By Robert Wright
Time, June 15, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
If you juxtapose the Abrahamic Scriptures with what scholars have learned about
the circumstances surrounding their creation, you find that some situations
inspired tolerance and others inspired the opposite. This pattern is a code. To
see this code, we can look at the world that gave us the Hebrew Bible and the Koran.
Israel's King Solomon was flagrantly polytheistic. When
Solomon married a foreign woman of royal blood, it cemented relations with
another nation, which also meant paying respect to the nation's gods. Solomon
saw relations with other nations as a game with a potential win-win outcome.
People are more open to the religious beliefs of other people if they sense a
win-win outcome. The flip side is that seeing a zero-sum game can foster
intolerance. This worldview helped move Israel from the polytheism of Solomon's
time toward a monotheism that took root in the middle of the first millennium
Paving the way to monotheism was a series of prophets who cried out for
exclusive devotion to Yahweh, railing against the polytheistic ways of Israel.
Among the earliest was Hosea in the 8th century BCE.
In 640 BCE, the Israelite King Josiah pushed Israel closer to monotheism. Within a few decades of his death, true
monotheism emerged. In 586 BCE, many Israelites were exiled to Babylon. In
passages from Isaiah that are thought to have been written during the exile,
Yahweh says, "Besides me there is no god." Does this extreme intolerance flow
from a zero-sum view?
The author of these monotheistic passages, "second Isaiah," sees an Israel long
tormented by "oppressors." The punishment that Isaiah envisions for these
enemies seems to include subjugation and denial of their gods. Isaiah's God
promises the Israelites that, come the apocalypse, all people will "make
supplication to you, saying, 'God is with you alone, and there is no other.'"
After the exile, life looked up. The Babylonians who had conquered Israel were
in turn conquered by the Persians. Nearby nations were now fellow members of the
Persian Empire and so no longer threats. Books of the Bible such as Ruth and
Jonah strike a warm tone toward peoples that in pre-exilic times had been
The priestly source P wrote of
an "everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that
is on the earth." Between second Isaiah's angry exilic exclamations and P's more
congenial voice, Israel segued from an exclusive to an inclusive monotheism.
Muhammad's preaching career started in Mecca around 613 CE, and he seems to have
had hopes of drawing Jews and Christians into a common faith. In the Koran the
Prophet's followers are told to say to fellow Abrahamics, "Our God and your God
This hope of playing a win-win game shows up in overtures to Jews. Muhammad
said God chose "the children of Israel ... above all peoples." As for
Christians, Muhammad said Jesus was "the Messiah ... the Messenger of God, and
His Word ... a Spirit from Him."
rejection from Christians and Jews. A Koranic verse captures his
disillusionment. "O Believers! Take not the Jews or Christians as friends. They
are but one another's friends." Once you're convinced it's win or lose, the
bonhomie dries up.
Within years of Muhammad's death in 632 CE, Islamic leaders started conquering
lands far and wide. The doctrine of jihad mandates battle against unbelievers with the aim of conversion. But Muslim
leaders soon found that trying to compel uniform belief in a multinational
empire was a lose-lose game. Doctrines granting freedom of worship to Christians
and Jews emerged promptly.
Meanwhile, the notion of a "greater jihad" arose.
As in Israel after the exile, the Abrahamic God, having found himself in a
multiethnic milieu, underwent moral growth. In both cases, God spent enough time
in benevolent mode to leave the Scriptures littered with odes to tolerance and
The code embedded in the Scriptures suggests that the key is to arrange
relations between Muslims and Jews to give a non-zero sum. Sometimes this may
mean engineering a win-win, for example by strengthening commerce between Israel
and the Palestinian territories. Other times it may mean emphasizing that
continued strife between Israelis and Palestinians will be lose-lose, while
enduring peace would be win-win.
This happy ending is hardly assured. But at least we can quit talking as if
intolerance and violence were inevitable offshoots of monotheism.
