Automotive Deals HPCC Shop Women's Clothing Learn more Discover it $5 Albums Fire TV Stick Health, Household and Grocery Back to School Handmade school supplies Shop-by-Room Amazon Cash Back Offer TarantinoCollection TarantinoCollection TarantinoCollection  Amazon Echo  Echo Dot  Amazon Tap  Echo Dot  Amazon Tap  Amazon Echo Introducing new colors All-New Kindle Oasis Enter for the chance to win front row seats to Barbra Streisand Segway miniPro

Your rating(Clear)Rate this item


There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.

VINE VOICEon June 10, 2009
This new book from acclaimed author Robert Wright is a well-researched one covering a great deal of territory. It should be read in its entirety to be properly understood. In it he discusses the history of religion with a focus on western Abrahamic faiths, although not entirely neglecting eastern religions. He tells us in the Introduction that he's giving us a human "materialistic" account of it, although he thinks doing so "actually affirms the validity of a religious worldview," though not a traditionalist one, but one nonetheless. Wright argues the gods arose as illusions and that "the subsequent history of the idea of god is...the evolution of an illusion." This evolution points to the existence of a "divinity," he argues, even though this god is not one that most believers currently accept. As it evolved it has "moved closer to plausibility." (p.4).

Wright begins with the five types of primitive hunter-gatherer supernatural beings: elemental spirits, puppeteers, organic spirits, ancestral spirits, and the high gods. These primitive gods were not always worshipped but treated as we would treat other human beings. In these societies the Shaman was the "first step toward an archbishop or ayatollah" who had contact with these otherwise hidden forces and could help focus their powers to heal, protect, and provide.

As small tribes grew into larger societies the chiefdom was the next evolutionary stage where there was a need for a "structural reliance on the supernatural." Chiefs in these agricultural societies were conduits through which divine power entered the social scale down to the lesser folk. If things went well for a society then the chief was doing a good job. Superstition reigned in these days.

With the arrival of the city-states, kings needed divine legitimization and used the gods to solidify their rule over the people. The king was now the conduit of divine power. The character of the gods could differ between city-states, but many of them demanded human sacrifices or else there was chaos. Along with this development came moral obligations, which if they were not met caused sickness and death. In these city-states there was competition between rival cities and along with them rival gods. This had a tendency for these polytheistic people to elevate their god above others, which was a step toward monotheism.

When Wright turns to a discussion of the emergence of Abrahamic monotheism it appears to me he is at his very best. In decoding the biblical texts from how we normally read them beginning with Genesis, he finds good evidence that behind what we see on the surface is a different story of Yahweh who was just one god in a pantheon of early gods. Yahweh starts out with a body, for instance, and was given the people of Israel to rule over by Elyon, the highest god in the pantheon. Originally Yahweh was probably one of the Canaanite deities, he argues. When it comes to the Israelites themselves, Wright argues from archeological evidence that they look more and more like Canaanites who originally worshipped Baal and Asherah, rather than some people who invaded Palestine after leaving Egypt.

In a fascinating discussion Wright argues that this Hebrew god evolved into a monolatry, which was a "way station on the road to full-fledge monotheism." Monolatry didn't deny the existence of other gods, it just affirmed that Yahweh was the highest of those gods in the pantheon. This was achieved mostly by King Josiah, who sought to solidify his reign and centralize worship in Jerusalem. Josiah even had his reforms written in much of the book of Deuteronomy.

When Judah was carried away into captivity by the Babylonians the exiled Jewish theologians made the most of their disaster. Based on good reasoning and scholarship Wright shows how they thought about such a complete and utter disaster and why they came to the conclusion that Yahweh was the one and only God. If it was Yahweh's will to bring the mightiest empire of their day to so utterly destroy them for their sins, as they did, then Yahweh was bigger than they had ever thought. "A god who governs the actions of the greatest known empire is a god who can govern history itself." (p. 171).

