Book Review: the Epic, Complex, and Incomplete “Evolution of God”

In the Evolution of God (not to be confused with Karen Armstrong’s History of God), Robert Wright–author of Why Buddhism is True and The Moral Animal–applies the logic of non-zero-sumness that he’s known for, and the logic of Darwinian theory of natural selection, to describe the evolution of the idea of God, from the most primitive conceptions of the spirits conjured up by shamans who attended to chieftains, all the way through urban development and globalization.

The author also applies the logic of the markets (which is not too different from the logic of non-zero-sumness) to the evolution of divinity. Non-zero-sumness derives from game theory, and has always informed the author’s worldview. According to Wikipedia,

non-zero-sum describes a situation in which the interacting parties’ aggregate gains and losses can be less than or more than zero

The author argues that non zero sumness “translates rational selfishness into the welfare of others”, and otherwise his rhetoric seems reminiscent of hedonic calculus with the goal of achieving mutual advantage. In other words, the author argues that as time has progressed and societies have gotten more developed, both morality and God have evolved based on facts on the ground related to the extent to which people have more to gain from cooperation than from conflict. Religions are studied as exercises in utilitarianism that were localized in time and space.

Overall, the book weaves a long and quite interesting narrative and is an enjoyable read. The criticisms that I’ll offer here do not take away from that. I simply feel that this evolution-of-God narrative is incomplete and needs more nuance.

For instance, the author claims that “no one else achieved” what Saul of Tarsus (aka Paul) supposedly did when he created primitive Christianity. The author clearly has not read Norman DeWitt’s St Paul and Epicurus, which presents a compelling case, citing verses from Paul’s writings that demonstrate how Paul was largely reacting against the Epicureans, and elsewhere copying their educational model and their model of community-building, all the way up to the tradition of writing didactic epistles to be read out loud and studied by the congregation–a practice that the Epicureans invented, as attested by Epicurus’ Epistles to Menoeceus, Pythocles, and Herodotus.

Furthermore, the success of his church was sometimes in spite of Paul, not because of him. We see this in Paul’s rejection by the Church of Ephesus, attested in both his epistles and the second chapter of the Book of Revelation. Hence, it seems that too much credit is given to him, and that there seem to have been many other forces shaping the primitive church. Elsewhere, the author seems to give too much credit to theologians in general, as when he defines God vaguely as the “unknown thing at the source of moral order”, which sounds JUST like the empty words that theologians are known for employing.

In summarizing the three Abrahamic religion towards the end of the book with a rhetorical question, we read:

So if neither Moses nor Jesus nor Muhammad arrived on the scene with breathtaking news, and if indeed the origins of all three Abrahamic faiths can be viewed as a kind of cultural synthesis, an organic recombination of preexisting elements, what becomes of the claim that they are religions of revelation?

This characterization of all religion as syncretistic of previously existing elements to some extent is a more accurate description of the nature of all religion than the author realizes, and he fails to apply the insights gained from a panoramic view of the landscape at the end of the book to important questions about the future of God, many of which he raises.

The offshoot sects of the “big three” are also syncretistic, and we can expect as globalization advances that these offshoot cults–like the Ahmadou Bamba phenomenon in fairly tolerant Muslim Senegal, which inspires pilgrimage to the holy city of Touba in addition to Mecca, or the “Christian” sect of Mormonism–will continue to grow, and that similar cults will continue to emerge, so long as they’re favored by “facts on the ground” related to mutual advantage.

  • The Sikh faith was founded by a lineage of ten Gurus in Punjab, India. A unique product of its region, geography, and preceding cultures, it blends elements of Islam and Hinduism, has five ritual commandments by which followers of the ten Gurus signal their separateness to the rest of society, is monotheistic, and its holy text is called Guru Granth Sahib. There are more Sikhs than Jews in the world. No mention of Sikhism in the book.
  • The Ahmadiyya movement within Islam emerged in India also, teaches a reformed Islam that adapts Hindu avatars as prophets of Allah, emphasizes non-violence and tolerance, and is active in missionary work promoting Islamic apologetics. It even has its own Khalifa who operates out of London.
  • When discussing potential models for the future evolution of God as expanding the “moral circle of consideration” of people, no mention is made–perhaps because they escape the author’s radar of world cultures–of Afro-Latin cults like Candomble and Santeria, and Afro-Islamic cults like the Gnawa brotherhoods in North Africa, which syncretize spirits from African pantheism and polytheism into Catholicism (as saints) or Islam (as jinn), complete with animal sacrifices, their own rituals, chants, etc. In these cults, we see populations who are nominally monotheists reverting back to polytheistic worldviews, which demonstrates that evolution implies adaptation, not progress in this or that direction (in this case, as is implied, toward pure monotheism). The Gnawa are a major cultural attraction in Morocco, and Santeria is so mainstream in Cuban culture that the annual predictions and taboos announced by its high priests (babalaos) are piously awaited and followed by a huge following in Cuba and abroad. There are more followers of the Orisha (African Gods) in the world than there are Jews, but no mention of them in the book, either on their own or as syncretized into saints.
  • Many Native American cults and churches incorporate elements of Christianity and claim to be monotheistic. Others, of diaspora African origin–like Rastafarianism–do likewise.
  • Some non-denominational movements in America (like the Agape Church) exhibit prophetic tendencies that might evolve into a more organized new religion, and some New Age movements (like the “Conversations of God” series of books) have transformed religiosity and concepts about God for millions of believers, both unaffiliated and affiliated.
  • In the Great Goddess movement in Wicca and contemporary neo-paganism, we see that God is shifting gender in some parts of contemporary culture, and that large portions of the demographics from Russia, Europe, North America, and all the way to Australia, are reverting back to both ancestral and global forms of neo-paganism.
  • No conversation of the Abrahamic God’s evolution as related to mutual benefit and “facts on the ground” should be complete without mention of the Baha’i Faith, which–unlike Islam–has the actual claim of being the last of the Abrahamic faiths. Its doctrine preaches tolerance to all religions, and recognizes the prophets of all the major Eastern and Western religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism). After Christianity, it is the most widespread of the universal religions in terms of global presence, with over 5 million followers worldwide. Yet the Bahá’í Faith is not mentioned at all in Wright’s book.
Bahá'í House of Worship in Chicago

