The Evolution of God

The Evolution of God

by Robert Wright


$16.20 $18.00 Save 10% Current price is $16.2, Original price is $18. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Eligible for FREE SHIPPING
  • Want it by Friday, October 19  Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.
    Same Day shipping in Manhattan. 
    See Details


The Evolution of God by Robert Wright

In This Sweeping, dazzling journey through history, Robert Wright unveils a discovery of crucial importance to the present moment: there is a pattern in the evolution of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and a "hidden code" in their scriptures. Through the prisms of archeology, theology, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, Wright repeatedly overturns conventional wisdom to show how and why religion can strengthen the social order-even in an age of globalization-and explains how modern science not only is compatible with religion but actively affirms the validity of the religious quest.

Vast in scope and thrilling in ambition, The Evolution of God brilliantly alters our understanding of God and where He came from-and where He and we are going next.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316067447
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 05/03/2010
Pages: 567
Sales rank: 247,638
Product dimensions: 5.37(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Robert Wright is the author of Nonzero, The Moral Animal, and Three Scientists and Their Gods. He is a contributing editor to the New Republic, Time, and Slate, and he runs, a rapidly growing Web site for intellectual discourse. He has also taught in the Philosophy Department of Princeton University and the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

The Evolution of God

By Robert Wright

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2010 Robert Wright
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-73491-2


The Primordial Faith

The Chukchee, a people indigenous to Siberia, had their own special way of dealing with unruly winds. A Chukchee man would chant, "Western Wind, look here! Look down on my buttocks. We are going to give you some fat. Cease blowing!" The nineteenth-century European visitor who reported this ritual described it as follows: "The man pronouncing the incantation lets his breeches fall down, and bucks leeward, exposing his bare buttocks to the wind. At every word he claps his hands."

By the end of the nineteenth century, European travelers had compiled many accounts of rituals in faraway and scarcely known lands. Some of these lands were inhabited by people known as savages—people whose technology didn't include writing or even agriculture. And some of their rituals seemed, like this one, strange.

Could a ritual like this be called religious? Some Europeans bridled at the thought, offended by the implied comparison between their elevated forms of worship and crude attempts to appease nature.

Maybe that's why Sir John Lubbock, a late-nineteenth-century British anthropologist, prefaced his discussion of "savage" religion with a warning. "It is impossible to discuss the subject without mentioning some things which are very repugnant to our feelings," he wrote in The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man. But he made his readers a promise. In exploring this "melancholy spectacle of gross superstitions and ferocious forms of worship," he would "endeavour to avoid, as far as possible, anything which might justly give pain to any of my readers."

One pain Lubbock spared his readers was the thought that their brains might have much in common with savage brains. "The whole mental condition of a savage is so different from ours, that it is often very difficult to follow what is passing in his mind, or to understand the motives by which he is influenced." Though savages do "have a reason, such as it is, for what they do and what they believe, their reasons often are very absurd." The savage evinces "extreme mental inferiority," and his mind, "like that of the child, is easily fatigued." Naturally, then, the savage's religious ideas are "not the result of deep thought."

So there was reassurance aplenty for Lubbock's readers: "Religion, as understood by the lower savage races," is not only different from civilized religion "but even opposite." Indeed, if we bestow the title "religion" on the coarse rituals and superstitious fears that observers of savage society have reported, then "we can no longer regard religion as peculiar to man." For the "baying of a dog to the moon is as much an act of worship as some ceremonies which have been so described by travellers."

Maybe it shouldn't surprise us that a well-educated British Christian would so disparage elements of "primitive religion." ("Primitive religion" denotes the religion of nonliterate peoples broadly, whether hunter-gatherer or agrarian.) After all, in primitive religion there is deep reverence for raw superstition. Obscure omens often govern decisions of war and peace. And the spirits of the dead may make mischief—or may, via the mediation of a shaman, offer counsel. In short, primitive religion is full of the stuff that was famously thrust aside when the monotheism carried out of Egypt by Moses displaced the paganism of Canaan.

