The Dynamics of God
By Kathryn Joyce
Given the enmity that recent works on evolution and God have fostered, pitting science and rationalism against spirit and faith—with “new atheist” celebrities casting believers as Scopes-era fools, and creationist culture warriors declaring natural selection the foundation of the Holocaust—Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God stands on remarkably conciliatory ground. There’s not only room enough for both, Wright argues, but they’re inextricably bound together in the story of human progress toward broader morality (however improbable that might seem today).
Wright’s argument, based on an exhaustive overview of religion’s path from “primordial faith” to universalistic monotheisms, isn’t for die-hard partisans of either camp. Wright, who has written extensively about science and religion, takes natural selection and evolution as bedrock fact and wastes no ink worrying culture-war causes. But he also makes a methodical and compelling argument for continuing to see scripture, or rather scriptures, as revelation of a sort. The holy books of the world and their prewritten forerunners, Wright argues, may not contain, within their endlessly revised and reordered stories, the revealed word of a God who created human morality. Rather, taken together, they unveil the slow and halting progress of humanity toward greater goodness and the constantly evolving identity of gods who don’t cause, but reflect, this transformation.
If, for believers, the bad news in Wright’s book is that man created God, the good news is that God’s growth over the millennia mirrors our species’ overall trend toward self-improvement. Wright argues against what he calls the “romantic view of religion as fallen—having been born pure only to be corrupted later,” and says that, from the beginning, religion has been the conflict-cultivating force it remains today. But if religion, for Wright, hasn’t been a solely positive force, nudging society toward selflessness and compassion, neither does he see it exclusively as a tool of social control wielded by the powerful. Rather, religious evolution has been a wobbling tale of slow progress toward cooperation, wherein “interfaith harmony [emerges] from enlightened self-interest.”
Starting with the prehistorical beliefs of hunter-gatherer tribes whose gods were unswayable, nonethical forces of nature, Wright moves through a generous sampling of the world’s religious traditions, along the way disposing of numerous popular conceptions in a sharp synthesis of religious scholarship. There were shamans who divined the gods’ wishes—frequently aligned with their own—and who represented the first step toward organized religious hierarchy. Chiefdoms followed, combining political and religious authority to govern new agricultural settlements with an elementary legal system. Large-scale polytheistic cities of Mesopotamia placed a premium on gods that guarded ancient civilization against slipping into chaos, effecting social cohesion through a pantheon of divine enforcers that over time came to be understood as an interrelated hierarchy. Frequently, gods of neighboring cultures would be adopted or even merge into a single entity in the wake of political alliances or conquest, assimilated by trade partners or victorious empires to ease entry into the new social order. This “convenient malleability” of polytheism was both an imperialist tool to mollify defeated masses, Wright notes, and “an elixir of intercultural amity” that gives an early glimpse of how flexible religion has frequently been.
With these broad and overlapping deities came a new sense of universalism, extending a god’s authority and concern outside its original city walls, as well as the public’s tolerance for foreign gods, which waxed in accordance with the cosmopolitan times that perceived benefits to be gained from international cooperation. The catalyst for cooperation was most often in one culture’s recognition, conscious or not, of potential for a “non-zero-sum” relationship with another. Theology has expanded and contracted in its inclusiveness and universality, Wright demonstrates, in nearly direct relation to how well the people can imagine a win-win scenario out of foreign interactions or, conversely, whether they determine that their interests must fall or rise based on the successes or failures of a rival. In operation, this means that “people are more likely to be open to foreign gods when they see themselves playing a non-zero-sum game with foreigners,” says Wright, defining what he calls “the law of religious tolerance.”
The fusions and overlaps of polytheism paved the way for monotheism’s forebear, monolotry, which prized a god-in-chief ruling over the pantheon and who himself evolved, through a very worldly process of political negotiation and dominance, into a contender for the emerging title of “one true god.” Mesopotamia had one in Marduk, Egypt likewise did in Aten, and later, the God of Moses, and of all the Abrahamic faiths, would arise from the same background in Canaan.
This context is, predictably, papered over by biblical revisions, but it is revealed by the multiple personalities the God of the Bible seems to contain: a God of creation distinct from the violent God who appears in other Old Testament books. Much as Mesopotamia’s gods were a synthesis of regional deities, the construction of Yahweh into a single being incorporated preexisting, competing gods the Israelites worshiped throughout the early years of so-called monotheism through “a series of politically expedient theological fusions.”
Throughout The Evolution of God, Wright returns to a single message: that the contextual origins of religious principles found in biblical stories are usually petty and almost always mundane. While the Bible elevates the power of the divine to impact daily reality, Wright explains with wry humor where the political seams of scriptural stories are visible—how, instead, “facts on the ground” have continually influenced the history of faith. The Bible’s reviled Queen Jezebel wasn’t despised so much for her worship of Yahweh’s rival god, Baal, as Baal was hated for his association with the competing political interests Jezebel and her husband represented to worldly rivals. “Circumstances change,” Wright writes, “and God changes with them.”
The ancient world’s tight linkage of foreign policy and theology demonstrate this most compellingly, Wright argues, with messages of inclusion or hostility toward outside faiths waxing and waning with the political fortunes of the early monotheists. While early “internationalist” Israelites campaigned for a broad tolerance of foreign gods that could further their economic trade interests, a subsequent enthusiasm for a “Yahweh-alone” platform came in days of political turmoil. The campaign against any god besides Yahweh arose from two possible political motivations: an aggressive foreign policy that underscored the Israelites’ tense relations with hostile or dominant neighbors by emphasizing religious difference; or domestic class warfare that castigated the internationalism and interfaith tolerance of a jet-setting upper crust. Either cause resulted in using “fear of the foreign to purge the indigenous,” purifying Israelite monotheism through hostility to outsiders. In such ways, domestic gods of Canaan that threatened Israel’s emerging monotheism were no longer absorbed, but banished.