One World, Under God
By Robert Wright
The Atlantic, April 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
For many Christians, the life of Jesus signifies the birth of a God of universal
love. The Hebrew Bible chronicled a God who was sometimes belligerent,
nationalist, and harsh. Then Jesus came along and set a different tone.
the Stone Age, the scope of social organization has expanded. This has extended
mutual understanding across bounds of ethnicity, religion, and nationality. In
both Islam and Judaism, as in early Christianity, an imperial, multiethnic
milieu winds up fostering a tolerance of other ethnicities and faiths.
Now, as we approach the global level of social organization, another burst of
moral progress is needed. Success is hardly guaranteed, but at least the early
history of Christianity and indeed of all Abrahamic faiths gives cause for hope.
Paul was a big champion of themes Christianity is famous for, such as love and
brotherhood. Since Paul was writing after the time of Jesus, it was natural to
assume he got these ideas from the teachings of Jesus. But Paul's emphasis on a
love that crosses ethnic bounds doesn't follow from his core message.
The origins of Paul's doctrine of interethnic love lie not in his own loving
kindness but from the interplay between his driving ambitions and his social
environment. Early Christian churches provided the essentials of social security: care for widows and orphans, the
old, the unemployed, and the disabled, burial for the
poor, and a nursing service in time of plague. A church was one big family.
made the most of the information technology of epistles. His letters are tools
for solving administrative problems. And many in the church thought they needn't
accept the church's guidance in moral matters. They lacked brotherly love. Hence
Paul's harping on that theme. Because he felt compelled to move on across the
empire, he had to implant brotherly love as a governing value.
As Elaine Pagels wrote in
"From the beginning, what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of
Christians ... was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an
extended family." The doctrine of brotherly love became a form of remote control
to induce congregational cohesion.
Some other Jewish followers of Jesus insisted that to qualify for Christ's saving
grace, Gentiles had to abide by Jewish law. Paul grasped the importance of such
barriers to entry. So far as Gentiles were concerned, he jettisoned most of
them. There is little doubt about his strategic wisdom.
Christianity is famous for welcoming the poor and powerless into its
congregations, but to run the congregations, Paul needed people of higher social
position. These people were needed to provide a meeting place. And like him,
many of them were travelers. They could carry letters to distant churches and
they could even found distant congregations.
These people were cosmopolitan. When economics draws people of different
ethnicities and cultures into mutually beneficial relationships, interethnic and
intercultural tolerance often ensue. As the franchising continued, and the
church expanded to more and more cities, it offered new benefits to church
leaders, such as reliable lodging. Paul's letters to Christian congregations
often include requests that they extend hospitality to traveling church leaders.
It is implausible that a doctrine of true, pure, boundless love could emerge
from the strategic imperatives of entrepreneurship, even when the enterprise is
a religion. The core appeal of the early church was that brotherly love was a
form of familial love. And familial love is directed toward kin, not toward
everyone. Paul usually preaches love directed first and foremost toward other
Christianity made a name for itself by extending generosity to non-Christians.
Some of those it befriended joined the church, and others no doubt spoke highly
of it thereafter. Yet Christianity was an organization that wanted to grow, and
central among its enticements was that membership brought the benefits of an
It would be nice if all Christians, Jews, and Muslims had moral horizons
expansive enough to encompass one another. The early histories of both Islam and
Judaism show them to possess the kind of pragmatic flexibility that ancient
In the case of ancient Israel, the empire in question was the Persian Empire,
which Israel became part of in the sixth century BCE. The creation of the
Islamic Empire was not a study in intercultural tolerance. But Muslims dug up some helpful utterances from Muhammad. For example:
"There is no compulsion in religion."
In a highly globalized and interdependent world, the
vast majority of people in all three Abrahamic faiths have more to gain through
peaceful coexistence and cooperation than through intolerance and violence.
In all three Abrahamic religions, amity and tolerance cross
national or ethnic bounds when people feel they can gain more through peaceful
interaction than through conflict. History has relentlessly expanded the range
across which these dynamics hold. Globalization is the culmination of this
None of this guarantees moral progress. The world is full of conflicts that
illustrate this fact. If there is some overarching purpose to history, it is to
give our species the choice of either making moral progress or paying the price.
