Survival of the nicest

As they evolve, religions promote greater tolerance and peace

The author charts how the concept of God changes into a gentler persona. The author charts how the concept of God changes into a gentler persona.
By Dan Cryer
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2009
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By Robert Wright
Little, Brown, 576 pp., $25.99

Count on Robert Wright to place whatever he examines under the microscope of evolutionary theory.

That was his strategy in “The Moral Animal’’ for illuminating such topics as friendship, monogamy, and xenophobia. In “Nonzero,’’ Wright linked Darwinian thought to game theory to suggest that human history is moving inexorably toward “win-win’’ global amity, that hatred has lost its usefulness in an increasingly interdependent world.

Wright’s new book, “The Evolution of God,’’ springs naturally from these explorations as well as from his debut, “Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning on the Age of Information.’’ Not a scientist or a theologian, he’s nonetheless fascinated by innate social mechanisms that nudge people toward cooperation rather than conflict, and that point toward some trans-human entity that might be called God.

As a lively writer, supple thinker, and imaginative synthesizer, Wright is bound to attract attention. His sprightly style deprives his subject of any solemnity. “Among the Aranda of central Australia,’’ he writes, “one of the shaman’s jobs was ensuring that solar eclipses would be temporary - nice work if you can get it.’’

As a bold formulator he’s also a lightning rod for controversy. “The Evolution of God,’’ which explores permutations in our concepts of the deity, will please neither hard-core atheists nor fundamentalists of any faith. It’s too open to theism for the former, too rooted in scientific rationalism for the latter.

Wright assumes from the outset that religions change. And the most trustworthy means of explaining why is to trust “the facts on the ground’’ - that is, the economic-social-political context. In the final analysis, he emerges as an optimistic materialist. For he concludes that change will eventually tilt toward a more benign global religious environment. Now before you can shout “9/11’’ or “jihad,’’ listen to his argument.

The author traces the growth of gods from the animism of hunter-gatherers (where spirits rule over natural phenomena) to the polytheism of chiefdoms and ancient states (where multiple gods govern every aspect of life). These gods are hardly paragons of right living; they are capricious and often cruel. Over millennia, these models give way to a hierarchy of gods, with a powerful sovereign in charge, and, later yet, to monolatry, in which a city-state or nation bows to a single god considered superior to all others.

Most of the book, however, is devoted to the evolution of God concepts within more familiar precincts of monotheism: the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the Koran. In the archeology and textual criticism of modern scholars, which Wright cites, these scriptures seldom appear in chronological order. Read in the proper sequence, however, they reveal a record of change.

Much like Jack Miles’s “God: A Biography,’’ Wright’s narrative shows a “Yahweh’’ alternatively compassionate or vengeful, mercurial or wise. The God of the Hebrews takes a while to differentiate from the El of the Canaanites and the Baal of the Phoenicians. In doing so, his story gradually sheds remnants of polytheism; the god Pestilence, for instance, becomes mere pestilence. Under Persian influence, Abrahamic monotheism eventually shifts “from a nationalistic and exclusive theology’’ to “a more international and inclusive one.’’

In short, the Hebrew God shakes off his adolescent belligerence and assumes a kinder, gentler persona. While regarding the Jews as his favorite, this God presides benevolently over all the world’s people.

Wright charts a similar evolution in the chapters grouped under the title “The Invention of Christianity.’’ Mark, the earliest Gospel, is surprisingly devoid of the New Testament’s supposed hallmark, love. There are no beatitudes, no turning of the other cheek, no “love your enemy.’’ The neighbor you are obliged to love is defined narrowly, most likely one of your fellow followers of Jesus. Not until Matthew and Luke is love enlarged; the Good Samaritan does not appear until the last of the Gospels, Luke.

It was under St. Paul’s charismatic leadership that the fledgling Jesus movement was transformed into a vehicle of interethnic brotherly love. Wright’s description of Paul as an entrepreneur brilliant at expanding his Jesus “brand’’ throughout the polyglot Roman Empire may put off some Christians, but it provides a convincing account of why early Christianity was able to succeed among a Babel of competing deities.

As for the Koran, Wright’s task is admittedly harder. The young preacher Muhammed, reaching out to Jews and Christians, comes off as far more likable than the mature politician-warlord who rids Medina of Jews - some of them by hacking off their heads. Wright has to balance all the Koran’s injunctions to “kill the infidels’’ with its counsel of “to you your religion; to me my religion.’’

Can we all live together in peace? Over history’s long haul, Wright believes we can. In the meantime, believers need to feel themselves not in a zero-sum game but a win-win situation. That’s when scriptural bases for tolerance trump those counseling belligerence. Westerners fearful of radical Islam should therefore do all they can to encourage Muslim moderates, and the reverse.

Buddhists and Hindus, who don’t figure in this provocative book, may quarrel with the idea that we are all heading toward cooperative forms of monotheism. Some of the former omit deities from their religion altogether, and the latter delight in their profusion. In any case, let the debate begin.

Dan Cryer is writing a biography of the Rev. Forrest Church, the leading voice of contemporary Unitarian Universalism.


Little, Brown, 576 pp., $25.99

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