Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Evolution of God

The Religion News Service has an interview with Robert Wright, the author of The Evolution of God. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but it's created a lot of buzz and I wanted Baha'i Thought readers to know about it. I've included the entire brief interview below:

Q: Your book treats its title character primarily as a human construct, which might appeal to one of the `new atheists.’ Yet it seems to channel Rick Warren when it talks about the universe’s “higher purpose.” So who should be more offended, Warren or Richard Dawkins?

A: I try to be an equal opportunity offender, although I do think there’s also something for both religious people and atheists to like.

Q: You suggest that in the case of each faith, God depicted in Scripture “grows.” Can you give an example?

A: Monotheism—the belief that there is just one God—emerged among the Israelites around the time of their conquest by Babylon and exile there. The resulting God has a retributive attitude: he gleefully anticipates the coming punishment of nations who have persecuted Israel. But after the Exile, when Israel became part of the Persian empire and its neighbors were no longer enemies, Jewish Scripture described a more inclusive and compassionate God.

Q: So when their context became more favorable, their God became more tolerant. You call that a “non-zero-sum” situation. What does that mean?

A: A zero-sum relationship, like a game of chess, means that you must lose for me to win. Non-zero-sum describes situations where we both win if we play our cards right.

Non-zero-sum situations multiply as societies become more interdependent. I argue that Christianity really developed the doctrine of love as it became part of the Roman Empire, whose regions were highly interdependent. And Islam became more tolerant to keep its own empire harmonious.

Q: So social change determines the nature of God? Won’t that bother the true believers?

A: Yeah, I think the primary motivating forces are economic, political and technological, with religion responding. But that doesn’t mean there is no divine purpose unfolding, because the purpose could be unfolding through the material world. It could be built into the universe.

Q: You write of “salvation” as a social goal, not a personal aim. That doesn’t sound very Southern Baptist.

A: I’m not a Southern Baptist anymore. But salvation always had two dimensions for me. One was eternal life; but it also had to do with living a life worthy of salvation. I think of the universe as having a moral axis, and moving yourself closer to it is a kind of salvation, although obviously not as glamorous as spending eternity in heaven.

Q: Unlike the new atheists, you unabashedly suggest that “there is a point to it all—a higher purpose” that may be godly.

A: I think that evolution—both biological and cultural—can argue for a divine purpose. Both exhibit not just direction, but eventually a moral direction, a natural tendency to move toward moral truth. I’d call that evidence for a higher purpose, if not proof.

Q: Each monotheistic religion claims exclusive possession of the truth. But you say that for the world to survive, monotheistic faiths will have to give up their “specialness.” Is that possible?

A: Saying one possesses the unique path to salvation creates potentially deadly friction. Is it possible for them to maintain distinct identities while letting go of some of that specialness? Yes, there’s a history of religions making those adaptations. Would it be a tragedy if their identities became less distinct? No.

So long as religion makes people better I don’t think it matters—and I don’t think God would think it matters—whether the religions come under several brands or one.

Q: You’ve recently said that President Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world was “broadly consistent” with the ideas in your book. How so?

A: That speech indicated respect for Islam as a faith and—through its critique of Israeli West Bank settlements—recognized Muslims’ sense of real-world embattlement. It showed sophistication about how religion works.

George Bush called Islam “a religion of peace,” but one got the sense that he wasn’t totally sure. Obama seems less captive to the idea that religions have some kind of eternal character. He understands that the mood of a religion grows out of facts on the ground and a perception of others’ attitude toward it. Right now that’s a particularly useful recognition.

There is a great deal here that a Baha'i could agree with. First is the concept of "God" being a human construct. This would appear to potentially undermine the case for the existence of God as the "new atheists" and others argue. Yet, "God" as a human construct is really about us rather than about God. Baha'u'llah taught that the finite human mind is incapable of fully grasping the infinite reality that we refer to as God, "How then can I sing and tell of Thine Essence, which the wisdom of the wise and the learning of the learned have failed to comprehend, inasmuch as no man can sing that which he understandeth not, nor recount that unto which he cannot attain, whilst thou hast been from everlasting the Inaccessible, the Unsearchable" (Compilations, Baha'i Prayers, p. 120). Thus, when human beings talk about God what we are really talking about are our "ideas" about God (or constructs) because that is the best we can do. Thus, it is our ideas about God that "evolve" as Wright puts it.

The second concept is religion (in this case ideas about God) adapting to changing social realities. Baha'u'llah taught that religion is organic in nature, that it changes according to the needs of the time, "The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements" (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 213).

If we are indeed entering a period of global interdependence, humanity definitely needs ideas about God that transcend the zero-sum, us-vs-them mentality as Wright is arguing. Promoting such ideas is central to the mission of the Baha'i Faith.

"The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God's holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife. The religion of God and His divine law are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquillity of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God" (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 129).