I'm expecting to disagree with the final chapters of Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God," as I prophesied a few months ago.
So I wanted to write a positive blog post about this book, which I'm almost finished with, before I turn more negative. As a New York Times review says, there's a good news/bad news joke for religious believers here:
Wright makes it clear that he is tracking people’s conception of the divine, not the divine itself. He describes this as “a good news/bad news joke for traditionalist Christians, Muslims and Jews.” The bad news is that your God was born imperfect. The good news is that he doesn’t really exist.
This is what Wright means by the evolution of God: religious conceptions of divinity have, on the whole, been changing in the direction of more tolerance, inclusiveness, and interconnectedness.
For example, he argues that at first Judaic and early Christian teachings about loving others were limited by tribal, cultural, and nationalistic barriers. Only later was the brotherhood and sisterhood of man extended to include everyone on Earth.
One of Wright's central theses is that non-zero-sum relationships lead to more evolved moral codes.
If two cultures are in a win-win situation where cooperation benefits both, each is going to look more favorably upon the other than if they're engaged in a win-lose battle. Thus as humanity becomes more interrelated (economically and otherwise), people are going to have more of an accepting attitude toward those who aren't like them.
We have some more God-evolving to do, obviously, as Wright points out:
So if the God of the Abrahamic faiths is to keep doing what he has often managed to do before -- evolve in a way that fosters positive-sum outcomes of non-zero-sum games -- he has some growing to do. His character has to develop in a way that permits, for starters, Muslims, Christians, and Jews to get along as globalization keeps pushing them closer together.
Amen to that.
Earth has plenty of problems that require close cooperation between people scattered all over the world: global climate change, famine, epidemics, nuclear weapons proliferation, and such.
The last thing we need is more religion-caused divisiveness.
Nationalism already stands in the way of communal global action, as various countries each consider that their view of the world obviously is correct, so other misguided nations should fall in line.
Wright has a chapter near the end of his book called "Well, Aren't We Special?" Every religion believes that it has a uniquely correct connection with God, or divinity. The false messages of deluded faiths are viewed skeptically, if not scornfully.
Not a very loving or godlike attitude.
So Wright wonders if the next evolution in Godliness will be a diminution, and possibly even a rejection, of religious specialness.
What if the Abrahamic religions really did relax their sense of specialness -- with respect to one another and even, eventually, with respect to non-Abrahamic faiths? No doubt it would feel to many Christians, Jews, and Muslims like an injury to their faith. Yet it would amount to a kind of vindication.
At the core of each faith is the conviction that there is a moral order, and for the Abrahamic conception of God to grow in this fashion would be yet more evidence that such an order exists.
For Jews, Christians, or Muslims to cling to claims of special validity could make their faiths seem, and perhaps be, less valid. As Ashoka [a 3rd century Buddhist emperor] put it in a different context: "If a man extols his own faith and disparages another because of devotion to his own and because he wants to glorify it, he seriously injures his own faith."
Is it crazy to imagine a day when the Abrahamic faiths renounce not only their specific claims to specialness, but even the claim to specialness of the whole Abrahamic enterprise? Are such radical changes in God's character imaginable? Changes this radical have already happened, again and again. Another transformation would be nothing new.
Sounds good, but I'm dubious it'll happen anytime soon.
Religious believers are too fond of feeling that they, and they alone, are the special sons and daughters of God. Humility is cherished in principle, yet not when it means giving up the notion that my way is the best way, or even the only way.
If you have liked Wright's book, I suggest reading "After God: The Future of Religion" by Don Cupitt. From what I've read here, it sounds like Wright & Cupitt speak of many of the same themes.
Posted by: The Rambling Taoist | October 16, 2009 at 10:27 AM
Thanks for the two book references. It's good to hand something across to the future generations too lest they get caught. An untrapped headspace is a noble aim.
Posted by: Catherine | October 16, 2009 at 09:57 PM
The power of the God Particle: Is our present reality being manipulated and altered by an event from the future?
Posted by: this life | October 19, 2009 at 10:02 PM
The LHC is very interesting stuff indeed, heluuva cost at 3 billion smackers tho.
it seems they are worried about creating an unnatural particle, however, i cant honestly see how this can be a valid concern where surely these sorts of collisions would have occured already in nature.
i reckon man is still along way off generating the power created in nature. even the h-bomb is insignficant compared to the energy of suns and supernovas.
Posted by: George | October 21, 2009 at 02:29 AM
Not sure if this is the right topic to post this, was hoping for another OpenThread - but
Within the next few paragraphs, I hope to demonstrate that God exists, and that religion and science have much in common. I am aware that by starting out with this statement of intent, I will have aroused some strong emotions in some readers, however this is not about emotion, this is about indisputable fact. Therefore I request a little patience from the reader as I first step back into history so as to set the stage.
