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The Evolution of Godby Robert Wright
Robert Wright's The Evolution of God is a fascinating history of religion in all its forms, from the beginning stirrings of theology to the conflicting faiths we live with today. This intelligent, accessible, and thorough book gives us new insight into our spiritual evolution.
"The title of Robert Wright's new book — The Evolution of God — will surely put some people off; indeed it seems designed to do so. So many religious believers in the U.S. have so much antipathy toward the idea that evolution might explain anything, it seems highly unlikely that many of them will pick up a book whose title suggests that God, of all things, might have evolved — let alone (dare I mention it?) a book containing a chapter titled 'Survival of the Fittest Christianity.'" Troy Jollimore, truthdig (read the entire truthdig review)
Synopses & Reviews
In this sweeping narrative that takes us from the Stone Age to the Information Age, Robert Wright unveils an astonishing discovery: there is a hidden pattern that the great monotheistic faiths have followed as they have evolved. Through the prisms of archaeology, theology, and evolutionary psychology, Wright's findings overturn basic assumptions about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and are sure to cause controversy. He explains why spirituality has a role today, and why science, contrary to conventional wisdom, affirms the validity of the religious quest. And this previously unrecognized evolutionary logic points not toward continued religious extremism, but future harmony.
Nearly a decade in the making, The Evolution of God is a breathtaking re-examination of the past, and a visionary look forward.
"In his illuminating book, The Moral Animal, Wright introduced evolutionary psychology and examined the ways that the morality of individuals might be hard-wired by nature rather than influenced by culture. With this book, he expands upon that work, turning now to explore how religion came to define larger and larger groups of people as part of the circle of moral consideration. Using a nave and antiquated approach to the sociology and anthropology of religion, Wright expends far too great an effort covering well-trod territory concerning the development of religions from 'primitive' hunter-gatherer stages to monotheism. He finds in this evolution of religion, however, that the great monotheistic (he calls them 'Abrahamic,' a term not favored by many religion scholars) religions — Christianity, Islam, Judaism — all contain a code for the salvation of the world. Using game theory, he encourages individuals in these three faiths to embrace a non — zero-sum relationship to other religions, seeing their fortunes as positively correlated and interdependent and then acting with tolerance toward other religions. Regrettably, Wright's lively writing unveils little that is genuinely new or insightful about religion. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Thank God for agnostics. Over the last decade, our public conversation about religion has all too often degenerated into a food fight between the religious right and the secular left. Now comes journalist Robert Wright with a kinder, gentler approach: a materialist account of religion that manages (sort of) to make room for God (of a sort). "The Evolution of God" is a big book that... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) addresses a simple question: Is religion poison? Ever since 9/11, much ink and many pixels have scrutinized Harvard professor Samuel Huntington's prophesy of a coming "clash of civilizations" between the Christian West and the Islamic world. Is Islam a religion of war? How about Judaism and Christianity? The assumption underlying many answers to these questions — an assumption shared by fundamentalists and "new atheists" alike — is that religions are what their founders and scriptures say they are, rather than what contemporary practitioners make them out to be. Wright rejects this assumption. No religion is in essence evil or good, he writes. Scriptures are malleable. Founders are betrayed. At least for historians, there is little provocation here. The provocation comes when Wright claims that religious history seems to be going somewhere, as if guided by an invisible hand. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all appear to have a "moral direction," and that direction is toward the good. Christians have contended for centuries that Jesus replaced the Jewish God of wrath with the Christian God of love. Wright argues that this evolution from malevolence to benevolence happens inside each of the Abrahamic religions. In each case, God starts out with a whip in his hand and a sneer on his lip. So score one for the new atheists. But the God of vengeance who cares only about his own people gradually evolves into a God of compassion who cares about us all. In the process, the Western monotheisms advance from belligerence to tolerance. Religion's original sin of violence is redeemed. To explain how this "salvation" (his word) occurs, Wright draws on his prior books on evolutionary psychology ("The Moral Animal") and game theory ("Nonzero"). The key argument