Russell Blackford on Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God

January 19, 2010 • 8:09 am

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.

10 thoughts on “Russell Blackford on Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God

  1. Robert Wright takes Durkheim’s “God is society, writ large” metaphor beyond what it’s didactic purposes originally intented. It’s nothing more than Émile on apophatic, futuristic steroids.

    Wright should have quit earlier on; then we’d get something more akin to Atran.

  2. Blackford: “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)”

    This sounds like tribalism, as in religions becoming less tribal or less antogonistic toward outgroups. There is a moral component here, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily true that tribalism and morality are linked in this way.

  3. Robert Wright takes Durkheim’s “God is society, writ large” metaphor beyond what it’s didactic purposes originally intented.

    He goes even further by postulating Darwinian mechanisms to explain the progress.

    I think it is an interesting conversation whether religion is inexorably led in a more moral direction. (Of course, if that is the case, I tend to see religion dragged kicking and screaming in that direction by progress on other social fronts, rather than religion leading the way, but I have my own biases)

    But this assertion that it happens via natural selection? Absurd. Where are the examples of great civilizations with immoral religions dying out while civilizations with “softer”, gentler religions prosper? While modern liberalized Christianity may be an advancement over the Romans, for example, I think it is quite a tall order to try and make an argument that early Christianity outcompeted the Roman pantheon of gods, eventually culminating in the conversion of Constantine, because early Christianity was more moral. First, you’d have to convince me it even was more moral, which is going to be a tough sell — the Roman religion was rather cosmopolitan and progressive for its time, while early Christianity was pretty extreme. Second, even if we buy that first part, it seems much more plausible that Christianity prospered because of other factors, such as evangelism, etc.

    If religion is drawn in a monotonically more moral direction over time, it seems to me a result of societies choosing to reform their religion, rather than some sort of Darwinian process. Wright’s theory is just cracked.

    1. Yep, he’s twisting the inherent expediency of modernity into a retroactive pattern association to inductively conclude a false proposition. Coyne’s spot on when he describes it as tendentious.

  4. Neither sociology nor anthropology are going to adopt Wright’s ideas, because they explain what has occurred about as well as ID does.

    The best Wright can do is to pull a kind of theistic evolution and claim that somehow God meant for social forces to “improve religion.” It means nothing beyond some hope for “saving religion” from the obvious fact that it simply codifies beliefs which arise for other reasons.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  5. “evolution towards morality”? define “morality” and “religions respond adaptively to the world’….defne “adaptively”

  6. Wright indulges here in Cargo-cult science.
    The outwards trappings of science with no substance behind the crudely made empty props.

  7. In reading Wright’s book I kept wondering, “Has he heard of Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God (1959) which covers the evolution of god(s) in four well researched volume?” I think not for there was no reference to Campbell.

    If you want to read a theologian’s view of the evolution of gods to God to Gias, read Lloyd Geering’s Returning to Earth (2009).

    I wonder whether a more positive examination of the progressive religious might be more fruitful than attacks on those stuck in the seventeenth century.

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