But, actually, that displacement wasn't so clear-cut, and the proof is in the Bible itself, albeit parts of the Bible that aren't much read by modern believers. There you'll find Israel's first king, Saul, going incognito to a medium and asking her to raise the prophet Samuel from the grave for policy input. (Samuel isn't amused: "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?") There you'll also find raw superstition. When the prophet Elisha, preparing King Joash for battle against the Arameans, tells him to strike the ground with some arrows, he is disappointed with the resulting three strikes: "You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Aram until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Aram only three times."

Even the ultimate in Abrahamic theological refinement—monotheism itself—turns out to be a feature of the Bible that comes and goes. Though much of the scripture assumes the existence of only one God, some parts strike a different tone. The book of Genesis recalls the time when a bunch of male deities came down and had sex with attractive human females; these gods "went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them." (And not ordinary children: "These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.")

Here and elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible—the earliest scripture in the Abrahamic tradition, and in that sense the starting point for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—holds telling remnants of its ancestry. Apparently Abrahamic monotheism grew organically out of the "primitive" by a process more evolutionary than revolutionary.

This doesn't mean there's a line of cultural descent between the "primitive" religions on the anthropological record and the "modern" religions. It's not as if three or four millennia ago, people who had been talking to the wind while pulling their pants down started talking to God while kneeling. For all we know, the cultural ancestry of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam includes no tradition of talking to the wind at all, and certainly there's no reason to think that Chukchee religion is part of that ancestry—that back in the first or second millennium BCE, Chukchee culture in Siberia somehow influenced Middle Eastern culture.

Rather, the idea is that "primitive" religion broadly, as recorded by anthropologists and other visitors, can give us some idea of the ancestral milieu of modern religions. Through the happenstance of geographic isolation, cultures such as the Chukchee escaped the technological revolution—the advent of writing—that placed other parts of the world on the historical record and pushed them toward modernity. If these "primitive" cultures don't show us the particular prehistoric religions out of which the early recorded religions emerged, they at least give us a general picture. Though monotheistic prayer didn't grow out of Chukchee rituals or beliefs, maybe the logic of monotheistic prayer did grow out of a kind of belief the Chukchee held, the notion that forces of nature are animated by minds or spirits that you can influence through negotiation.

Savage Logic

This, in fact, was the theory of one of John Lubbock's contemporaries, Edward Tylor, a hugely influential thinker who is sometimes called the founder of social anthropology. Tylor, an acquaintance and sometime critic of Lubbock's, believed that the primordial form of religion was "animism." Tylor's theory of animism was among scholars of his day the dominant explanation of how religion began. It "conquered the world at one blow," one early-twentieth-century anthropologist wrote.

Tylor's theory was grounded in a paradigm that pervaded anthropology in the late nineteenth century, then fell out of favor for many decades, and lately has made a comeback: cultural evolutionism. The idea is that human culture as broadly defined—art, politics, technology, religion, and so on—evolves in much the way biological species evolve: new cultural traits arise and may flourish or perish, and as a result whole institutions and belief systems form and change. A new religious ritual can appear and gain a following (if, say, it is deemed an effective wind neutralizer). New gods can be born and then grow. New ideas about gods can arise—like the idea that there's only one of them. Tylor's theory of animism aimed to explain how this idea, monotheism, had evolved out of primitive religion.

"Animism" is sometimes defined as the attribution of life to the inanimate—considering rivers and clouds and stars alive. This is part of what Tylor meant by the term, but not all. The primitive animist, in Tylor's scheme, saw living and nonliving things alike as inhabited by—animated by—a soul or spirit; rivers and clouds, birds and beasts, and people, too, had this "ghost-soul," this "vapour, film, or shadow," this "cause of life and thought in the individual it animates."

Tylor's theory rested on a more flattering view of the "primitive" mind than Lubbock held. (Tylor is credited with a doctrine that became a pillar of social anthropology—the "psychic unity of mankind," the idea that people of all races are basically the same, that there is a universal human nature.) He saw animism not as bizarrely inconsistent with modern thought, but as a natural early product of the same speculative curiosity that had led to modern thought. Animism had been the "infant philosophy of mankind," assembled by "ancient savage philosophers." It did what good theories are supposed to do: explain otherwise mysterious facts economically.