Primitive man could not call upon the body of knowledge we today call science. His experience of the world and therefore his views of the world would have been quite different. Nature provided both food and warmth as well as cold and destruction. Nature would have been viewed as the generous giver as well as the terrifying ruthless taker. It should not be surprising that early man looked upon the world in which he lived and in particular the natural processes within which he experienced his dependence in terms of dependence, for he had no control over nature, neither its power, nor its gentleness. Earthquakes, hurricanes, could destroy, gentle breezes, sun and rain could provide.
Man is different from animals, we not only have a strong sense of awareness, but we have a strong desire to understand. Primitive man is no different, so, given the lack of any body of knowledge, and given that he found himself dependent on nature, it is not beyond our understanding, given that there are observable patterns in all of nature, that primitive man should develop ideas of Gods, of great powerful beings, and it is further no surprise that man would want to have influence over such enormous forces and want to influence according to his wants and desires, and so the notion of prayer as we call it today, can be seen to come about. A relationship between man and God or the Gods was formed, a relationship today we call religion.
it is my intention to keep this post brief, so I will simply suggest that the relationship between man and nature grew beyond the tangible needs of well being, and extended into the metaphysical so as, for example, to give answers to events such a death and come up with believable stories to explain the origins of man and the universe.
We today still share much in common with this example of primitive man. We are set apart from other life forms on this planet by our keen desire for knowledge and understanding. We still want to control nature, we still want to know about this physical world and universe, we still ask ourselves where we came from and where the universe came from, and we still develop theories which we have made very believable through the scientific process.
It is here I suggest that in opening our eyes using science, we have become blind to God, for we explain to ourselves that this God, omnipresent and omniscient, cannot be seen, cannot be detected, cannot be known, and so does not exist. But we forget that we have simply substituted another name for God because science itself is studying God, or, as we call God today, science is studying Nature.
Nature is omnipresent, throughout the entire universe and beyond, it is all knowing, for it is the secrets of Nature that science is attempting to discover.
The roots of religion before it became a political tool through which to control people, was, as explained above, a tool of enquiry, to understand and explain the world and its powerful, uncontrollable forces, - a description that almost better fits what we today call science. Science and true religion have the same purpose, to satisfy mans thirst for understanding.
Eastern mystics tell us that God is everywhere, just under our noses, we see him, but we do not recognise him. God is everything, the stones, the rivers, ourselves, we are made in Gods image. Or, Nature is everywhere, Nature is everything, stones, rivers, even ourselves.
Corrupt religion has much to answer, wars, suffering, human pain, but then, so does corrupt science. But, it is not science or religion that is corrupt, it is mans misuse of these tools that result in such negative outcomes. In just such a way, it is man that has created the wedge between religion and science, losing sight of each others goals and as a result, not recognising that they both seek the same purpose, understanding, understanding of a world in which we all find ourselves, a world of mystery, but not a random world, it is an ordered world with secrets to be discovered, a world of awe that brings amazement and wonder at every new discovery, whether the depths of space or the depths of the nano world, great beauty and impressive detail at every step, a world encompassing infinities in every direction, a world in which even logic and rationality have but a limited space, a world in which our understanding is but a drop in the ocean. Nature (God) is everywhere.
Posted by: simpleton | November 01, 2009 at 01:12 AM
simpleton, I agree with much of what you said. But what is the benefit of using the word "God" to refer to nature?
Basically you're saying that nature is real, and this is what science studies: reality. Also, that there is much more to be known about reality, so mystery awaits beyond the known horizon, which can create a feeling of awe within us.
Agreed. However, the word "God" carries a lot of religious baggage with it. So when you say in your last sentence, "Nature (God) is everywhere," you aren't referring to the sort of God that 99% plus of religious believers consider to be "God."
They view God as a personal conscious being who created the cosmos, still guides it, and intervenes in people's lives -- among other divine activities. So I see the word "God" as fraught with problems when we attempt to use it as a synonym for "Nature."
Why not simply say "nature"? Or "reality"? Linguists and philosophers tell us that how is a word is used points to its genuine definition. Nature is used to refer to the observable (or detectable) world that is openly in evidence. God almost always is used to refer to the sort of hidden conscious being I referred to above.
So the words aren't synonymous, even though you or I may consider them to be so in our own personal meaning space. That is, you or I may know what we mean by "God," but using this term will elicit a very different meaning-reaction in most other people. That's why I think it is better not to use it, with "nature" or "reality" being a better choice.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 01, 2009 at 10:30 AM
You have well emphasised my point. Unless the meaning of the words we use are understood, how can meaningful progress be made?
We have groups of religious believers who use the work God without really giving any thought that the meaning of this word equally applies to Nature. True, the concept of intelligence and consciousness is implied in the religious meaning, but Nature has consciousness, unless you class ourselves and other living creatures as not being part of Nature?
But religious folks tend to blinker their views with blind belief systems (blinding belief systems perhaps?)
This should not be the case for scientists. In their search for understanding, it makes much sense to first understand the words that we use, God and Nature, from scientific standpoint, should not be emotionally charged, but understood to be one and the same. Nature is the God of science, for it is the focus of science, the greatest goal of science would be to KNOW GOD, to KNOW NATURE.
