32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging Reading but Loose Ends
This book is interesting and well worth reading. It covers some of the same material as Karen Armstrong's book, The History of God. However, Mr. Wright also provides greater insight into the socio-political contexts that led to the significant shifts in the concept of god historically. Admittedly some of his views are speculative, but they are well researched and...
Published on 20 Aug 2009 by David Hillstrom
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Putting pet-theory before sincere journalism?
I really like Robert Wright, and I love his online presence and previous book (The Moral Animal - highly recommended) but I feel he has gone a bit soft on this one. In this book, I fear, he is letting his agenda cloud his search for truth. In that sense it appears he is not being sincere in his conclusions or that he is mistaken or (very possibly) the subtlety of his...
Published 24 months ago by Hashim_Al
Most Helpful First | Newest First
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging Reading but Loose Ends,
On the other hand Mr. Wright makes a case for directional history by drawing upon the theme developed in his earlier book, Non Zero. His proposition is that we need to understand history through the prism of game theory. Human history evolves in a positive direction (albeit with ample tragedy) because it pays to recognise that antagonistic communities share common interests. While I don't wish to go into all of the counter-arguments here, my own view is that this metaphysical argument is tenuous. Mr Wright goes further even to suggest that his discerned direction to history suggests an underlying purpose to life and to human history. His position is I believe demonstrably false and I have said as much in my own book, The Bridge. Mr. Wright takes aim at the physicist, Steven Weinberg, for his statement that there seems to be no point to the universe or to life. And so Wright presents his defence of purpose. But his arguments are underwhelming; I vote with Weinberg.
Mr. Wright develops these arguments in the final chapters of the book, where he also presents an optimistic case for the future of human history. There is certainly a worthy cause to be argued in favour of maintaining a dialogue between nation states and differing religious communities. However, Wright argues this cause by once again anchoring his position in the concept of non-zero sum game theory. First of all I don't see why it is necessary to suggest such a link. Isn't it sufficient to say that our genetic predisposition fortunately permits us an escape route from the clash of civilizations and to build upon that cornerstone from a humanist perspective? Furthermore, Wright's arguments remain at a fairly detached and theoretical level. He fails to present a serious critique of the West's responsibilities in the present day conflict with Islamic fundamentalists. And he fails to bring forward any pragmatic suggestions other than simply to maintain a dialogue and to appreciate that we are in a non-zero sum game: We are all in the same vessel, the increasingly global community.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Putting pet-theory before sincere journalism?,
This review is from: The Evolution Of God: The origins of our beliefs (Paperback)I really like Robert Wright, and I love his online presence and previous book (The Moral Animal - highly recommended) but I feel he has gone a bit soft on this one. In this book, I fear, he is letting his agenda cloud his search for truth. In that sense it appears he is not being sincere in his conclusions or that he is mistaken or (very possibly) the subtlety of his argument has gone completely over my head.
After reading up to the final chapter and agreeing with most of it until then I feel his conclusions about moral reality and "purpose/god" are wrong.
To see why, I want to use his own analogy from one of Wright's old but brilliant interviews with Steven Pinker where they discuss the eye and then morality.
The eye evolved to appreciate the naturally occurring phenomena of binocularity, Euclidian geometry and parallax etc in order to construct 3D mental images from 2D retinal image.
Morality like mathematics is naturally occurring in the universe - so co-operation, reciprocal altruism and non-zero sum logic are mathematical algorithms that just happen to work, like Euclidian geometry , without any need to invoke "special consideration" i.e "higher purpose" or "divinity" that then might imply a "divinity" as a reason for them. Instead, through strategic self interest human minds converged on to these naturally occurring moral math, that in so doing improves wellbeing beyond the individual, and therefore gives the appearance of enlightened moral behaviour. There is nothing divine or special about this.
Without human brains there is no such thing as right or wrong, only a cold meaningless universe of matter and energy. The sense that moral truth is "special" is an illusion of our human minds, as the sense of right and wrong are emotionally loaded in order to give them the necessary clout to alter our feelings and behaviours to aid in achieving the ultimate (via the proximate) goal of genetic proliferation. All human thoughts, feelings and actions are animated by human emotions, but in reality the feelings of "being wronged" or "gratitude" or "respect, fear and love" to mention a few emotional drives are just electrochemical neural circuits firing i.e. illusions.
