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Wrongly titled book, with one-trick angle
on June 24, 2009
This book could, and should, have one of two alternative titles.
It's either "Nonzero: The Religion Primer" or "The Evolution of Western Religious Thought."
Why would either one of those be better?
First, what I recommend instead of this book. People looking for good scholarly insight into the evolution of human religious thought, from a well-grounded (and not overblown) evolutionary psychology perspective, should head to Scott Atran's "In Gods We Trust." He covers the ground on evolution of human thought in greater depth than does Wright.
On the first alternative title, in my opinion, Wright is a one-trick pony. He attempts to apply the idea of non-zero-sum game theory, as articulated in Nonzero, to every book he writes. First, it's debatable whether game theory at all, whether non-zero-sum or zero-sum, is even applicable to religion.
Second, even if it is applicable to some aspects of, say, psychology of religion, psychology of religion is NOT the same as religion from an evolutionary psychology perspective.
Third, behavioral psychology undercuts the alleged rationality of much human behavior upon which game theory is based.
Fourth, Wright once claims "interdependence" equals "non-zero-sumness." Not necessarily, first of all, and secondly, he offers no proof for that.
The second alternative title?
This book is about the evolution of the three Western monotheisms. Because they are monotheisms, and emerged either from a polytheistic milieu (Islam) or from an earlier polytheistic stage (Judaism, and hence Christianity), the evolution of god within these religions is part and parcel of the evolution of the religion.
But, Wright never touches polytheistic Hinduism, still vibrant today, except for an offhand aside or two. Ditto on either the atheistic or nonatheistic sides of Buddhism.
So, in a more serious way than my comments on him as a one-trick pony, the book simply doesn't live up to its title.
Beyond what I said above, there's a couple of other issues. More below the jump link.
**However, after the (Israelite exile to Babylon), monotheism evolves into something much more laudable and inclusive. Now the exiles have returned to Jerusalem and Israel is in a secure neighborhood. It's part of the Persian empire and so are its neighbors. So you see a much sunnier side of God, with expressions of tolerance and compassion toward other nations. **
Really? So that was Ezra, servant of the "sunnier side of God," telling Jews to, tolerantly and compassionately, divorce their non-Jewish wives? And, let's not forget the split in the middle of the Maccabean war against those who just wanted religious freedom and those who wanted a nation, and internecine fighting.
That, in turn, relates to a larger issue.
Wright appears to see "progress" as part and parcel of evolution, whether neo-Darwinian biological evolution, or the evolution of religion/god. He even goes so far as to accept Dan Dennett's claim (tremendously overstates, wholly unsubstantiated as of this time) that evolution is algorithmic. I suggest some Steve Gould and the word "contingency" for both Wright and Dennett.
This is clear in the biblical record, namely the revolt of the Maccabees? What if they don't get lucky in their early battles against the Seleucids? Then NONE of the three western monotheisms is likely to exist today.
However, Wright makes comments about the inevitability of religious progress on 201 and the moral growth of god on 206. Everybody in Sheol, or people who can't accept twaddle in eternal hellfire? That's "moral growth"? I think not. Of course, that's another unproven claim from the one-trick pony of non-zero-sumness, first claimed in Nonzero.
The capper? He's a materialist who won't rule out a "higher purpose."
I was originally going to two-star this book. It doesn't deserve that.
I especially do not get AT ALL why many secularists fawn over this book in particular or Wright in general.
If you want a serious read on the evolution of the religious mindset among Homo sapiens, incorporating evolutionary psychology in a better and more in-depth way than does Wright, read Scott Atran's "In Gods We Trust." Not this.