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Evolving a God?

November 5, 2009

The Evolution of GodThis 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.


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  1. Interesting. What is the author’s thesis of the book would you say, Andrew? Is he (the author) inherently theist, or atheist?

    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.

    Dangerous for the theist reader, I assume you mean. I have been thinking a lot about the topic lately of whether God is just my brain. I’ve gotten no closer to an answer. I know that since realizing that the CoJCoLDS is hogwash, I’ve been unable (unwilling?) to receive revelation the way I used to receive it. I find myself receiving more flashes of insight, and less running commentary. Is it because my brain intrinsically realizes that it was talking to itself, and needed to change course? Or has God evolved with my evolving belief?

    Well, the latter is really impossible… unless I say that God’s communication with me has evolved with my belief, which I suppose is possible. Except that that makes God a far more involved God in my life than I really would think realistic. So, I guess I am leaning towards God’s existing in the paratemporal lobe of my brain. Not the most reassuring thought, I’m sure.

  2. Wright claims to be just “agnostic,” but I think that’s an inherently imprecise term (agnosticism is a knowledge position…not a belief position). However, some of his arguments elsewhere suggest that he has religious or spiritual leanings, and I think his arguments in this book, if they are not simply “what if” but are actually representative of his beliefs, show that he is probably an agnostic theist.

    That being said, I do think he is defining theism is a different way than most people would define it. He is making a leap from this nonconventional theism (human *ideas about* God) to conventional theism (existence of God separate from ideas).

    Dangerous for the theist reader, I assume you mean.

    Yes. If you conclude, for example, that God exists in your paratemporal lobe…then why do you call it God instead of “crazy cool things from this lobe?” I think a true conception of God demands an independence, and objective existence, an external existence. If we redefine God without this trait, it seems less and less like God. We aren’t even talking about the same thing most people are talking about.

  3. If you conclude, for example, that God exists in your paratemporal lobe…then why do you call it God instead of “crazy cool things from this lobe?” I think a true conception of God demands an independence, and objective existence, an external existence. If we redefine God without this trait, it seems less and less like God. We aren’t even talking about the same thing most people are talking about.

    I agree with you 100%. If I were to ultimately conclude that “God exists in my paratemporal lobe,” what I would really be concluding would be that God (as we define God) does not exist.

  4. That’s why I believe, for example, that my professor is probably atheist.

    I only say probably because he seems to “split” God into two parts. One part is the God of the brain (which he talks extensively about), but he also seems to default to a God that must have existed before our brains to set everything in “motion.” (a deist kind of god, really.)

  5. I suspect its a cog dis issue. He probably couldn’t conceive of a world in which he does not believe in God, so he just redefines for himself what God is.

  6. I think it’s something like that as well. I think that if I had the time to sit one-on-one, I could probably try to get him to concede that his redefinition of God is nonstandard and at least demonstrate that atheists can just as well mimic his beliefs without evoking “God” or the “divine” at all.

    Then, as with “heroes,” we can keep the concept of “God” purer…vacant for only the true candidates of such titles.

  7. FireTag permalink

    Doggone it, Andrew! You start such interesting discussions AND I HAVE NO TIME!

    When I was about 14, some Seventy asked us at a youth camp whether we believed in God. I was already heavily involved in integrating my belief system with my love of science (even if the only science I knew was coming out of science fiction). So I’d already cobbled together an answer from somebody: “God is just our name for Ultimate Reality. You can’t really ask whether there is an “Ultimate Reality; you can only ask what it’s like.”

    My conception of ultimate reality has altered drastically over the intervening decades, but I’m still just asking “what’s it like.”

    Redefining one’s theological concepts to better match reality is perfectly fine; I’d hate to be stuck with defending epicycles because my predecessors didn’t understand gravity better. Why should your professor desend “standard” concepts of God that he no longer holds?

  8. Don’t worry FireTag…it’s not like this post will disappear in 10 minutes or the comments will be closed in an hour. You can comment at any time.

    Now…responding to what you have said:

    One point I’d go to is…when you say “God is just our name for Ultimate Reality,” you end up allowing for the possibility of creating very different ideas of God (because people have very different ideas of ultimate reality). At *some* point (and of course, we may disagree on where that point is, but there is some point), descriptions of Ultimate Reality cease to meet our criteria for descriptions of God. So, for example, sorry to say, but I would say that a naturalistic pantheist view of objective reality doesn’t fit the criteria for describing God. Or let’s say someone defines god as a naturally existing alien species from another “universe” who created our universe as simulation (this is a resurging argument in transhumanist movements)…well, I think that the criteria for meaningful distinction of “god” vs. “non-god” isn’t met. We should call these situations situations with a “god.” If I define God in such a way as my mother and father fit, then really, what most people will do is hold my definition of God very suspect.

    On the other hand, the term “ultimate reality” doesn’t have the same connotative constraints as our word “god” does. If the ultimate reality is that we were seeded by aliens as a simulation, that’s fine as a description of “ultimate reality.” If our natural universe is all that exists, but it has order built into the system, then that is fine as a description of “ultimate reality.”

    Now, relating to your last question, which I assume is supposed to be “defend”…

    I don’t think he has to defend “standard” concepts of God that he no longer holds. However, if his goal is to have harmony among religions, then he has to find some way to reconcile his beliefs with believers in “standard” concepts of God. His concept, I think, is openly hostile to someone whose belief system requires, say, a “bearded man sitting on a cosmic throne.” So, how can he reach harmony with the believer of the bearded man God?

  9. FireTag permalink

    I see what you’re saying about the harmony. It may well be that Ultimate Reality is “raw and bloody with tooth and claw”. I can (and do) imagine an endless system like a grand “Russian doll” in which every level achieves balance and harmony through both conflict and cooperation occurring at the immediately lower level. I wouldn’t even call ultimate reality the top level of the system, but rather the totality of the system — all levels.

    But ultimate reality will be what it will be. A rose by any other name, etc.

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