The Evolution of God

The Evolution of God

by Robert Wright


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In This Sweeping, dazzling journey through history, Robert Wright unveils a discovery of crucial importance to the present moment: there is a pattern in the evolution of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and a "hidden code" in their scriptures. Through the prisms of archeology, theology, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, Wright repeatedly overturns conventional wisdom to show how and why religion can strengthen the social order-even in an age of globalization-and explains how modern science not only is compatible with religion but actively affirms the validity of the religious quest.

Vast in scope and thrilling in ambition, The Evolution of God brilliantly alters our understanding of God and where He came from-and where He and we are going next.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316067447
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 05/03/2010
Pages: 567
Sales rank: 300,314
Product dimensions: 5.37(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

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, 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.

Read an Excerpt

The Evolution of God

By Robert Wright

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2010 Robert Wright
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-73491-2


The Primordial Faith

The Chukchee, a people indigenous to Siberia, had their own special way of dealing with unruly winds. A Chukchee man would chant, "Western Wind, look here! Look down on my buttocks. We are going to give you some fat. Cease blowing!" The nineteenth-century European visitor who reported this ritual described it as follows: "The man pronouncing the incantation lets his breeches fall down, and bucks leeward, exposing his bare buttocks to the wind. At every word he claps his hands."

By the end of the nineteenth century, European travelers had compiled many accounts of rituals in faraway and scarcely known lands. Some of these lands were inhabited by people known as savages—people whose technology didn't include writing or even agriculture. And some of their rituals seemed, like this one, strange.

Could a ritual like this be called religious? Some Europeans bridled at the thought, offended by the implied comparison between their elevated forms of worship and crude attempts to appease nature.

Maybe that's why Sir John Lubbock, a late-nineteenth-century British anthropologist, prefaced his discussion of "savage" religion with a warning. "It is impossible to discuss the subject without mentioning some things which are very repugnant to our feelings," he wrote in The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man. But he made his readers a promise. In exploring this "melancholy spectacle of gross superstitions and ferocious forms of worship," he would "endeavour to avoid, as far as possible, anything which might justly give pain to any of my readers."

One pain Lubbock spared his readers was the thought that their brains might have much in common with savage brains. "The whole mental condition of a savage is so different from ours, that it is often very difficult to follow what is passing in his mind, or to understand the motives by which he is influenced." Though savages do "have a reason, such as it is, for what they do and what they believe, their reasons often are very absurd." The savage evinces "extreme mental inferiority," and his mind, "like that of the child, is easily fatigued." Naturally, then, the savage's religious ideas are "not the result of deep thought."

So there was reassurance aplenty for Lubbock's readers: "Religion, as understood by the lower savage races," is not only different from civilized religion "but even opposite." Indeed, if we bestow the title "religion" on the coarse rituals and superstitious fears that observers of savage society have reported, then "we can no longer regard religion as peculiar to man." For the "baying of a dog to the moon is as much an act of worship as some ceremonies which have been so described by travellers."

Maybe it shouldn't surprise us that a well-educated British Christian would so disparage elements of "primitive religion." ("Primitive religion" denotes the religion of nonliterate peoples broadly, whether hunter-gatherer or agrarian.) After all, in primitive religion there is deep reverence for raw superstition. Obscure omens often govern decisions of war and peace. And the spirits of the dead may make mischief—or may, via the mediation of a shaman, offer counsel. In short, primitive religion is full of the stuff that was famously thrust aside when the monotheism carried out of Egypt by Moses displaced the paganism of Canaan.

But, actually, that displacement wasn't so clear-cut, and the proof is in the Bible itself, albeit parts of the Bible that aren't much read by modern believers. There you'll find Israel's first king, Saul, going incognito to a medium and asking her to raise the prophet Samuel from the grave for policy input. (Samuel isn't amused: "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?") There you'll also find raw superstition. When the prophet Elisha, preparing King Joash for battle against the Arameans, tells him to strike the ground with some arrows, he is disappointed with the resulting three strikes: "You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Aram until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Aram only three times."

