A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Part V: God Goes Global (Or Doesn't)

A group of conservatives recently announced their plans to translate (read: edit) the Bible and thereby eliminate the liberalism that modern translators have allegedly introduced. This latest salvo in the ideological warfare of our times only made me appreciate the more how bold Robert Wright has been in approaching the eternally volatile subject of religion.

Having surveyed early polytheistic religions and the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- he turns his attention in the last section (plus an Afterword and an Appendix) to the future. Specifically, he's concerned with the development of what he calls "the moral imagination" in an age of globalization, in which the various religions are often engaged in hostilities with one another. He's writing here primarily about Christianity and Islam, of course, the current headline-makers in the United States, and I think his argument suffers a little by not focusing more on the conflict between Judaism and Islam, and by ignoring completely the bloody conflict of Muslims and Hindus on the Indian subcontinent. But perhaps that's material for another book.

"As we've seen," he writes, "successful religions have always tended to salvation at the social level, encouraging behaviors that bring order." For example, Paul's enumeration of sins includes such behaviors as adultery, promiscuity, jealousy, and anger -- all behaviors that are in some sense anti-social. "But now religion seems to be the problem, not the solution."

Wright sees "moral evolution" in terms of game theory: One of his earlier books was Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, in which he argues that, historically, cultures that chose to strive for win-win ("non-zero-sum") outcomes have been more successful than those that chose to work for "zero-sum" -- win-lose -- results. This argument has been present throughout his discussion of the evolution of religions, though I've previously chosen not to present it in his terms because his overuse of "zero-sum" and "non-zero-sum" struck me as verging on jargon; his argument is clear enough without them.
This is the way moral evolution happens -- in ancient Israel, in the Rome of early Christianity, in Muhammad's Arabia, in the modern world: a people's culture adapts to salient shifts in game-theoretical dynamics by changing its evaluation of the moral status of the people it is playing the game with. If the culture is a religious one, this adaptation will involve changes in the way scriptures are interpreted and in the choice of which scriptures to highlight. It happened in ancient times, and it happens now.

Consider the conservatives' attempt to "translate" the Bible to exclude liberals from their circle of salvation. Unfortunately, this is a zero-sum approach, the reverse of the approach of religions that strove for greater inclusiveness and tolerance, and thereby succeeded and thrived. And of course, "the relationship between some Muslims and the West is zero-sum. Terrorist leaders have aims that are at odds with the welfare of westerners. The West's goal is to hurt their cause, to deprive them of new recruits and of political support." For the West, as Wright sees it, the solution is to convert to a "non-zero-sum dynamic" -- to try to alleviate the discontent of Muslims as a whole, to show respect and to make them aware of the benefits of involvement with the West, thereby cutting off the source of the discontent that nourishes terrorism.

The problem is "that our mental equipment for dealing with game-theoretical dynamics was designed for a hunter-gatherer environment, not for the modern world." We instinctively distrust that which is different, that which is not-like-us. And this often blocks "our 'moral imagination,' our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person."
Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we've seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum."
The book has traced the widening circles of the moral imagination from encompassing family, then tribe, then state, then international relationships. And now, faced with global problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation, the circle has to widen to encompass the whole planet. "Technology has made the planet too small, too finely interdependent, for enmity between large blocs to be in their enduring interest."

This is the next stage in the evolution of religion, of god: "[T]raditionally, religions that have failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well. And, like it or not, the social system to be saved is now a global one." Conscious that many people no longer believe in the afterlife, the salvation that religions have held out as a reward for good behavior in this life, Wright provides a secular definition of "salvation" from its Latin roots, "meaning to stay intact, to remain whole, to be in good health. And everyone, atheist, agnostic, and believer alike, is trying to stay in good mental health, to keep their psyche or spirit (or whatever they call it) intact, to keep body and soul together."
So the basic challenge of linking individual salvation to social salvation can be stated in equally symmetrical yet more secular language: the challenge is to link the avoidance of individual chaos to the avoidance of social chaos. Or: link the pursuit of psychic intactness to social intactness. Or: link the pursuit of personal integrity to social integrity. Or: link the pursuit of psychic harmony to social harmony.

Can this be accomplished without religion, without belief in a personal god? That it can be is the crux of Wright's argument. God, he posits, is essentially unknowable. He likens god to the electron, the existence of which scientists deduce pragmatically: "Granted, we believe in the existence of the electron even though our attempts thus far to conceive of it have been imperfect at best. Still, there's a sense in which our imperfect conceptions of the electron have worked. We manipulate physical reality on the assumption that electrons exist as we imperfectly conceive them and -- voilà -- we get the personal computer." Similarly, Wright posits the existence of "a moral order, linkage between the growth of social organization and progress toward moral truth." He sees the evolutionary process as moving in this direction, and deduces something that created the process.
The best we can do within the intellectual framework of this book is to posit the existence of God in a very abstract sense and defend belief in a more personal god in pragmatic terms -- as being true in the sense that some other bedrock beliefs, including some scientific ones, are true.

This may or may not come as comfort or consolation for those who cling to a traditional belief, especially those who turn to religion for solace in times of crisis. It certainly doesn't go very far to assuage my agnosticism, either. As Wright admits, "as divinity is defined more abstractly to fit more comfortably into a scientific worldview, God becomes harder to relate to." No kidding.

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