To begin with, the hypothesis that humans have a ghost-soul handily answers some questions that, in Tylor's view, must have occurred to early humans, such as: What is happening when you dream? Primitive societies use the notion of the human soul to solve this puzzle. In some cases the idea is that the dreamer's ghost-soul wanders during sleep, having the adventures the dreamer later recalls; decades after Tylor wrote, the anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown observed that Andaman Islanders were reluctant to awaken people, since illness might ensue if sleep was interrupted before the soul came home. In other cases, the idea is that the dreamer is being visited by the souls of others. In Fiji, Tylor noted, people's souls were thought to leave their bodies "to trouble other people in their sleep."

And the idea that the souls of dead people return to visit via dreams is widespread in primitive societies. Thus animism handles another enigma that confronted early human beings: death itself. Death, in this scenario, is what happens when the soul checks out of the body for good.

Once early humans had conceived the idea of the soul, Tylor said, extending it beyond our species was only logical. The savage couldn't help but "recognise in beasts the very characteristics which it attributes to the human soul, namely, the phenomena of life and death, will and judgement." And plants, "partaking with animals the phenomena of life and death, health and sickness, not unnaturally have some kind of soul ascribed to them."

For that matter, the idea that sticks and stones have souls is rational if viewed from the standpoint of "an uncultured tribe." After all, don't sticks and stones appear in dreams? Don't ghosts that we see while dreaming, or while delirious with fever, wear clothes or carry weapons? "How then can we charge the savage with far-fetched absurdity for taking into his philosophy and religion an opinion which rests on the very evidence of his senses?" Tylor may have had Lubbock in mind when he said of primitive peoples, "The very assertion that their actions are motiveless, and their opinions nonsense, is itself a theory, and, I hold, a profoundly false one, invented to account for all manner of things which those who did not understand them could thus easily explain."

Once a broadly animistic worldview had taken shape, Tylor believed, it started to evolve. At some point, for example, the notion of each tree having a spirit gave way to the notion of trees being collectively governed by "the god of the forest." This incipient polytheism then matured and eventually got streamlined into monotheism. In 1866, in an article in the Fortnightly Review, Tylor summed up the whole process in what may be the only one-sentence history of religion ever published—and may also be one of the longest sentences of any kind ever published:

Upwards from the simplest theory which attributes life and personality to animal, vegetable, and mineral alike—through that which gives to stone and plant and river guardian spirits which live among them and attend to their preservation, growth, and change—up to that which sees in each department of the world the protecting and fostering care of an appropriate divinity, and at last of one Supreme Being ordering and controlling the lower hierarchy—through all these gradations of opinion we may thus see fought out, in one stage after another, the long-waged contest between a theory of animation which accounts for each phenomenon of nature by giving it everywhere a life like our own, and a slowly-growing natural science which in one department after another substitutes for independent voluntary action the working out of systematic law.

Any questions?

There have been lots of them, actually. Tylor's theory hasn't kept the stature it once held. Some complain that it makes the evolution of gods sound like an exercise in pure reason, when in fact religion has been deeply shaped by many factors, ranging from politics to economics to the human emotional infrastructure. (One difference between modern cultural evolutionism and that of Tylor's day is the modern emphasis on the various ways that "memes"—rituals, beliefs, and other basic elements of culture—spread by appealing to nonrational parts of human nature.)

Still, in one broad sense Tylor's view holds up well today. However diverse the forces that shape religion, its early impetus indeed seems to have come largely from people who, like us, were trying to make sense of the world. But they didn't have the heritage of modern science to give them a head start, so they reached prescientific conclusions. Then, as understanding of the world grew—especially as it grew via science—religion evolved in reaction. Thus, Tylor wrote, does "an unbroken line of mental connexion" unite "the savage fetish-worshiper and the civilized Christian."

