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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Robert Wright: The Evolution of God


[Welcome Author, Robert Wright, and Host, John Horgan – bev]

The Evolution of Bob 

A critique of The Evolution of God by Robert Wright 

By John Horgan 

Eighteen years ago, I had the whole God thing figured out. Drugs were involved. I didn’t just meet God on my trip. I became God, Creator of Everything. It was fun for a while, and then it wasn’t, it was a bummer. I thought, what happens if I–not I, John Horgan, but I, God—die? I’ll take the whole cosmos with me! Holy shit! 

Eventually, reason prevailed. What was more likely? That I, while rolling around a suburban Connecticut lawn blasted out of my skull, solved the riddle of existence? Or that I was just projecting my own fear of death onto the cosmos? Also, my belief wasn’t healthy. It alienated me from others around me. So I let it go and fell back to my former befuddled agnosticism.  

But I remain obsessed with the riddle, and open to others’ wacky ideas about how to solve it. Which brings me to the new book by my old pal Bob Wright. Bob’s two great obsessions are evolution and God, so of course he had to write “The Evolution of God.” I urge everyone to read the book, which takes you on a tour of the whole twisted history of religion, from the shamanism practiced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors up through polytheism and the great monotheistic faiths. It’s very Bobish. That is, supersmart, witty, profound, provocative, loaded with fun facts and clever philosophical riffs. It was worth reading the entire book just to hear Bob explain why Mohammed sounds touchy-feely in some passages of the Koran and nasty in others. 

But the book’s conclusion strikes me as a non-sequitur, or worse, a flat-out contradiction. Bob’s analysis of the monotheistic faiths is devastating, as much so as the recent assaults by hard-core religion-bashers like Dawkins and Hitchens. Forget the idea that God is revealing absolute moral truths to us through holy scriptures. Their all-too-human authors were spreading memes to boost the status of a particular chosen prophet or people. The message varied according to political expediency, or what Bob calls “facts on the ground.” Broadly speaking, when God’s chosen people are down, God tells them to be nice; when they have the upper hand, they can crush unbelievers.  

Bob discerns a gradual, overall trend toward niceness in our conceptions of God and hence in our morality. To me, this trend–to the extent that it exists, because violent intolerance hasn’t exactly vanished these days–shows that common sense and decency have gradually overcome our enormous capacity for delusion, self-righteousness, rationalization, hypocrisy. Bob thinks the trend suggests the existence of a transcendent “moral order” that comes from God. I wrote “Huh?” in the margin when Bob first floated this idea. 

Let me throw in a sidebar here: Bob is a brilliant rhetorician, but sometimes he’s too scrupulous for his own good. This problem arises in The Moral Animal, which argues that our behavior reflects predispositions embedded in us by natural selection. By the time Bob adds all the necessary warnings against biological determinism, his position becomes hard to distinguish from that of scientists who emphasize the importance of nurture and culture. 

The same thing happens in The Evolution of God when Bob tries to explain what he means by “God.” Warning that our old anthropomorphic concepts of God won’t do, he compares God to an electron, which according to quantum mechanics isn’t really a particle or a wave but is something beyond the ken of our puny minds. This is negative theology: Yes, God exists, but whatever you think about him is probably wrong. But as David Hume once wrote, “How do you mystics, who maintain the absolute incomprehensibility of the Deity, differ from skeptics or atheists who assert that the first cause of All is unknown and unintelligible?” 

Good question. Realizing how unsatisfying negative theology is, Bob concludes that maybe we can have a personal God after all. “Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons. One of the more plausible such properties is love.” Bob—being scrupulous—says that this attempt to salvage a traditional version of God from the wreckage of religion “sounds like a strained, even desperate intellectual maneuver.” 

Yes, it does. Bob’s God also poses the old question: if God loves us, why is creation so crappy for so many people? My drug trip made me think, briefly, that I’d discovered the answer: Reality is fucked up because God is fucked up. That answer is inadequate, as is every answer. The devout theologian Huston Smith calls the problem of evil “the shoal on which all theologies founder.”  

Bob never grapples with the problem of evil. His main concern seems to be that, lacking faith in a transcendent moral truth, we will descend into nihilistic darkness. I couldn’t disagree more. The Evolution of God shows how dangerous people become when they think they possess divine “moral truth.” We’re much better off viewing morality as our own humble invention, which we adjust to “facts on the ground.” After all, the phrase “moral truth” is an oxymoron. Truth decrees what is, morality what should be. Truth is universal, morality provisional. Even the golden rule is just a guideline. It doesn’t apply to hermits, and we certainly don’t want masochists living by it. 

Bob needs to evolve. He should have less faith in God, and more in humanity. As Bob’s writings have made clear, natural selection embedded moral sympathies deeply in us, as well as a capacity for reason, which helps us recognize the benefits of caring for others. These traits—not our childish yearning for supernatural guidance—have brought us far, and will take us farther. Where did this crazy reality come from? What’s the point? Who the hell knows? No one. God may exist, but we’re better off assuming that he doesn’t–and taking responsibility for our own destiny once and for all.

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John Horgan

John Horgan

JOHN HORGAN is a science journalist and Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. A former senior writer at Scientific American (1986-1997), he has also written for The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Discover, The London Times, The Times Literary Supplement, New Scientist, and other publications around the world. He writes regular columns for Scientific American online, the Chronicle of Higher Education and BBC Knowledge Magazine and does video chats for

His awards include the 2005 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion; the American Psychiatric Association Certificate of Commendation for Outstanding Reporting on Psychiatric Issues (1997); the Science Journalism Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1992 and 1994); and the National Association of Science Writers Science-in-Society Award (1993). His articles have been selected for The Best American Science and Nature Writing in 2005, 2006 and 2007. (McSweeney’s Books)