Even the ultimate in Abrahamic theological refinement—monotheism itself—turns out to be a feature of the Bible that comes and goes. Though much of the scripture assumes the existence of only one God, some parts strike a different tone. The book of Genesis recalls the time when a bunch of male deities came down and had sex with attractive human females; these gods "went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them." (And not ordinary children: "These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.")

Here and elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible—the earliest scripture in the Abrahamic tradition, and in that sense the starting point for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—holds telling remnants of its ancestry. Apparently Abrahamic monotheism grew organically out of the "primitive" by a process more evolutionary than revolutionary.

This doesn't mean there's a line of cultural descent between the "primitive" religions on the anthropological record and the "modern" religions. It's not as if three or four millennia ago, people who had been talking to the wind while pulling their pants down started talking to God while kneeling. For all we know, the cultural ancestry of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam includes no tradition of talking to the wind at all, and certainly there's no reason to think that Chukchee religion is part of that ancestry—that back in the first or second millennium BCE, Chukchee culture in Siberia somehow influenced Middle Eastern culture.

Rather, the idea is that "primitive" religion broadly, as recorded by anthropologists and other visitors, can give us some idea of the ancestral milieu of modern religions. Through the happenstance of geographic isolation, cultures such as the Chukchee escaped the technological revolution—the advent of writing—that placed other parts of the world on the historical record and pushed them toward modernity. If these "primitive" cultures don't show us the particular prehistoric religions out of which the early recorded religions emerged, they at least give us a general picture. Though monotheistic prayer didn't grow out of Chukchee rituals or beliefs, maybe the logic of monotheistic prayer did grow out of a kind of belief the Chukchee held, the notion that forces of nature are animated by minds or spirits that you can influence through negotiation.

Savage Logic

This, in fact, was the theory of one of John Lubbock's contemporaries, Edward Tylor, a hugely influential thinker who is sometimes called the founder of social anthropology. Tylor, an acquaintance and sometime critic of Lubbock's, believed that the primordial form of religion was "animism." Tylor's theory of animism was among scholars of his day the dominant explanation of how religion began. It "conquered the world at one blow," one early-twentieth-century anthropologist wrote.

Tylor's theory was grounded in a paradigm that pervaded anthropology in the late nineteenth century, then fell out of favor for many decades, and lately has made a comeback: cultural evolutionism. The idea is that human culture as broadly defined—art, politics, technology, religion, and so on—evolves in much the way biological species evolve: new cultural traits arise and may flourish or perish, and as a result whole institutions and belief systems form and change. A new religious ritual can appear and gain a following (if, say, it is deemed an effective wind neutralizer). New gods can be born and then grow. New ideas about gods can arise—like the idea that there's only one of them. Tylor's theory of animism aimed to explain how this idea, monotheism, had evolved out of primitive religion.

"Animism" is sometimes defined as the attribution of life to the inanimate—considering rivers and clouds and stars alive. This is part of what Tylor meant by the term, but not all. The primitive animist, in Tylor's scheme, saw living and nonliving things alike as inhabited by—animated by—a soul or spirit; rivers and clouds, birds and beasts, and people, too, had this "ghost-soul," this "vapour, film, or shadow," this "cause of life and thought in the individual it animates."

Tylor's theory rested on a more flattering view of the "primitive" mind than Lubbock held. (Tylor is credited with a doctrine that became a pillar of social anthropology—the "psychic unity of mankind," the idea that people of all races are basically the same, that there is a universal human nature.) He saw animism not as bizarrely inconsistent with modern thought, but as a natural early product of the same speculative curiosity that had led to modern thought. Animism had been the "infant philosophy of mankind," assembled by "ancient savage philosophers." It did what good theories are supposed to do: explain otherwise mysterious facts economically.