By Paul Bloom
The New York Times, June 28, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
The Evolution of God
By Robert Wright
Little, Brown, 576 pages
Robert Wright tells the story of how God grew up. He argues that there is a moral direction to human history, and proposes
that the increasing goodness of God reflects the increasing goodness of our
species. He argues that the Abrahamic faiths were forced toward moral growth as
they interacted with each other.
Wright is tracking people's conception of the divine, not the divine itself. He
describes this as "a good news/bad news joke for traditionalist Christians,
Muslims and Jews." The bad news is that your God was born imperfect. The good
news is that he doesn't really exist.
it is not God who evolves. It is us. God just comes along for the ride. Wright argues that social conditions shape the God we create. Change the world,
and you change the God. The next step is for practitioners of Abrahamic faiths
to renounce the specialness of monotheism altogether.
Wright is not arguing that you need divine intervention to account for moral
improvement, which can be explained by a "mercilessly scientific account"
involving biological evolution. But the fact that the universe is so constituted
that moral progress takes place is no argument for a divine being.
Faith and Belief
Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
The Evolution of God
By Robert Wright
Little, Brown, 576 pages
The Case for God
By Karen Armstrong
Alfred A. Knopf, 432 pages
If an ancient literary work were turned into sacred scripture, then could it not
create social pressure, then behavioral changes and, finally, over a
sufficiently lengthy period, even genetic modification? And can the Jewish and
Christian Bibles and the Koran be read as the record of a process of human
domestication, a taming and gentling of mankind over time?
Robert Wright reads the three mentioned scriptures in the retrospective light of
the steadily growing, gradually more peaceful world community to which they seem
to lead. Despite the frequent violence of this three-stranded history, Wright
discerns a vector tending distinctly toward unity and away from division.
Globalization, for him, is the culmination of this process.
Wright looks for an explanation written into evolution itself. As natural
selection begot cultural evolution and cultural evolution begot successively
more comprehensive forms of social organization, "there appeared a moral order,
linkage between the growth of social organization and progress toward moral
truth. It is this moral order that, to the believer, is grounds for suspecting
that the system of evolution by natural selection itself demands a special
creative explanation." This is finally an argument from design for the existence
of God, and as such it does not convince.
Karen Armstrong would dismiss Wright's vision of a deity inferred from the
evidence of human evolution. For her, the mistake lying at the core of the
West's disaffection from received religion is that of regarding the case for God
as one to be made from such evidence. The alternative she offers is an ancient
way of talking about "God, Brahman, Dao, or Nirvana" as different names for the
reality that exceeds human comprehension and escapes human language, including
all human predication of existence or nonexistence.
The earliest Christian theology was apophatic. It was a kind of religious
language whose task was to acknowledge in human language the inadequacy of human language. Whatever it said, apophatic theology immediately
took back, and took back the taking back.
Armstrong describes how apophatic theology was forgotten in the late
Middle Ages. She relates how rational and then quasi-scientific Newtonian
theology rose to replace it in early modernity, then how, when others were
recognizing this as a mistake, fundamentalists tightened their embrace of the
Now, in the wake of the failure of both modern theism
and its atheism, postmodern theology may point toward the recovery of what was
God Is Back
By Karen Armstrong
Foreign Policy, November/December 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
God Is Dead
No. Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God in 1882. But since 9/11, God
has proven to be alive and well. The new atheists have denounced religious
belief as not only retrograde but evil. They are wrong about human nature. As
soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions.
We are meaning-seeking creatures.
God and Politics Shouldn't Mix
Not necessarily. Theologically illiterate politicians have long given religion a
bad name. An inadequate understanding of God that reduces "him" to an idol in
our own image is the worst form of spiritual tyranny. In the West, secularism
was achieved gradually over the course of nearly 300 years. In the Middle East,
overly aggressive secularization has sometimes backfired.
God Breeds Violence and Intolerance
No, humans do. As a species, we survived by killing and eating other animals. So
pervasive is this violence that it leaks into most scriptures. But "religious"
wars always begin as political ones. Even the actions of jihadists have been
inspired by politics, not God. Fundamentalism — whether Jewish, Christian, or
Muslim — is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation.
