of religious texts. In the episode, humans are comforted by the fact that an alien race’s holy book is called How to Serve Humans –– until they realize it’s a cookbook. Wright uses the episode as an example of how so-called sacred word can change over time and in flux with human understanding. This fits neatly with his conception of a changing God, a view of religion as a moral sensibility that, right alongside science rather than in opposition to it, is continually growing and refining.

“Moral truth is sometimes elusive” Wright maintains, but he suggests it lies in the process by which humans (the unspoken assumption of The Evolution of God is that humans are the only animals we’re talking about here –– with all the equally-unspoken corollaries implied) move past a “zero-sum” (i.e. me-versus-you) perception of the world, move past this to a “zero-sum-sum” perception in which my wellbeing is not opposed to yours but rather allied to it. Throughout his book, Wright steadfastly –– courageously? foolishly? –– insists this change is happening. His “evolution of God” is very much an evolution of human beings toward God –– a better, more loving God than He was in the Hebrew Bible, a less “interventionist” (Wright’s frequent word) God who might be content to spend all day acting like an electron.

The important thing about this God is that His very presence, according to Wright, is moving all of mankind along a path to greater moral evolution:

Certainly there has been a kind of net moral progress in human history, if only in the sense that moral imagination today routinely extends farther than the circumference of a hunter-gatherer village. And certainly religion has played a role in this progress. Even when the Abrahamic religions are defensive and inward-looking, you see Muslims identifying with Muslims half a world away, and Christians and Jews doing the same. In all cases, that’s a bigger moral compass than existed anywhere on this planet 20,000 years ago, when all religions were “savage” religions.

Objections come swarming in. The “identifying” going on here is a product of communication technology, for instance –– the scope of ‘hunter-gatherer’ communities would be unchanged without it (indeed, is unchanged without it, as horrified news crews filming present-day village stonings and beheadings can attest), regardless of any moral centigrade. And what to say to the half of the world’s population that isn’t Jewish, Muslim, or Christian? Sorry, you picked the wrong holy book? Wright’s vision is upbeat:

…If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe –– conceivably –– the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.

But you can only arrive at the first, incredible part of this postulation –– that humans are progressing toward some kind of moral improvement –– if you turn off the TV, never follow an Internet news channel, and resolutely refuse to leave the Princeton campus. The minute you do any of those things, you’re confronted by the same old tired catalog of human sins that confronted worshippers of Marduk and Baal. Wright uses his idea of net moral progress (and, obviously, his Christian faith) as a bulwark against those sins, and I won’t begrudge him his beacon to a better world. But in his attempt to reconcile godly precepts with science (which has no use for gods), it seems clear he’s engaging in a no-win kind of textual reductivism. The Abrahamic religions he talks about will all tell him the same thing: that which is perfect does not change — only our understanding of it improves, not the thing itself.

Maybe the key TV show here isn’t The Twilight Zone but The Simpsons , specifically the episode where Bart and Lisa discover a similar holy book in possession of visiting aliens: How to Cook Humans. They blow a little space-dust off the cover and it turns out to be How to Cook FOR Humans. But there’s still more space-dust, and when it’s blown away the title reads How to Cook FORTY Humans . But there’s just a bit more space-dust, and when it’s removed, the book turns out to be How to Cook FOR Forty Humans.

If Wright is correct, we should all just keep blowing space-dust until we reach the right spiritual text. If the elders of those Abrahamic religions are right, it’s sacrilege to handle the book in the first place. Electrons won’t care either way, and once again Buddhists are screwed.