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The Evolution of God

Robert Wright explores the psychological origins of religion

By Paul Fayter

The Evolution of God
By Robert Wright
(Little, Brown) $28.99



With something to interest, annoy or contest on every page, The Evolution of God is a sweeping history of our changing ideas about God. Religiously agnostic, author Robert Wright believes in the capacity of anthropology and evolutionary psychology to deliver the truth about the origin and meaning of our species’ religious beliefs and practices.

Having sampled a wide range of scholarly literature and read the Bible and Qur’an, Wright offers what he calls a “mercilessly scientific” account of how ancient religions were invented by priests to control people, and how Yahweh, a minor Canaanite deity, became the genocidal supreme tribal god of the Israelites, before maturing into the One God of universal and redeeming love. Science explains everything, without supernatural remainder.

Of course, all gods are illusions according to Wright. But they’re evolving illusions that may point toward “something you can meaningfully call divinity.” Wright argues that history reveals a pattern of moral progress — religions may start out as markers of group identity, and their followers may even violently defend their boundaries. But religions tend to develop in the direction of openness to meet changing social conditions.

Our expanding “moral imagination” (by which we empathize with the humanity of others) points to the existence of both moral order and truth. It raises the possibility of “something that qualifies for the label ‘god’ in at least some sense of that word.”

As spiritual food, some-kind-of-maybe-god strikes me as rather thin gruel. The Evolution of God often rests its case on evidence that’s speculative, dubious, wrong, incomplete, unconvincing or non-existent. Examples: the neighbour-love of early Jews and Christians extended only to other Jews and Christians; Jesus never said “love your enemies” or told the Good Samaritan parable; Paul shed Jewish laws as a marketing tactic to appeal to gentiles.

So, Wright’s not a biblical scholar. His lens instead is evolutionary psychology, which reduces human behaviour to self-interest. As meat-based evolving robots, we exist only for the replication of biological genes and cultural memes. Moral agency, free will, souls, minds? Adaptive fictions. Natural selection, not God, is the creative and presiding power in the world.

To his credit, Wright avoids the arrogance of the “new atheists” who equate religion with terrorism and mental illness. He seeks a way forward — beyond clashing civilizations, conflicting monotheisms and faith versus science wars. And his skepticism reminds us that our ideas about God, Jesus and Muhammad can serve ideological interests and therefore need continuous re-examination.


Rev. Paul Fayter is a United Church minister and historian of science. He lives in Dundas, Ont.



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