In effect what Wright does is to wrongfully attribute higher meaning/purpose to the results of natural selection because it is amazing and great that it evolved a mind capable of feeling moral emotions. What he overlooks then is that his sense of anything being "important" or "valuable" is an emotional illusion that humdrum natural selection instilled in him. And therefore the moral sense deserves no more special consideration for higher meaning or purpose or divinity than say, 3D visual perception.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A popular introduction to the history of the Abrahamic God,
This review is from: The Evolution Of God: The origins of our beliefs (Paperback)A tour through religion from prehistoric animism, through Shamanism and Polynesian religion to the three Abrahamic faiths. Robert Wright pulls in ideas from evolutionary theory, such as Dawkins' idea of memes, and a rather simplified version of game theory to show how human ideas of god(s) have changed over time. As other reviewers have commented, there are some large omissions, such as non-Abrahamic modern religions. Arguably Wright's treatment of Shamanism and non-Hebrew polytheistic religion is also rather superficial, but what can you expect in a book of only 500 pages? This is also true of evolution, game theory and particle physics, which Wright touches on to give support for his own ideas; if you want to learn about these theories, look elsewhere, for example Dawkins' books. When it comes to Christianity and Judaism, Wright's academic credentials shine through. He writes in an informed and balanced way that is also clear and easy to read, though sometimes a little informal for my taste. I am sure his lectures are entertaining.
And what of its contribution to the "God Delusion" debate? Religious fundamentalists are likely to throw this book down in disgust, though they should try not to. Atheists will read the book nodding in agreement with 90% of it, and are likely to learn from it, unless they have studied academic theology and know his source materials already. Wright argues that religion is not as harmful as Dawkin and Hitchens claim, but it would be possible for to concede these points whilst remaining an atheist. I think there is useful reading here for the religious liberal too, though it is tucked away in the afterword and an appendix, where Robert Wright has hidden his arguments for the existence of a real, as well as a perceived, God. Unlike the rest of the book, which is easy to follow, these arguments are condensed and abstruse -- I suspect that they are flawed, but it rather hard to tell. Please Dr Wright, could you expand these arguments into another book?
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From nature to gods to God,
This review is from: The Evolution of God (Paperback)This is not a book for those of faith, as faith defines analysis. Nor is it a book for academics or theologians, who will find much to disagree with and argue over. For the others this is, for the most part, an interesting account of the historical development of one religious thread: the idea of a single god.
It is a book about a big subject; what it is not is a book about religion in general. For example, it is not concerned with religion in the East.
The author has an interest in non-zero game theory. The reader may be fascinated by this as applied to religion or may just skim over references to it. It is the reader's choice and a belief in it is not required.
The book has four main sections. "The Birth and Growth of Gods" deals with the originating ideas, in the religious respect for the forces of nature leading to a personification of these forces into a multitude of gods. "The Emergence of Abrahamic Monotheism" shows how many gods became a single tribal god, then a national god, then a universal god influenced by, or reconciled with, Greek philosophy. "The Invention of Christianity" and "The Triumph of Islam" narrates the two great surviving extensions of Abrahamic religion. Finally, a fifth section "God goes Global (or Doesn't) " give a modern summing up and a projection to the future.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Evolution of God by Robert Wright,
Some parts of the book show Robert Wright's failure to consider the other non-Abrahamic gods of ancient time and non-research of other historical facts. He equates conversion of Constantine to Christianity with that of Emperor Ashoka's (India) to Buddhism. The comparison is patently wrong. Constantine's conversion was result of a dream which he had the night before a crucial war in which he saw himself leading to victory under the banner of the Cross. The crucial war he won and with a grateful heart he embraced Christianity. Had he not won the war the Christianity most probably would have been languishing in the speaker's corner of Roman agora. The slaughtering of the enemies inspired him to embrace the new religion as a conquering religion. Ashoka's conversion was the result of slaughtering of Buddhist Kalingas as a political necessity to teach them a lesson. The carnage of his success moved him and he embraced the religion of the vanquished to atone and to show solidarity with them. The pattern is set: where the Christianity was being spread with the sword in one hand and the Bible in other, the Ashoka's Buddhism was spread with nothing in hands but begging bowls and universal understanding. Victory in war brought the imperial patronage in Christianity to spread the god's words. Pitiful slaughtering of innocents moved Ashoka to spread words of peace and non-violence. Hubris encouraged the spread of Christianity, whereas piety moved Ashoka. In page 441 Wright admitted the difference. He conceded the Abrahamic gods encouraged holy war, while Ashoka renounced any kind of war. Indeed, the history tells us that polytheistic or apparent polytheistic society never had any war on the ground of religion, e.g. ancient Greeks, or the Persians or the Hindus with their multitude of gods and yet monotheistic ideals. All followers of Abrahamic gods were involved in religious wars one time or other throughout the history in order to impose supremacy of their individual god. Wright refers to a Vedic verse (p.78) to emphasise how the ancient viewed the gods' punishment for minor lapses. He quoted examples inter alia from Mesopotamian gods, gods from Egypt etc. When the ancient parts of the Vedic scriptures were written the people had close contact with each other because the demography was fluid, there was hardly any restriction in free movement of the people. The ancient part was written in that part of India which had close contact with the Middle East. That particular verse alludes to life's snare of these diseases. There is much more spiritual connotation to that word than the Mesopotamian or Egyptian references to the diseases. There is also crucial difference - the Vedic references to the offence have ethical aspect, but the Middle Eastern offences referred to has no ethical connotation.
