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Preaching the Gospel of Maybe

Sunday, August 2, 2009

THE EVOLUTION OF GOD

By Robert Wright

Little, Brown | 567 pp. $25.99

Thank God for agnostics. Over the past decade, our public conversation about religion has all too often degenerated into a food fight between the religious right and the secular left. Now comes journalist Robert Wright with a gentler approach: a materialist account of religion that manages (sort of) to make room for God (of a sort).

"The Evolution of God" is a big book that addresses a simple question: Is religion poison? Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, much ink and many pixels have scrutinized the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington's prophesy of a coming "clash of civilizations" between the Christian West and the Islamic world. Is Islam a religion of war? What about Judaism and Christianity? The assumption underlying many answers to these questions -- an assumption shared by fundamentalists and "new atheists" alike -- is that religions are what their founders and scriptures say they are, rather than what contemporary practitioners make them out to be.

Wright rejects this assumption. No religion is in essence evil or good, he writes. Scriptures are malleable. Founders are betrayed. At least for historians, there is little provocation here. The provocation comes when Wright claims that religious history seems to be going somewhere, as if guided by an invisible hand. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all appear to have a "moral direction," and that direction is toward the good.

Christians have contended for centuries that Jesus replaced the Jewish God of wrath with the Christian God of love. Wright argues that this evolution from malevolence to benevolence happens in each of the Abrahamic religions. In each case, God starts out with a whip in his hand and a sneer on his lip. So score one for the new atheists. But the God of vengeance who cares only about his own people gradually evolves into a God of compassion who cares about us all. In the process, the Western monotheisms advance from belligerence to tolerance. Religion's original sin of violence is redeemed.

To explain how this "salvation" (his word) occurs, Wright draws from his prior books on evolutionary psychology ("The Moral Animal") and game theory ("Nonzero"). The key argument is that, ever since hunters and gatherers have been hunting and gathering, the invisible hand guiding human history has been working (largely through advances in technology and communication) to create non-zero-sum situations that force historical actors, often against their own inclinations, into ever-widening circles of moral concern. Jews, Christians and Muslims are led (gradually and in fits and starts) toward moral universalism not because religions are inherently good but because believers are inherently flexible -- flexible enough to see when they and their enemies are in the same boat.

All this happens, it should be emphasized, on entirely naturalistic grounds. Wright, a self-described "materialist," believes that history is driven not by fiat from on high but by natural selection via "facts on the ground." In his account, Judaism gives rise to Christianity and Islam without even a whiff of the supernatural. And the Apostle Paul -- "the Bill Gates of his day" -- is "just another savvy and ambitious man who happened to be in the religion business."

Yet all Wright's talk of "business models" and "algorithms" and "positive network externalities" somehow opens up the conversation about God rather than closing it down. In this oddly old-fashioned book, which recalls Hegel more than anyone else, Wright speaks repeatedly of "design" and "goals" and "purposes" in human history.

In the end, Wright allows himself to wonder whether the evolution of "God," the concept, might provide evidence for the existence of God, the reality. "If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer," he writes, "then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe -- conceivably -- the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity."

Whether this Gospel of Maybe will make many converts is doubtful. There are bones thrown here and there to atheists and believers alike, but no red meat. So the final judgment may be that the book is too hard on faith to please religious folk and too easy on dogma to please secularists. Still, it is hard not to envy Wright for his Obamaesque hope. There is reason to hope, he writes, that the Abrahamic religions can get along with one another, with science and with the modern world. But Wright also exhibits an even more radical hope: that human beings might learn to talk about religion in a manner that is both civil and intelligent.

For decades the faithful and the faithless operated in the United States under a gentlemen's agreement to leave one another alone. Yes, we had our Bryans and our Menckens during the Scopes trial in the 1920s, but after that, belief and disbelief retreated to their respective corners. Then came the religious right and church buses for Reagan, to which Harris and Hitchens and Dawkins and Dennett rightly cried foul. If God is going to be used to prop up Republican policies, it is perfectly legitimate for people with different politics to try to cut the Republican God down to size. And so we find ourselves in the sort of scuffle between believers and unbelievers that hasn't been seen since evolution and the Bible went toe to toe in Dayton, Tenn.

In American religion, as in U.S. politics, however, the middle is far bigger than the extremes combined. Most Americans don't believe God and evolution are at war. And only fools want another crusade against Islam. So thank God or "God" or whatever matters most to you for this book, not so much for its arguments as for its tone, which offers the sort of hope even unbelievers can believe in: that we can somehow learn to talk about religion without throwing our food.

Stephen Prothero is a religious studies professor at Boston University and the author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't."

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