God Is for the Poor and Ignorant
No. The current financial crisis shows that the religious critique of excessive
greed is far from irrelevant. Conquest of egotism has always been essential in
the quest for the transcendence we call "God." Religion is hard work, requiring
a ceaseless effort to get beyond selfishness.
God Is Bad for Women
Yes. It is unfortunately true that none of the major world religions has been
good for women. In their rebellion against the modern ethos, fundamentalists
tend to overemphasize traditional gender roles. Unfortunately, frontal assaults
on this patriarchal trend have often proven counterproductive.
God Is the Enemy of Science
He doesn't have to be. The conflict with science is symptomatic of a reductive
idea of God. Popular fundamentalism represents a widespread rebellion against
modernity, and evolution epitomizes everything that is wrong with the modern
God Is Incompatible with Democracy
No. Samuel Huntington foresaw a "clash of civilizations" between the free world
and Islam. But a hundred years ago, nearly all leading Muslim intellectuals were
in love with the West. A 2007 Gallup poll shows that support for democratic
freedoms and women's rights is widespread in the Muslim world.
Can Science Explain Religion?
By H. Allen
The New York Review of Books
Volume 57, Number 1, January 14, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
Robert Wright offers a materialist account of religion. He argues that
religious responses to reality are generally explained by game theory and
evolutionary psychology. Subtle aspects of the human mind were shaped by
Darwinian natural selection to allow us to recognize and take advantage of
certain social situations. Throughout history, cultures collided and human
beings encountered more and more non-zero-sum opportunities. Religion
responded rationally and the "moral circle" expanded.
emerge from Wright's analysis. The history of religion has a discernible
direction. Man's views of God have generally grown more abstract and more
attractive morally. Evolutionary change in religion is typically gradual.
The power of non-zero-sum dynamics might help us resolve contemporary
tensions between the Islamic world and the West. Wright purports to provide
an account of the evolution of God.
Wright's story begins with
shamanism. The shaman's world was animated by a host of gods who lived
within forces of nature and who determined the fates of individuals and
tribes. Religion had little to do with morality and everything to do with
the prosecution of war and intratribal politics. With the rise of
agriculture, society grew more complex, placing a premium on social harmony.
Religion got into the business of policing people.
cultures came into contact. Wright argues that non-zero-sum dynamics
prevailed. States had much to gain from one another by trade or armed
alliances. So the roster of gods recognized by any group simply expanded to
include those of other groups. But polytheism's days were numbered.
Wright's account of the rise of monotheism among the Jews represents the
most impressive part of his book. The process was complex. Wright stresses
that the evolution of Yahweh responded to tangled political, military, and
economic conditions. Also, the evolution of monotheism was gradual. Traces
of polytheism remain in the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh evolved from a thunderous,
almost corporeal being into a more abstract and transcendent one, the "still
In the first century CE, Philo of Alexandria offered a
syncretic theology that attempted to blend Hebrew tradition and Greek
philosophy, faith and reason. Such reconciliation required an allegorical
reading of scripture. In Philo's theology, the Logos is conceived in the
mind of God and then uttered into the physical universe. The unfolding of
the Logos introduces a directionality into history.
Christianity, Wright again emphasizes the Darwinian gradualness of the
evolution of this new religion. The earliest of the canonical gospels, Mark,
presents a Jesus who seems more a typical apocalyptic prophet than the Word
Incarnate. The Christian doctrine of universal brotherly love appeared later
with the apostle Paul. Wright argues that the development of this doctrine
can be seen as a response to local conditions, to encourage harmony within
quarrelsome churches, as part of a business plan.
surveys the evolution of Islam. He argues that Islam also reveals the
adaptive nature of religion's responses to local conditions. When Muhammad
resided in Mecca, he was a politically powerless prophet who antagonized the
rich and suffered the ridicule of the people. The parts of the Koran that
date from Muhammad's Meccan years are frequently conciliatory. But when
Muhammad relocated to Medina, his followers grew into a powerful political
and military force. Islam had fewer reasons to pursue a strategy of
tolerance and the Koran began to speak in a less conciliatory tone.