But this God of theirs was not yet thought of as a good God. That was the next evolutionary stage to take place, and Wright sees this coming from the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who urged a tolerance for other gods at about the same time Jesus was preaching.

But even Jesus did not think of his God as a loving God, Wright argues. In Mark's first gospel Jesus is portrayed as one who "believes you should love your neighbors, but that isn't to be confused with loving all humankind. He believes you should love God, but there's no mention of God loving you." (p. 258).

The Apostle Paul, however, is described by Wright as the "apostle of love," not only because he penned I Corinthians 13, known as the "Chapter of Love," but also from other things he wrote. It was Paul's version of Christianity that eventually won the day in Constantine's multiethnic empire because it favored ethnic harmony, Wright argues.

Wright sees the same evolutionary trend in Islam. First Allah "transcended tribal distinctions," as Yahweh did before him. Then he acquired the "multinational perspective of an empire," even to the point when in places the Koran grants the possibility of salvation to people "outside the fold." (p. 436)

Wright concludes that in our day "we've reached a stage in history where the movement toward moral truth has to become globally momentous." In short, God has some "some growing to do," (p. 436), and Wright seems confident this will happen, given what he wrote in his previous book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Whether he can be this optimistic depends on the case he made there.

In the end, traditionalists will not like this book, and he admits this. Wright's god seems to be an abstract god as "the source of the moral order" (p. 446), and in such a belief he finds his god, although he holds out hope this god is also a personal one.

Other thinkers have argued God will become unnecessary and will evolve out of existence in the human mind, but whether or not that will happen is yet to be seen. In any case this is a judicious treatment that will surely provoke controversy. It's also enlightening. Hopefully his book will contribute to the ongoing evolution of the idea of God. And maybe it'll contribute to his evolution out of existence, too.

-----------
I'm the author of "Why I Became an Atheist," and the edited book, "The Christian Delusion."
2424 comments| 426 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on July 13, 2009
The Evolution of God
In 2000 Robert Wright published Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny to some acclaim. In it he argued that there is a favorable direction to human history attributable to increasing opportunities for non-zero-sum interaction where both parties gain something, versus zero-sum situations where one party may gain, but only at the expense of the other. Social structures grow to take advantage of these situations, he contended, and build incrementally toward supranational governance. He concluded that "...it is hard, after pondering the full sweep of history, to resist the conclusion that -- in some important ways, at least -- the world now stands at its moral zenith to date."

Now comes The Evolution of God, where Wright further elaborates his contention that moral progress is ingrained in the course of history. In it Wright offers a materialist analysis of changing portrayals of gods and God, sure to aggravate conventional believers of many faiths. But he also asserts that history shows there might be something like a God force behind moral improvement, a position that many religious skeptics are likely to reject.

Wright's thesis entails three basic propositions. The first is that God evolves. By this Wright means not an actual God, whom he generally treats as illusory, but rather peoples' conceptions of gods and God. The "evolution" he writes about is mostly cultural evolution, although he includes an appendix on the possible biological roots of religion.

The bulk of the book is devoted to his tracing the history of gods from hunter-gatherer societies through chiefdoms, polytheistic kingdoms, the evolution of monolatry and monotheism, and then the scriptural presentation of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Wright is interested mainly in how gods may have felt about cultural outsiders, about "others" not part of one's own group. He emphasizes how gods have alternated between coaxing their followers to destroy designated others and urging accommodation and acceptance of people with different beliefs.

Wright proposes that whether gods were seen as belligerent toward out-groups or not often depended on the political needs of societal leaders at the time. When leaders perceived zero-sum conflict situations in relations with other groups it was useful to have one's own gods offer some encouragement to rally the troops. But if there were non-zero-sum opportunities in possible alliances, say through trade or military coalitions, then it became useful to be more ecumenical, to accept to some degree others' gods as well as one's own. For instance, one way of accommodating polytheistic gods when political coalitions were built was to make them into a clan of gods, related to each other.

