Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Reading Notes: The Evolution of God, Part 1

Remember back years ago when I read Gail Collins' When Everything Changed, blogging throughout my reading experience instead of only at the end? That was one of the most satisfying books I've ever read, and it was mostly thanks to the way I read it. Usually, with fiction especially, I devour a book straight through to formulate an instinctual, overarching reaction and opinion. Then I may go back, analyze and criticize, and interact with the book more deeply. With When Everything Changed, I read slowly and deliberately. I made notes in the margins; I underlined facts to remember.

Before I started The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, I had intended to just read it straight through like any other book, discerned only as a break in all the fiction I've been reading lately. As I kept reading, though, I figured this would be the perfect book to start reading more closely—it's full of detail; it's well-organized with easy start and stop points; its sections are thematic. To me, it didn't feel like I'd do this book justice if I breezed through it and summarized at the end; and it's about time I had a more thorough reading project. [Plus, after finishing the first two sections, I couldn't read further without a break!]

Wright's purpose with The Evolution of God is to chronicle the development of modern day monotheism from prehistoric polytheism. To succinctly sum up all 500+ pages of this book, Wright's main argument is that the three Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—are a product of social and economic advancement. Monotheism was not a revolutionary concept; rather, as humankind evolved—as communities formed and global interactions developed—its concept of religion followed suit in ways that would continue to be of benefit socially, economically, and theologically.

But before international politics influenced religion, scientific discovery played an even bigger part. Wright states that, "However diverse the forces that shape religion, its early impetus indeed seems to have come largely from people who, like us, were trying to make sense of the world." And before science provided the reason for weather patterns and human growth and development, people created gods to explain the unexplained.

So basically, somewhere along the way, these gods that controlled the weather evolved into modern-day religion. But...

  1. When did gods become a God we worship? and
  2. When did religion become about morality?

"Religion" was once something that was "so tightly interwoven into their [hunter-gatherer] everyday thought and action that they don't have a word for them." To answer my above questions, Wright brings in the factor of human interaction. The values taught by modern-day religion—love, honesty, generosity—weren't present in primitive religion, because there wasn't a larger society to be accountable to; when your only interactions are with family and close friends, these values are inherent. When populous settlements began to form, requiring interaction with each other, these values were needed for mutually beneficial co-existence. Because religions that "encouraged people to treat others considerately...made for a more orderly and productive city."

Sections I and II of this book (titled "The Birth and Growth of Gods" and "The Emergence of Abrahamic Monotheism," respectively) mostly discuss this evolution from many gods to one God, and the emergence of the God personality familiar today. According to Wright, this evolution didn't stop when god became God; his personality has evolved as well. Throughout history, gods have been angry and spiteful; gods have taken human form with human qualities; and God has appeared gracious and all-knowing. Wright tries to demonstrate how all these different forms of a "higher power" are a reflection of society's needs at a particular time. 

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It's refreshing to read a non-controversial, unassuming voice on an often debated topic. Wright writes without sarcasm or skepticism; his approach is more cultural and historical than theoretical or scientific. He writes seemingly without agenda other than to highlight the historical evidence offering an explanation of why things exist as they do. He considers the two most debated and most dominate positions regarding the purpose of modern religion: 1) to provide "reassurance and hope in the face of pain and uncertainty, overcoming our natural selfishness with communal cohesion," and 2) as "a tool of social control, wielded by the powerful for self-aggrandizement." In other words, he recognizes opposing views on this topic and addresses them both as valid.

I'll be honest...Wright sort of lost me in Section II. By this point, society has progressed into the great empires we know from history—Babylonia, Greece, Rome. Wright touches on the issue of religion breeding intolerance as societies competed with each other, which seems to be a point he will address more later on. But overall, this section features many names and places, and how all of these factors have shaped religion into what it is today; and he points to several passages in the Bible that indicate biblical evidence of thought patterns...

And this made me consider how fascinating the Bible is as a piece of literature, because it serves as both a platform for storytelling and a historical record. 

Mostly in this section, though, I felt like Wright was jumping ahead. The text identifies historical figures as Jewish or Christian, but he never touched on the point at which these religions separated from one another; we have the build up to monotheism from polytheism, but not the point at which different belief systems (different religions) emerged. I believe he will touch on these things in the coming sections, but it was confusing to read about particular people and stories from the texts of specific religions before we had reached that point.

I have now rambled for a very long time on these sections without much coherent conclusion or summary! I find Wright to be that kind of big-picture nonfiction author that helps you understand his main points, but I found Section II to be bogged down with too much historical detail. It was more confusing than enlightening. I hope Section III, "The Invention of Christianity," will bring it back down to a single track that's easier to follow. In the meantime, here's one of the most important takeaways from these sections that explains why I find religion to be so fascinating to question and explore:

"Whatever the truth about Yahweh's early history, there is one thing we can say with some confidence: the Bible's editors and translators have sometimes obscured it—perhaps deliberately, in an attempt to conceal evidence of early mainstream polytheism."

Because history is always open to interpretation, and stories always reflect their author's voice.


Megan (Best of Fates) said...

That book sounds really interesting - and I love the idea of slowly reading a book and writing about it, allowing you to really process and interpret what you read!

Kari said...

Megan - you get in the habit of reading a certain way and then realize there's more than one way to read! I have to remind myself of this sometime!

Aarti said...

This does sound really interesting! I wonder how much it would set my back up at the start. Hinduism is basically a polytheistic religion (though now people describe it as one god with many forms), so I don't like to think of religion as evolving past that, as though Hinduism is a relic.

Kari said...

Aarti - I don't think it'd get your back up about this point in particular, because he doesn't make any assertions about Hinduism. The thing that MAY get your back up is that he doesn't consider Hinduism at all in his religious history! (At least so far in Sections I and II.) I've read a criticism of this book that notes his lack of mention on eastern religions, and the author makes it clear he is focusing on Christianity, Judiasm, and Islam. Viewing from this perspective, there does seem to be a gap missing, but I guess this is the perspective he chose in his argument about the evolution of monotheism.