Evolving a God?
This semester, I have been part of a religious discussion group as part of one of my scholarships. In this group, our mentor has given us the challenge of trying to come up with an answer to the question: How can we promote universal harmony among the major religions? We base our discussion on sections of Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God.
We aren’t anywhere near finished (we’ve just finished the sections relating to Judaism and we will be moving to Christianity and Islam in future discussion groups), yet I already seem to be drawing some things from the book.
I can understand why my professor appreciates this book…he has shared with us parts of his personal philosophy that just make sense why he enjoys it. However…this also provides my contention with the book.
Wright’s arguments rely on several interpretations and assumptions…Wright often sets up novel re-interpretations of the stories surrounding religions (although I guess I shouldn’t say novel…these re-interpretations represent some of the research in the various fields, but often times, they don’t necessarily represent what the main stream believer would believe.) Without the interpretations (sometimes which are “what ifs”, Wright’s argument ceases to leave the ground.
Examples of this are in Wright’s acceptance of the documentary hypothesis for the Hebrew Bible or his acceptance of a Q document for the New Testament to tease out the historical Jesus vs. an elaborated Jesus.
I don’t mean to say these are wild assertions…after all, I don’t think the documentary hypothesis is all that bad. However, I do recognize that many people simply don’t believe these kinds of things, many researchers and theologians have pointed out deficiencies with then, and so to create an account of religion — and more spectacularly of God — based on several of these tenuous hypotheses is asking for trouble.
But these aren’t the places where I have problems…I don’t think I can quite put my finger on it…but Wright seems to express a particular idea frequently (and this is an idea that my sponsoring professor also likes very much). Wright seems to speak in terms of God evolving through humans evolving (socially, that is.) Already, most believers would say, “But God doesn’t change.” Even I would say — though I don’t believe in any gods — that Wright is possibly being verbally lazy — all he is showing is how human ideas about God are changing and evolving.
But Wright has a further troublesome idea…that human “progress” is indicative of a higher purpose and an ultimate point. On page 214, he writes:
What might qualify as evidence of a larger purpose at work in the world? For one thing, a moral direction in history. If history naturally carries human consciousness toward moral enlightenment, however slowly and fitfully, that would be evidence that there’s some point to it all. At least, it would be more evidence than the alternative — if history showed no discernible direction, or if history showed a downward direction: humanity as a whole getting more morally obtuse, more vengeful and bigoted.
Or, to put the point back into the context at hand: To the extent that “god” grows, that is evidence — maybe not massive evidence, but some evidence — of higher purpose.
At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what I felt was wrong in such reasoning…but then I realized it. It’s because he is comparing this to evolution that we can find the flaw.
Evolution does not have a “higher purpose.” So while yes, history does show life moving somewhere, however slowly and fitfully, it isn’t necessarily show that things are moving “forward” or “to a higher purpose.” At best, we can say that life forms are selected based on adaptation to their environment…but this doesn’t suggest an absolute best form. Rather, the environment can have the most impact on adaptation propagation. Humans aren’t “better” than cockroaches, for example…obviously, cockroaches are very successful evolutionarily (perhaps even more than humans, if they can survive nuclear holocaust as the jokes go)…they just point out a difference.
So, in the same way that biological evolution does not suggest a final, perfect form, social and moral evolution does not either.
But Wright has actually shied away from using god in a conventional sense. For example, if we take Wright’s use of god to mean ideas about god…and then ambiguate even further to ideas about progress, then he makes a lot more sense. We need not assume that ideas imply the objective existence of something outside (another blogger points this out halfway down in his article). In fact, even though Wright uses loaded language, we don’t even need to have this conversation from a theistic bent.
My professor, enamored as he is with the book, seems to accept some assumptions that make sense with the book but don’t necessarily show us how to achieve religious harmony with conventional believers. My professor, for example, emphasizes the god in our minds. I’ve met others who’ve focused on God as mental, but I can’t help but feel that people with these kinds of beliefs are implicitly atheist (which is actually interesting, because from some of the comments my professor makes, I don’t think he quite understands that atheists aren’t terrible non-thinkers — or that many theists would view his beliefs as atheistic). Because my professor buys into an idea of god being in our minds, he can buy claims that God can change, and that as humans become better, that directly relates to God becoming better.
…but most believers simply don’t believe this way. They don’t want to simply assert a God in the mind. No, they want to assert a god that exists independent of any human mind. So, some of the conclusions Wright wants to make are dangerous.