When science understands this, and religion also understands this the conflict and endless debates between the two, simply disappear. I suspect religion will take a long time before it lets go of its traditions, pomp and ceremony, its emotions and politics.
Posted by: simpleton | November 01, 2009 at 10:51 AM
simpleton, now I understand better what you're getting at (at least I think I do).
Yes, if "God is taken to be ultimate reality -- another traditional way of looking at this word -- then science and religion are indeed talking about the same pursuit: knowledge of what is real.
This attitude toward "God" has more of an Eastern than Western slant, though Plotinus and other Greek philosophers used "God" in pretty much this fashion.
I'm not opposed to the word, God. I speak it inside my head frequently. I even talk to God quite often, though it turns out to be a one-way conversation (like picking up the phone and saying "hello?" to see if someone is on the line).
Yes, nature is the God of science, if this is taken to be the goal of science. Otherwise, though, science doesn't worship nature, reverence it, bow down to it, or pray to it. However, science does indeed seek to unravel the mysteries of nature, just as religious believers seek to know the mystery of God.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 01, 2009 at 11:07 AM
And this understanding can in itself be helpful to those who truly seek to understand
Science builds upon the body of knowledge built by others. History of science is important, and in terms of science being that endeavour to understand the universe, then it is of importance that the science of today has is roots in the religion of the past.
It also helps us better understand ourselves. Scientists themselves tend to differentiate between religion and its goals and their field of expertise. Better cooperation between religion and science can be achieved when it is understood that both share same goal, to understand that force that is the Universe, whatever the other may call it, the goal is the same.
Counter productivity arises when the goal of an endeavour is not understood.
I see no place for a church dedicated to ritual and empty promises, I see no place for blind belief, either in science or in religion, these attributes are not constructive to the goals.
Given that there are similarities between true goals of science and true goals of religion, a blog such as this one, could dedicate a post now and then, to the more constructive activity of identifying similarities, even if those of religious bent are not open enough to appreciate, scientists of an open mind surely would find value?
Posted by: simpleton | November 01, 2009 at 11:26 AM
simpleton, I don't see many, if any, similarities between science and religion. The former is focused on knowledge and truth, the latter on faith and salvation.
When it comes to meditative practices, there are more commonalities. Meditation is of interest to neuroscientists doing consciousness research, for example.
Scientists are open-minded, but also skeptical of faith-based claims. So unless religious believers can come up with some reality-founded evidence for their beliefs, I don't see what religion can offer science.
The basic problem, in my opinion, is that religions aren't out to find the truth about the cosmos. They believe they already know the truth about God and matters supernatural. Scientists, on the other hand, are comfortable with saying, "I don't know."
So unless religious believers can become equally humble and open-minded, dialogue with fundamentalists who already have their minds made up would be fruitless.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 01, 2009 at 03:51 PM
One wonders if these religions are trying to describe the same mystical core, and in some cases evolution itself.
Alot of the ancient esoteric stuff appears to at least have metaphorical similarities, tho perhaps i am reading too much into this.
But for example, there is the biblical story of the the garden of eden, where adam & eve bite into the apple from the tree of knowledge and all innocence is lost, and from that moment become aware of their nakedness and sexuality.
On one hand this story could represent a point in time when our more natural animalistic forebears started to use their conceptual mind, and with such conceptualisation and association came earthly attatchments, desires and thinking of death and search for meaning, etc.
So presumably, before the apple, A&E operated in the here and now of pure awakened consciousmess (with no chattering conceptual mind), much like the other animals in the garden, but having bitten into the apple, innocence and naivete were lost and our modern existential angst followed?
Also, what makes an animal different from a perfected enlightened person? Both have no conscious mind to interfere with their buddha-nature?
Posted by: George | November 03, 2009 at 05:56 AM
George, if the Bible metaphorically supported evolution, many more Christians would support science. Unfortunately, creationism is the myth of choice in this religion. And the craziness is infecting Islam now also:
My understanding of Buddhism (and Taoism) is that the conceptual mind isn't to be erased or put into a deep freeze, but simply seen for what it is. Awareness is the key, not so much control.
Here's another area where Ken Wilber makes sense. He talks a lot about the falsity of the "Way Back Machine," a longing for some Eden where people were simple, non-intellectual, and primitive -- sort of like animals, as you mention.
But we can't go back. Nor should we want to. Rather, I agree with Wilber that our job is to harmoniously integrate the various aspects of ourselves: body and mind, reasoning and intuition, and so on.
Last night my wife and I took an East Coast Swing dance class, the first of four. The instructor, Lora, told a couple who were just starting dance lessons that at first thinking is necessary to maintain the basic rhythm: triple step, triple step, rock step.
Eventually the rhythm happens almost by itself. You're still thinking (the man/leader, particularly), but in a different fashion. Now you're focused on higher level moves, because the basic steps are pretty much automatic.
Buddha-nature, as I understand the notion, seems much the same. A Buddhist sees how to move harmoniously with life, letting its basic rhythm happen in an unforced manner, while still using all of his or her human faculties (including reason).
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 03, 2009 at 10:34 AM