“The Evolution of God” — a purpose-driven history?

September 14, 2009

U.S. author Robert Wright traces the history of God and suggests that it might all point to the unfolding of something divine, though perhaps not in the sense that most people of faith would envision.

wright_theevolutionofgod

In his just published “The Evolution of God,” Wright takes his readers on a thought-provoking journey through the spiritual beliefs of our hunter-gatherer ancestors to the development of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You can see my interview with Wright here.

Wright’s engaging book covers a lot of ground and it certainly raises many questions that may be of interest to readers of this blog. I’m just going to throw a few of them out here — trust me, there could be many, many more.

1. RELIGION AND SCIENCE:

Has religion in the past given rise to science? The Polynesians that Captain James Cook encountered in the 18th century tried to predict the weather by looking at the night sky – and often succeeded. They believed this was divinely inspired  but as Wright notes:

The apparent explanation is that both the night sky and the prevailing winds change seasonally. So there was indeed a correlation between stars and weather; the Polynesians just had the wrong explanation … Still, this is the way scientific progress often starts: finding a correlation between two variables and positing a plausible if false explanation. In this sense, ‘science’ dates back to preliterate times.”

2.  MONOTHEISM AND INTOLERANCE/TOLERANCE

Wright argues that “scriptural interpretaion is obedient to facts on the ground” and that “… monotheism turns out to be, morally speaking, a very malleable thing, something that, when circumstances are auspicious, can be a fount of tolerance and compassion.”

robert-wright-by-barry-munger

3. A PURPOSE-DRIVEN HISTORY?

Acadamic history in the West has, for the most part, long since abandoned the view that the march of history is also the march of progress. But Wright raises the possibility that the unfolding drama of human history has been one of moral progress and that this might — just might — point to divine guidance.

What might qualify as evidence of a larger purpose at work in the world? For one thing, a moral direction in history. If history naturally carries human consciousness toward moral enlightenment, however slowly and fitfully, that would be evidence that there’s some point to it all,” he writes.

Wright is well aware that many people will take issue with this thesis, especially in light of the horrors of the 20th century. Critics could also point to the rocky start of the 21st century with the Sept 11 attacks, the war in Congo, the depths of corporate greed … well, the list could be almost endless. In Wright’s America, secular humanists on the left have decried Wall Street’s behavior and almost all of the policies of the past administration of President George W. Bush; religious conservatives have seen almost nothing but moral decline since the 1950s and 1960s.

But as Wright told me:  “I think the fact that we have such a dim view of the 20th century is itself a sign of our moral progress.”

There is much more to this book including a history of God — or one might say the changing or conflicting image of God in the human mind — that is ground in material conditions, culture and politics. Much of it involves an on-going discussion on growth of “non-zero-sum” relationships in the world and the notion of “moral imagination” or “our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person” as Wright describes it.

But what do you think? Are there signs that humanity has made moral progress and could it be a sign of something divine?

(Author Photo by Barry Munger)

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7 comments

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I’m on the second chapter of the book. To me his analysis seems right as far as it goes. What I do have a problem with is his casual chauvinism. When he talks about hunter-gatherer societies, he assumes a male deity, apparently discounting the evidence that most, if not all very early religion was goddess centered. And his casual dismissal of Inanna (“she was self-indulgent, and spent much of her time having sex”) is just unacceptable in any serious researcher. I think anyone who has done any study of feminine spirituality will find this book a bit difficult to read. But perhaps it gets better in later chapters.

Posted by Karen | Report as abusive

Much has been made of the feminine in early religion, but on closer examination so much that has been asserted hasn’t stood up. Also, is there not a place for playfulness in writing? I am enjoying his book, and I consider myself a feminist.

Posted by David | Report as abusive

If your review reflects this book, as I expect it does, I could not recommend it, as it is based on the assumption not only that there is one god only, contrary to historical evidence, but that the god is moral, again contrary to all the evidence.

Human beings can be moral and the subject matter is in moral philosophy not religion, which is just superstition.

I read the interview from the weblink posted above.

The author’s answer to last question reminds me of Gita and Vedas wherein a theatrical stage was created describing the role of man set against the backdrop of timeless and endless creation, with an emphasis to realize the (man’s) oneness with god. Urging man to study religious scriptures up to a point of maturity and then to promptly leave all religion once the self realization is attained ( this may take a longtime, apparently as in the case of book author). From that moment forward it’s all spiritual research on an individual basis, with religion and even the scripture posing an impediment in mans quest to identify ones unity with creator.

I will certainly read the book.

