Saturday, February 06, 2010

A higher purpose, a transcendent moral order

No Smiting By PAUL BLOOM
NYT: June 24, 2009 God has mellowed...

In his brilliant new book, “The Evolution of God,” Robert Wright tells the story of how God grew up. He starts with the deities of hunter-­gatherer tribes, moves to those of chiefdoms and nations, then on to the polytheism of the early Israelites and the monotheism that followed, and then to the New Testament and the Koran, before finishing off with the modern multinational Gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Wright’s tone is reasoned and careful, even hesitant, throughout, and it is nice to read about issues like the morality of Christ and the meaning of jihad without getting the feeling that you are being shouted at. His views, though, are provocative and controversial. There is something here to annoy almost everyone.

In sharp contrast to many contemporary secularists, Wright is bullish about monotheism. In “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny” (2000), he argued that there is a moral direction to human history, that technological growth and expanding global interconnectedness have moved us toward ever more positive and mutually beneficial relationships with others. In “The Evolution of God,” Wright tells a similar story from a religious standpoint, proposing that the increasing goodness of God reflects the increasing goodness of our species. “As the scope of social organization grows, God tends to eventually catch up, drawing a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.” Wright argues that each of the major Abrahamic faiths has been forced toward moral growth as it found itself interacting with other faiths on a multinational level, and that this expansion of the moral imagination reflects “a higher purpose, a transcendent moral order.”

This sounds pro-religion, but don’t expect Pope Benedict XVI to be quoting from Wright’s book anytime soon. Wright makes it clear that he is tracking people’s conception of the divine, not the divine itself. He describes this as “a good news/bad news joke for traditionalist Christians, Muslims and Jews.” The bad news is that your God was born imperfect. The good news is that he doesn’t really exist.

Wright also denies the specialness of any faith. In his view, there is continuous positive change over time — religious history has a moral direction — but no movement of moral revelation associated with the emergence of Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. Similarly, he argues that it is a waste of time to search for the essence of any of these monotheistic religions — it’s silly, for instance, to ask whether Islam is a “religion of peace.” Like a judge who believes in a living constitution, Wright believes that what matters is the choices that the people make, how the texts are interpreted. Cultural sensibilities shift according to changes in human dynamics, and these shape the God that people worship. For Wright, it is not God who evolves. It is us — God just comes along for the ride.

It is a great ride, though. Wright gives the example of the God of Leviticus, who said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and he points out that this isn’t as enlightened as it may sound, since, at the time, “neighbors” meant actual neighbors, fellow Israelites, not the idol-worshipers in the next town. But still, he argues, this demand encompassed all the tribes of Israel, and was a “moral watershed” that “expanded the circle of brotherhood.” And the disapproval that we now feel when we learn the limited scope of this rule is itself another reason to cheer, since it shows how our moral sensibilities have expanded.

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