To begin with, the hypothesis that humans have a ghost-soul handily answers some questions that, in Tylor's view, must have occurred to early humans, such as: What is happening when you dream? Primitive societies use the notion of the human soul to solve this puzzle. In some cases the idea is that the dreamer's ghost-soul wanders during sleep, having the adventures the dreamer later recalls; decades after Tylor wrote, the anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown observed that Andaman Islanders were reluctant to awaken people, since illness might ensue if sleep was interrupted before the soul came home. In other cases, the idea is that the dreamer is being visited by the souls of others. In Fiji, Tylor noted, people's souls were thought to leave their bodies "to trouble other people in their sleep."

And the idea that the souls of dead people return to visit via dreams is widespread in primitive societies. Thus animism handles another enigma that confronted early human beings: death itself. Death, in this scenario, is what happens when the soul checks out of the body for good.

Once early humans had conceived the idea of the soul, Tylor said, extending it beyond our species was only logical. The savage couldn't help but "recognise in beasts the very characteristics which it attributes to the human soul, namely, the phenomena of life and death, will and judgement." And plants, "partaking with animals the phenomena of life and death, health and sickness, not unnaturally have some kind of soul ascribed to them."

For that matter, the idea that sticks and stones have souls is rational if viewed from the standpoint of "an uncultured tribe." After all, don't sticks and stones appear in dreams? Don't ghosts that we see while dreaming, or while delirious with fever, wear clothes or carry weapons? "How then can we charge the savage with far-fetched absurdity for taking into his philosophy and religion an opinion which rests on the very evidence of his senses?" Tylor may have had Lubbock in mind when he said of primitive peoples, "The very assertion that their actions are motiveless, and their opinions nonsense, is itself a theory, and, I hold, a profoundly false one, invented to account for all manner of things which those who did not understand them could thus easily explain."

Once a broadly animistic worldview had taken shape, Tylor believed, it started to evolve. At some point, for example, the notion of each tree having a spirit gave way to the notion of trees being collectively governed by "the god of the forest." This incipient polytheism then matured and eventually got streamlined into monotheism. In 1866, in an article in the Fortnightly Review, Tylor summed up the whole process in what may be the only one-sentence history of religion ever published—and may also be one of the longest sentences of any kind ever published:

Upwards from the simplest theory which attributes life and personality to animal, vegetable, and mineral alike—through that which gives to stone and plant and river guardian spirits which live among them and attend to their preservation, growth, and change—up to that which sees in each department of the world the protecting and fostering care of an appropriate divinity, and at last of one Supreme Being ordering and controlling the lower hierarchy—through all these gradations of opinion we may thus see fought out, in one stage after another, the long-waged contest between a theory of animation which accounts for each phenomenon of nature by giving it everywhere a life like our own, and a slowly-growing natural science which in one department after another substitutes for independent voluntary action the working out of systematic law.

Any questions?

There have been lots of them, actually. Tylor's theory hasn't kept the stature it once held. Some complain that it makes the evolution of gods sound like an exercise in pure reason, when in fact religion has been deeply shaped by many factors, ranging from politics to economics to the human emotional infrastructure. (One difference between modern cultural evolutionism and that of Tylor's day is the modern emphasis on the various ways that "memes"—rituals, beliefs, and other basic elements of culture—spread by appealing to nonrational parts of human nature.)

Still, in one broad sense Tylor's view holds up well today. However diverse the forces that shape religion, its early impetus indeed seems to have come largely from people who, like us, were trying to make sense of the world. But they didn't have the heritage of modern science to give them a head start, so they reached prescientific conclusions. Then, as understanding of the world grew—especially as it grew via science—religion evolved in reaction. Thus, Tylor wrote, does "an unbroken line of mental connexion" unite "the savage fetish-worshiper and the civilized Christian."