1.Religion and Science.
As Einstein observed’Religion with out Science is lame and Science without Religion is Blind’
Much confusion is due to the assumption that Science and Religion and Philosophy are poles apart, which is not true.Probably,people have taken only Christianity and Judaism alone into account.Many old and Great Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are very scientific in terms of methodology of Knowledge, Sources and definition as to what constitutes Knowledge.Space is a constraint here to examine all the ideas.To cite,Hinduism states that what is in the Microcosm is in the Macrocosm.All laws applicable ti individual species/individuals/individual units also apply to Nature/Universal Laws as a whole.Which is exactly what scientists are saying when attempting to explain Quantum Theory.The pattern of movements of electrons/protons correspond to movement in heavenly bodies.Now they have also explored the frontiers of Dark Matter/energy ; these concepts are present in ancient texts of Hinduism.
The paradox of Time is solved by classifying Time as one that is cyclic and not linear(Which is what we are doing now).The same conclusion is arrived at by Quantum Theory which envisages the existence of multi verses in different levels, all existing at the same time.Time recoils into itself.
Hence what the earlier texts enumerated might not have been called by them or by us as Science by our definition.But they hailed it as Truth as distinct from facts.
So what we are uncovering now is more of rediscovering under a new name.
2. Monotheism breeds Tolerance.Correct.One of the most tolerant Religions is Hinduism, because it evolved from Polytheism, Henotheism,and Monotheism.Monotheism has been further refined into Monism or Non Dualism.This concept has been the reason for Hinduism being very tolerant and flexible and been able to survive for more than 5000 years.
3. Purpose Driven History.Universe is teleological.The fact that we are evolving for the better can not be doubted.We get this impression that it is not so is because we are vocal about our views and are allowed to be so because of Freedom which has been declined in earlier times.The fact that we are able to call our past mistakes as mistakes is itself is an evidence of our moral maturity.We may find many of the practices of earlier civilisations are entering into our lives as new ideas like,Gay marriages,Lesbianism etc.These ideas will again crystallize into one man one woman concept or some other form we may not know right now.
We also see earlier Nobility being replaced by neorich and this likely to lead to turmoil akin to French Revolution.History seems to be repeating under different names and it looks as though there seems to be a purpose behind all this.

I take issue with the third point. Assuming the point about society becomeing more moral is correct, it does not follow that it was guided there. This is an easy error to make anytime someone looks back on the past.

Birds fly because they have wings. They do not have wings because evolution predicted they would need to fly later. Similarly, any moral progress is due to increased interaction between groups (via TV, movies, internet, travel, what have you). But these methods of interaction were not developed to increase social morals.

Author Wright’s interview: Quote- “I describe myself as someone who sees evidence that there is a larger purpose unfolding and is therefore I guess not an atheist. And I see the purpose as having a moral dimension … That suggests some notion of the divine, however abstract.
“But I don’t purport to know whether there is anything you could call a God. I don’t buy any of the claims of special revelation of anyone ever in the history of the world. I think if there is a revelation it is in the unfolding of history and it is equally accessible to anyone who wants to pay attention. I don’t think anyone has been singled out by God for private communication about this.”- Unquote

http://www.reuters.com/article/lifestyle Molt/idUSTRE58D1RT20090914

This above opinion has a striking resemblance to a sanatana dharma (Hinduism) experts piece put on web sometime ago.
Sanatan dharma quote: A student of Sanãtana Dharma cannot but reply as follows: The very concept of a historical saviour or prophet is foreign to Sanãtana Dharma. We do not concede the monopoly of spiritual truth or moral virtue to any historical person, howsoever great or highly honoured. Every one has to be one’s own saviour, one’s own prophet. One has to discover the spiritual truths for one’s own self, if that truth has to have any meaning for one or any validity in one’s life. A truth discovered by someone else cannot become my truth unless I rediscover it for myself. Scriptures and spiritual teachers can be my aids and guides, and may help me in my search for truth. But the truth of which the scriptures speak or which the teachers expound cannot become a truth for me unless it comes alive in my own consciousness, and starts transforming my own life. Moreover, the very historicity in which you take pride is for us the hallmark of the ephemeral and the false. We reject a historical religion as pauruSeya prasthãna, idiosyncrasies of a particular person, no matter how you hail him. That which was born in history has also died in history. You are showing devotion to what is dead and gone.

The third question which such a faithful will put to a student of Sanãtana Dharma is as follows: ?You have no only saviour, no last prophet. You have no al-kitãb. How, then, do you know who is your one and only true god? How do you distinguish this one and only true god from the many false gods which abound all around you??
At this stage the student of Sanãtana Dharma will have to smile and say, ?According to our spiritual tradition, testified by a long line of spiritual seekers, the way to God-discovery is through Self-discovery. As one proceeds on that inner voyage one sees spiritual truths in many forms. None of these forms is false. It is only one?s seeking which can falter and lead to one?s fall from the path of spiritual progress by insisting that this or that form alone is true. Sanãtana Dharma stands squarely for a human becoming God in the process of Self-discovery-Ãtman becoming Parmãtman, PuruSa becoming PuruSottama. This is the path of world-discovery as well. The deeper one dives into oneself, the faster one?s world gets divinised. One starts seeing God in every human being, in every animal, in every plant, in every stone. One feels free to worship God in any from or in all forms at the same time. One also feel?s free not to worship God at all, and to dwell within oneself in spiritual self-delight. Sanãtana Dharma, therefore, has no use for a God who makes himself known to mankind through the medium of a saviour or a prophet, or through the pages of al-kitãb or the book. Such a God must always remain external to us, and external to the world in which we live. Such a God does not permit humanhood to grow into Godhood, nor allows this world to get divinised. He has reserved all divinity for himself, and has nothing to spare for his creatures except an abject servitude to his arbitrary commandments conveyed through a saviour or a prophet chosen equally arbitrarily.
Sanatana Dharma Unquote.

http://www.voiceofdharma.com/books/hindu soc/ch2.htm

I was wondering if the author ever has come across any of the hindu scriptures during his research on evolution/history of god. Having read his interview piece, I would like to see what the author thinks of similar opinions expressed and documented several millennia ago. Thank You.