Robert Wright's The Evolution of God is a bridge book. His irreverent, factual look at the history of religion has something in common with the New Atheist literature of recent years. He shines a light on inconsistencies in the Bible and the Qur'an that point less at a dispassionate revelation about God than the messy trajectory of human culture and morality.
And yet his conclusions — to the surprise of reviewers both secular and sacred and even, one senses, to Robert Wright himself — contain a profound seriousness about the human religious enterprise and its potential for good in the world. He even makes the striking suggestion that, "maybe, in the end, a mercilessly scientific account of our predicament … is actually compatible with a truly religious worldview, and is part of the process that refines a religious worldview, moving it closer to truth."
It was fun to sit down with Robert Wright to talk about the vast canvas of his evolutionary vision of God — both in terms of human history and his own personal history. He was born in Oklahoma and had a devout Southern Baptist childhood. As a teenager, a captivation with the beauty and elegance of the theory of evolution took the place of faith in his life. Today he no longer identifies with the term "atheist," but he remains agnostic. And his agnosticism is part of what makes his conclusions so intriguing and persuasive.
In his last book, Nonzero, Wright drew on the language of game theory to analyze the direction of human destiny. He argued that human cultures have broadly, if fitfully, moved away from "zero-sum," or win-lose scenarios as they've moved inexorably towards greater contact and interdependence with others. The Evolution of God extends this analysis, in a way, to the history of religion. It charts increasing tolerance and moral force from the primordial faith of hunter-gatherers, through polytheism, and to a monotheism that described a God of compassion beyond boundaries of tribe, nation, race, and class. He calls the Apostle Paul the "Bill Gates of his time" for his expansion of Christianity beyond such bounds. He is quick to say that he is not questioning the sincerity of the Apostle Paul and others who've preached a God of compassion across the ages. Their very existence might even point towards the reality of a God of compassion. But he charts this in an unsentimental, materialist way.
I do draw Wright out on what is lost — what goes missing — in analyzing sacred texts and teachings in this way. I share an analogy I love from the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne, on a chemist analyzing a beautiful painting — scraping off aspects of the composition to tell you what it's made of, and, in the process, missing the point of the painting, which must be understood in its totality. Wright acknowledges that there are limits to his method. But he also insists on what is gained by it: a fresh way to talk about the reasonableness of faith even in the modern world.
If nothing else, he has provided new conversation points in the rapidly, yes, evolving dialogue with and about science and religion, faith and reason in our age. The skeptical, whimsical, and intellectual line he walks all at once is epitomized in these lines from The Evolution of God, with which we end this program:
"Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God … One of the more plausible such properties is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love's organic association with truth … You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn't have to be crazy to say it."