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Can Science Explain Religion?

Most Abolitionists fought to expand the moral circle because they concluded that Christian doctrine demanded it, whether or not they had anything to gain. Indeed, to a considerable extent, what we mean by a great moral act is one in which a person who performs it might lose materially. To promote kindness or tolerance in a win-win situation is unremarkable. To do so, or at least to hope to do so, in a situation in which you might lose materially is at least part of what characterizes the religious attitude. It’s true that The Evolution of God focuses more on changes in moral doctrine than on moral acts per se, but by mostly neglecting this win-lose aspect of morality, Wright has evaded something important.3

In view of this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Wright’s materialist theory seems to stumble near the close of his book, as he turns to tensions between Islam and the West. After four hundred pages about the crucial role of non-zero-sum dynamics in the evolution of religious tolerance, Wright suddenly announces that “the bad news is that the mere existence of non-zero-sumness isn’t enough.” Two further things, he now tells us, are needed. First, people must see that they’re engaged in non-zero-sum dynamics. This alone is a little odd. It certainly isn’t true of trade. As Adam Smith famously emphasized, win-win dynamics emerge naturally in this case from each individual’s pursuit of his own interests. (No one buys a car because he sees that it will help Japanese automakers.)

Things grow more serious with Wright’s second requirement:

Depending on the exact circumstances, responding wisely to non-zero-sum opportunities can call for more than just seeing the non-zero-sumness. Sometimes it calls for a kind of “sight” that goes deeper. It can call for an apprehension not just of the pragmatic truth about human interaction, but of a kind of moral truth.

This comes as something of a surprise. We’ve been told that the “pragmatic truth about human interaction” generally accounts for the waxing and waning of religious ideas. And now we’re told that something further is needed, a sight that is deeper than pragmatic.

As Wright tries to explain this deeper sight, matters get murky. The key, he says, is something called the moral imagination, the mental ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. This ability, he assures us, was “‘designed’ by natural selection to help us exploit non-zero-sum opportunities, to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.” So the argument is that an evolutionary psychological construct, the moral imagination, lets us see game-theoretic situations that are non-zero-sum. And the result, often enough, is economic or political cooperation as well as the expansion of the moral circle.

So what’s the problem? The problem, Wright reveals, is that the moral imagination can backfire and is, in fact, now backfiring in troubled relations among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The reason for this backfiring is familiar to anyone who has dipped into the literature of evolutionary psychology: “Our mental equipment for dealing with game-theoretical dynamics was designed for a hunter-gatherer environment, not for the modern world.” If this is right, you might wonder why economic trade occurs so readily in the modern world, but let’s leave that aside. For there’s a bigger surprise.

Wright argues that to make further moral progress—and, in particular, to resolve tensions between Islam and the West—the moral imagination needs some “coaxing.” In fact the moral imagination needs to be expanded to “a place it doesn’t go to unabetted.” And fortunately there’s a force that can do this coaxing—religion. Indeed Wright claims that one of the great achievements of religion is that it periodically steps in and expands the moral imagination.

Now this may be true—I suspect it is—but it has nothing to do with Wright’s thesis. In fact it’s an inversion of that thesis. Wright’s causal chain was that the mental capacity of moral imagination (built by natural selection) lets us recognize win-win opportunities (game theory), which, in turn, causes the moral circle to expand (via religion). But now the chain is inverted: religion must modify the moral imagination. If I’ve understood Wright correctly (his penultimate chapter is extremely convoluted), it’s hard to see how this inversion forms part of a materialist account of religion. It’s clearly a more idealistic account: it would be nice if game theory and evolutionary psychology could fashion a more tolerant religion; but right now, they’re not doing a great job, so let’s have religion fix things. I don’t claim that this move undermines Wright’s book but it’s not some minor exception to his thesis. In any case, it’s disconcerting to learn that what Wright thinks is now needed to solve our problems—one of his goals in The Evolution of God—has so little to do with his theory.

The Evolution of God ‘s shortcomings involve not only the content of its arguments but the intellectual methods that Wright uses to build his theory. Though his key claim—that people are more likely to do something when it’s in their interest—is fairly banal, it gets dressed up in the scientific-sounding language of game theory and evolutionary psychology. But it’s hard to take most of this language seriously. Where, for example, is the actual scientific evidence that people possess a mental faculty corresponding to the moral imagination? Where is the evidence that this faculty was built by natural selection or that it stopped evolving after our days on the savanna? Where is the evidence that this mental faculty is now misfiring? In each case, the answer is that the evidence is nonexistent or exceedingly dubious. Wright’s claims about the evolution of the human mind might prove right, or at least partly right, but they have little to do with real science.