His historical analysis of the cultural evolution is not as strong as it could be, not least because he leaves out a big chunk of time. While he relies on relatively modern evidence from hunter-gatherer and chiefdom societies, draws on certain contemporary events, and offers limited comments on the intervening centuries, he focuses mostly on the developmental period preceding about 700 AD. After Constantine, for instance, we hear very little of how the evolution of God may have played out in Christianity through the administration of churches and states.

Wright's second basic proposition is that there is a moral trajectory in history, expanding opportunities to realize the good. "The march of history challenges people to expand their range of sympathy and understanding, to enlarge their moral imaginations, to share the perspective of people ever farther away," he claims. He concedes that it is not inevitable that we will get closer to moral truth, but he believes that growing non-zero-sumness is forcing us to face up to it or to otherwise descend into chaos.

He allows that there has not been simple linear progress, but contends that there has been an advance through fits and starts, some forward, some backward. Yet since again he barely skims the past 1300 years, his assertion that history demonstrates moral progress remains highly questionable, unproven at best.

Wright's third basic proposition relies on the first two. He says that if there is a moral order (Proposition #2) and if conceptions of God have evolved to support it (Proposition #1), it does not necessarily mean there is a God; but, he asserts, these conditions are evidence in favor of the God hypothesis (Proposition #3).

Even if gods arose from illusions, he suggests, the evolution of the illusions "points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity." He is not arguing the God hypothesis is true -- he is merely offering it up for consideration as plausible.

Wright's reasoning is dubious. From his questionable assertion that there has been moral progress it is a big leap to claim, as he does, that it reflects a purposeful historical goal. Patterns do not necessarily imply purposes. And only after he has smuggled in the idea of purposeful history is it possible for him to speak of a source of the purpose. A "purpose" by its very nature has an agent, some sentient entity capable of intent, at least in our common understanding. Where we see purposes we see agents, just as Wright does here. There are further flaws in his logic, including reliance on a false analogy between propositions about God as the source of moral order and physicists' postulation of electrons to help explain the behavior of matter.

So Wright's conclusion that the evolution of the concept of God and moral progress in history constitute evidence for the God hypothesis is unconvincing. Nevertheless, The Evolution of God is likely to sell well, and perhaps it should. Certainly the title and subject matter are fashionable, in both their evolution and God dimensions. Wright deserves credit for the ambition of this work, for its sweep and boldness. The Evolution of God will make readers think, if only to marshal their responses to the parts where they believe Wright is wrong.
22 comments| 168 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on June 23, 2009
Robert Wright is an intellectually curious journalist and a fine writer whose previous books (The Moral Animal & Nonzero) I enjoyed. Wright's new book explores the character of religion through history, and, marshalling scholarly research, shows how religious ideas developed in response to changing social and political circumstances. The explanations make no appeal to the supernatural. But Wright sees progress (however haphazard and intermittent) in the moral dimension of religion through time, which leads him to speculate that this phenomenon actually points to the existence of something worthy of being named divine.

The bulk of the book is an interesting run through research findings from anthropology, archaeology and textual analysis on the topic of historical religious ideas and practices. The tour begins with a look at hunter-gatherer style animism and the role of gods and religion in tribal cultures, continues with an examination of the development of the various pantheons of gods in ancient civilizations, and then tackles the Abrahamic traditions. In all cases there seems to be a plausible explanation of prevailing religious ideas and the character of God or gods changing in concert with the "facts on the ground". As nations make war, their gods intone contempt for non-believers. As empires digest conquests, they co-opt the gods of their new subjects. More positively, as societies enter into non-zero sum relationships with a wider circle of neighbors, their gods become more universal and more supportive of a broader moral vision.

Wright also presents his own thoughts on what it all means. First off (repeating the theme from Nonzero), Wright argues that with the passage of time, humans have expanded their circle of moral consideration, and that this constitutes an arrow of moral progress through history. However, it seems hard to point to the evolution of our ideas regarding gods or God (more loving, less vengeful), and say that this adds anything to the story of moral progress. His analysis doesn't provide evidence that religion drives moral progress - it seems to mainly reflect it.

