UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.



Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Environment

Song leader, police and gate blockers in front of the Kinder Morgan gates. Photo by Kimiko Karpoff

A Kinder Morgan protest in photos and song

by Kimiko Karpoff

A faith leader reflects on protesting the pipeline with the Water Protectors from the Tsleil-Waututh nation.

Promotional Image

Editorials

The United Church Observer's editor and publisher, Jocelyn Bell. Photo: Lindsay Palmer

Observations: #MeToo

by Jocelyn Bell

Our hope is that by giving voice to these #MeToo stories, a new conversation about sexual misconduct can begin.

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image

Society

June 2018

Why some women of colour are hesitant to say #MeToo

by Jacky Habib

Three women share their stories in the hope of creating safe spaces they never had.

Environment

May 2018

A Kinder Morgan protest in photos and song

by Kimiko Karpoff

On April 28, 2018, faith leaders from many traditions, including the United Church, stood in solidarity with Water Protectors from the Tsleil-Waututh nation to protest the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C.. Kimiko Karpoff captured the day in pictures.

Faith

June 2018

After 93 years, this will be the United Church's last General Council meeting

by Mike Milne

When the United Church meets in July, top priorities will be a streamlined governance structure and Indigenous ministries.

Justice

June 2018

#MeToo in the United Church

by Trisha Elliott

9 women share their stories of harassment and sexual assault in the United Church.

Columns

May 2018

On grief and the healing power of gardening

by Paul Fraumeni

A writer reflects on how growing tomatoes is helping him find peace while dealing with the loss of loved ones, including his son.

Editorials

June 2018

Observations: #MeToo

by Jocelyn Bell

Our hope is that by giving voice to these #MeToo stories, a new conversation about sexual misconduct can begin.

Promotional Image