Can Science Explain Religion?

Evogod H. Allen Orr reviews Robert Wright's The Evolution of God in the NYRB:

Several themes emerge from Wright's analysis of religion that are reminiscent of those that characterize the evolution of life. For one thing, the history of religion has, Wright says, a discernible direction. Just as organisms have generally grown more complex over the last four billion years, so man's views of God have generally grown more abstract and—most important for Wright—more attractive morally over the last several thousand years. Also, evolutionary change in religion, like that in species, is typically gradual: “you don't see whole new religions coming out of nowhere,” presumably because religions reflect preexisting social conditions.

The Evolution of God is not, however, concerned solely with the past. Wright also emphasizes that an appreciation of the power of non-zero-sum dynamics might help us resolve certain contemporary political tensions, including those between the Islamic world and the West, groups that potentially have much to gain from each other.

Describing Wright's approach to religious history as materialist may seem to imply that he is uncomfortable with loftier visions of religion—the view, for example, that there might actually be something divine that underlies the physical universe. This is not the case. Wright is sympathetic to religion and to at least some of its larger claims. Indeed he purports to provide an account not only of the evolution of man's view of God but, at least possibly, of God himself.

Wright's book has several strengths. Perhaps the most conspicuous is the prose. Although the book is long, it doesn't feel it. Wright is a skillful writer and he knows how to keep a story moving. His discussion is also surprisingly erudite. The Evolution of God is full of footnotes and the literature cited in them is consistently the literature one would hope for: heavy on scholarly studies and light on popular treatments. In a climate in which discussions of religion, and especially of the intersection of religion and science, often seem superficial or rushed, Wright is to be commended for his close study. He is also to be commended for his refreshingly dispassionate tone. All this combines to provide an absorbing (and rant-free) tour of Western religion.

But Wright's book cannot be judged only, or even primarily, by whether it presents a capable history of religion. Instead it must be judged by whether his new theory of religion succeeds. And here, as we'll see, The Evolution of God is less satisfying.