Orr on Wright

December 28, 2009 • 1:45 pm

Allen Orr, my first graduate student, has now reviewed Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God for The New York Review of Books.  It’s a pretty negative piece, and in several places Orr and I have independently come up with the same criticisms (we’ve never discussed the book):

While Wright’s account of the history of the Abrahamic faiths is frequently fascinating, his attempts to explain that history using his new theory are, unfortunately, sometimes less than persuasive. Part of the problem is that Wright’s theory is so obviously incomplete. It would be absurd to deny that local conditions help shape religion, including moral doctrine. But it would be equally absurd to deny that there’s more to the story. . .

The Evolution of God ‘s shortcomings involve not only the content of its arguments but the intellectual methods that Wright uses to build his theory. Though his key claim—that people are more likely to do something when it’s in their interest—is fairly banal, it gets dressed up in the scientific-sounding language of game theory and evolutionary psychology. But it’s hard to take most of this language seriously. Where, for example, is the actual scientific evidence that people possess a mental faculty corresponding to the moral imagination? Where is the evidence that this faculty was built by natural selection or that it stopped evolving after our days on the savanna? Where is the evidence that this mental faculty is now misfiring? In each case, the answer is that the evidence is nonexistent or exceedingly dubious. Wright’s claims about the evolution of the human mind might prove right, or at least partly right, but they have little to do with real science.

Wright’s reliance on game theory and evolutionary psychology is troubling for another reason. These theories, particularly when taken together, are so pliant that they can explain almost anything. One consequence is that Wright’s readings of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Koran sometimes degenerate into clever attempts to explain each passage as a response to specific local circumstances.

I suppose that, after reading Orr’s piece, Wright can claim that two members of an academic lineage have simply misunderstood him in similar ways.

One plaint about an otherwise fine piece: at the end, Orr goes a bit soft on faith:

Despite these reservations, I find that I do agree with another, and important, point that Wright touches on in the course of these discussions. Man’s sense of the divine has, it seems clear, generally grown more sophisticated and abstract through time. The Logos of Philo is miles beyond the nearly demonic gods feared by primitive man. And as Wright emphasizes, there’s every reason to expect this trajectory to continue. Certainly, few thoughtful people, now or in the future, can be expected to take literally the poetic evocations of the divine found in Western scriptures.

Rather than “sophisticated,” I’d say “evasive,” for the increased “sophistication” represents only post facto adjustments of dogma as science has chipped away at the founding verities of faith.  I don’t see, either, why Philo’s Logos is “miles byond” early demonic gods. “Beyond” in what sense? Perhaps in making a virtue of empirical necessity, but certainly not in approaching the real truth about magical beings.

And I’m not so sure that only a “few thoughtful people” take literally the “poetic evocations of the divine found in Western scriptures.” Maybe only a few folks believe that Noah sailed on the Ark, but about 80% of Americans believe in Heaven, 75% in angels, and around 70% in Hell and Satan.  Academics, whose religious friends tend to be of the liberal stripe, seem blissfully unaware of how many Americans see the Bible as far more than metaphorical poetry. I invite Orr, as I have invited several other scholars who downplay America’s Biblical literalism, to accompany me any Sunday to a few tabernacles on the South Side of Chicago.

14 thoughts on “Orr on Wright

  1. He is a sublime essayist/reviewer; he should do more reviews. His review (and the follow-up exchange) of No Free Lunch was wonderful. Of course, in Orr’s latest review I can already hear part of the response by Wright, “Orr has been a naysayer of evolutionary psychology for a long time as evidenced in his review of Pinker’s book and now mine…blah blah blah…” Yep, Orr has scientific scruples and merely restating that fact in a manner that casts him as “anti [insert favorite field or issue]” is not a retort, it’s a concession.

  2. I haven’t read Wright’s The Evolution of God, but when I was reading Allen Orr’s review, I was reminded of Michael Shermer’s The Mind of The Market. Does anyone here share my feeling that The Mind of the Market is about at the same intellectual level as The Evolution of God? I’d like to be convinced otherwise because I (used to) like Michael Shermer a lot.

  3. Orr’s review is nothing short of magisterial. He had clearly taken the argument seriously, and has criticised it on its merits. The scientific basis of Wright’s claims are quite firmly dismissed, and his conclusions all called into question, despite Wright’s erudition and sensitivity.

    One thing that I should be concerned about – and I have not, and probably will not, read Wright’s book – is the idea that God has evolved, in other words that God has actually become morally more sensitive and responsive to the human condition. I can see elements of that in Christianity, but it seems to me to follow the Enlightenment transformation of European societies to claim that this is in any sense an evolution of God. But I cannot see such an evolution taking place in the Islamic conception of God. Indeed, the Islamic God, if anything, is becoming morally more monstrous as the years go by. Orr seems to give an awful lot to Wright so far as the accuracy of Wright’s history goes. I think I would like to take a look at the history as well as the science. The thesis that Wright provides, it seems to me, is rotten straight through.

    But I say this, based on reading reviews, not the actual book. But anyone who claims, after exploring the evolution of the religious understanding of the gods, that there may be not only some evolutionary point to religion, but some truth to it as well, is going to have to do a lot more spade work before I will be convinced that he has dug something up, and not just put it there, with signs of digging all around.

