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Can Science Explain Religion?

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National Gallery, London/Art Resource
Rembrandt: Belshazzar’s Feast, circa 1636–1638, showing the moment when a divine hand appeared before the Babylonian King Belshazzar and wrote on the wall a phrase interpreted by Daniel to mean: ‘God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; your kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians.’ Belshazzar was slain that night.

1.

Robert Wright is not afraid to think big thoughts. Wright, who contributes regularly to a host of magazines including Slate and Time and who edits the Web site Bloggingheads.tv, has written several intellectually ambitious books. In TheMoral Animal (1997), for example, he considered the young (and controversial) science of evolutionary psychology. And in Nonzero (2001), he offered a heady tour of human history and argued that ideas from the mathematical field of game theory reveal how much of that history was driven by the mutual benefits that accrue from human cooperation. In his latest book, Wright takes on an even grander subject: religion. In The Evolution of God, he both surveys the history of religion and, more important, offers a new theory to explain why this history unfolded as it did.

According to Wright’s theory, although religion may seem otherworldly—a realm of revelation and spirituality—its history has, like that of much else, been driven by mundane “facts on the ground.” Religion, that is, changes through time primarily because it responds to changing circumstances in the real world: economics, politics, and war. Wright thus offers what he emphasizes is a materialist account of religion. As he further emphasizes, the ways in which religion responds to the world make sense. Like organisms, religions respond adaptively to the world.

More formally, Wright argues that religious responses to reality are generally explained by game theory and evolutionary psychology, the subjects of his previous books. Subtle aspects of the human mind, he claims, were shaped by Darwinian natural selection to allow us to recognize and take advantage of certain social situations. The most important of these—and the centerpiece of Wright’s theory—are what game theorists call non-zero-sum interactions. Unlike zero-sum games, wherein one player’s gain is another player’s loss, in some games both players can win; hence “non-zero-sum.” The classic example is economic trade. In a free market, trade occurs when both parties benefit from exchange (otherwise they wouldn’t engage in it).

As technologies, particularly transportation, improved throughout history, cultures collided and human beings encountered more and more of these non-zero-sum opportunities. Religion, Wright says, responded rationally to these encounters. For example, religious doctrine grew more tolerant of other faiths when tolerance helped smooth economic or political interactions that were potentially win-win: it’s wise to respect the other fellow’s gods when you want to trade or form military alliances with him. (Wright suggests that these responses were often unconscious, not cynical.) One consequence of the growing number of non-zero-sum interactions was that, through time, the “moral circle” expanded. While primitive man tended to view only his clan or tribe as fully human and so worthy of moral consideration, the ties forged among peoples via their cooperative interactions encouraged them to expand the moral circle from tribe, to ethnic group, to nation, and ultimately to all human beings.

Several themes emerge from Wright’s analysis of religion that are reminiscent of those that characterize the evolution of life. For one thing, the history of religion has, Wright says, a discernible direction. Just as organisms have generally grown more complex over the last four billion years, so man’s views of God have generally grown more abstract and—most important for Wright—more attractive morally over the last several thousand years. Also, evolutionary change in religion, like that in species, is typically gradual: “you don’t see whole new religions coming out of nowhere,” presumably because religions reflect preexisting social conditions.

The Evolution of God is not, however, concerned solely with the past. Wright also emphasizes that an appreciation of the power of non-zero-sum dynamics might help us resolve certain contemporary political tensions, including those between the Islamic world and the West, groups that potentially have much to gain from each other.

Describing Wright’s approach to religious history as materialist may seem to imply that he is uncomfortable with loftier visions of religion—the view, for example, that there might actually be something divine that underlies the physical universe. This is not the case. Wright is sympathetic to religion and to at least some of its larger claims. Indeed he purports to provide an account not only of the evolution of man’s view of God but, at least possibly, of God himself.

Wright’s book has several strengths. Perhaps the most conspicuous is the prose. Although the book is long, it doesn’t feel it. Wright is a skillful writer and he knows how to keep a story moving. His discussion is also surprisingly erudite. The Evolution of God is full of footnotes and the literature cited in them is consistently the literature one would hope for: heavy on scholarly studies and light on popular treatments. In a climate in which discussions of religion, and especially of the intersection of religion and science, often seem superficial or rushed, Wright is to be commended for his close study. He is also to be commended for his refreshingly dispassionate tone. All this combines to provide an absorbing (and rant-free) tour of Western religion.

But Wright’s book cannot be judged only, or even primarily, by whether it presents a capable history of religion. Instead it must be judged by whether his new theory of religion succeeds. And here, as we’ll see, The Evolution of God is less satisfying.

2.

Much of Wright’s book is given over to the history of the great Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but his story actually begins in prehistory, with shamanism. Drawing on both anthropological studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies and classic analyses of primitive religion by Mircea Eliade and his peers, Wright reminds us that the shaman’s world was animated by a host of gods who lived within forces of nature and who determined the fates of individuals and tribes. Religion had little to do with morality and everything to do with the prosecution of war and intratribal politics.1 With the rise of agriculture, however, society grew more complex, placing a premium on social harmony. Religion, Wright says, responded to these changed conditions and became moral: it got into the business of policing people.

Later, primitive states grew more organized and different cultures came into contact. Although the theological consequences of these contacts could have been disastrous—different peoples worshiped potentially competing casts of gods—Wright argues that non-zero-sum dynamics prevailed. States had much to gain from one another by trade or armed alliances. So religion again responded sensibly: typically, the roster of gods recognized by any group simply expanded to include those of other groups.

