Sunday, August 24, 2014

Reading Notes: The Evolution of God, Part 4

Ok, it's a little bit pathetic that it's taken me so long to get through this book and finish up the posts on it. It took me literally all summer—I checked it out from the library over Memorial Day weekend, and I returned it on July 30th, the day before I started back to work for the new school year. However, that's not indicative of my feelings for it; I was fascinated, but my priorities shifted over the summer and this book ended up taking a back seat.

The fifth and final section of The Evolution of God is ambiguously titled "God Goes Global (Or Doesn't)." And though its purpose must be a sort of concluding summation and application of the ideas he's presented in the previous four be honest, it was definitely the most confusing section of all. There was some game theory thrown in and a lot of repetitions about non-zero-sum. But mostly, I think the point Wright is trying to get across is that though religions may differ in belief, they all have the same foundation. They are all born from the same human needs, and their histories are all colorful, sometimes contradictory, and always a product of their times.

Wright contends that "...religions that reach great stature have a tendency to rewrite their history in the process. They cast themselves as distinctive from the get-go, rather than growing organically out of their milieu. They find an epoch-marking figure—a Moses, a Jesus, a Muhammad—and turn him into an epoch-making figure. They depict his message as contrasting sharply with a backdrop that, in fact, his message was infused with." In short, they all find themselves unique when, in fact, their existence largely depends on all that came before. And certain aspects of human nature make us inclined to find answers in religion--thus, for the religions to develop in the first place.

  • Everyone seeks salvation on a personal level simply by driving human needs: good health and good spirit.
  • Either we understand motivations because we relate to them, or we don't relate to them and find them illegitimate. (We like what we know and understand; we fear or dislike what we don't.)
  • And people want to control their environment. Minds are open to explanations that give them such control.

Mostly, though, during this final section, Wright goes heavy on the connection between religion and social behavior...and how, really, we should all just get along, because we're all from the same stock. It's kind of the same argument he had for religions being similar; people are similar and have the same universal needs and struggles.

"To say that other people are people, too, may sound like an unremarkable insight. But it is one that is often ignored, and one that is in some sense unnatural. After all, any organism created by natural selection is, by default, under the illusion that it is special...Obviously, we can't all be right in any objective sense. The truth must be otherwise. The extension of moral imagination brings us closer to that truth."

If he ever makes an argument for the existence of God, it's here. To Wright, the Abrahamic scriptures show that there is a moral truth that's imposed on us; and cultural evolution has shown us that it makes sense to progress morally or else there are consequences. For the author, this is evidence in favor of the god hypothesis. Basically, religion can essentially be the belief in an unseen order: [it] "consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto" (William James). Wright is always vague on his own beliefs. They may not include a literal world-ruling, omniscient figure; but he seems to believe in a sense of order that exists in the world, and if you, personally, want to credit this order to a higher power God figure, then by all means you can.

The final chapter in this book is aptly titled "Well, Aren't We Special?" and I hope you can see how applicable that is to all the arguments Wright has raised in this book. Whether it's an entire religion, a population, or an individual, your way is always the right way; you're the chosen one; you are special. Back to that point of fearing or vilifying what we don't understand, this is just a part of human nature. But Wright finds proof of God in the fact that we can recognize and resist this innate fault to create a more harmonious existence. Evolution created beings so smart that they spawned another kind of evolution—cultural evolution—that forged a new connection between the growth of social organization and the progress toward moral truth. Basically, cause and effect guide us towards moral truth.

"As interdependence, and hence social structure, grew beyond the bounds of family—and then beyond the bounds of hunter-gatherer band, of chiefdom, of state—the way was paved by extensions of sympathy. This sympathy didn't have to involve its initial sponsor, love; you don't have to love someone to trade with them or even to consider them compatriots. But there has to be enough moral imagination, enough sympathetic consideration, to keep them out of the cognitive category of enemy; you have to consider them, in some sense, one of you."

You may be thinking that this book ended with a lot more philosophical ponderings than anticipated...and you're not alone. I feel somewhat like Wright just used a lot of history as a prelude to a big, theoretically-inspired hug; he's giving us a pep talk, not only on why it's beneficial for us all to just get along, but hey, it's going to be easy—because someone or something out there is making sure mankind makes the right choices, because it's our destiny. Well...thank god (or maybe God) for that.

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