    1. The overriding process of evolution is change, not a direction such as; better or worse or higher or lower. Although it does produce organisms that exploit the environment it isn’t something that humans are required to mimic. Humans like to consider themselves better and above other life forms, however, if all life is viewed as a functioning organism as it should be, humans would need to be viewed (currently at least) as a cancer within it – cancer dies with the host. The process of evolution didn’t even have the foresight to say “oops” when the human branch started to grow.

      As god is a notion, not something that exists external to a human mind, it is certainly going to change over time, or, evolve. Some christians think that their god idea is a real creature of some sort, some even go so far as to give it male sexual organs (they refer to it as “He” or “Him” and cause it to impregnate virgins.)

      Now consider yourself islamic, watching your city changed to rubble by unseen weapons dispatched by christians, together with the death and severe maiming of loved ones. Even if you thought your islamic religion was monstrous, it is hard to imagine that you would think that christianity was any better.

      Certainly, islamists appear to treat women worse than christians do. However, when comparing them it is important to remember that islamists have control over whole nations where they can bring the full power of their god idea to fruition. As much as the christian would like the United States to be a christian nation, it isn’t, although, there are sufficient quantities of them to muck things up.

      The notion of god is not good because, the christian god idea is built on a false foundation, it breeds deception and dishonesty; that is not good no matter what god idea is invoked.

  4. For what it’s worth I found the majority of Wright’s book to be very interesting. He provides social and historical data on how the concepts of gods evolves and can move towards monotheism as societies become more complex. Also provides good data on the social/religious situation of the people historically living in the areas and times covered by the Exodus story. Clearly illuminating stark differences between archeological findings and the much later writings of an exiled priesthood. For me these accounts made reading the book worthwhile. The “woowy” parts were pretty clearly marked out and I simply read through these and rolled my eyes. I seem to have been less upset by them than some others (but then I didn’t get bent out of shape by the idea that Avatar is a way of sneaking a new age Gaian idea into our collective consciousness – I just suspended disbelief. Yes, I accept that this might be more appropriate to a movie than to a work of non-fiction). However I do think that of this book has value for those of us outside of the field – even if we do not accept the less well supported part of its message.

  5. I agree, Orr’s review is great. He rightly commends the materialist explanation of changes in the idea of god(s) and criticizes the leaps of fancy that Wright tacks on to this explanation. The reversal of Wright’s own causal chain of natural selection, game theory and religion when it suits him was very insightful. And he minimizes the fanciful teleology in the Afterword.

    One question I’d like to ask Orr is what are his concerns about the over-reaching of the New Atheists?

    1. Part of it perhaps lies in this quote from Orr from a review of Gould’s book (via Wikipedia):

      “It may seem obvious that there are mathematical truths (1+1 = 2), logical truths (All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Socrates was mortal), historical truths (Socrates was mortal), folk psychological truths (someone who’s blushing is embarrassed) and socially constructed truths (paper bearing George, but not Grover, Washington’s likeness is worth something). And it may seem equally obvious that none of these is scientific. The world is not all science and there are places where science cannot and even should not go. But this lesson has come surprisingly hard to many philosophers and scientists–for instance, E. O. Wilson. Gould has, all along, been on the right side of this skirmish. Scientism is naive and it is hubristic. But, most of all, it’s just plain wrong.”

      1. In the link provided by Norwegian Shooter, Dennett clearly asks Orr to name and explain Orr’s unmentionables:

        Is this opinion of Orr’s just force of habit, or going along with tradition, or has he carefully studied the phenomena and seen that we really mustn’t rock the boat, for fear of causing calamity? If the latter, he owes the world a careful and vivid argument to that effect, for it would put Dawkins and the rest of us in our proper place as dangerous intellectual vandals. Such a project would not fit his talents or training, but I should think it would be his duty as a concerned scientist.

        but, in Orr’s reply he appears to be too embarrassed to answer the question. What is it that Orr really wants to say, what is the point in solving “subtle problems”(unmentionables) when the dam[n] thing has huge holes in it?

      2. It’s an interesting review…but I have a hard time being convinced.

        The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way…Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

        The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents.

        I get what he means, but I’m not convinced that there is such a thing as sophisticated religion. One reason is that if the sophisticated kind really were all that meticulous and thus worth taking seriously, why wouldn’t it filter down? Why are the ordinary everyday ‘arguments’ we see day in and day out so tragically empty?

  6. I thought Orr’s review was a pretty plodding affair, and far too nice to RW, who essentially builds his argument on the traditional Christian view that God gradually revealed more and more of himself over the centuries, evolving into the universal (Christian) god, rather than remaining the god of a tribe or nation. And his response to Dennett’s letter was remarkable for its brazen evasiveness.

  7. I mostly agree with your criticisms of Orr’s closing, but I do have to say that it seems clear that religion will primarily continue to “evolve” in a more benign direction for the foreseeable future. This trend is neither monotonic nor inexorable, nor has it proved even roughly true in the past (the rapid spread of primitive Judaic dogma via Christianity seems like a pretty big step backwards to me, in comparison to the relatively cosmopolitan approach to religion taken by contemporary Romans).

    But I would argue that, due to increasing democratization of power and freer flow of information, it appears that secular ethics will continue to show itself superior to religious moralistic dogma, and that as a result religions will be forced to adapt (“evade” indeed seems like a reasonable word) or else perish.

    Already, we are seeing more and more churches come forward on the right side of the gay marriage debate. (Of course, make no mistake, 50 years from now, theists will point to those few churches who showed support, and argue that the fight for gay rights was led by brave benevolent Christians….)

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