Bahá’í House of Worship in Chicago

The Bahá’í teachings would have provided an optimistic and unique perspective on the issue of God’s evolution in the age of globalization, as they offer not just a syncretism of all the major previous faiths, but also a post-colonial (that is, non-salvific) theology. It claims that people of all cultures and religions are already worshiping the same Deity. Rather than spreading through violence, the Bahá’í faith has spread non-violently by marketing itself as a perfect solution to the moral and social problems of globalization, including feminist issues (claims to confer full equality upon women), issues of poverty (teaches that the gap between rich and poor must be closed and that all men and women must have access to a full education), modernity (teaches that one must accept science as compatible with faith), tribalism and communication issues (promotes the establishment of a universal auxiliary language like Esperanto), environmental issues and those related to intolerance. If the God meme evolves and adapts to the times just like genes do, as the author claims, what better exhibit than the Bahá’í faith? Yet, it gets no mention in the book.

Lord Sri Krishna, Supreme Personality of Godhead

Lord Sri Krishna, Supreme Personality of Godhead

Also, there are many varieties of monotheism that have sprung in various places–as the book half-concedes when mentioning the cult of Aten in Ancient Egypt. By focusing on the Abrahamic God, the book also misses a couple of opportunities to trace back the complexity of how the various forms of monotheism have origins in polytheism, or at least are so embedded in polytheistic cultures that they’re sometimes hard to discern.

  • Evolution of God barely mentions Zoroastrianism, an important precursor to all the Abrahamic faiths. Zoroaster postulated the ancestor memes of ideas like Satan (Angra Mainyu) in eternal battle with God (Mazda), heaven and hell, angels, judgement and resurrection of the dead, the idea of prophethood, and many of the hygienic taboos found in Islam and in the Old Testament. It also features a World Savior (the Saoshyant) coming to usher in a New Age–an idea that we also find in Hinduism (Bhagavad Gita 4:7-8) and, of course, early Christians clearly attempted to make the claim that Jesus was the Saoshyant that the Magi (Zoroastrian priests) had prophesied when they were featured in the nativity narrative.
  • In chapter 15–which focuses on the “Supreme Personality of Godhead”–, in chapter 8, and elsewhere in the Bhagavad Gita (the “Song of the Lord”, which is the Gospel of one of the divine incarnations in Hinduism), Lord Krishna presents a Hindu theology that many have called monotheistic, OR at least proto-monotheistic. Krishna says that one yoga, or spiritual path, consists on full surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead as one’s only refuge. Many modern Hindus often conceive of themselves as monotheistic as a result of these interpretations of their faith.

Then there’s the problem of the moral confusion generated by illegitimate concepts like “God’s law”. When the history of God is explained as a history of moral development–in this case, described as an “ever-expanding circle of moral consideration–, it leads to the perpetuation of the fallacy that credulity or ritual adherence equals morality, and that the tricks of moral bribery employing afterlife promises and such are the only legitimate way in which moral development may occur. This case is becoming even more difficult to argue today, when such bribery is also employed to convince thousands of Islamic terrorists to kill and die in exchange for afterlife sex. The book concedes that Buddhism and other, non-Abrahamic religions and cultures have notions of morality, and have experienced expanding circles of moral consideration in their own histories, but only dedicates a few brief pages to them.

Also, the book’s assumption that God, as an idea, evolved morally through the imperial projects of the salvific religions largely ignores the huge amount of violence these enterprises engaged in historically, and exhibit still today–even as he mentions the Stockholm syndrome as a normal adaptation responsible for our conformist bias, and one that we see at play in cults.

The author fails to explain that, by Darwinian evolution, what is meant is adaptation, not necessarily progress from something worse (rudimentary, violent) to something better (complex, and/or non-violent, as is often implied). As we see with the Gnawas and with Santeria, God’s adaptation sometimes takes him back into a polytheistic milieu after centuries of monotheistic brainwashing. The ideas of God that have succeeded have been those that have best adapted to their particular milieu: the author should have clarified that there is no rational “direction” in which God is evolving (i.e. “pure” monotheism). It remains to be seen–although we can already begin to glimpse–what the people of Papua New Guinea, and of the many cultures of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, will do with God in the coming centuries.

To conclude, the history of God’s adaptation and evolution is not complete, and perhaps it would be unfair to expect anyone to write it in fullness.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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