I thought I'd just thrown twenty bucks down a non-fiction hole.
A few scant hours after buying Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God" (at 25% off!) my wife, who was reading the Sunday Oregonian, said: "You're not going to like this review of the book you just got."
She was right. Thumbing through the first few pages of the book while considering whether to buy it, I'd focused on Wright's first hand.
On the one hand, I think gods arose as illusions, and the subsequent history of the idea of god is, in some sense, the evolution of an illusion.
That elicited a right on from my churchless non-soul. So I paid less attention to Wright's other literary appendage.
On the other hand: (1) the story of this evolution itself points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity; and (2) the "illusion," in the course of evolving, has gotten streamlined in a way that moved it closer to plausibility. In both of these senses, the illusion has gotten less and less illusory.
I've only read a few chapters so far. I'm liking "The Evolution of God."
But I'm preparing myself to discount the validity of Wright's other hand, which, according to the critical review, lends an air of implausibility to the final chapter.
His assiduous labors into the origins of the idea of God have erected a colossal edifice. In the last 50 pages or so, Wright tosses an undersized and feeble theory over its parapets to justify all this effort. Though it's sure to stimulate a lot of discussion, this is a thoroughly wrongheaded book.
Here's a summary of the theory Wright offers. Human beings, he writes, "are 'designed' by natural selection to be good out of obligations to others, for fear of the disapproval of others, in pursuit of the esteem of others." Cultural evolution -- the passage of human groups from small bands of hunter-gatherers to chiefdoms and then on to states and empires -- builds on the ingredients of this "design" to create a moral economy, which leads to the discovery of "moral truths," which are sanctioned in religious organizations as the orders of gods, or, ultimately, of God, the all-knowing, law-giving, all-powerful Being.
"If history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, then maybe the growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe -- conceivably -- the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity."
There are a lot of assumptions in that sentence, but the most powerful one for Wright's argument is the assertion that "history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement." Is this the moral improvement that after 5,000 or so years of Western religion gave us Nazism? Wright's arguments are silent on this question, because they have already asserted the answer -- that as a species we're somehow morally superior now to our ancestors wandering out of Africa. How do we know? Because we have found the idea of God. This is tautology, not proof.
Makes sense. But, hey, I'll keep an open mind as I read the book, though I suspect that I'll have the same reaction of the reviewer when I get to the end of it.
Here's another skeptical perspective on Wright's "morality is divinity" thesis. Like most biologists, this guy doesn't see evidence of purpose in evolution.
Check out the comments to that "Morality doesn't equal God" post. They're pretty high quality. And numerous. I enjoyed the pithy one-sentence wisdom of #8.
Morality doesn't prove gods for much the same reason that Christmas presents don't prove Santa.