Nevertheless, in the final section, Wright proposes that the existence of an historical arrow of moral progress might be evidence for an objective moral order which transcends nature. He argues that even if the traditional idea of a personal God seems highly implausible given naturalism, it might nonetheless point (however imperfectly) towards truth. His arguments for this position aren't strong, however, consisting as they do of analogies and a repeated appeal that something special must be going; I don't think many traditional materialist-atheists will be convinced.

This is unfortunate because I think his intuition is sound. I think that any naturalist worldview needs to be expansive enough to account for first person experience and the meaning and values which arise from our engagement with the world. In any case, I admire Wright's contribution in these books. And in particular I find his vision of moral progress to be inspiring. We can all hope that the forces of globalization in today's world might promote peace, as we expand our circle of moral concern to finally cover the planet.
44 comments| 102 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
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.

Wright says:

**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.
1717 comments| 191 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on April 2, 2011
The title is misleading: the book is really an attempt to chronicle the development of the idea of God in the "Abrahamic traditions," meaning Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But the author is not an expert in the history or theology of even one of those traditions. He does not even know Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic. (A postscript explains that he familiarized himself with these religions in part by listening to audio editions of English translations of their scriptures.) If you knew nothing about these traditions you might learn something from the book, but there are better sources for learning about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Wright is neither a partisan of any of these religious traditions, nor a supercilious Richard Dawkins railing against the idiocy of religious belief. He does have an annoying hobby horse, however. If I could have a nickel for every time he uses the term "non-zero-sum game" or some form of it in this book, I would be a rich man. The book is less a scholarly exposition than an impassioned crusade to convince the reader of Wright's vision of the true destiny of these religions in particular and mankind in general, a destiny that is ultimately the very goal of the evolution of the universe. That goal is the universal recognition and implementation of the "non-zero-sum game," which may be summarized as interdependence and mutually beneficial relationships. On the whole this project fails rather spectacularly and the whole effort comes off sounding more than a little Panglossian. Even from the data he relates in the book it's much easier to see a vast spaghetti of conflicting evolutions than one overarching Evolution. Trying to get a single uni-directional "Evolution" out of the mass of contradictory and inconsistent and often totally unrelated individual conceptions of God that have evolved and continue to evolve within the confused history of three ill-defined religious traditions, and then finding in that the key to the universe, is not unlike reading the weather forecast in chicken entrails.

In the "What is God" Afterword, Wright considers the question of whether the idea of a personal God in the Abrahamic traditions is true or false, help or hindrance; a temporary crutch to be discarded when human evolution advances far enough, or something of enduring value. As for whether this conception is true or false, he compares it to our conception of the sub-atomic world. We consider our understanding of electrons and photons to be accurate, but everything we say about them comes from a vocabulary based on our experience of our world and doesn't really fit the sub-atomic world. We call them particles, but they act like waves, and we call them waves but they act like particles. Nothing in our vocabulary or our range of mental conceptions fits the subject matter, and we know that -- but we use words and conceptions anyway, and we successfully base working technologies on those imperfect words and conceptions. Thinking about God may be similar: for all its imperfections, conceiving of God as in some sense personal may be as effective a way to conceive of the inconceivable as what we do with electrons and photons.

As for whether it is useful to think of God in this way, Wright observes that millions of years of evolution have prepared us for living our lives in a social environment. We evolved as social animals, and our minds are fundamentally wired for conceiving of leadership and authority as emanating from a person rather than from an abstract principle. In a sense it shouldn't make much difference whether (a) we believe that impersonal laws of karma guarantee that altruistic behavior results in personal happiness or (b) we believe that such a guarantee is issued and enforced by an elusive but caring father figure whose son is preparing mansions for us to live in on the other side of the pearly gates. But if one takes seriously the environment in which humanity evolved, it would be strange indeed if "God" as impersonal idea worked as well as "God" as personal being to motivate certain forms of human behavior, provide certain forms of reassurance in times of crisis, and so forth.