Western faith has grown more tolerant and has encouraged the expansion of
the moral circle. But Wright's theory is obviously incomplete. To a
considerable extent, what we mean by a great moral act is one in which a
person who performs it might lose materially. To promote kindness or
tolerance in a win-win situation is unremarkable. To do so in a situation in
which you might lose materially is part of what characterizes the religious
When Wright turns to tensions between Islam and the West,
he announces that "the mere existence of non-zero-sumness isn't enough." Two
further things are needed. First, people must see that they're engaged in
non-zero-sum dynamics. Second, responding wisely can call for more than just
seeing the non-zero-sumness. Sometimes it calls for an apprehension of a
kind of moral truth.
Wright assures us that the moral imagination,
the mental ability to put oneself in another's shoes, was "designed" by
natural selection to help us exploit non-zero-sum opportunities. So the
argument is that an evolutionary psychological construct, the moral
imagination, lets us see game-theoretic situations that are non-zero-sum.
And the result, often enough, is cooperation and the expansion of the moral
The problem, Wright reveals, is that the moral imagination is
now backfiring in troubled relations among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
The reason for this backfiring is familiar from evolutionary psychology:
"Our mental equipment for dealing with game-theoretical dynamics was
designed for a hunter-gatherer environment, not for the modern world." To
resolve tensions between Islam and the West, the moral imagination needs to
be expanded to "a place it doesn't go to unabetted." Wright claims that one
of the great achievements of religion is that it periodically steps in and
expands the moral imagination.
This is an inversion of Wright's
thesis. His causal chain was that the mental capacity of moral imagination
(built by natural selection) lets us recognize win-win opportunities (game
theory), which, in turn, causes the moral circle to expand (via religion).
But now the chain is inverted: religion must modify the moral imagination.
It's hard to see how this inversion forms part of a materialist account of
religion and disconcerting to learn that religion is now needed to solve our
Wright's key claim is dressed up in the language of game
theory and evolutionary psychology. But game theory and evolutionary
psychology are so pliant that they can explain almost anything. Wright's
readings of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Koran sometimes degenerate
into clever attempts to explain each passage as a response to specific local
circumstances. Take his explanation of why Paul was so big on brotherly
love. Surely Paul traveled tirelessly because he believed in brotherly love.
Finally, Wright seems to believe that his analysis might tell us
something about God. But Wright's materialist account of moral progress
provides evidence neither for nor against anything transcendent. The history
of biological and cultural evolution on Earth neither confirms nor disproves
anything transcendent. Wright's efforts reflect more an intuition than a
By Robert Wright
The Atlantic, November 2013
Edited by Andy Ross
In 1999, Joshua Greene invented the trolley problem: An out-of-control
trolley is headed for five people who will surely die unless you pull a
lever that diverts it onto a track where it will instead kill one person.
Should you pull the lever? Or suppose that you could avert the five deaths
by pushing a fat man off a footbridge and onto the track, where his body
would stop the train just in time to save the five. Would you do that?
Brain scans of people while they thought about the trolley problem
suggested that people who refused to save five lives by pushing an innocent
bystander to his death were swayed by emotional parts of their brains,
whereas people who chose the utilitarian solution showed more activity in
parts of the brain associated with logical thought.
is sometimes more about gut feeling than about logic. Greene says the
salvation of humankind will be metamorality. The impulses and inclinations
that shape moral discourse are legacies of natural selection. We were
designed to get along together in small societies. Greene says human tribes
fight not because they are selfish but because they have incompatible
visions of what a moral society should be.
Greene believes that moral
behavior maximizes overall human happiness. Utilitarianism is his candidate
for metamorality. On the trolley-problem brain scans, the people who opted
for the utilitarian solution were less under the sway of the emotional parts
of their brain than the people who resisted it. But if the foundation of a
morality is a feeling, how do you get devout Christians, Jews, and Muslims
to abandon their value systems?