At this level of generality, Tylor's worldview has not just survived the scrutiny of modern scholarship, but drawn strength from it. Evolutionary psychology has shown that, bizarre as some "primitive" beliefs may sound—and bizarre as some "modern" religious beliefs may sound to atheists and agnostics—they are natural outgrowths of humanity, natural products of a brain built by natural selection to make sense of the world with a hodgepodge of tools whose collective output isn't wholly rational.

Elaboration on the modern understanding of how "primitive" religion first emerged from the human mind can be found in the appendix of this book. For now the main point is that, even if Tylor's animism-to-monotheism scenario looks deficient from a modern vantage point, there is still much in it that makes sense. In particular: to understand the early stages in the evolution of gods, and of God, we have to imagine how the world looked to people living many millennia ago, not just before science, but before writing or even agriculture; and there is no better aid to that thought experiment than immersing ourselves in the worldview of hunter-gatherer societies that have been observed by anthropologists—the world-view of "savages," as both Lubbock and Tylor would say.

Of course, it would be nice to observe literally prehistoric societies, the societies whose religion actually did evolve into the ancient religions on the historical record. But there can't be detailed records of beliefs that existed before writing; all that is left is the stuff archaeologists find—tools and trinkets and, here and there, a cave painting. If the vast blank left by humanity's preliterate phase is to be filled, it will have to be filled by the vast literature on observed hunter-gatherer societies.

Using hunter-gatherers as windows on the past has its limits. For example, the anthropological record contains no "pristine" hunter-gatherer cultures, cultures wholly uncorrupted by contact with more technologically advanced societies. After all, the process of observing a culture involves contact with it. Besides, many hunter-gatherer societies had been contacted by missionaries or explorers before anyone started documenting their religions.

Excerpted from The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. Copyright © 2010 Robert Wright. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 3

I The Birth and Growth of Gods

1 The Primordial Faith 9

2 The Shaman 29

3 Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms 46

4 Gods of the Ancient States 70

II The Emergence of Abrahamic Monotheism

5 Polytheism, the Religion of Ancient Israel 99

6 From Polytheism to Monolatry 131

7 From Monolatry to Monotheism 165

8 Philo Story 188

9 Logos: The Divine Algorithm 216

III The Invention of Christianity

10 What Did Jesus Do? 245

11 The Apostle of Love 264

12 Survival of the Fittest Christianity 288

13 How Jesus Became Savior 303

IV The Triumph of Islam

14 The Koran 329

15 Mecca 344

16 Medina 355

17 Jihad 375

18 Muhammad 389

V God Goes Global (Or Doesn't)

19 The Moral Imagination 409

20 Well, Aren't We Special? 431

Afterword: By the Way, What Is God? 444

Appendix: How Human Nature Gave Birth to Religion 460

A Note on Translations 484

Acknowledgments 486

Notes 489

Bibliography 542

Index 555

Reading Group Guide 569

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[The Evolution of God] gives me hope...The tone of the book is dry skepticism with a dash of humour; the content is supple, dense and layered...fresh and necessary.

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"[An] in-depth approach yields original insights." —-Kirkus