Wright’s reliance on game theory and evolutionary psychology is troubling for another reason. These theories, particularly when taken together, are so pliant that they can explain almost anything. One consequence is that Wright’s readings of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Koran sometimes degenerate into clever attempts to explain each passage as a response to specific local circumstances. Take his explanation of why Paul was so big on brotherly love. Paul, usually absent from any given church, needed to encourage harmony within and among his many fractious congregations; hence his epistles extolling brotherly love (what Wright calls “a form of remote control”). But Wright’s hypothesis doesn’t work. While Paul clearly suffered organizational headaches, the notion that he preached brotherly love because he was always on the road begs the question of why he was always on the road, reaching out to Gentiles in Antioch, Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, and elsewhere. Surely the more plausible answer is that Paul traveled tirelessly because he believed in brotherly love, not that he preached brotherly love because he traveled tirelessly.


Finally, Wright seems to believe that his analysis might tell us something about God, or at least about the possibility of a “higher purpose” in nature. Here he seems motivated by concerns about what he considers overreaching by the so-called New Atheists (he mentions Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Weinberg). As I share some of these concerns, I expected to be sympathetic to his arguments. But I’m afraid that I find them mostly unconvincing.

Wright’s case begins from the moral direction he discerns in history. We have, on the whole, grown better morally; and the gods we worship have grown more appealing. Wright wants to draw a very big moral from this story:

If history naturally carries human consciousness toward moral enlightenment, however slowly and fitfully, that would be evidence that there’s some point to it all. At least, it would be more evidence than the alternative…. To the extent that “god” grows, that is evidence—maybe not massive evidence, but some evidence—of higher purpose. Which raises this question: If “god” indeed grows, and grows with stubborn persistence, does that mean we can start thinking about taking the quotation marks off?


In the great divide of current thought—between those, including the Abrahamics, who see a higher purpose, a transcendent source of meaning, and those, like [Steven] Weinberg, who don’t—the manifest existence of a moral order comes down clearly on one side.

Although Wright offers these ideas tentatively, it’s hard to see how they’re supposed to work. He has offered a materialist account of moral progress. If that account succeeds (and he thinks it does), it provides evidence neither for nor against anything transcendent. Indeed Wright’s use of the word “transcendent” seems gratuitous. Consider an analogy that has little or nothing to do with morality. Economists argue that the non-zero-sum game of trade—i.e., exchange in which both sides benefit—gives rise to a direction in history: the expansion of trade and the growth of wealth. But no one is tempted to conclude that this directionality suggests a higher purpose. The invisible hand is a metaphor, not a transcendent appendage. Conversely, if Wright’s materialist account of moral progress fails, this also provides evidence neither for nor against anything transcendent: maybe God drives moral progress or maybe a different materialist account could explain the facts.

Similarly, Wright sometimes suggests that the entire history of biological and cultural evolution on Earth—from single cells to multicellular colonies to human beings capable of moral thought and the elaboration of high technology—might imply the existence of a higher purpose. But again, if a materialist account of this history suffices—and for its biological parts, Darwinism does—this history neither confirms nor disproves anything transcendent.

Oddly, I suspect that Wright might concede some of this. His efforts to discern a higher purpose reflect, he hints, more an intuition or conjecture than a real argument. Taken as such, I would have no particular problem with them. But by articulating his thoughts in the language of science, Wright risks representing his thinking as something it is not.

Despite these reservations, I find that I do agree with another, and important, point that Wright touches on in the course of these discussions. Man’s sense of the divine has, it seems clear, generally grown more sophisticated and abstract through time. The Logos of Philo is miles beyond the nearly demonic gods feared by primitive man. And as Wright emphasizes, there’s every reason to expect this trajectory to continue. Certainly, few thoughtful people, now or in the future, can be expected to take literally the poetic evocations of the divine found in Western scriptures.

The symbols that run through this poetry may or may not point beyond themselves to anything real, but surely the ideas that they purport to point to are more significant than the symbols themselves. Wright is right to remind us of this, however obliquely. And he is right to note that peaceful coexistence among cultures, and perhaps even our survival as a species, could rest upon wider recognition of this point. After all, few people presumably want to kill or die over differences among symbols that might represent, at least approximately, the same thing. These are important points and they are worth making. But I don’t see how it takes game theory or evolutionary psychology to reach them.

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    Wright does concede, at one point, that his theory can’t explain all the vicissitudes of religious history, but he seems to consider these exceptions temporary or somehow less important. It’s difficult to see the basis for this judgment.

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