Human groups tend to overestimate
their own virtue, magnify their grievances, and do the reverse with their
rivals. This bias seems to have been built into our species by natural
selection. People benefit from cooperating with other people, but
collaborators on joint projects always overestimate the importance of their
The brain lets you forget your sins and remember
your grievances. Confirmation bias is a tendency to notice facts consistent
with your thesis and overlook facts that contradict it. Confirmation bias is
generally called a cognitive bias, but cognitive biases can have moral
consequences just as surely as trolley-car intuitions do.
biases interact with a sense of justice. Rewarding good behavior increases
its frequency, and the threat of punishment discourages bad behavior.
Extracting the benefits of cooperation involves helping other people and
reciprocating kindnesses extended to you. It may mean punishing those who
have abused your trust. So the impulses governing cooperation range from
gratitude to righteous indignation.
Maybe much of the problem has
less to do with differing moral visions than with the simple fact that my
tribe is my tribe and your tribe is your tribe. For things to get really
nasty, you need more than just the existence of two groups. The most common
explosive additive is the perception that relations between the groups are a
toggle: one up, one down.
Many Americans see Muslim terrorists as
motivated by a jihadist ideology that compels militants to either kill
infidels or bring them under the banner of Islam. But jihadists say they
perceive that America is at war with Islam. Americans and jihadists agree
that retaliation is justified for people under attack. The disagreement is
over the facts of the case. Retributive justice is a moral language spoken
around the world.
There are genuine disputes over values. But the
conflicts may draw at least as much energy from prior intertribal tensions.
Some of our deepest moral intuitions are gut feelings that are with us for
no more lofty a reason than that they helped our ancestors protect
themselves and spread their genes. Even the emotional aversion to pushing
the guy onto the trolley track is because in the deep past it would have
started a blood feud.
Maybe the first step toward salvation is to
become more aware of ourselves. Impressive cases of bias neutralization
involve people who have spent time in meditative practices that make them
more aware of the workings of their minds. Nourishing the seeds of
enlightenment is a better bet than trying to convert all the tribes to
utilitarian metamorality. Utilitarianism is not the key to salvation.
Sam Harris on morality
By Moshe Halbertal
The New Republic, October 26, 2013
Edited by Andy Ross
Ronald Dworkin rejects moral naturalism on two grounds:
1 Human life has an objective
meaning and importance. Our values and moral convictions are not contrived
responses to be explained as an outcome of the evolutionary process. They
cannot be reduced to facts about our history and ourselves. They are
The universe is not merely an aggregate of particles governed by laws that
we happen to experience as striking or beautiful. Even if there were no
conscious human creatures that could experience the world, it would still be
sublime. Its inner independent quality fits the experience of encounter with
Maimonides claimed that what made God transcendent to
the world was the unique nature of His being. The existence of the universe
is contingent, while that of God is necessary. The universe depends on His
existence. God is one and indivisible, whereas the world is an aggregation
of contingent objects.
Spinoza identified nature with God. He
attributed to the universe qualities that tradition had attributed to God.
He claimed that the attributes of necessity, independence, and unity
actually belong to the universe and not to a transcendent God.
Einstein rejected contingency in the universe. His search for the ultimate
theory that would unify the gravitational and nuclear forces was an
expression of his lifelong conviction that the world is essentially one. The
search for these ultimate features is essentially a matter of faith.
Dworkin argued for the thesis that morality has three essential qualities:
independence, necessity, and unity. The wrongness of cruelty is something
beyond our choice. Moral claims are are not grounded by any fact about us or
by any fact about the world. They are grounded by reference to other values
The complete independence of the moral realm extends
to its relation to religion. Morality cannot be grounded by the fact of the
will and command of God. Religion rests on a prior value. The independence
of morality implies that all godly religions are based on a prior religion
that asserts the inevitability and the independence of moral obligations.
Moral inevitability and necessity clashes with naturalism and
postmodernism. Naturalists hold that we can provide an exhaustive
explanation of the moral realm through evolutionary biology and the
structure of our mind. Postmodernists argue that our moral convictions are
ideological constructs that have no objective value.
maintains that moral conflicts have right and wrong answers that integrate
our values and commitments into a unified whole. He is well aware of the
conflicts between religious fundamentalism and liberalism, but he hopes that
his objective unified convictions will somehow converge with the religious
world. He acknowledges that this demands a leap of faith.