by Robert Wright
Imagine yourself sitting down to a meal at a fine restaurant where you have previously enjoyed many meals. As always, the chocolate milk is served at precisely 38ºF, the ideal temperature. The mole enchilada, your favorite, is perfect: the mole sauce boasts a magical combination of sweetness and spiciness, and the enchilada is stuffed with goodies. You cannot help but savor every bite of the meal. But then for dessert the waiter sets in front of you a Hostess Twinkie drenched in burnt chocolate fudge. Ack!
This is rather how I felt after reading The Evolution of God. The book is magnificent. Mr. Wright traces the development of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) from the ancient Hebrews through Muhammed. Along the way, he unearths a great many startling facts derived from several centuries of painstaking Biblical exegesis. For example, that whole story about the Exodus – the frogs raining down, Passover, the Red Sea parting, all that stuff – is a fiction. It never happened. More likely, the Hebrews were initially a cluster of a dozen loosely linked tribes inhabiting the Judaean hills. They were harassed by Egyptian raids meant to keep the “Hebrew barbarians” from becoming a threat to Egypt. The coastal areas were occupied by the Canaanites (who in my opinion were likely descendants of the Sea Peoples who tore up the Eastern Mediterranean region around 1200 - 1000 BCE.) The twelve tribes of the Hebrews probably worshipped a great many Gods, with Yahweh as the “Number One God” for several of the Hebrew tribes. Monotheism did not as yet characterize the Jewish faith; indeed, there was no single Jewish faith; there were a dozen different but related religions. When the Hebrews coalesced into a single polity, it was still necessary to respect the many gods of the different tribes. However, military pressures facing the Hebrew hill people put them in a state of permanent war with the Canaanites, and these endless wars pitted Yahweh against Baal, one of the major Canaanite gods. After many vicissitudes the Israelites annihilated the Canaanites and seized their lands. This did not, however lead to monotheism; from the Hebrew point of view, Yahweh had kicked Baal’s butt, but he didn’t destroy Baal.
These victories led to Israel’s greatest days, sometime around 800 BCE to 600 BCE. The Israelites controlled all of Palestine and maintained a fierce independence. In creating a single nation, they also cleaned out their pantheon, eliminating all gods but Yahweh from their temples. They still weren’t monotheistic: Yahweh was their only god, but they saw Yahweh as the special god of Israel, who would help them beat the gods of other countries. It’s as if the 13 states of the original USA threw away their individual flags and embraced a single national flag, but acknowledged that other countries had their own flags. Instead of rallying around the flag, the people in ancient times rallied around their god. It was only a few centuries later that they decided to proclaim Yahweh as the only god in the entire universe. This was most likely a political move intended to clearly differentiate Hebrews from the gentiles. Many groups have names for outsiders: barbarian, heathen, pagan, and so on. The Hebrews were just souping up the tradition by declaring their own god to be the only god.
All this came crashing down when Israel was conquered by the Babylonians, the Temple was razed, and the Israelites were dragged off to captivity in Babylon. This was a rather disconcerting series of developments, and often ethnic groups collapse under so much stress. But the Israelites hung together. They pulled together their writings into a single document (even if they combined contradictory sources) that became the standard. They held together long enough that when Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon, he released the Jews as part of his imperial tolerance policy. They went back home, rebuilt the Temple, and re-established their country – but Israel was never again an independent country.
Centuries later, Jesus Christ came along. I was much surprised to learn that the Jesus I have long known is a fabrication. The actual Jesus that we can reconstruct from the New Testament, was not at all the figure that Christians now worship. He was most likely just another wandering “The End is Near” prophet. Such people had always been wandering around through Israel, declaring that the day of reckoning would soon be upon us, and that people must mend their evil ways. John the Baptist was one such, and there were many more, some of whom were so successful as to spawn their own little sects, such as the Essenes.
When Jesus managed to get himself executed, it served to dampen the enthusiasm of his followers. That was not part of the plan, and without any leader, the disciples were left adrift. By all rights, his little group of disciples should have dwindled away and disappeared into history. But one man changed everything: Paul. Originally an enforcer of Jewish dogma, Paul “went native” and joined the Christians. He did for Christianity what Ray Kroc did for McDonald’s: he turned a tiny sect into a global empire. Along the way, he had to repackage the product and emphasize (or fabricate) those elements that made the product more salable, while de-emphasizing the less useful elements. Consider, for example, the whole Bethehem-Magi-Virgin birth story. That doesn’t show up at all in Mark, whose Gospel is believed to have been the first to be put down on paper. All those miracles, all those tales about love and goodness – all that stuff shows up Matthew, Luke, and especially John, but there isn’t much of it in Mark. Indeed, John’s gospel contains the larger portion of magic and miracles; and John’s was the last gospel to be written. I won’t go into the details of how and why Paul was able to pull of the creation of the most powerful church in history, but it’s a fascinating tale that Mr. Wright tells. I gather that Paul was more important to the nativity of the Church than Jesus.
