Robert Wright Reframes the Faith Debate

The atheist writers Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have presented us with a choice: either you don't believe in God or you're a dope. "It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God, simply because that belief makes him happy," writes Harris in the 2005 "Atheist Manifesto" now posted on the Web site of his new nonprofit, The Reason Project. Their brilliance, wit and (general) good humor have made the new generation of atheists celebrities among people who like to consider themselves smart. We enjoy their books and their telegenic bombast so much that we don't mind their low opinion of us. Dopey or not, 90 percent of Americans continue to say they believe in God.

This iteration of the faith-versus-reason debate has gone on for years, with no real resolution. Men (yes, mostly men) of faith have published passionate defenses of God. (See Tim Keller's 2008 The Reason for God.) In response, believers have published accounts of journeys toward unbelief; atheists have testified to conversions. The latest entrant in this category is from the Marxist Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Yet despite the proliferation of viewpoints, I'm guessing few readers have ever closed one of these volumes and honestly declared themselves changed.

Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, which comes out next week, is about to reframe this debate. Wright doesn't argue one side or other of the "Is God real?" question. He leaves that aside. Instead, he grapples with God as an idea that has changed—evolved—through history. Wright is a journalist who specializes in evolutionary psychology, and his previous book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, was a reported meditation on the way human evolution changes us for the better. Over time, we've grown more moral, more responsible and more in-spired. In The New York Times Book Review, the British pale-ontologist Simon Conway Morris threw down the gauntlet: he accused Wright "of a failure of nerve." Why not, he asked (and this is my rephrasing), connect that sublime human capacity for moral behavior to the thing that some people call God? (Writing in Slate, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker took the opposite tack, accusing Wright of providing ammunition to advocates of intelligent design.)

Wright picks up the challenge in The Evolution of God. He argues that the scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths were written in history by real people who aimed to improve things—economic, social, geographical—for their constituencies. (And then he exhaustively, minutely catalogs who those writers were and what those specific aims might have been. This is not a book to read on the beach this summer.) But he never argues that what he calls a materialist view of scripture disproves God. Instead, he takes another approach: as our societies have grown more complex and more global, our conceptions of God have grown more demanding and more moral. This is a good thing, for religion can "help us orient our daily lives, recognize good and bad, and make sense of joy and suffering alike." Wright is optimistic even about Islam in today's world: "The ratio of good to bad scriptures varies among the Abrahamic faiths, but in all religions it's possible for benign interpretation of scripture to flourish."

Though he never comes right out and declares that the human propensity for morality—and, by extension, truth and love—is given by God (or is God), he comes awfully close. In an imaginary debate with a scientist, he compares God to an electron. You know it's there, but you don't know anything real about what it looks like or what its properties are. Scientists believe in electrons because they see the effects of electrons on the world. "You might say," he writes in his afterword, "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." (I can already hear Steven Pinker typing like mad.)

With those three sentences, Wright gives relief and intellectual ballast to those believers weary of the punching-bag tone of the recent faith-and-reason debates. The arguments are "fun, but they degrade the academy," said Great Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, at a dinner sponsored by the Templeton Foundation recently. What they miss, he says, "is that the meaning of the system lies outside of the system and the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe."

The Evolution of God admits this definition as a possibility. But there are other possibilities as well. In a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 60 percent of respondents said they believe in "a personal God." But what exactly do they mean? That God is like a person? That God talks to them, personally? And what of the others, who imagine God as "an impersonal force"? When people say they believe in "God," they might be talking about what Harris calls an absurdity. Or they might be talking about the mysterious, unknowable qualities in life (or outside of life) that make us strive toward our best selves.

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