A useful religion
The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (Little, Brown and Company, 2009, $25.99, 576 pages)
This morning, a friend of mine received a seasonal greeting card from none other than the Obama family itself, dog included. Provided that this card is an exact copy of the presumably thousands which the presidential staff ship out every December, it gives you a good idea of how best to accomodate lobbyists and politicians of various religious persuasions. Forget the Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa deliberations, just send a picture of a snow-covered White House and call it a holiday. If only the warring faiths of the world could come together under a similarly whitewashed symbol of authority. Maybe they can, at least according to Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God from 2009. A book that, if its author is correct, could serve as part prophesy, part manual to a massive religious convergence.
The key to this festive message are the concepts of zero-sum and non-zero-sum, lifted from game theory and explained in Wright’s 2000 bestseller, the Bill Clinton-endorsed Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. I haven’t read the book, but from what The Evolution of God tells me, a non-zero-sum relationship is one where both parties get something out of it (something more than zero), and according to Wright, that kind of relationship is absolutely vital if you’re looking for religious tolerance. To wit: ”[T]heological openmindedness can boil down to economic self-interest. Because both parties in a trade can benefit from it – because economic interaction is ”non-zero-sum” – two once-alien gods may find common ground,” the author says. In short, it is unwise to denounce the god of your business partner.
Wright then extends non-zero-sumness to situations where you might not gain anything from being tolerant, but at least you won’t lose either. As an example, he quotes the Roman-Jewish philosopher Philo (an allround favourite of his), who managed to get along with Caligula, even though his religion forbade him to worship the emperor as a god. Philo’s tactic was to lay low and use vague live-and-let-live arguments when accused of heresy. And it worked: ”[W]hen occasion offers it is a good thing to oppose our enemies and to destroy their power of attack, but lacking such opportunity it is to keep quiet, while if one wishes to get any benefit from them it is advantageous to propitiate them,” says Philo.
A likeable god
On this materialist and utilitarian foundation, Wright builds his main thesis: Because of non-zero-sumness the three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have evolved and are still evolving morally alongside globalisation. From sanctioning genocide in the Book of Deuteronomy to embracing (almost) universal love in the Pauline letters of the New Testament and endorsing forgiveness in the Koran, the god of Jews, Christians and Muslims has gone through a dazzling psychological transformation and is today, to a great many believers, someone they wouldn’t mind taking out for a drink. Once He slew your firstborn if you dared question his omnipotence, today he often allows even heathens to come into his churches, mosques and synagogues. Or at least, that’s what some of his followers claim, which, according to Wright the agnostic, is basically the same thing.
Back to the festive spirit then: ”So maybe the world’s peoples will move into a proper frame of mind for [cooperating]. Maybe they’ll overcome prejudice that impedes communication… That, after all, is the pattern we’ve seen in scripture: the prospect of successfully playing a non-zero-sum game breeds decency.” Which sounds promising enough in theory, but in practice is somewhat of a paradox. In order to reach a global level of tolerance, you would have to think outside the Torah and accept religions that exclude your own. Or adapt your religion to include others without too much of a fuss. In short, be as non-religious as possible.
Logos is the word
Wright admits that not everyone will like this, especially not, you know, religious people. So instead of taking the obvious consequence of his argument and suggesting a general humanist way of thinking, he semi-invents a religion or divinity, as he calls it, of his own. Logos is the name, derived from Greek, and meaning everything from speech to computation to reason to wisdom. Logos is the divine pattern that guides us towards moral excellence, Logos is what god, whatever that is, has imbued the world with, and complete exhaustion is what I felt at this apologetic attempt to square circular reasoning of various faiths flat, including Buddhism. Apparently, you don’t have to be a monotheist if you’re looking for the high road to salvation.
Robert Wright is neither Buddhist nor monotheistic, but a self-confessed agnostic who, for some reason, is not content with identifying a perfectly reasonable and insightful historical pattern: Our morals have changed, so have our gods. Not enough, this change must have meaning, there must be a masterplan, and we must call it something other than a historical pattern. Why? Because we’re special, and the natural selection that accounts for our lives along with the cultural selection that accounts for our killing each other less and less in god’s name both demand a special explanation. Why? (By the way, this is pretty much how Wright sets up the argument between the believer and the atheist, and I have to admit, it’s very user-friendly and satisfying). Perhaps because it helps us to imagine an actual god holding the moral compass. After all, we’re only apes, Wright says, and naturally selected to behave well to other people rather than with respect to some abstract ideal.
I say we, but ”[s]ome people can lead morally exemplary lives without the idea of God” (I assume Wright is one of them). ”Others need God…given the constraints on human nature, believers in God are interacting with the moral order as productively as possible… Isn’t that kind of like physicists who interact with the physical order as productively as possible by conceiving of its subatomic sources in a particular way, however imperfect that way is?” Er, no, it’s not, at least not if you’re interested in truth rather than patronizingly promoting productivity. And why is religious morality suddenly seen as productive? Only a few pages earlier, Wright admitted that religion’s worst moments were too numerous to mention.
Right side of Realpolitik
But maybe I’m going at this the wrong way. Wright isn’t a polemicist out to provoke the rabbis and mullahs of this world. If he seems over-eager not to offend them, it’s probably because he thinks it would be unproductive to do so. Religious crackpots would come at him from all sides, the media would be slobbering over it like a burning Koran, Christians would see nothing but violent Muslims on TV and vice versa. Religious warfare, in other words.
Instead, Wright comes across as the unifyer and negotiator, better equipped to stand on the President’s Realpolitikal right side in the great clash between the Muslim and the Western world than denounce him for his unconstitutional faith-based initiatives. Now the Clinton endorsement makes a lot more sense. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine Wright whispering the following words into any leader’s ear: ”We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness.”
For Westerners, this means extending our moral imagination to Muslims and endorsing interfaith understanding. Why? ”[Y]ou can’t drive terrorists ‘over the horizon’ without sending them to another planet; they can damage western interests from almost anywhere. Further, though you could in principle kill them all, in practice it’s impossible to do that without creating more of them. So many of them are embedded in civilian populations that a frontal assault would kill innocents – and the ensuing publicity would be good news for terrorist recruiters. For that matter to even find all the terrorists (a prerequisite for killing them), you’d have to do such heavy-handed surveillance as to again generate animosity that played into the hands of the recruiters.” Ah yes, quite bothersome, better to love your neighbour then.
If all this comes across as slightly too Machiavellian, the author might argue that everyone acts that way: They gradually explain the gratification of their desires into satisfactory agreement with their theoretical belief, as George Eliot would have it. Perhaps, but why then the need for something as contrived as the concept of Logos? Why not simply chime in with Seneca and exclaim, this time with historically justified optimism, that ”religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”