A Darwin for the Divine

The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, Little, Brown and Company, 567 pages, $25.99

There are, it seems, two Robert Wrights -- a tough-minded Robert Wright and a tender-minded Robert Wright -- who have collaborated on a book about religion. The tough-minded Wright, like the much acclaimed "new atheists," insists that widely held traditional beliefs cannot withstand scientific scrutiny; they are the evolutionary outcome of material forces. The tender-minded Wright exudes a positive view of the entire religious enterprise nonetheless: Religion has a natural capacity to overcome the vaunted clash of faith-based civilizations and the clash between faith and modern reason. Concepts of God have evolved from amoral, violence-prone tribal deities to a "morally modern God" who espouses altruism across ethnic and religious boundaries. In this sense, Wright argues, "religion hasn't just evolved; it has matured."

The tough-minded Wright wants to put this argument on a strictly scientific basis. The "evolution of God" is not due to anything specifically religious or internal to the various currents of religious belief. It is due to "facts on the ground," material incentives that give a competitive advantage to those religions tending toward universal altruism. Universal altruism is in line with a growing complexity, interdependence, and intelligence that constitute the overall direction of both organic and cultural evolution.

The tender-minded Wright goes further. Godtalk, he knows, is a "breach of highbrow etiquette," but he poses cosmic questions about the meaning and purpose of life anyway. Maybe, he speculates, the evolution of religion reveals a deep moral order in the world that, once you strip away all the anthropomorphic trappings, approximates something akin to the divine source captured in the abstract phrase "God is love." But the tough-minded Wright won't go there, saying only that entertaining such notions is not "crazy."

By and large, this collaboration works. The Evolution of God is a remarkable book, engaging, audacious, and provocative in an open-ended way. Its two-sidedness and open-endedness have infuriated some readers. In The New Republic, Jerry A. Coyne devoted 7,000 words to attacking The Evolution of God as "creationism for liberals." What pits Wright against evolutionists like Coyne is not just godtalk. It is Wright's conviction that evolution, first organic and then cultural, displays an inbuilt direction.

In Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2000), Wright argued at length that human intelligence, now able to shape, for better or worse, the fate of the planet, is something more than another accidental twig on the tree of life. Using biological evidence and concepts drawn from game theory (zero-sum and non-zero-sum games), Wright maintained that there are scientific grounds and not only religious ones for questioning the physicist Steven Weinberg's conclusion, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless." Still, Wright acknowledged in Nonzero that his argument takes him into territory, namely subjectivity and "the mystery of consciousness," that strains standard scientific approaches. A similar problem is posed by his analysis of religion in The Evolution of God.

Make no mistake about the ambition of the book. It traces the trajectory of religion from primitive animism through the rowdy and increasingly political pantheons of chiefdoms and early city-states to the emergence and critical metamorphoses of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three Abrahamic faiths said to be the chief protagonists of the contemporary clash of civilizations.

Wright is your favorite professor or high school teacher, teasing, debunking, taking the stuffiness out of learning with contemporary references. Shamans, like modern doctors, work on "a per-service basis." The Canaanite pantheism is "downsized." King Josiah has a "hit list." Isaiah competes for "airtime." Philo produces a "CliffsNotes version of the Torah." Paul is "the Bill Gates of his day," an entrepreneur whose "business model" of interethnic love gives Christianity the "competitive edge" needed to extend the "Jesus brand" throughout the "huge commercial opportunity" that was the Roman Empire.

To Wright's credit, he does not go overboard in describing gory or bizarre religious practices (there is a lot to work with), but he doesn't pass them by either. I am not about to forget the Mayan prewar ritual in which the king pierces his penis and pulls a cord through the wound.

How accurate is Wright's account? As a mere mortal, I hesitate to say. I recall reading half a dozen enthusiastic reviews of another sweeping survey of religions. The Old Testament scholar had nothing but praise for the book, except, that is, for some of its treatment of ancient Israel. The church historian found flaws only in its treatment of Christianity, the Islamicist only in its treatment of Islam. The experts in Buddhism and Hinduism were similarly full of praise, except for ... well, you see the pattern.

Wherever I am familiar with the secondary literature on which Wright depends, I am impressed by the extent of his research but puzzled by what principles led him to rely on certain scholars and totally ignore others no less prominent. Readers drawn to this book as a fascinating introduction to religion -- and that is surely a major part of its appeal -- should realize that what they are getting is plausible but partial.

It is a partial account, first of all, simply because it is structured around one theme, albeit a very important one: Religious traditions are not static but many layered, and believers unfold different meanings from them over time. Among many believing Jews and Christians, this may not come as quite the news it might have been in the El Paso Baptist church where a 9-year-old Wright was saved and baptized in the mid-1960s. But fundamentalists and some of their atheist critics are only extreme cases of a widespread tendency to treat religion, whether one's own or someone else's, as hard and fast and immune to change.