The ancient Vedic scriptures as old as the Bible, if not older, contains not only liturgical texts, but it songs are hymns deals with the origin of the world and of human society, philosophical speculation of existence and non-existence. The thoughts are full of theistic speculation and scepticism, and raises doubt the god's existence in relation to creation. Such profound questioning of the god and creation has never been uttered before. (Gavin Flood, An Introduction To Hinduism, 2000, p. 47)
It appears that the intention of the book is to address that the Abrahamic gods are the one and same entity, and the religious differences among these three great religions are misguided. The last few chapters, starting from page 405 unveils the Wright's message in the book. The book appeared in a crucial time when Islamists, Jews and Christians are fighting their Jihads.
Though the essential subject matter of the book is the evolution of the Abrahamic gods, I am proud to posses a copy of the book which is full of historical analysis of its subjects. His writing is fluid and shows his extensive knowledge in the Abrahamic gods. I wish he would tackle the concept of gods in other ancient religions with same vigour and precision. However, when he talks about moral order I have no dispute with that, but I do not understand when he refers to the moral truth. Quite significantly he does not define it.
8 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars aimed at the Bible Belt- otherwise jejune,
However, it fails to tell us why a proportion of the population has a tendency to experience vivid religious imagery and feelings. Karen Armstrong herself suffered from some sort of frontal lobe epilepsy- and laments that if only she had known that this was a medical problem she would not have spent years agonizing over her loss of monastic vocation. Quite apart from specific nuerological abnormalities or impairments, however, there remains the fact that a pretty constant proportion of all human populations experience religious imagery as something real rather than conventional. Surely a supposedly 'Evolutionary Psychology' approach to the subject should show why this might be an Evolutionary Stable Strategy. Wright bangs the drum of zero and non zero games- but this is irrelevant to the claim that a notion of one common God helps socio-economic development. This is because he has to ignore the non-Abrahamic religions because they don't fit his hypothesis.
What do Jews, Arabs of Mecca, Greeks and Romans have in common? They all gave a priviliged position to oracles and prophets. Why? Because of the greater Republicanism built into their political evolution. India and China do have oracles and prophets and horrific eschatologies but at the level of folk religion. However, an elite caste of diviners and astrologers fulfilled the function of the prophet- whether kahinah or Nabi.
Wright does mention Moh Tzu- he might usefully have mentioned Moh Tzu's insistence on the existence of ghosts on the utilitarian principle that if the ghosts aren't watching what will keep the peasants honest? but does not explain why China worked so well for such a long period.
No doubt, he might make the counter-claim that more of the economy in Indian and China was state controlled- but this is not really true. The fact is state control of the economy fluctuates independently of theological fashions.
Wright tells us that the Jews may have been influenced by the Persians but does not explain why Zoroaster should come up with an ontology so different from his Vedic cousins. There is no obvious zero sum/non zero sum explanation. The influence of international and domestic politics on the redaction of sacred texts like the Bible is, on the other hand, well handled by Wright.
Wright makes no mention of the function of cognitive dissonance in the Christian mythos- i.e. the notion that disappointment in the actual outcome leads to a more fervent evangelism. Current economic evolutionary game theory= of the sort championed by Ken Binmore- could help Wright add a lot of sophistication to his analysis.
The Girardian concept of a pharmakon (scapegoat)too is not mentioned.
The treatment of Islam is pretty perfunctory. I don't understand why Caliph Omar should have been anti-Jewish and how this could have influenced the redaction of the Koran. Wright gets a lot wrong. Still, at least his message is that Islam aint the bogeyman.
Actually, it is pointless to cavil. Wright is writing for a specific subsection of the American public. No one lost money underestimating the ignorance of that particular market.
12 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 5 stars because...,
3 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars i have read this, but grogan encourages me to give it a 5,
This review is from: The Evolution of God (Paperback)like another reviewer here, i am giving this a five due to the theorising of another reviewer, mr grogan.
i have read it, and it is very interesting, though has little information on eastern religions. people like grogan will only ever give reviews like that because they have the assumed worldview of the historicity and rectitude of christianity.
well worth a read for a synopsis of the birth of monotheism.
1 of 10 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars His only understanding of religion is Westernized,
This review is from: The Evolution of God (Hardcover)The problem with the authors understanding, and defining other religious traditions through history is based on a western concept. Not a good read, and poorly argued theories.
1 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Oh God!,
Anyway I'd like to give it 2 stars, but I'm afraid unsurprisingly it will have to be only 1 because of DS's prosaic review and the trite, supercilious, bullyboy, bandwagoning and backslapping that ensues thereafter. This isn't the Times Literary Supplement get your hand in your pocket if you demand better content.
Oh, the perspicacious irony. (Thankyou Mr. Kitson).
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The Evolution Of God: The origins of our beliefs by Robert Wright (Paperback - 4 Nov 2010)