The Evolution of God

Review by John C. Snider

Did God make man in His image, or was it the other way around?  Despite millennia of religious tradition, most scholars are convinced it was the latter–but exactly how and why man’s conception of God has developed is a matter of hot debate.

The most simplistic model for competition amongst the gods is that whichever god’s followers are the most numerous and/or the most violent wins.  In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright (The Moral Animal, Nonzero) argues for a subtler, more complex model–one that offers a much more hopeful outlook for humanity’s future than, say, the kind of “religion spoils everything” absolutism of Christopher Hitchens.

Wright painstakingly builds his case, starting with what researchers know about modern-day shamanistic tribes and extrapolating backward into prehistory, speculating as to what the tribal religion(s) of the ancient Israelites might have been like.  Then, like a biologist unraveling DNA, he deconstructs the Old Testament, looking at the history of Israel and how God’s personality changes to reflect the nation’s mood (e.g. a kind and tolerant Yahweh when Israel is secure; a vengeful, jealous Yahweh when populist/nationalist forces are at play).

Wright moves on to the New Testament, convinced that Jesus was an itinerant rabbi who wanted Jews to get right with God by getting right, not with everybody, but only with fellow Jews.  The loving, all-embracing Christ, Wright believes, is a construct cobbled together by early Christian writers–with the idea of Christianity as a universal religion embracing both Jew and Gentile thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign by the Apostle Paul.

Finally, Wright analyzes the 6th/7th century Arabian milieu that shaped the religious and political career of Muhammad and led to the rise of Islam.  Scholars have long recognized that the earlier portions of the Koran (written while Muhammad lived in Mecca) are more peaceful and tolerant than the later portions (written while Muhammad was in exile in Medina), which are harsher and more warlike.  This fits in well with Wright’s theory; in fact, Wright gushes, “All the Abrahamic scriptures attest to the correlation between circumstance and moral consciousness, but none so richly as the Koran.  In that sense, at least, the Koran is unrivaled as a revelation.”

Sadly, the believing community–fundamentalists especially–will never bother to read Wright’s book.  Those that start will probably burn it whether they finish it or not.  The freethought community will likely agree–even welcome–95% of Wright’s book.  It’s the remaining 5% that will stick in their craw.  As he began fleshing out in Nonzero, Wright argues for a sort of inevitability bordering on divine destiny in human affairs.  While he is clear that he believes the evolution of religion is driven solely by natural forces, he nonetheless asserts that, given this inevitability, “then it is more likely that this ‘growth of God’ signifies the existence of God, or at least the existence of something you might call divine, however unlike ancient conceptions of God.”  Wright repeatedly hedges his bets, with puzzling statements like this:

Occasionally I’ve suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. This prospect was raised by the manifest existence of a moral order—that is, by the stubborn, if erratic, expansion of humankind’s moral imagination over the millennia, and the fact that the ongoing maintenance of social order depends on the further expansion of the moral imagination, on movement toward moral truth.

And this:

This sounds fishy, I know. It sounds like a strained, even desperate, intellectual maneuver, a last-ditch attempt to rescue a prescientific conception of God from the onslaught of modern science. But, oddly, an argument that it’s not comes from modern science; physicists commonly do something that is in some ways analogous to believing in a personal god.

Wright then launches into an analogy of electrons as a model for an underlying material reality, with the concept of “God” as a model for an underlying moral reality.  He concludes:

Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons. One of the more plausible such properties is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth.

Where Wright goes off the rails, perhaps, is in claiming that historical inevitability automatically implies a transcendent purpose.  His is almost an intelligent design argument, and one that is reminiscent of the gut-feeling that, given that the universe exists, it must exist for some purpose.  [Note: Wright objects to my comparison of his argument with the ID argument, pointing out that the commonality of ID arguments is “the belief that natural selection can’t account for organic creation.  That isn’t a property shared with my analysis. And the commonalities you point to–references to ‘God’ ‘divinity,’ etc.–actually *aren’t* found in all (or even most) ID arguments (if only because they’re concealing their agenda). What’s more, these commonalities *are* found with vast swaths of thought outside of ID–like religion writ large.”  Readers are encouraged to take his objection under advisement.]  Why, one wonders, can we not simply accept the fact that one system (e.g. a monotheism that recognizes our common humanity) can out-compete other systems (e.g. the soap-opera polytheism of ancient Greece and Rome) without insisting that it must be for some additional underlying reason?

If nothing else, Wright provides us with a book that will trigger passionate debate, although it does far more than that.  The Evolution of God is a brilliant explanation of why the Abrahamic faiths are the way they are.  The book is also peppered with Wright’s dry, deadpan wit (which one can hear on a weekly basis by listening to Wright’s weekly sessions at

The Evolution of God (pub. by Little Brown and Company, June 2009, 576 pp hdcvr, $25.99) is available at and

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