Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God": Book Review

Applying zero-sum theory to how religion matured as natural selection highlighted altruistic or selfish mechanisms, this surveys the growth of monotheism. Wright's evolutionary background assures that belief in an external power or set of forces remains speculative, not proving existence of such a presence, but explaining how a process parallel to the mysteries in electrons might account for why religion progresses towards tolerance or remains committed to belligerence. It popularizes how how we're wired explains we we're primed to believe, and why getting along with those around us accounts for why we invented religion.

"Religion, having come from the brain of people, is bound to bear the marks of our species, for better and worse." (32) Wright begins with hunter-gatherers, where the imperative to sustain morality need not have a deity's rewards or punishments come into the situation. Yet, the natural tendency to attribute spirits (as experienced in dreams) to the dead and then to build a system of explaining why right and wrong behaviors emerge from good and bad actions accounts for the start of what will become more organized as small clans of 30-50 people begin to trade and clash with neighbors, and as tribes form chiefdoms and nations begin.

I liked his anthropologically derived examples of what might echo these earlier stages in religion: a shark attack might be rationalized if one was a Polynesian thief. Eskimo shamans convinced women that they could be cured of sin if they slept with shamans. "Every religion, to survive elementary logical scrutiny," must develop "its explanatory loopholes." (66) Faith allowed justification for cooperating with the gods and priests and status quo; human unhappiness or the arrival evil came about when the gods and their representatives were opposed. Wright explains how this system was first analyzed. Functionalists who favor religion as leading to altruism and cooperation contended early on in anthropology with quasi-"Marxists" who found religion's "opiate" as another power play to enforce guilt, oppression, and hierarchy. (133)

He leans towards another tendency: using foreign and domestic policy as models for how, as in early Judaism, the tolerance of Canaanite-derived polytheism might be more or less acceptable for the indigenous Hebrews depending on how Judea and Israel were getting along with Assyria or Egypt at the time. This Abrahamic orientation, of a jealous and aggressive God besting His rivals, means that Judaism, and later Christianity and Islam, could argue that those within a faith were protected and empowered against their rival unbelievers, heretics, and pagans, depending on who was fighting whom and who was allied with whom.

He considers how Philo of Alexandria and Buddhist ideas of a force moving within history as well as free of it might be paralleled with the Logos advanced by Greeks and then the Gospel of John. (233) Wright's elaboration can be more mystical than logical, but Wright speculates how this Logos through Christ became a "divinely sponsored illusion." (302) That is, as religion evolved, this divine force became more apparent--not that it exists per se, but it may, as he suggests later on, be akin to how an electron is seen and not seen.

Wright's version of Christianity reminds us how Jesus was a Jew preaching to Jews a harsher message of messianic imminence and apocalyptic predictions than Paul, who marketed a more internationalized figure of a redemptive savior for a more inclusive, faith-based, mutually supportive communal model tailored for a diverse Roman system of traders and buyers. Early Christians first used Jewish diasporic networks to firm up their brand appeal before going global. As with Bill Gates, Paul the Apostle was able to "borrow" what worked from earlier and competing systems to respond to what his customers wanted from religion. (246; compare the rational theory model applied by Rodney Stark in "Discovering God" recently reviewed by me.)

These computer analogies cleverly keep the argument intriguing, even though at many points, Wright's dogged return to non-zero-sum and zero-sum theory and very close readings of  Hebrew biblical scholarship slow the pace. By contrast he skims over the Hagarism argument of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook when it comes to analyzing how Jewish alliances might have been far more present in very early Islam than Koranic sources let on. Wright's presentation of Islam is peppier, however, and he invites us to consider how "modern" its message was by comparison, as it had the advantage of building on Judaism, Christianity, and Arab paganism which were familiar, as was Allah, to his first audiences, preparing them for another push of an aggressively argued bold "new" faith across the deserts and seas.

Could these three Religions of the Book have found a less angry path? The alternative of King Ashoka in India who converted to Buddhism after war but who then promoted peace and mutual understanding between faiths is raised briefly. Wright judges that gradually religion under monotheism has eased up on intolerance, as international amity trumps national or tribal animosity, but it's a very guarded judgement. Technology of munitions and of computers enables a sinister threat to spread along with fundamentalism.

In conclusion, Wright sums up religious parallels or open-ended encounters with science. This opens up what could have been another long book, but its conclusion deserves quoting. "Religion arose out of a hodgepodge of genetically based material mechanisms designed by natural selection for thoroughly mundane purposes." (482) Whether you agree or disagree with this statement, this book's worth studying.
(Amazon US 12-12-11; author's website for book)

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