June 18, 2013
Troy Jollimore on God’s Evolution
Posted on Jun 19, 2009
The title of Robert Wright’s new book—“The Evolution of God”—will surely put some people off; indeed it seems designed to do so. So many religious believers in the U.S. have so much antipathy toward the idea that evolution might explain anything, it seems highly unlikely that many of them will pick up a book whose title suggests that God, of all things, might have evolved—let alone (dare I mention it?) a book containing a chapter titled “Survival of the Fittest Christianity.”
But being provocative is clearly not something Wright fears. His acclaimed 1994 book “The Moral Animal” remains one of the most widely read books on evolutionary psychology, a topic that tends to breed controversy wherever it goes. In the work that has followed (notably 2000’s “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny”), the author has displayed an increasingly strong penchant for grand pronouncements and attempts to explain all human behavior, and perhaps all of human history, in terms of a combination of evolutionary psychology and rudimentary game theory.
“The Evolution of God” finds the author going over much of the same ground, this time with a specific focus on religion. The word evolution in the title refers most straightforwardly to the process by which humanity’s idea of God has changed over time—a process described at some length in Wright’s book. The human race begins as a bunch of parochial pluralists, separate tribes each with its own group of deities. These deities are conceived, to start with, more as superheroes—humanoid beings with human personalities endowed with special powers—than as genuine divinities. Over time a few of the deities gain more prominence and become more widely accepted, as pressures toward intertribal cooperation and, eventually, globalization (as manifested in the dynamics of “non-zero-sum situations,” a key concept in Wright’s thinking) push societies toward directing their energies at one comprehensive, universalistic, all-powerful god. This god—the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—eventually becomes perceived as a just and loving father figure and is associated with modern ethical ideas like universal rights and the equality of all persons.
This is, in its way, a story of competition under selective pressure: God attains his ultimate position by defeating all competitors, not through brute power but by winning over the electorate, so to speak. And it is by serving various human purposes, and appealing to certain elements in human nature, that a more all-encompassing vision of God comes to take precedence over less universalistic versions. But, lest some readers be confused by the baggage inevitably attached to the word evolution (a confusion which Wright, to a certain degree, encourages), it is important to emphasize that this is no more a process of Darwinian natural selection than is television’s “American Idol.” The process is a cultural one, and applies to a god that is clearly a cultural artifact in the strongest sense: an artifact that is the creation of human beings, the product of our beliefs, as Wright makes clear:
“The god I’ve been describing is a god in quotation marks, a god that exists in people’s heads. When I said in chapter 5, for example, that Yahweh was strong yet compassionate, I just meant that his adherents thought of him as strong yet compassionate. There was no particular reason to believe that there was a god ‘out there’ that matched this internal conception. Similarly, when I say God shows moral progress, what I’m really saying is that people’s conception of God moves in a morally progressive direction.”
Passages like this will reinforce the believer’s sense that “The Evolution of God” is, at the end of the day, nothing more than yet another evolution book whose aim is to explain how humans have evolved into the sort of creatures that believe in God, and in doing so to explain away any vestige of God’s actual existence. But Wright, it turns out, wants to have it both ways. His point is not just to emphasize the usefulness if not the necessity of religious belief, and to “justify” religion in that attenuated sense (though that theme is certainly present, and sometimes pressed hard). Rather, he wants to go further:
“In this book I’ve used the word ‘god’ in two senses. First, there are the gods that [...] exist in people’s heads and, presumably, nowhere else. But occasionally I’ve suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. This prospect was raised by the manifest existence of a moral order—that is, by the stubborn, if erratic, expansion of humankind’s moral imagination over the millennia, and the fact that the ongoing maintenance of social order depends on the further expansion of the moral imagination, on movement toward moral truth.”
Now at this point things get extremely vague, and while I’m going to try to deal with the vagueness as well as I can, I want to admit upfront that I really can’t tell just what sort of idea of God Wright has in mind. In fact, Wright seems to flip-flop between two ideas—and each, it turns out, faces a serious problem.
The first interpretation takes Wright’s realism about God to be metaphysically modest. God, Wright sometimes seems to think, might simply be the name for whatever turns out to play a certain causal role in explaining certain phenomena that we observe in the universe—and this might be a cause that is perfectly ordinary, in scientific terms. Wright likens it to our use of the word electron, which, as he says, is functionally defined. An electron is not really a tiny little particle, though that is how we picture it; in fact we do not and cannot have an accurate picture of what an electron is, because the level of reality at which electrons exist is too remote from our lived experience. So the word electron really just stands for whatever entity in the world corresponds to certain statements in physical theories, and in particular tends to play certain sorts of causal roles in making events happen.
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