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The Evolution of God (Hardcover)

Well-Researched, Judicious, and Enlightening, June 10, 2009
By John W. Loftus (Indiana)

This new book from acclaimed author Robert Wright is a well-researched one covering a great deal of territory. It should be read in its entirety to be properly understood. In it he discusses the history of religion with a focus on western Abrahamic faiths, although not entirely neglecting eastern religions. He tells us in the Introduction that he's giving us a human "materialistic" account of it, although he thinks doing so "actually affirms the validity of a religious worldview," though not a traditionalist one, but one nonetheless. Wright argues the gods arose as illusions and that "the subsequent history of the idea of god is...the evolution of an illusion." This evolution points to the existence of a "divinity," he argues, even though this god is not one that most believers currently accept. As it evolved it has "moved closer to plausibility." (p.4).

Wright begins with the five types of primitive hunter-gatherer supernatural beings: elemental spirits, puppeteers, organic spirits, ancestral spirits, and the high gods. These primitive gods were not always worshipped but treated as we would treat other human beings. In these societies the Shaman was the "first step toward an archbishop or ayatollah" who had contact with these otherwise hidden forces and could help focus their powers to heal, protect, and provide.

As small tribes grew into larger societies the chiefdom was the next evolutionary stage where there was a need for a "structural reliance on the supernatural." Chiefs in these agricultural societies were conduits through which divine power entered the social scale down to the lesser folk. If things went well for a society then the chief was doing a good job. Superstition reigned in these days.

With the arrival of the city-states, kings needed divine legitimization and used the gods to solidify their rule over the people. The king was now the conduit of divine power. The character of the gods could differ between city-states, but many of them demanded human sacrifices or else there was chaos. Along with this development came moral obligations, which if they were not met caused sickness and death. In these city-states there was competition between rival cities and along with them rival gods. This had a tendency for these polytheistic people to elevate their god above others, which was a step toward monotheism.

When Wright turns to a discussion of the emergence of Abrahamic monotheism it appears to me he is at his very best. In decoding the biblical texts from how we normally read them beginning with Genesis, he finds good evidence that behind what we see on the surface is a different story of Yahweh who was just one god in a pantheon of early gods. Yahweh starts out with a body, for instance, and was given the people of Israel to rule over by Elyon, the highest god in the pantheon. Originally Yahweh was probably one of the Canaanite deities, he argues. When it comes to the Israelites themselves, Wright argues from archeological evidence that they look more and more like Canaanites who originally worshipped Baal and Asherah, rather than some people who invaded Palestine after leaving Egypt.

In a fascinating discussion Wright argues that this Hebrew god evolved into a monolatry, which was a "way station on the road to full-fledge monotheism." Monolatry didn't deny the existence of other gods, it just affirmed that Yahweh was the highest of those gods in the pantheon. This was achieved mostly by King Josiah, who sought to solidify his reign and centralize worship in Jerusalem. Josiah even had his reforms written in much of the book of Deuteronomy.

When Judah was carried away into captivity by the Babylonians the exiled Jewish theologians made the most of their disaster. Based on good reasoning and scholarship Wright shows how they thought about such a complete and utter disaster and why they came to the conclusion that Yahweh was the one and only God. If it was Yahweh's will to bring the mightiest empire of their day to so utterly destroy them for their sins, as they did, then Yahweh was bigger than they had ever thought. "A god who governs the actions of the greatest known empire is a god who can govern history itself." (p. 171).

But this God of theirs was not yet thought of as a good God. That was the next evolutionary stage to take place, and Wright sees this coming from the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who urged a tolerance for other gods at about the same time Jesus was preaching.

But even Jesus did not think of his God as a loving God, Wright argues. In Mark's first gospel Jesus is portrayed as one who "believes you should love your neighbors, but that isn't to be confused with loving all humankind. He believes you should love God, but there's no mention of God loving you." (p. 258).

The Apostle Paul, however, is described by Wright as the "apostle of love," not only because he penned I Corinthians 13, known as the "Chapter of Love," but also from other things he wrote. It was Paul's version of Christianity that eventually won the day in Constantine's multiethnic empire because it favored ethnic harmony, Wright argues.

Wright sees the same evolutionary trend in Islam. First Allah "transcended tribal distinctions," as Yahweh did before him. Then he acquired the "multinational perspective of an empire," even to the point when in places the Koran grants the possibility of salvation to people "outside the fold." (p. 436)

Wright concludes that in our day "we've reached a stage in history where the movement toward moral truth has to become globally momentous." In short, God has some "some growing to do," (p. 436), and Wright seems confident this will happen, given what he wrote in his previous book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Whether he can be this optimistic depends on the case he made there.

In the end, traditionalists will not like this book, and he admits this. Wright's god seems to be an abstract god as "the source of the moral order" (p. 446), and in such a belief he finds his god, although he holds out hope this god is also a personal one.

Other thinkers have argued God will become unnecessary and will evolve out of existence in the human mind, but whether or not that will happen is yet to be seen. In any case this is a judicious treatment that will surely provoke controversy. It's also enlightening. Hopefully his book will contribute to the ongoing evolution of the idea of God. And maybe it'll contribute to his evolution out of existence, too.

John W. Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity

Absolutely brilliant, June 29, 2009
By GLS (Brooklyn, NY USA)

In THE EVOLUTION OF GOD, Robert Wright has given us a mind-blowing look at how monotheism has evolved over thousands of years, and in turn how our conception of God has changed along the way. I admit that my theology background is not the strongest (have read Old and New Testament, but not the Koran) but I found something new and provocative on nearly every page. Among the things that have stuck with me are how he shows how Jesus never said "love thy neighbor," how the Jews were not monotheistic after escaping Egypt, that Mohammed was willing to compromise his principles again and again in order to build alliances, etc, and that there is a moral direction to history, that we are heading for an age of tolerance--not what you'd expect given today's headlines. Perhaps what's best about this book is that it charts a middle path between hardcore atheism and hardcore religion. I just read the New York Times review which called it "brilliant" and I could not agree more.