Wright’s “Evolution of God”

Author Robert Wright spends 400+ pages of his book The Evolution of God describing the transition from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism in the three Western scriptural religions, the “Abrahamic” religions. Wright only spends the last 50+ pages wrapping up the idea of God today. The evolution of God, says Wright, is essentially the evolution of religion’s perception of God as a projection of its own moral evolution. He sees monotheism as a precursor to universalism and tolerance, necessary elements for a modern globalized world in which more cultures are being thrust into relations with other cultures.

The evolution in the scriptural religions Wright identifies as enabling such an international and intercultural perspective. He does not mean conversion but a process that began in those scriptures, was picked up by philosophy and science (as well as by theology) in later centuries, and desperately needs to find the vitalizing factors that will transform modern societies. No other force, he argues, seems to be capable of evolving and applying a moral criteria to world affairs.

Wright calls himself a materialist and says that the word “god” has two senses, the literal historical one (“These gods exist in people’s heads and, presumably, nowhere else”) and in the subtler sense of historical and moral order. In pursuing this latter sense, he addresses science, atheism, and human nature. If science can posit things that ought to exist as an explanation for observed phenomena but cannot confirm such things, is it a matter of time in terms of sophisticating scientific knowledge or techniques before such things are seen and explained as natural? Wright argues that the same is the case for “god,” a thing posited, unverifiable, but pliable enough in human conception to be either a myth or a “ground of being.” Historical religion has been identified as unsophisticated myth, but recent thought has pushed it beyond its mythic structures to an identification of being and “suchness.”

Functioning as the public face of science, atheism still rests on an anthropomorphic view of “god” when vying in the marketplace of popular culture. Its chief argument is that evolution has no design, and no designer need be posited. Wright responds to this argument that the process that inevitably streamlines and forms, functions as a creative force. Granted that natural selection is not the designer. Many products of evolution are not as efficient as could have been if a conscious designer had guided the process. But this is the old preoccupation with design and anthropomorphism. And the old argument about the existence of God in the presence of suffering begs the same question. The concept of “god” is not eliminated by dismissing straw figures.

Wright argues that moral progress is a higher process than evolution or natural selection — “higher” in the sense of the potential for a conscious and deliberate progress. God remains, as Wright puts it, “somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception.” Not unlike posited scientific concepts which eventually break through the conceptions to reveal more factual content on the other side of doubt, with newer conceptions in which to house the new facts. The process, Wright would say, is parallel to most human activity, to cultural progress, and to the unfolding moral order that may or may not be distinct from human beings, even genetic.

Ultimately, religion is based on self-interest. The cynical view will see a formula for power and exploitation, which is largely the history of Western religion as institution and authority. But an alternative view of self-interest exists, as in William James. In his The Varieties of Religious Experience James wrote that religion “consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

James considers religion irrefutably as one of many expressions of mind, culture and spirit. The cynical view sees religion as the desire to change the behavior of supernatural beings. That remains the chief straw figure of modern atheism. William James’ view does not exclude this obvious historical reality on the part of world religions, but emphasizes the psychological character of the religious mind-set, and understands that the burden is on the seeker and not on something external. To “harmoniously adjust” to the existing order is essentially a moral process. Whether this order is good or not is irrelevant. The harmonious adjustment is part of the process of moral reflection and discovery, but it cannot be denied.

Perhaps the weakness of Wright’s frame of thought is his conclusion that while religion needs to mature in order not only to survive but to positively influence the moral atmosphere of the present, globalization will provide an opportune backdrop for this process. His fiath in progress and reasonableness is an idealism, respectable but still seeing transformation as a social rather than individual process.

Encounters of cultures have often been creative throughout history, but a cursory survey of history shows a succession of war, exploitation, and suffering. Nor has the grand encounter been societal as much as the work of individuals. Not “great men” as meant by Carlyle’s theory but great sages. Even the Abrahamic religions have often been the work of individual sages — or been depicted as such because of the identification with great individuals. But modern globalization, as the continuation of centuries-long Western quests for power, abetted now by technology, has itself provoked the fundamentalisms that Wright objects to, and to which the New Atheists cling to as religions’ only form of expression. Globalization is but the latest expression of power. What can be expected?

Religion in James’ sense is all that can be called “true” religion. Without this component, all the trappings of theology, scriptures, edifices, and institutions, fall flat. They are left to the polemics of the new fundamentalists. We enter the pursuit of the “unseen order” and the solitude of self.