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Original Essays

The Evolution of God

by Robert Wright
On September 11, 2001, I was scheduled to start teaching a graduate seminar at Penn called "Religion and Human Nature." But religion and human nature intervened. After news of the attacks on the World Trade Center reached the Penn campus, the first class of the semester was cancelled.

When class commenced a week later, my students and I had a new context in which to ponder the relationship between religion and human nature. Obviously, the attacks of 9/11 involved both, but was one more fundamental? Was religion really the problem? Or was human nature the problem? Or what?

We discussed the question at length, and I continued to ponder it in the ensuing years as I worked on a book about the history of religion. (I had decided to teach the course in part to inform my work on the book.)

The book that emerged eight years later, The Evolution of God, isn't only, or even mainly, about that question. Most of the book is spent telling the story of the Abrahamic God — the emergence of monotheism in ancient Israel, the emergence of Christianity, the emergence of Islam. And I try to depict God in all his dimensions.

But one of those dimensions does speak to the question posed by 9/11, and it, more than any other dimension, captures my motivation for writing the book. I call that dimension God's "moodiness." In all three Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — God sometimes seems nice and sometimes mean. One minute God is telling ancient Israelites to annihilate nearby peoples who worship foreign gods, and at another point the Israelites favor peaceful coexistence with a neighbor who worships a foreign god — and even acknowledge that god's legitimacy in the course of making the peace overture. One minute the Koran is telling Muslims to adopt a live-and-let-live stance toward unbelievers, and another minute it is telling them to kill unbelievers.

Why the difference? What circumstances inclined the authors of scripture to view god as tolerant at one point and belligerent at another?

Well, for starters, I'd emphasize that in my view it is the circumstances that are key. I don't believe that any religion is a "religion of peace" or "religion of war." All religions are capable of being either, and it all depends on the facts on the ground.

At the risk of oversimplifying my argument, it basically boils down to whether people in a religion think they can benefit from collaboration, or at least peaceful coexistence, with another group. If so, they tend to find a basis in their scripture for tolerance. But if they find that group a threat to their interests, then they tend not to see the tolerance in their scripture and may find a basis for belligerence instead.

I think this pattern applies to the world today. And I think, happily, that President Obama gets the picture. He realizes that if Muslims around the world feel disrespected, or if Palestinians feel humiliated and dispossessed, this will bring out the worst in their religion — and he's trying to give them a basis to feel otherwise.

But, in my book, it's mainly the ancient world that is used to illustrate the pattern. And in light of the pattern, lots of things about ancient religious history fall into place. Muhammad's Koranic utterances, for example, cease to sound like the result of an endless series of divine mood swings and start to sound consistently pragmatic. Christian love — a love that crosses ethnic bounds — makes sense as a natural product of the multinational milieu of the Roman Empire. (I argue that many laudible sayings attributed to Jesus weren't actually uttered by him, but took shape later as an international church blossomed.) Even the emergence of monotheism itself (which I think happened much later than the standard story would have it) makes sense as a reflection of shifting political circumstance.

This way of looking at religion — as a reflection of political, economic, and social circumstances, of "material conditions" — strikes some people as dispiriting. I don't see it that way. One reason is that on balance, I think, evolving material conditions have led to moral progress in the world's religions. As the scope of social organization has grown — from hunter-gatherer village through ancient city-state through empire, etc. — religions have often adapted by expanding tolerance across national, ethnic, and even religious bounds. And the fact that this progress is "materially" as opposed to "spiritually" driven doesn't mean it's not in the service of some larger purpose, maybe even a purpose you could call divine.

Then again, maybe I'm straining to find some larger meaning in it all. I was raised a southern Baptist, and as I lost my Christian faith, I'm sure I continued to want some of the consolations faith had once brought. So when, near the end of my book, I speculate about the possibility of some larger purpose unfolding, that could be wishful thinking. On the other hand, I do put the speculation in the form of an argument — I actually point to evidence of purpose — and in theory the merits of the argument should stand independent of my motivation for making it.

I didn't write this book for a specific audience, but once a book is out, it's hard not to think in those terms: Who is going to read the book? With this book, that question is especially hard to answer.

On the one hand, I don't buy the claims of special revelation made by the Abrahamic faiths, and my account of their histories is in that sense a skeptical one that atheists will find attractive. On the other hand, I'm not really an atheist; I do hold out some hope for, if not a traditional God, some conception of higher purpose, and a transcendent source of meaning — and maybe even something you could call divine.

So does that mean that there's something in my book for everyone to like? That atheists can enjoy my skeptical account of religious history while believers take consolation in my hopes for higher purpose? Or will atheists be repelled by the latter while believers are repelled by the former? I guess I'm hoping both groups will show that, under the right circumstances, they're capable of tolerance.

÷ ÷ ÷

Robert Wright is the author of Nonzero, The Moral Animal, and Three Scientists and Their Gods. He is a contributing editor to the New Republic, Time, and Slate, and he runs www.BloggingHeads.com, a rapidly growing Web site for intellectual discourse. He has also taught in the Philosophy Department of Princeton University and the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in New Jersey. spacer

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