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Evolution of God 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 74 reviews.
Spirit13Finder More than 1 year ago
Robert Wright captured my spirit from the first page sharing his own personal religious expression through the response from his mother's church. The answers for the personal decision to seek, believe, or worship God is an individual one. The book explores man's many reasons for the search. This book expanded my mind having me rethink history, and man's understanding of the world, while connecting past behavior to why I, today, follow the practices that I do. The book was thought provoking revealing religious practices, and beliefs from past, current, and future possibilities. Where are we going, and is it important to know the ending, or is the bases for it all living within our connection to breath which is the common factor for life. What do you think?
CGDB More than 1 year ago
The Evolution of God dares to address the history including similarities and differences in three religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism) that all claim to worship the same god. The book is innovative and insightful in its treatment of where the religions started and how they changed in time as much by the needs of man at the time as by devine inspiration. It is good food for thought presenting compelling facts and reasoning to a subject that is usually overridden with dogma.
DannyD47 More than 1 year ago
This is a fantastic book. If you find the evolution of religious thought interesting, you will enjoy this publication. Anyone that takes the time to read this offering will understand why religions have been with us throughout history. Although, the author may not see religions in a positive light, he does believe that they can help people to live in harmony. Buy, read, learn, and enjoy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The idea of a secular view of God is very provocative. This book, even with Mr. Wright's frequent flippant comments is definitely not an easy read and behind all the snide and snarky remarks lies serious matter for thought, though probably not for discussion. I found the book engaging and difficult to put down. His major premise of religion adjusting to the "truths on the ground", true or not, was well argued. Many historical examples are invoked to support his position, most of which I, personally, must take on faith that he is correct. I think his little sermon at the end on how to address the current issues with the Moslem world on the mark but probably more appropriate for the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times than this book. Overall, one of the best personal development books I've ever read.
ExiledNewYorker More than 1 year ago
Wright provides engaging, comprehensible descriptions of the emergence of different religious streams that built into the three western monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is clear on his sources, his facts and his speculation. His objective, admittedly materialistic approach assesses how certain strains of thought came to dominate and others disappeared. His key dynamic is his assumption that over time, self interest drives people to select for non-zero sum paths. Wright's own path and conclusions may be rote stuff to religion scholars, but as a somewhat religious and educated person, I found most of them quite intriguing. It's fascinating but not necessarily fun. I found myself thinking "Gee, I didn't really need to know that" a few times, as certain assumptions about the development of the Old Testament were dissected. The wrap-up and conclusions with Wright's view on how a contemporary intellectual can reconcile faith with science is interesting, complex and, at least in my case, less satisfying.
JohnMulqueen More than 1 year ago
Wright's explanaiton of St. Paul's success by his own admission is highly speculative, incomplete and one dimensional. So what is the point? He is honest in admitting the limitations of his approach and conclusions but also tries to leave the reader with the impression that he has explained Paul and early Christianity. He has not. Paul was more than the slick entrepreneur that Wright makes him out to be. His comments at time are too facile, even silly. See his characterization of Tertullian's famous remark that pagans would marvel at the love Christians showed to one another. For Wright this means they did not love all humanity. Wright does not cite in his bibliongraphy works by Gesa Vermes, Paula Fredriksen, Raymond Brown and John Meier (except for Vol 1 of Meier's magisterial four volume history of Christ and first century Christianity and Israel) That is almost enough grounds to dismiss the book which at times reads like a management consultant report at a business conference. John Mulqueen
DonVG More than 1 year ago
Traces how our perception and views of God have changed from early beginnings of religion to how we see our relationship with God now. Does not actually force a reader to believe in God but just details how historical events have changed how "God" is viewed by Christians, Jews and Muslims and how we must look at things to follow our religious beliefs. This is not a quick read and the author makes a few assumptions that I could not agree with, but in all a very good book.
Tex2010 More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing book. Robert Wright use extensive research and dry wit to provide a forum for understanding so much about our religious beliefs. He moves into areas that are uncomfortable for those who are not willing to take a hard look at their own belief system. Whether you agree or not with his conclusions (and he hesitates to draw many instead leaving it open for you to decide) it is hard to argue with his logic. This book makes you want to read more, learn more and understand more of things we really don't have the answer to & yet have the most profound impact on our lives.