Polytheism’s days were, nevertheless, numbered. Wright’s account of the rise of monotheism among the Jews represents the most impressive part of his book. The process was extraordinarily complex. As expected, Wright stresses that the evolution of Yahweh responded to tangled political, military, and economic conditions: these included Jewish relations with the Canaanites (Baal-worshipers), innumerable military adventures and misadventures, exile, and the differing political fates of northern and southern Greater Israel. Also, the evolution of monotheism, “like so much else in the history of religion,” was gradual. Indeed the process was so protracted that traces of polytheism remain in the Hebrew Bible, e.g., in Exodus, and especially in Psalms (“There is none like you among the gods, O LORD”).

The Hebrew Bible also reveals the later transformation of Yahweh from a thunderous, almost corporeal being into a more abstract and transcendent one, the “still small voice.” Wright also devotes two chapters to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who wrote in the first century CE. Philo offered a syncretic theology that attempted to blend Hebrew tradition and Greek philosophy, faith and reason. Such reconciliation required eschewing a literal reading of scripture and embracing an allegorical one, which Philo did happily. In Philo’s theology, the Logos—reason, order, or the Word—is conceived in the mind of God and then uttered into the physical universe. The unfolding of the Logos introduces, among other things, a directionality into history, a theme that looms large for Wright.

Turning to Christianity, Wright again emphasizes the Darwinian gradualness of the evolution of this new religion. The earliest of the canonical gospels, Mark, presents a Jesus who seems more a typical apocalyptic prophet than the Word Incarnate: Jesus makes few proclamations of his divinity, preaches the coming of a Kingdom of God, and often performs miracles discreetly. Wright also stresses that the Christian doctrine of universal brotherly love likely did not derive from Jesus but appeared later, probably with the apostle Paul. Wright predictably argues that the development of this doctrine, like others, can be seen as a response to quotidian local conditions. Indeed, he claims that Paul, who traveled relentlessly, played up brotherly love—“we, who are many, are one body in Christ”—to encourage harmony within the many quarrelsome churches that he visited and then left all too soon. Paul’s message was, in other words, a management strategy, part of a business plan that allowed him to export Christianity to much of the Roman Empire.2

Finally, Wright briefly but ably surveys the evolution of Islam. He argues that Islam also reveals the adaptive nature of religion’s responses to local conditions. (The more recent emergence of Islam—Muhammad died in 632 CE—permits a reasonably clear picture of the historical setting in which this faith developed.) When Muhammad resided in Mecca, he was a politically powerless prophet who, like many prophets before him, antagonized the rich and suffered the ridicule of the people. Under such circumstances, Wright says, the optimal strategy suggested by game theory for a religion is clearly one of tolerance and conciliation. And, Wright points out, those parts of the Koran that date from Muhammad’s Meccan years are frequently conciliatory. Indeed Muhammad reaches out to, and expresses a degree of tolerance for, Jews and Christians (“To you be your religion; to me my religion.”)

But when Muhammad relocated to Medina, factual circumstances changed radically and rapidly. Muhammad’s now numerous followers grew into a staggeringly powerful political and military force. Given these changed circumstances, Islam had fewer practical reasons to pursue a strategy of tolerance and the Koran, Wright says, began to sometimes speak in a less conciliatory tone. None of this, he insists, should surprise us. Nor is it unprecedented. During difficult or turbulent political times, the Hebrew Bible (in Second Isaiah) and the New Testament (in Revelation) also grew less tolerant of other beliefs.

Despite this, the overall trend characterizing the course of Western faith is clear enough: it has grown more tolerant and has encouraged the expansion of the moral circle. Hunter-gatherers huddled about a shaman may doubt the humanity of those not belonging to the tribe but contemporary worshipers gathered in a synagogue, church, or mosque do not. Religion may be imperfect, but it has, Wright emphasizes, taken us a considerable moral distance.

3.

While Wright’s account of the history of the Abrahamic faiths is frequently fascinating, his attempts to explain that history using his new theory are, unfortunately, sometimes less than persuasive. Part of the problem is that Wright’s theory is so obviously incomplete. It would be absurd to deny that local conditions help shape religion, including moral doctrine. But it would be equally absurd to deny that there’s more to the story. Consider a great moral event like the Abolitionist movement. It’s hard to maintain seriously that it was driven by win-win dynamics. What was the big material payoff to expanding the moral circle to include black slaves? The question strikes us as alarmingly wide of the mark because the real dynamics are so clear.

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.

4.

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?

And:

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.

  1. 1

    Wright also disabuses the reader of New Age nonsense about shamans. The idea that, before organized religion, religion existed in an uncorrupted state is a romantic delusion. Shamans were frequently self-serving and played conspicuous political games. For more, see Wright’s “Do Shamans Have More Sex?,” Slate, July 29, 2009.

  2. 2

    Wright mostly ignores the later evolution of the Church. He says little, for example, about the Hellenization of Christianity by the Church fathers, and especially Augustine. (The influence of Platonism and/or Neoplatonism on the Abrahamic faiths was certainly not limited to Philo.) One consequence is that the more mystical Christian tradition—featuring the Jesus who utters, “before Abraham was, I am”—is largely overlooked. See, for example, Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford University Press, 1981), which also presents a sensitive reading of Philo.

  3. 3

    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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