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A Review of Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God

There are about five books that have really impressed me. Those are the books where, after reading them, I went to Amazon and bought copies for family and friends. These types of books explain a topic from a perspective that sheds a true light on reality. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright’s previous work was on my list. Robert Wright seemed to grasp the interactions of humanity much like Dawkins grasps evolution, Fukuyama grasps sociology, and Dennett grasps consciousness. Robert Wright has taken his concept of nonzero sum interactions and has made the leap from concept to God in his latest work, The Evolution of God. This of course requires a definition of God far more esoteric than your local Baptist preacher would consent to. Away with the personhood of god, favored peoples, end of days judgment, sacraments, or pretty much what the majority of preachers, charismatic and otherwise, contend are critical aspects of their religions. Charismatic preachers in all denominations of the Abrahamic religions would find such a God definition worthy of the title “heresy.”

So let’s get down to the basic premise, which in this book is used as a lure to titillate you through the text outlining religious histories. Could the world live with a definition of God as “compassion toward your fellow man”? Robert Wright makes historical moral progress apparent through his rendering of Jewish, Christian, Islamic—even a little of Buddhism’s historical traditions—as they develop from religions of restriction and intolerance progressing through stages of ever greater inclusion and compassion. Counter to his proposals, he tends to accept the historical examples of religions regressing to greater intolerance as mere setbacks. He ignores that the influx of new initiates gravitate toward the less tolerant, more exclusive versions of religious practice rather than more tolerant versions. As the more mature denominations move toward Mr. Wright’s definition of “tolerance and acceptance” and a “less exclusive and person type” God they correspondingly lose followers. It is the fundamentalist Islamic versions that tend to strike out, and the fundamentalist Christian versions that tend to denigrate and oppress. Likewise it is the fundamentalist charismatic sects most in need of a new definition for God that tend to hold to the most distant definition from what Mr. Wright has proposed for a God.

Can a nonbeliever embrace a Nonzero God? Mr. Wright makes a very good attempt and if modern man has any real “god” it could be the real “non-zero spirit of cooperation and compassion” that his work proposes. It is far from the spirit person outlined in the Jewish, Christian, or Islamic texts. Mr. Wright’s God does not proclaim a personification or a point of historical intervention as evidence, (primarily since such evidence is usually fabricated), but a god as the evolutionary process toward greater goodness. Thus the nonzero god would not include a favored people, process of rebirth or Fatwas so eagerly promoted by the respective religions. It is an acceptance of both ourselves as human and our social configuration as “human based,” each emerging toward greater levels of compassion in an effort to make a modern world society. This is an interesting, well-visited and justified proposal by author Wright. If there was ever a modern work to bring to life an answer to the challenge so eloquently phrased by Emmett Fields in his debate “Is the Bible the Word of God?” (1983) it would be the effort of Robert Wright and The Evolution of God:

The priests who wrote the Bible stood upon their tippy-toes and reaching just as high as they could reach, they drove their spike. That spike is the Bible. It represents their best knowledge, their best morals, their most advanced understanding and world view. It was as high as they could think! And they thought it was as high as anyone would ever be able to think. So they drove the spike of their knowledge just as high as they could reach and they called it “The word of God.” That spike, that was as high as those old priests could reach, is less than knee high to modern man. Humanity has advanced during the thousands of years since the Bible was written and our modern knowledge and higher moral understanding tells us that the spike, the Bible, is not “the word of God.”

Today we desperately need a new God—a God that is not an insult to our intelligence—a God that is as great as the endless cosmos. We need a just God that does not have chosen galaxies and a preferred life form—a life form that is told to slaughter other life forms. We desperately need a God that commands that we think, instead of believe and worship. We need a God to civilize us, not one that makes us savages.

Robert Wright has made that effort. He has enjoined us to think, to push our moral spike as high as we are capable. His last words are not “this is the truth” or “this is the best that is possible.” He like many philosophers before him says there is good news, humans are capable of being better and more moral than they presently are. They are better than they were and they are headed in the right direction. This is a divine goal that humans can continue to work toward. But is that enough divinity to be God?