Wright's account is partial in other ways. He owes more to his Baptist heritage than he realizes. Regarding Judaism and Christianity he is strictly a Bible believer -- or unbeliever, as the case may be. Rabbinical Judaism doesn't exist; the Talmud is never mentioned. The entire post-apostolic history of Christianity, except for a glance at Constantine, plays no part in his evolutionary story. No Augustine, no Maimonides, no Aquinas, no Luther or Calvin or popes or monks or mystics or martyrs. No worship or sacraments or relics or pilgrimages (or Inquisitions); no holy days or lifecycle rituals. As for Islam, it is all Muhammad and Quran, with a passing mention of the Hadith and nothing about later centuries of Islamic thought, practice, and jurisprudence.

Wright's mechanism for explaining religious evolution is a marriage of Marx and Darwin. The cultural superstructure is an epiphenomenon reflecting the infrastructure of technology and power relationships, which determine whether a religious "mutation" will survive and proliferate.

No serious scholar of religion would deny that beliefs and practices have changed under the pressure of external events and material interests. No one would tell the story of the Reformation without referring to papal corruption, the politics of the Holy Roman Empire, and the confiscation of monastic wealth. But neither would anyone tell the story without highlighting the theological visions of Martin Luther and John Calvin and the spiritual restlessness of late medieval society. In other words, if the survival of a religious "mutation" depends on favorable material incentives, it also depends on the power of ideas, images, emotions, argument, and charismatic or saintly examples to galvanize spiritual energies.

All this is what Wright, the tough-minded Wright, I guess, has chosen to minimize, as though the fact that religion is soft and scientifically suspect makes it all the more necessary to clutch tight to his materialist model drawn from biology. And of course it is easier to apply this mechanism to developments sufficiently distant in the past. We can document very little about the subjective consciousness of Elisha or Paul or Muhammad compared to Augustine or Luther or Teresa of Avila or Wesley or John XXIII. So Wright need not cope with the "mystery" that he admits, in Nonzero, science has tended either to ignore or explain away.

Once again his explanations are not flatly wrong but seriously partial. They neither do justice to religious reality nor serve Wright's declared moral purpose, which is not merely to describe a long-range evolutionary tendency toward moral progress but to advance it by persuasion here and now.

Consider, for a moment, Wright's breezy, commonsense tone. By constantly portraying religious phenomena in terms of familiar commercial and political realities, it militates against that very leap of moral imagination that he says "much of the book has been about." His premodern kings and prophets do not inhabit a dramatically different mental world. They are just moderns minus the advantages of science and game theory. Wright's unexamined idea of modernity is also the standard to which religion is invited to conform. By this standard, apparently, the triumph of toleration would be for the Abrahamic faiths to renounce any claims to "specialness." That might strike some of us as reversing the whole point of toleration. Wright should not be surprised if the invitation, however well intentioned, is declined.

Consider, too, the most urgent of the religious clashes that Wright wants to forestall -- between important elements of Islam and a liberal democratic modernity that many Muslims view as Christian, Jewish, and secular all at once. Does a focus on facts on the ground offer any contemporary guidance? It can justify hard-line policies as readily as conciliatory ones. And why invest energy in the specifically theological discussions that have been going on among Muslims and among Muslims and Christians and Jews?

Apart from Philo of Alexandria, a noteworthy but isolated exponent of a Hellenized Judaism, theology is notably absent in The Evolution of God. Has no past or contemporary Jewish, Christian, or Muslim thinker ever puzzled over the inconsistencies of the Bible or Quran, over the problem of using human language and imagery to understand transcendental reality, over the basis for tolerance and the relationship between world religions? I doubt that Wright rejects this body of thought out of hand, as do the new atheists. It remains a curious omission in a book on changing concepts of God.

Equally curious is the general absence of philosophy. I may be wrong in suspecting that the cosmic questions nagging the tender-minded Wright can never be answered without a rethinking of the tough-minded Wright's version of scientific materialism. But there is another fault line in Wright's thinking demanding some such rethinking. He recognizes that in moving from organic to cultural evolution, which he wants to influence as well as analyze, he confronts a whole new level of questions about human consciousness -- and though he doesn't really discuss it, human freedom. Those questions have enormous implications for his method of investigation, his evolutionary theory, and his moral advocacy. I think he needs the tools of philosophical inquiry into differences between the natural and human sciences, the methods appropriate to each, and the nature and limits of the resulting knowledge.

It may seem churlish to suggest to an author who has already delved into so many fields of learning that he delve into more. But unless Wright's two selves risk a greater engagement with theology and philosophy, I doubt that his fascinating project can ever come to a satisfactory conclusion. You just can't get there from here.