Mr. Wright is not the first to have put into rational terms such as these the value of the idea of a personal God, but he does a good job of presenting the case, and anyone interested in the topic would probably find some value in reading the Afterword of his book.
0Comment| 13 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on December 13, 2009
On balance, Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God" is a positive contribution to the debate about religion and society. It presents a convincing narrative of the evolution of man's conception of God in the three Abrahamic faiths. Drawing from this narrative Wright proposes that there is an overall directionality to moral progress. As human global society has become more connected principally via commerce, relationships between cultures that trade become more `non-zero-sum'. This leads to more tolerance of other groups, religions, god concepts and an increase in `moral imagination'. Wright suggests a parallel between the directionality of increasingly complex relations between life forms that results from natural selection and the directionality of man's moral development resulting from increasing non-zero-sum relationships between tribes, nations and cultures.

However, I have trouble with Wright's arguments on several levels,

1. It is not clear that we are evolving morally. Yes, we have significantly reduced the portion of the world that accepts slavery; and in much of the world the rights of women has greatly increased. However, just 70 years ago, we had totalitarian governments (both fascist and communist) that committed genocide. These governments benefited greatly from technology through mass media and control of communications. Furthermore, the globe has lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation that apparently was solved not through moral development, but rather as a result of fear of mutually assured destruction. Had we not contained the nuclear arms race, human civilization would have essentially been destroyed far more than classical civilization was destroyed in the dark ages.

2. Traditional religion is becoming less relevant in Europe and to educated elites in general. More and more of the world is becoming sensitized to global limits to growth of human society. Europe's recognition of the threats posed by global warming and energy insecurity coupled with the decreasing relevance of traditional religion to European society as a whole, point to a global ethical viewpoint that essentially is a discontinuous break from the moral development of the past three thousand years. Wright recognizes the threat that global limits pose to mankind and he suggests that there will be pressure for effective global government, and that this will be based on a global morality. I share his hopefulness, but I also see plenty of opportunity for moral regression in the future.

3. Natural selection depends on slowly varying environmental conditions that allow the small steps of generational adaptation to create new species that fill the new survival niches created by the changing environmental conditions. Abrupt environmental change (either natural or man-made) will result in mass extinctions. The explosion of communications technology makes cultural evolution subject to much more abrupt non-linear change than biological evolution, which itself is a non-linear process, but albeit more slowly changing due to heretofore relatively slow environmental change. The evolution of complex creatures (such as humans), ecosystems and cultures depends crucially on there being slowly changing environmental conditions. It is not clear that moral development will continue in the face of abrupt changes to the biological and cultural environment that we are likely to face.

