The Evolution of God: Book Review
January 16, 2010
We all bring our personal baggage with us when we sit down to read a book. I brought my lapsed Catholicism, dabblings in Protestantism, and current status as a “None” with regard to religious affiliation to my reading of Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. When I was finished, my personal religious history and current “failure to commit” all made even more sense than they had before; the book showed me that religion, like my feelings about it, is a malleable and mercurial thing.
Robert Wright starts at the beginning, with what he calls “primordial faith,” and discusses the kind of religion we all remember from our studies of Greek and Roman mythology. Why does the sun come up and go down? Because the sun god, Apollo, pulls it across the sky on his chariot. Another book that does a wonderful job at describing this kind of religious thought as a means of understanding the world is a children’s book, The Curious History of God by Russell Stannard. That book made great sense to me until the author tried to make the evolution of religion lead directly to Jesus and stop there. The Evolution of God showed me why that conclusion simply didn’t work.
From primitive urges toward the idea of god, Wright moves on to connect religious thought with geography and politics, two areas that were as intertwined in ancient Israel as they are now. He does a nice job of explaining how the evolution of “gods” into “God” coincided with the evolution of tribes into nations. What is a good way to unite disparate peoples? Convince them that they all worship the same God. Wright frequently reminds the reader that “scriptural interpretation is obedient to facts on the ground,” and, as the world opened up more, those facts demanded unity instead of dissension.
In my favorite section, “The Invention of Christianity,” Wright answers many of the personal dilemmas that haunted me as I sat through Masses, listening to selections from the Old and New Testaments that seemed to come from two different worlds—worlds that were never discussed or even acknowledged by my teachers and priests. As it turns out, Wright shows that the Old Testament God and the New Testament God, and his sidekick Jesus, were from two different worlds. They came from periods in which the “facts on the ground” were very different. And Jesus’s teachings evolved to suit the political needs of the CEO of Christianity, Inc., Paul (nee Saul).
I realize that this many be common knowledge to many, but not all of it was known to me, and I recommend Wright’s book as a fine place for anyone in the dark to learn these things. He follows a logical pattern, and makes many references to the idea of non-zero-sum relationships, which help the reader understand why religion needed to evolve as political and social relationships became more complex.
The Evolution of God covers both the Bible and the Koran, analyzing passages in light of the motives of their translators, and always taking into account when the passage was translated and who its intended audience was. Wright even provides a count of violent references in each book, and he comes to the conclusion that the Bible has more violent passages, but the Koran’s violent passages are, well, more violent. This is all very intriguing to read.
When Muhammad arrives in the book, Wright divides his revelations into those he made in Mecca and those he made in Medina. Here we have the “facts on the ground” again, just as in the Old and the New Testament. I wonder if Islamic children have ever puzzled over how Muhammad could sound so angry sometimes (Mecca—struggling prophet being ignored) and so forgiving other times (Medina—established ruler looking to grow his franchise). The revelation, or the religion, evolved—just as the words of Jesus were reinterpreted—to match the circumstances of the people who were its receivers.
As would be expected, Wright touches on jihad and Muslim extremism, and he also addresses the idea that some people, such as evangelical Christians, require a “personal God”—someone they can love, talk to, and confess to—while other people don’t need that kind of relationship in their lives. He talks about the “moral imagination,” which he states has also evolved throughout history. As technology has enabled globalism, which expands the “moral circle,” the need for non-zero-sum relationships has expanded the moral imagination. You’ll have to read the book yourself for a deeper explanation, but, for me, this theory completely explains why the Presbyterians are now including traditionally Catholic responsorial psalms in their worship services, while the Catholics are doing what the Presbyterians call “fellowship”—serving donuts and coffee after Mass.
In the end, The Evolution of God leans toward the assumption that our religious urge has evolved toward greater harmony among people and, obviously, must continue to do so. Wright reminds us that the word salvation comes from a Latin word meaning “intact.” The facts on the ground are very harsh these days. But the urge to remain intact is very strong. Here’s to the evolving moral imagination. As we become more tolerant, will our religions do so as well? Will organized religions see that this kind of evolution is in their best interest?
Thank you, Mr. Wright, for giving me so very much to think about.