It’s not a far leap at all to extend these observations to fractious interreligious dialogue today, and indeed, Wright says, the imperial times that shaped monotheism look in many ways like today’s globalized world. “Then as now, international trade and attendant economic advance had brought sharp social changes and sharp social cleavages, delimiting affluent cosmopolitans from poorer and more insular people. . . . Then as now, some of those in the latter category extended their dislike of the foreign to theology, growing cold toward religious traditions that signified the alien.” Today, this dynamic produces fundamentalists of various faiths; then, it produced their gods.
From these dubious origins Wright finds surprising cause for optimism. If the overwhelming proof is that the one true God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims “was originally a god of vengeance,” Wright offers an unlikely upside: God’s origins don’t matter when viewed through the secular lens of cultural evolution, which sees religion mirror humanity’s progress. “The salvation of the world in the twenty-first century may well hinge on how peaceful and tolerant Abrahamic monotheism is,” he writes. “But it doesn’t hinge on whether these attributes were built in at monotheism’s birth.”
What Wright sees as the connective binding among religious traditions is psychologist William James’s definition that religion “consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Wright is far less concerned with the truth of any particular unseen order than with the effect that believing in it has—a practice he sees as having a rational, secular application.
The continuance, or furtherance, of religious tolerance need not depend on divine morality. What has accompanied the history of monotheism is a history of compromise and conciliation born of mundane self-interest that nonetheless has pushed humanity toward actions of relative tolerance and peace. As an example of the transcendent potential of earth-born wisdom, Wright offers the story of Philos, a Jewish cosmopolitan in the age of Caligula, who successfully appealed to the Roman emperor’s rational self-interest in not persecuting the Jews of Alexandria. As humanity became more capable of such self-interested tolerance, religion followed suit. Stories of interfaith cooperation are replicated frequently in the histories of Christianity and Islam, with “the Yahweh of scripture [showing] repeated bursts of moral growth.”
Wright argues that the historical Jesus, most likely a run-of-the-mill apocalyptic preacher who appealed to the Israelites’ xenophobia, and never told them to love their enemies, pales in comparison to the Jesus worshiped by Christians today. Over the course of several centuries, he evolved to a far higher moral ground. Instrumental to this growth, Wright charges, is the mundane fact of Paul’s driving imperial ambitions to see Christianity become an international religion. In service of that goal, Paul promoted the universalism and tolerance that came to be understood as the basis for “Christian love,” fostering familial feelings among alien cultures based on shared Christian beliefs. These may not be pure origins for love or universality, Wright acknowledges, but they’re “not nothing” either.
Likewise, under Wright’s interpretation, the story of Islam seems less that of an inspired prophet than of a savvy politician. Though Wright notes that the Qur’an can seem a disjointed book, vacillating between calls to let all believers live and let live, and demands for violently enforced fidelity to Islam, these conflicting appeals can again be explained as history: the chronicle of a skillful imperial ruler’s political fortunes, with Muhammad serving as “a one-man recapitulation of some great moments in Abrahamic history.” He counseled peace and tolerance when he saw it in his best interests—as a newcomer to the monotheistic neighborhood seeking to play up commonalities—but urged jihad when he saw himself or his nascent empire as standing to gain by fighting.
In all three monotheisms, Wright says, the central characters are far less important than the societies they grew out of. Without a Jesus or Muhammad, another figure carrying a similar message would have likely arrived in a society ripe for universalism, with the political structure that supported it. All three monotheisms mistake their “epoch-marking figure” for an “epoch-making figure.”
These arguments, Wright acknowledges, aren’t appealing to traditional believers. In a good news/bad news formula, Wright writes, traditional believers are confronted with the bad news that their gods were born imperfect, and are then offered the “good” news that their god is only a human construction after all—a compensatory argument that what the scriptures lack in divinity, they make up for in their revelation about the ultimate moral progress of humanity. “Obviously, for the traditional believer, this is all bad news,” Wright concedes.
But, for those who can learn to settle for a less divine truth, Wright sketches the possibility of sustaining belief in a higher purpose to the universe—and one that can be upheld by as many secularists as believers. God’s growth has been proof of our own, however fitful and self-serving. The trend through history, perhaps imperceptible at present, is a net increase in morality and universality—a twist on the notion that people get the leadership, or gods, they deserve. This growth, reflected in the expanding benevolence of humanity’s gods, could itself be considered a higher purpose, and possibly even divine.
The cause for optimism isn’t just that humanity can act well when it’s in the service of its own interests, but that “What starts as tactical ploy, as grudging coexistence, can for various reasons evolve into a truer, more philosophical appreciation of tolerance.” From such quotidian origins, a philosophy of love and warmth toward humanity can reasonably arise. And it can continue to make another evolutionary leap today, Wright believes, pushing past the moment of religious intolerance that the post-9/11 era represents, with an expanded moral imagination that allows people first to see their fortunes bound up with those of their rivals, and then to recognize those rivals as people who they can “do business with,” and through that interaction, understand them as people just like them. The alternative, Wright warns, is a return to the chaos the polytheistic pantheon kept at bay: an impossible option in today’s violent global age, where individual salvation is bound up with global salvation on many fronts. Still, the possibilities, Wright convincingly urges, are there. The arc of the universe may first bend toward justice for cynical reasons, pushed by politics or international trade, but it may lodge there more firmly as cultural habit evolves into principle. God, as Wright writes, will catch up.
Kathryn Joyce is the author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (Beacon Press, 2009). Her work has appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, Salon, and other publications.