Mr. Wright then turns to the history of Islam, and I found little there to surprise or shock me, perhaps because my knowledge of that history was already so weak to start with. Nevertheless, the book up to this point is a tour de force, showing clearly how the three Abrahamic religions developed. But then the book goes off the rails and crashes in a stupendous intellectual train wreck. Mr. Wright switches from discussing history to defending religion, and in the process loses all the acuity, grace, and erudition that made everything before so compelling. His arguments lose focus, he gets his facts wrong, and his logic becomes a shambles. Here’s an example:
“The moral order is the coherence of the relationship between social order and moral truth. The fact that there’s a moral order out there doesn’t mean that there’s a God. On the other hand, it’s evidence in favor of the God hypothesis and evidence against Weinberg’s worldview. In the great divide of current thought, between those, including the Abrahamics, who see a higher purpose, a transcendent source of meaning, and those like Weinberg who don’t, the manifest existence of a moral order comes down clearly on one side.”
A “moral order” is merely a set of rules for individual behavior, and usually a moral order comprises the rules that best preserve the health of society. Here Mr. Wright argues that we have evidence in favor of God in the fact that the existence of rules that best preserve the health of society are “coherent” with social order. The argument is tautological. This mystical “moral order” that Mr. Wright places so much weight upon is merely the result of millennia of social experimentation; it is cultural evolution at work. Just as no higher purpose is necessary to explain the evolution of living creatures (a fact that Mr. Wright acknowledges), no higher purpose is necessary to explain the evolution of moral systems. Yet Mr. Wright succumbs to the vanity that human social systems are somehow above and beyond the reach of evolutionary principles.
Mr. Wright really hits the mud when he contrasts scientific belief with religious belief. He asks, “Yet what exactly is the difference between the logic of their belief in electrons and the logic of a belief in God?” His attempt to answer that question belies a shameful failure to understand the basics of the scientific process. He seems to think that science establishes eternal truths; in fact, science only attempts to establish relationships that successfully predict the behavior of physical phenomena. No physicist will ever insist that electrons are proven constituents of our universe; instead, the physicist will maintain that the concept of the electron, when used in various equations, yields predictions that are borne out by physical behavior. We’re not saying it has to be true; we’re saying only that it works. This simple idea flies right over Mr. Wright’s head.
Another example: “Darwin inquired into the creative force behind plants and animals and his answer was evolution. Surely the believer is entitled to ask the same question about evolution: where did the amazing algorithm of natural selection come from?” Again Mr. Wright demonstrates a woeful ignorance of science. The whole point of science is to explain a complex phenomenon in terms of simpler phenomena. There’s no magic involved, no “creative force” – it’s just basic mechanical processes. A variety of mechanical processes (gene mixture, errors in reproducing DNA, damage to DNA) cause some offspring to be born with altered characteristics. There’s nothing magical about it, nothing in the way of a creative force -- just a collection of accidents that can happen any time to any creature. The process of selection by which some characteristics are rejected (by the death of the individual) or embraced (by the reproductive success of the individual) requires no special explanation, either: it’s just the simple rule that poorly adapted mechanisms aren’t as successful as well-adapted mechanisms. There’s nothing at all amazing about evolution; it’s a good theory because it so simply and clearly explains some very complicated physical behaviors. It is amazing that Darwin was able to figure it out so well. But the algorithm of natural selection is obvious and simple; it requires no further explanation.
Mr. Wright makes clear his failure to understand evolution with this statement: “Natural selection is such a powerful mechanism that its origin demands a special explanation”. The universe is full of powerful mechanisms: volcanos and supernovae, viruses that attack the immune system itself, human language, modern computers and on and on. The whole idea of rationalism, which Mr. Wright implicitly rejects, is that the universe is explicable by logical means. Mr. Wright’s insistence that some phenomena are so special as to defy rational explanation puts him outside the pale of rationalism.