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Column: Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God”

August 29, 2009

My column on Wright’s new book ran today. One online commenter suggested Wright strive for brevity next time. Well, maybe. But I have to say, I’ve not found any section of the book that I could do without. Anyway, here it is:

‘The evolution of God’ offers skeptical view of religion

Saturday, August 29, 2009

In a recent New York Times review of Robert Wright’s new book “The Evolution of God,” the critic quips: “There is something here to annoy almost everyone.”

Which explains why a religion writer would find the book so compelling. There’s nothing worse for a journalist trying to gain a better understanding of religion than to read a sugar-coated monument to a faith. Sugar-coated Wright’s tome is not. He takes a decidedly skeptical view of religion as he recounts some of humankind’s earliest concepts of God, the emergence of monotheism among the ancient Israelites (which ultimately became Judaism) and the development of the world’s largest religions today: Christianity and Islam.

But in annoying everyone (and in this case everyone means Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists and perhaps New Age spiritual types) Wright, a best-selling author who teaches philosophy and religion, finds himself in a bit of a pickle. Who’s your target audience? Where do you hold speaking events and book signings? How and with whom do you begin a conversation about the evolution of God, a phrase that a good number of folks will automatically find objectionable?

Wright says he expects he’ll be speaking in a lot of synagogues and with a fair number of atheists and theologically liberal Christians. And he hopes to engage an even wider circle of readers. But can true believers – Jewish, Christian or Muslim – read this book without shuddering?

In his effort to paint a historically honest picture of the ancient Israelites, Jesus and Muhammad, among others, and to show readers how God and religion have evolved over the centuries, Wright steps on some theological toes. For example, he argues that Jesus never promoted universal love — that concept was developed later to help spread the religion. He paints Muhammad as alternately tolerant and belligerent depending on the circumstances but always a savvy politician determined to expand his organization. And he argues that ancient Israel was polytheistic until after the Babylonian exile.

Wright’s ultimate aim, though, is to show how these Abrahamic faiths have a common code, how they developed over the centuries, what they say about our moral imagination and how this religious quest can serve us all well. In a recent interview, Wright told me his book shows the best and worst aspects of religion. The best — tolerance and universal love — emerges when people do not feel threatened, he said.

“When you see yourself as playing a potentially win-win game with other people, then I argue you still find a reason to like them,” he said. “You will find a reason to tolerate their religion.”

Still, as I read – and I’ll be honest, I haven’t consumed the roughly 500-page book in its entirety – I began thinking about the people of faith I’ve written about over the years and how they might react to “The Evolution of God.” For some, the tenets of faith, whether the resurrection of Jesus or God’s covenant with the Jews, can function as metaphor. But for other believers, the story must be true. The Quran must have been divinely revealed to Muhammad. Jesus must be God made flesh.

Wright understands this. He had a born-again experience as a boy in a Baptist church in El Paso, and even though he doesn’t hold a belief in God, the idea of God as judge, he said, has not entirely left his consciousness. He allows for a sense of mystery, a possibility of a divine force, which might make his dissection of God and religion more palatable to those believers.

In the wake of a string of best-selling books from what some called angry (I prefer to call them impassioned) atheists, people of faith might be feeling raw and defensive.

Wright recognizes that it’s become all too easy for intellectuals to dismiss if not ridicule believers. He’s not joining that chorus.

While Wright doesn’t profess belief in the Abrahamic God worshiped by most followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, he does promote the notion that humans have a higher purpose, which is where he finds himself annoying atheists.

“The story of religion itself atheists would mainly like because it’s told from a skeptical point of view, but they don’t like my leaving room for higher purpose,” Wright said.

“I do believe … that there’s evidence of a larger purpose unfolding in the world, through the workings of nature,” he added.

“That doesn’t imply some kind of interventionist god. And I don’t know if it implies the existence of a god at all, but … at the same time, this idea of a purpose with a moral direction does help me align my life. That’s part of what religion is supposed to do and has done for me by what most religious people would consider a pretty poor substitute for actual religious beliefs. It still serves that function, I think.”

And the evolution continues.

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