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The Evolution of God (Back Bay Readers' Pick) Paperback – 3 May 2010
|Paperback, 3 May 2010||
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Description for The Evolution of God (Back Bay Readers' Pick)
PRAISE FOR NONZERO:
About the Author
Robert Wright is a contributing editor of The New Republic, a Slate.com columnist, and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the cofounder of www.bloggingheads.tv, runs the web-based video project www.meaningoflife.tv, and lives in Princeton, NJ, with his wife and two daughters.
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Throughout the main portion of the book, Wright's main theme is that the kind of god people imagine depends on the way they view their neighbors. When people feel isolated, and that everyone is out to get them, they imagine a god who is intolerant of outsiders (non-believers). When people see their neighbors as friendly, and potential allies or trading partners, they imagine a god who is more tolerant and inclusive. Moreover, the scriptures of all three Abrahamic faiths contain portions that were written when the authors were feeling threatened, and other portions that were written when they were feeling friendly.
So, today, people can find support in the scripture for declaring jihad (or crusade) on the infidel, or for loving thy neighbor. That fact has obvious implications for the world today. If we in the West make Muslims feel that we hate them, they will hate us and radical interpretations Islam of flourish. While that is an important point, with important implications, it is also rather obvious.
The last portion of the book was, in my view, the weakest. Wright expressly states that he is agnostic; he is not sure whether God exists. Wright then attacks the new atheists -- Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens -- claiming that something Wright calls "moral truth" is evidence that a god of some description exists. "Moral truth" apparently means that: 1. We all had better learn to get along or we're all in trouble; and/or 2. "History" is moving in the direction of a larger and larger moral circle, i.e., as time goes by, we tend to accept larger and larger groups of people as morally relevant. I get that, generally speaking, the moral circle is increasing and that that is a good thing and to be encouraged. The rest of it, however, made little or no sense to me. Maybe that is my fault, but I suspect not.
Personally, I was very disappointed by this book, but I still think it is worth a read. Wright's two previous books, Nonzero and The Moral Animal, are two of my all time favorites. Many reviewers, both amateur and professional, share that view. I had very high expectations for this book, so perhaps my expectations were too high. I would give almost anything to be able to write a book even one tenth as valuable and insightful as Nonzero. Perhaps Wright just set the bar too high for himself.
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The book starts by revealing many new facets of animistic religions that I was not familiar with. It made me look up Primitive Culture by the famous anthropologist E.B. Taylor. Wright's book also has a fascinating account of the emergence of Judaistic monotheism from monolatrist thought. The book has a surprisingly positive appraisal of Islam as a modern religion.
Overall the book argues that man's understanding of the divine develops from the particular (deity of one tribe) to the general (God of all mankind) and from the irrational (animism) to the rational (God is the Logos of the world) as man himself develops from primitive to modern society. Its a very Hegelian argument but couched in an ostensibly materialist epistemology (in the sense that the positive evolution of morality is, to my mind, somewhat of an open question).
What fascinated me the most about the argument was the instrumental role of the philosopher Philo. Philo emerges as a giant religious and secular philosopher because of his successful synthesis of the Greek notions of Logos with monotheism. This was an aspect that I was not very familiar with and till reading this book I had never ranked Philo very high in the history of philosophy. With this book, however, he towers above the others as the thinker that is instrumental in the synthesis of religious and philosophy.