At this level of generality, Tylor's worldview has not just survived the scrutiny of modern scholarship, but drawn strength from it. Evolutionary psychology has shown that, bizarre as some "primitive" beliefs may sound—and bizarre as some "modern" religious beliefs may sound to atheists and agnostics—they are natural outgrowths of humanity, natural products of a brain built by natural selection to make sense of the world with a hodgepodge of tools whose collective output isn't wholly rational.

Elaboration on the modern understanding of how "primitive" religion first emerged from the human mind can be found in the appendix of this book. For now the main point is that, even if Tylor's animism-to-monotheism scenario looks deficient from a modern vantage point, there is still much in it that makes sense. In particular: to understand the early stages in the evolution of gods, and of God, we have to imagine how the world looked to people living many millennia ago, not just before science, but before writing or even agriculture; and there is no better aid to that thought experiment than immersing ourselves in the worldview of hunter-gatherer societies that have been observed by anthropologists—the world-view of "savages," as both Lubbock and Tylor would say.

Of course, it would be nice to observe literally prehistoric societies, the societies whose religion actually did evolve into the ancient religions on the historical record. But there can't be detailed records of beliefs that existed before writing; all that is left is the stuff archaeologists find—tools and trinkets and, here and there, a cave painting. If the vast blank left by humanity's preliterate phase is to be filled, it will have to be filled by the vast literature on observed hunter-gatherer societies.

Using hunter-gatherers as windows on the past has its limits. For example, the anthropological record contains no "pristine" hunter-gatherer cultures, cultures wholly uncorrupted by contact with more technologically advanced societies. After all, the process of observing a culture involves contact with it. Besides, many hunter-gatherer societies had been contacted by missionaries or explorers before anyone started documenting their religions.

Excerpted from The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. Copyright © 2010 Robert Wright. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 3

I The Birth and Growth of Gods

1 The Primordial Faith 9

2 The Shaman 29

3 Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms 46

4 Gods of the Ancient States 70

II The Emergence of Abrahamic Monotheism

5 Polytheism, the Religion of Ancient Israel 99

6 From Polytheism to Monolatry 131

7 From Monolatry to Monotheism 165

8 Philo Story 188

9 Logos: The Divine Algorithm 216

III The Invention of Christianity

10 What Did Jesus Do? 245

11 The Apostle of Love 264

12 Survival of the Fittest Christianity 288

13 How Jesus Became Savior 303

IV The Triumph of Islam

14 The Koran 329

15 Mecca 344

16 Medina 355

17 Jihad 375

18 Muhammad 389

V God Goes Global (Or Doesn't)

19 The Moral Imagination 409

20 Well, Aren't We Special? 431

Afterword: By the Way, What Is God? 444

Appendix: How Human Nature Gave Birth to Religion 460

A Note on Translations 484

Acknowledgments 486

Notes 489

Bibliography 542

Index 555

Reading Group Guide 569

What People are Saying About This

Andrew Sullivan

[The Evolution of God] gives me hope...The tone of the book is dry skepticism with a dash of humour; the content is supple, dense and layered...fresh and necessary.

