Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford weighs in on Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God (also reviewed recently by Allen Orr in The New York Review of Books). Blackford’s verdict: an absorbing history of religion (here I disagree with him, for I think Wright’s “history” is a tendentious one), but one that fails in its goals to show that a) there has been an inevitable evolution of religion toward morality, and b) that evolution can be construed as evidence for God, or at least for a “higher force” propelling social change:
. . . a history of religion up to a certain historical point, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, helpfully structured, rich in information, and highly readable. If it pretended to be no more than that, I could stop here and simply recommend it highly.
. . . But even assuming that all this is correct, I see no reason to go further and postulate a more abstract law, such as that religion inevitably arises then evolves through a series of transactions that are mutually beneficial for those involved (such as the citizens of different states with different gods). That might sometimes happen, but sometimes it might not, and there certainly seems to be no reason to postulate a law that religions inevitably become more “moral” over time (in the sense of more willing to expand the circle of human beings who are regarded as moral equals). . .
In all, I am totally unpersuaded that any kind of deep, abstract law applies to the development of religions. It is possible that attitudes and manners tend to be softened when (some) people gain a certain amount of leisure, and are free from the everyday struggle just to survive. Perhaps, too, as Hume thought, we do develop better understandings over time of what social arrangments are beneficial, so morality becomes less harsh. Those, however, are different points; they may suggest the possibility of (limited?) moral progress, but they do not entail a logic or principle that drives the evolution of religion.
I am even less attracted to the thesis that the history of religion is evidence for some kind of divinity acting in time to lead humankind (or, I suppose, other intelligent creatures in the universe) to higher and higher levels of morality.
Do read the whole thing. As usual, Russell produces a thoughtful and rant-free analysis.