Prinston7 More than 1 year ago
This is a great book that gives credence to all peoples beliefs, like a landscape flowing it cracks of water into one major point. It it is a non-bias read, and nobody ought to make comment unless they are willing to stay the course on this one. A good follow up read would be "The Missing Message" by G Michael Price
the_awesome_opossum on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Evolution of God defies simple categorization. It's a history text, sociology text, theory of religion, and sometimes theology. Robert Wright traces how the Abrahamic religions adjusted how they conceptualized God according to their own sitz im leben. What the book finds is a consistent tension between synthesis and inclusion of new cultures (ie the Jewish Diaspora or Christians in Hellenized Rome) and the steadfast sense of identity markers as separation rather than cultural compromise.His historical analysis of God through shifting times and experiences was insightful and fascinating. But the last few chapters of the book took a different approach: now that we had been through the evolution of religion historically, what should be the impact and implications for the present day? If every religion developed as a minority culture with clear external threats, clearly that needs to be adjusted for our present day globalized culture. Wright argues for ecumenism, cross-culture discourse, and simple tolerance as the necessary "evolution" of religion for the twenty-first century. Furthermore, he argues in favor of an understanding of God as an anthropomorphized manifestation of humanity's innate desire for social contact as well as meaning. Wright's God isn't the "Thunderer" he sees the Abrahamic faiths as worshiping, but may exist to express a societal need for morality and a guideline for how to interact with the world. That is really how his history plays itself out anyway: believers believe in a God who leads them to live an exemplary life amidst societal upheaval or even just personal difficulties. With such an understanding, then, Wright's encouragement towards toleration becomes easier to realize, in a world where God should not be a cause for division but rather a communal longing for a better world.
applemcg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Other than Wright's (over? -) selling his notion of non-zero-sum-ness as the discovery of the morally aware religion/culture, this book is as gentle a nudge as it can be in today's troubled waters. Not only do today's "people of the book" have much to learn from one another's religions, but each as much from within their own. He lists fundamental challenges to each of the common trio: Judaism will have to accept the Exodus story is not historical, and that Yahweh evolved from tribal gods of the region. Christians will have to accept Jesus' message of love wasn't particularly novel, nor as universal as we've come to believe. Islam will need to learn (not unlike the other two) that words ascribed to the Prophet were later additions. Each will have to give up an exclusivity standing in the way of the next level of moral inclusion.Wright threads the history with human nature and the evolutionary forces which put us on the path to recognize religious spirituality. He recognizes the "God gene" as an explanation, but as likely to face erosion as earlier naturalist dieties.
jcovington on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Now that I have a good e-book reader, I find that I've only purchased some 3 paper books in the last 4 months, compared to some 20+ ebooks. I thought I'd miss having a hard copy of books to display and to flip through and I was surprised to find I did not. Until now.The Evolution of God is simply brilliant. Robert Wright explores (and largely discredits) traditional conceptions of the shared God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, but he does so with an almost astounding amount of respect and care for these religions and all they stand for. This sort of thoughtful, and careful, study of religion and its relationship to science, has been largely missing in the screaming, fever pitch "Eff them all!" world of Richard Dawkins and his opposition in the "Intelligent" Design crowd.This book is a breath of fresh air, is captivating and brilliantly written, and is so damn good, I have just ordered a second copy of it. A hard-back paper copy of it. Because I want to hold a book this good in my hands.
Shoeboy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wright is a fine writer and has an interesting thesis (that the "facts on the ground" determine how a religion's scriptures or traditions are interpreted--whether in a manner friendly or hostile to the "other"). He still tries to argue that there is progress in the way the human race conceives of God, when you'd think that the logical conclusion of his thesis is that we're better off trying to change the material conditions of human life, getting different peoples to take the risk of living and working with each other and developing "nonzero sum" relationships, than trying to change their religious beliefs. It's a variation on the "religion as epiphenomenon" thesis that moderate Marxists promoted in the early 20th century.
JeffV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wright's The Evolution of God sets out to trace the academic concept of a supreme deity from its origination in Stone Age societies to modern implementation. Wright does not merely collect and present evidence in a clinical fashion, however -- in the course of the book, he expounds theoretical models on how and why religions developed as they did, and extrapolated this to the present and future. In this respect, he goes a little beyond what is normally expected from a history book. And while I generally agreed with his conclusion based on the evidence he provided, his own evangelizing near the end seemed a little outside of his authority. On the other hand, he said what needed to be said, and nobody is else is stepping to the plate to say it, so I'll give him a pass on this.Wright's theory is that religion (and the nature of gods at a given moment) is an extension of "facts on the ground." Governments and peoples do not bow in the winds of unalterable religious doctrine, but instead conform their notions of the supernatural to fit the needs of the day. One such example is the development of monotheism. The notion of one and only one supreme being was not struck overnight and delivered with inexorable force in a pagan world. As peoples were conquered, astute leaders discovered that embracing their gods was a good way to maintain order in their new holdings. Sometimes they allowed the pantheons to co-exist, other times, priests allowed the form and function of foreign gods to combine with their own. Wright traces the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god to a very diverse polytheistic beginning in ancient Babylonia and before. Yahweh moves up the chain from a rather minor deity to big chief almost by accident -- it could have easily have been the god El (thought to be embodied in the name Israel). Two leaders cast their lots with a god and do battle. One wins, another loses. The winner goes on, lauded as the cause of victory. The loser is vanquished to the mists of history, discredited or its followers dead. Fitting the "facts on the ground," monotheism eventually coalesces to mirror the administrative needs of large, widespread empires with a centralized government. One all-powerful head of state, one all-powerful god.Wright calls upon a number of translations of the Hebrew and Christian bibles and the Koran, as well as other historical evidence. I was a little disappointed that the book didn't focus on the evolution of all gods -- just the Abrahamic ones (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Sure, there was some Buddhist anecdotes, but it was mostly discussing how the phenomenon of Jesus had it's counterpart with the Indian Asoka. After discussing the rise of Islam, Wright shifts focus from the evolution of religion to focus on his thesis of interpretations fitting the "facts on the ground" and what it means in the modern world. Specifically, he discusses contradictory themes in all religion, and how they might support a wide range dogma ranging from the benign to the chaotic. He then speaks directly to a Judeo-Christian readership (freely admitting that he did not imagine too many readers in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia among his audience). Treating Islam like an unruly stepchild, he admits that the radicals are too far gone to be salvaged in a global community, but those of us in the Western world should endeavor to better integrate Islam into our culture if we wish to prevent to moderates from becoming extremists. He argues this is how the religions came to being in the first place, and that evolution has necessarily trended towards peaceful coexistence as populations increased. The penalty for bucking this trend could be something along the lines from the ancient influences that begot these religions -- the notion of a world-ending battle (Armageddon, if you will). It's not so much the ancient scripture writers were prophets in any sense of the word, those ancient religions that survived to this day did so by ad
katkat50 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For everyone who cannot sign on to the concept of a personal, anthropomorphic God but still wants to believe there is some kind of deeper meaning at work in our lives, Robert Wright's book "The Evolution of God" is-- well, a godsend. Wright's basic thesis is that the concept of God -- of a single, monotheistic deity -- that is at the core of the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- has evolved over the centuries in response to the political realities of specific historical contexts and, further, that this evolution has paralleled a rough direction in human history toward greater justice and humanity.Wright argues that human history is not blind or random, that it indeed has a direction, that it has been evolving in a discernible path: from ignorance and superstition to ever higher levels of scientific and technological understanding, from narrower to broader human connections, from tribalism to globalization. The concept that we all share a common humanity -- that we all live within the "human condition" -- is one that has grown and developed through history. Obviously, it's not a totally linear process, and progress has been far from steady or consistent to say the very least. Nevertheless, it can be said, as Martin Luther King, Jr., famously did (quoting the nineteenth century Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist Theodore Parker), "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."Basically, what Wright does in "The Evolution of God" is tie the Abrahamic faiths' evolving ideas of God to the evolutionary trend in history, and posits that God could be the force behind it. Wright is clear that God doesn't HAVE to be the explanation for the progressive direction of human history -- but he (she, it) CAN be. This is certainly not a new idea. The belief that God works through history, and that God and man are partners in perfecting the world, is a key concept in Judaism, for example. And obviously Wright is not the first thinker to notice that history seems to flow in a particular direction. But the way he ties it all together to develop a concept of God, or of divinity, or of a Higher Power, that is emphatically NOT a reworked back-door Intelligent Design or Creationism, and that works WITH scientific and technological discovery and advancement rather than being contradicted or disproved by it, is fresh and original. The quality of the author's writing is a match for the quality of his thinking and research. These are not always easy concepts to understand, and Wright conveys them lucidly and even entertainingly. He manages to convey intellectual authority in an engaging, conversational voice, and with a wonderful sense of humor. Some quick caveats: If you believe in a physical, personal, authoritarian God, this book is not for you. If you believe that the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels are the literal Word of God, rather than a literary and historical record written by human beings long after the events described took place (if they did), then this book is not for you. If you believe that Judaism is good and Christianity even better and Islam not a proper religion at all, this book is not for you.BUT. If you believe, or suspect, or are willing to consider the possibility that the three great Abrahamic religions were created and developed by actual, living people at specific times and in specific places and in response to specific political and historical challenges; and that what we call, variously, God or the Father or Allah, is (or may be) the higher power behind human history, driving that history, and working with and through human agency to move history in a direction of goodness and wholeness and connection, then this may be a book you will enjoy reading.
GlennBell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book is well written, accurate, interesting, and takes a leveled handed approach to the subject. Robert provides a historical perspective as well as a look at religion in the present day. He provide insight into why some people can use the Koran to promote terrorism and why others use it to promote peace and cooperation. I highly recommend the book.
TheAmpersand on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We're not in the Middle Ages anymore. These days, there are a significant number of people who believe both that the Bible is the word of God and admit that it had a number of human authors and that Biblical scholarship must contend with modern archeological findings. Even so, Wright's book is a surprisingly blunt reminder that the Bible is, in many ways, the work of numerous imperfect human hands. He attacks the contention that monotheism was a great idea ¿ or revelation, if you will ¿ that changed the world, arguing instead that the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths were slow-developing products of their environments whose contents and interpretation changed as politics and interests demanded. Wright is, in many ways, convincing. He's obviously researched his subject thoroughly and is an excellent close reader, adept at ferreting out the different ways a single word or concept can be used to mean different things at different points in the text and pointing out how much information the Bible implies or leaves out. I am not sure how many people of faith will want to read a book with a title like "The Evolution of God," but those that do will may have their assumptions challenged in a number of different ways. Wright is somewhat less successful when he tries to use his careful reading of Biblical history to suggest that this slow evolution of Abrahamic religion suggests the work of a grand designer-style deity. In many ways, he runs into the same problem that many writers on evolution itself face: how do you discuss the concept of evolutionary design without admitting to the existence of a conscious designer? Wright's focus here is clearly spiritual, but the arguments he presents here could also be used to prove that the steady expansion of global trade has helped us see our trading partners as fellow humans, or that we are conditioned by evolutionary design to seek peaceful mutually beneficial solutions to intercultural disagreements. Of course, I'm not exactly convinced that the author set out to provide an ontological proof for God when he began this book. In a sense, Wright is imagining what sort of God a person who is fully aware of the Bible's turbulent history and the questions posed by modern science and game theory could potentially believe in. The actual believing is, as always, up to the individual.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think Wright has hit the nail on the head regarding how faith and belief have evolved over thousands of years. This is not exclusively  about Christianity or Islam. It is about out propensity to change our religious beliefs based on a variety of influences over long periods of time. Regardless of how you might feel about how he treats a specific religion, his premise is spot on in the larger picture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Insightful. Raw. Real. I highly recommend
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very enjoyable and informative book. I consider it a great addition to my library. For me it was a new and interesting take on how we view god. I highly recommend it to for all open minded people.
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