is that, ever since hunters and gatherers have been hunting and gathering, the invisible hand guiding human history has been working (largely through advances in technology and communications) to create non-zero-sum situations that force historical actors, often against their own inclinations, into ever widening circles of moral concern. Jews, Christians and Muslims are led (gradually and in fits and starts) toward moral universalism not because religions are inherently good but because believers are inherently flexible — flexible enough to see when they and their enemies are in the same boat. All this happens, it should be emphasized, on entirely naturalistic grounds. Wright, a self-described "materialist," believes that history is driven not by fiat from on high but by natural selection via "facts on the ground." In his account, Judaism gives rise to Christianity and Islam without even a whiff of the supernatural. And the Apostle Paul — "the Bill Gates of his day" — is "just another savvy and ambitious man who happened to be in the religion business." Yet all Wright's talk of "business models" and "algorithms" and "positive network externalities" somehow opens up the conversation about God rather than closing it down. In this oddly old-fashioned book, which recalls Hegel more than anyone else, Wright speaks repeatedly of "design" and "goals" and "purposes" in human history. In the end, Wright allows himself to wonder whether the evolution of "God," the concept, might provide evidence for the existence of God, the reality. "If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer," he writes, "then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe — conceivably — the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity." Whether this Gospel of Maybe will make many converts is doubtful. There are bones thrown here and there to atheists and believers alike, but no red meat. So the final judgment may well be that the book is too hard on faith to please religious folk and too easy on dogma to please secularists. Still, it is hard not to envy Wright for his Obamaesque hope. There is reason to hope, he writes, that the Abrahamic religions can get along with one another, with science and with the modern world. But Wright also exhibits here an even more radical hope: that human beings might learn to talk about religion in a manner that is both civil and intelligent. For decades the faithful and faithless operated in the United States under a gentlemen's agreement to leave one another alone. Yes, we had our Bryans and our Menckens during the Scopes trial in the 1920s, but after that, belief and disbelief retreated to their respective corners. Then came the religious right and church buses for Reagan, to which Harris and Hawkins and Dawkins and Dennett rightly cried foul. If God is going to be used to prop up Republican policies, it is perfectly legitimate for people with different politics to try to cut the Republican God down to size. And so we find ourselves in the sort of scuffle between believers and unbelievers that hasn't been seen since evolution and the Bible went toe to toe in Dayton, Tenn. In American religion, as in U.S. politics, however, the middle is far bigger than the extremes combined. Most Americans don't believe God and evolution are at war. And only fools want another crusade with Islam. So thank God or "God" or whatever matters most to you for this book, not so much for its arguments as for its tone, which offers the sort of hope even unbelievers can believe in: that we can somehow learn to talk about religion without throwing our food. Stephen Prothero is a religious studies professor at Boston University and the author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn't." Reviewed by Stephen Prothero, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"In his brilliant new book, The Evolution of God, Robert Wright tells the story of how God grew up....Wright's tone is reasoned and careful...and it is nice to read about issues like the morality of Christ and the meaning of jihad without getting the feeling that you are being shouted at." New York Times
"Wright (Nonzero, 2001, etc.) joins the decade's bandwagon with a tome explaining away God as something people made up over time....'Traditional believers,' as Wright calls them, will find all this a difficult pill to swallow...Offers little new scholarship, but the in-depth approach yields original insights." Kirkus Reviews
Book News Annotation:
A contributing editor at The New Republic, Wright (New American Foundation) explores the history of religion and its future from a materialist standpoint, believing that the origin and development of religion can be explained by reference to concrete, observable factors such as human nature, political and economic conditions, and technological change. He covers the birth and growth of gods, the emergence of Abrahamic monotheism, the invention of Christianity, the triumph of Islam, and God going or not going global. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The prize-winning author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero presents a groundbreaking examination of religion through the ages.
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