Nevertheless, "The Evolution of God" is a thought provoking work that also serves as a sort of bridge between traditional religion based moral and the new atheism, and as such it serves a very valuable function in advancing our understanding of our moral development. I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it highly.
11 comment| 10 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on September 25, 2012
This book, while admitting God and gods are made up, isn't an atheistic book (the likes of Sam Harris or R. Dawkins). It's a book which explains religion using great research of valid, established, scientists, as well as the earliest accounts of people. I don't see much of an opinion in this book; rather, you are free to make your own interpretations. Wright simply explains the facts as we know them and clarifies so much about the modern interpretation of God. I, a staunch atheist, feel I gained a little more compassion for religion by reading this book. While I'm still aware of the atrocities religion and gods are responsible for, Wright does a good job of explaining why in many of the cases (crusades and genocides of races aside), things like sacrifice and self inflicted wounds made sense and helped people, uniting them. I'd recommend this book to anyone: a believer in a religion, agnostic, or atheist. The insight you gain in this book gives you a great deal of understanding when looking at many of the great religions, as well as supernatural gods as a whole.
22 comments| 6 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on February 10, 2014
The Evolution of God is not only well-written and skillfully argued. It is an important book in the field of religion as a part of culture. Wright's focus is on the development of monotheism and the purposes this idea serves in both past and present. He argues that monotheism that we find in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has traceable history and also a trajectory of development. it seems to have arisen out of an original polytheism and gained its early form as ancient Israelites began to insist that, while the gods of other peoples existed, theirs was the only god worthy of worship. It was only in the later stages of the Hebrew Bible's composition that the Jews became fully committed to the idea that there is only one fully divine being. The Jews then transmitted this idea to the founders of Christianity and Islam and put all three faiths on path toward what Wright calls "non-zero sum-ness." What he means by this boils down to a growing tendency of monotheists to view other societies and religions, as potential partners in improving the world, rather than competitors for the limited goods that the work has to offer. He leaves open the question of whether or not this movement in the human idea of God might be evidence of God's objective existence. In any case it has enormous power on the level of morals and ethics. One might expect such a book to be fraught with academic deadly-boring-ness. But Wright is a clear and engaging writer accessible to any educated reader. I definitely recommend this book.
0Comment| 3 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on August 31, 2011
This author was recommended to me by some one in one of the Amazon Christianity Discussion threads in which I participate. And I am so thankful for that recommendation. I'm in the midst of reading this book and looking over and reading the author's other two books. I'm amazed at how eloquent, accessible and insightful this author is. And he puts forth his priceless observations in a gentle manner, which really shouldn't offend religious sensibilities at all. Just about anyone might benefit enormously from reading this book. It seems to me that it is vitally important for people to study and come to understand something of the evolution of religion, something of the evolution of religious and theological ideas. No matter what you believe or don't believe, it can help to know something of how religious history developed. --- Right now, religion is a divisive issue in American politics. We need to be informed about it, at the very least. And of course for many of us religion involves a lifelong personal quest. This book has so much to offer to readers of all backgrounds.
44 comments| 3 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on December 15, 2011
I really like Richard Wright, and I love his online presence and previous book (The Moral Animal - highly recommended) but I feel he has gone a bit soft on this one. In this book, I fear, he is letting his agenda cloud his search for truth. In that sense it appears he is not being sincere in his conclusions or that he is mistaken or (very possibly) the subtlety of his argument has gone completely over my head

After reading up to the final chapter and agreeing with most of it until then I feel his conclusions about moral reality and "purpose/god" are wrong.

To see why, I want to use his own analogy from one of Wright's old but brilliant interviews with Steven Pinker where they discuss the eye and then morality.

The eye evolved to appreciate the naturally occurring phenomena of binocularity, Euclidian geometry and parallax etc in order to construct 3D mental images from 2D retinal image.

Morality like mathematics is naturally occurring in the universe - so co-operation, reciprocal altruism and non-zero sum logic are mathematical algorithms that just happen to work, like Euclidian geometry , without any need to invoke "special consideration" i.e "higher purpose" or "divinity" that then might imply a "divinity" as a reason for them. Instead, through strategic self interest human minds converged on to these naturally occurring moral math, that in so doing improves wellbeing beyond the individual, and therefore gives the appearance of enlightened moral behaviour. There is nothing "divine" or "special" about this.

Without human brains there is no such thing as right or wrong, only a cold meaningless universe of matter and energy. The sense that moral truth is "special" is an illusion of our human minds, as the sense of right and wrong are emotionally loaded in order to give them the necessary clout to alter our feelings and behaviours to aid in achieving the ultimate (via the proximate) goal of genetic proliferation. All human thoughts, feelings and actions are animated by human emotions, but in reality the feelings of "being wronged" or "gratitude" or "respect, fear and love" to mention a few emotional drives are just electrochemical neural circuits firing i.e. illusions.

In effect what Wright does is to wrongfully attribute higher meaning/purpose to the results of natural selection because it is amazing and great that it evolved a mind capable of feeling moral emotions. What he overlooks then is that his sense of anything being "important" or "valuable" is an emotional illusion that humdrum natural selection instilled in him. And therefore the moral sense deserves no more special consideration for higher meaning or purpose or divinity than say, 3D visual perception.
0Comment| 8 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse