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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2011
Number 74
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

An Evolutionary, Nonzero Approach to the Abrahamic Traditions

The Evolution of God by Robert Wright: New York: Little, Brown.
A Review Essay by Cliff Edwards

Robert Wright has taught a course or two in philosophy at Princeton and religion at the University of Pennsylvania, but is best known for his award-winning books, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life (1994) and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2000). Former President Bill Clinton had required White House staff to read Nonzero, and “The Economist” lauded The Moral Animal as a work “destined to become a classic?like Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.”

In his new work, The Evolution of God, Wright turns his attention to religion, particularly the Abrahamic Traditions, and the question of the existence of God. His interdisciplinary approach to the subject through Darwinian insights, game theory, and evolutionary psychology, challenges readers to re-think their views on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Bible and the Qur’an, and the relationship of science and religion. Further, he challenges the current multiplication of works arguing for atheism from a scientific perspective. Wright’s counter-claim to a science-based atheism is that scientists “do something that is in some ways analogous to believing in a personal god” when they “believe” in a posited source they name “electron” responsible for patterns they detect in the physical world. Wright suggests that “electrons and God” might both be located somewhere “between illusions and imperfect conceptions” useful in describing the patterns and directions of the invisible forces that shape our universe, including its moral domain.

For those of us in the field of religious studies, particularly those focused on the Abrahamic traditions, Wright’s interdisciplinary location of a developmental pattern moving from shamans, through “Chiefdoms,” “Ancient States,” Ancient Israel’s polytheism, monolatry, and monotheism, to Philo’s “Logos: The Divine Algorithm,” encourages a testing of established religious studies assumptions. After about 200 pages devoted to developments in Israelite religion and its Scriptures, Wright devotes 75 pages to Christianity and the New Testament and another 75 to Islam and the Qur’an. A final chapter, “God Goes Global (or Doesn’t)”, deals with the positive meaning of the underlying pattern revealed in the “manifold existence of a moral order” in history, and advises that Abrahamic religions should take a tip from Hinduism and Buddhism, “relaxing their sense of specialness” in the interests of truth and global cooperation. Wright’s embracing of a non-zero-sum-game, a game that does not require that if some win others must lose, becomes important to his view of mutual cooperation among religions on a global level.

That last chapter is not the end of the book, as an “Afterword” of 16 pages and an “Appendix” of 20 pages turn to the topics, “ By the Way, What is God?” and “How Human Nature Gave Birth to Religion.” If the 567 pages of the book strike one as too much of an investment of reading-time, I suggest turning directly to the “Afterword” on the nature of God. There, the “expansion of humankind’s moral imagination over the millennia is interpreted as moving toward a “source of this higher purpose” that qualifies for the label “god”, either in the sense of Paul Tillich’s “ground of being” or Philo’s “Logos” as the underlying logic of life which is a “direct extension of God.” Further, Wright suggests that “relating to this source, as if it were a personal god is actually an appropriate way for human beings to apprehend that source.” Bringing his search back to the relation of science and religion, Wright claims that physicists exploring the sub-atomic world “commonly do something that is analogous” to this imaginative step taken by many religious believers.

Cliff Edwards is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and consulting editor of Menorah Review.

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