The Times

From the Publisher

"[An] in-depth approach yields original insights." —-Kirkus

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Evolution of God 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 66 reviews.
Spirit13Finder More than 1 year ago
Robert Wright captured my spirit from the first page sharing his own personal religious expression through the response from his mother's church. The answers for the personal decision to seek, believe, or worship God is an individual one. The book explores man's many reasons for the search. This book expanded my mind having me rethink history, and man's understanding of the world, while connecting past behavior to why I, today, follow the practices that I do. The book was thought provoking revealing religious practices, and beliefs from past, current, and future possibilities. Where are we going, and is it important to know the ending, or is the bases for it all living within our connection to breath which is the common factor for life. What do you think?
CGDB More than 1 year ago
The Evolution of God dares to address the history including similarities and differences in three religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism) that all claim to worship the same god. The book is innovative and insightful in its treatment of where the religions started and how they changed in time as much by the needs of man at the time as by devine inspiration. It is good food for thought presenting compelling facts and reasoning to a subject that is usually overridden with dogma.
DannyD47 More than 1 year ago
This is a fantastic book. If you find the evolution of religious thought interesting, you will enjoy this publication. Anyone that takes the time to read this offering will understand why religions have been with us throughout history. Although, the author may not see religions in a positive light, he does believe that they can help people to live in harmony. Buy, read, learn, and enjoy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The idea of a secular view of God is very provocative. This book, even with Mr. Wright's frequent flippant comments is definitely not an easy read and behind all the snide and snarky remarks lies serious matter for thought, though probably not for discussion. I found the book engaging and difficult to put down. His major premise of religion adjusting to the "truths on the ground", true or not, was well argued. Many historical examples are invoked to support his position, most of which I, personally, must take on faith that he is correct. I think his little sermon at the end on how to address the current issues with the Moslem world on the mark but probably more appropriate for the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times than this book. Overall, one of the best personal development books I've ever read.
ExiledNewYorker More than 1 year ago
Wright provides engaging, comprehensible descriptions of the emergence of different religious streams that built into the three western monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He is clear on his sources, his facts and his speculation. His objective, admittedly materialistic approach assesses how certain strains of thought came to dominate and others disappeared. His key dynamic is his assumption that over time, self interest drives people to select for non-zero sum paths. Wright's own path and conclusions may be rote stuff to religion scholars, but as a somewhat religious and educated person, I found most of them quite intriguing. It's fascinating but not necessarily fun. I found myself thinking "Gee, I didn't really need to know that" a few times, as certain assumptions about the development of the Old Testament were dissected. The wrap-up and conclusions with Wright's view on how a contemporary intellectual can reconcile faith with science is interesting, complex and, at least in my case, less satisfying.
JohnMulqueen More than 1 year ago
Wright's explanaiton of St. Paul's success by his own admission is highly speculative, incomplete and one dimensional. So what is the point? He is honest in admitting the limitations of his approach and conclusions but also tries to leave the reader with the impression that he has explained Paul and early Christianity. He has not. Paul was more than the slick entrepreneur that Wright makes him out to be. His comments at time are too facile, even silly. See his characterization of Tertullian's famous remark that pagans would marvel at the love Christians showed to one another. For Wright this means they did not love all humanity. Wright does not cite in his bibliongraphy works by Gesa Vermes, Paula Fredriksen, Raymond Brown and John Meier (except for Vol 1 of Meier's magisterial four volume history of Christ and first century Christianity and Israel) That is almost enough grounds to dismiss the book which at times reads like a management consultant report at a business conference. John Mulqueen
DonVG More than 1 year ago
Traces how our perception and views of God have changed from early beginnings of religion to how we see our relationship with God now. Does not actually force a reader to believe in God but just details how historical events have changed how "God" is viewed by Christians, Jews and Muslims and how we must look at things to follow our religious beliefs. This is not a quick read and the author makes a few assumptions that I could not agree with, but in all a very good book.
Tex2010 More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing book. Robert Wright use extensive research and dry wit to provide a forum for understanding so much about our religious beliefs. He moves into areas that are uncomfortable for those who are not willing to take a hard look at their own belief system. Whether you agree or not with his conclusions (and he hesitates to draw many instead leaving it open for you to decide) it is hard to argue with his logic. This book makes you want to read more, learn more and understand more of things we really don't have the answer to & yet have the most profound impact on our lives.
Prinston7 More than 1 year ago
This is a great book that gives credence to all peoples beliefs, like a landscape flowing it cracks of water into one major point. It it is a non-bias read, and nobody ought to make comment unless they are willing to stay the course on this one. A good follow up read would be "The Missing Message" by G Michael Price
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think Wright has hit the nail on the head regarding how faith and belief have evolved over thousands of years. This is not exclusively  about Christianity or Islam. It is about out propensity to change our religious beliefs based on a variety of influences over long periods of time. Regardless of how you might feel about how he treats a specific religion, his premise is spot on in the larger picture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Insightful. Raw. Real. I highly recommend
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very enjoyable and informative book. I consider it a great addition to my library. For me it was a new and interesting take on how we view god. I highly recommend it to for all open minded people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago