Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God

WrightreligionDan Cryer in the Boston Globe:

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.