Friday, July 24, 2009

Robert Wright's optimistic account of religion

Some five years ago, I began to create in these pages a kind of balance sheet displaying what was beneficial and what was noxious in the heritage of the Abrahamic religions. At the outset I kept a hopeful outlook. That is to say, once the bad stuff was purged, each of the three major faiths must needs reveal its own edifying core. Removing the dross would make the positive contributions stand out more clearly. Possibly, I thought, there was a temporal dimension in this inquiry. Without doubt, some of the most disturbing religious effluvia derive from the “primitive,” formative phases (think of the Pentateuch and the more horrendous parts of the Koran). As time went on, it would seem, the Abrahamics had succeeded in civilizing themselves--at least up to a point.

Fairly early on I had to abandon this sunny outlook. I acknowledged that the deleterious matter cannot be, as it were, quaranteened by confining it to the early phases. The ugly truth is that the most outrageous rubbish pervades the three Abrahamics. It runs through all of them, all the time.

By contrast, Robert Wright has espoused the view I discarded, for a progressive approach underlies his much-noticed recent book, The Evolution of God (for excerpts, see the site

Like many seemingly novel approaches, Wright’s has had significant predecessors. In fact, the idea that religion shows a history of progress goes back to German theologians of the first half of the nineteenth century. First, they said that man made God and not vice a versa. A second theme was what Arthur O. Lovejoy has called the “termporalization of the Great Chain of Being.” That is to say, instead of having a vertical hierarchy, with the lowest values at the bottom and the highest at the top, one tips the scheme on its side. Thus humanity evolves from primitive ideas to more refined ones. Why should this process not rule in religion, just as it has in other spheres of human endeavor?

In his earlier book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2000), Wright argued that human history shows increasing opportunities for non-zero-sum interaction where both parties achieve something. This “win-win” situation stands over against zero-sum situations where one party gains at the expense of the other.

In the aggregate this gradual shift lends a favorable direction to the history of civilization. Somewhat breathlessly, Wright exclaimed that “it is hard, after pondering the full sweep of history, to resist the conclusion that--in some important ways, at least--the world now stands at its moral zenith to date."

Now comes The Evolution of God, where Wright further elaborates his view that moral progress is central to the course of history. It might even be termed the “deep structure” of humanity’s adventure on this planet.

In his new book Wright offers a rationalist analysis of changing portrayals of gods and God. But he also indicates that history shows there might be a kind of "God force" behind moral improvement. I note that his thesis is compatible with two positions regarding the ever-contentious question of the existence of supernatural beings: 1) gods are purely human artifacts, though they tell us a good deal about moral thinking: 2) there is something like a god, but of a very attenuated sort.

Wright holds that God evolves. By this claim he means not so much an actual God, which may in fact be an illusion, but rather our thinking about gods and God. His "evolution" is essentially cultural evolution, though the book provides an appendix on the possible biological roots of religion.

The main part of the book seeks to trace the history of gods from hunter-gatherer societies through chiefdoms, polytheistic kingdoms, the emergence of monolatry and monotheism, and ultimately the scriptural presentation of God in the Abrahamic faith of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (One notes parenthetically that this view is centered on the West. Why should not Buddhism or Daoism represent the pinnacle of humanity’s religious evoluton?)

Among other things, Wright is interested in how gods may have felt about cultural outsiders, about "others" who are not part of one's own group. Gods, it seems, have oscillated between two policies: inciting their followers to destroy those perceived as aliens vs, fostering accommodation and acceptance of people with different beliefs--or at any rate their incorporation, forceful or otherwise, into the body of believers. Whether gods were viewed as belligerent toward out-groups or not often depended on the political needs of societal leaders at the time. When leaders perceived zero-sum conflict situations in relations with other groups it was useful to have one's own gods cheering the effort on. But this was not always the case. If there were inviting non-zero-sum opportunities in alliances, as through trade or military coalitions, then it became useful to be more cooperative, accepting to some degree others' gods as well as one's own. This process of assimilation was common in polytheism, whereby individual deities fused into a clan of gods, related to each other by family ties.

One of Wright's central themes is that human history reveals a moral trajectory in which opportunities to realize the good are constantly increasing. He claims that "[t]he march of history challenges people to expand their range of sympathy and understanding, to enlarge their moral imaginations, to share the perspective of people ever farther away." To be sure, it is not inevitable that we will keep coming closer to moral truth, but Wright believes that growing process of the non-zero-sum situation requires us to face up to the task. Otherwise we will descend into chaos.

Conceding that there has been no simple linear progress, the author posits that there has been an overall forward movement in fits and starts, with some backsliding along the way.

Wright then seeks to draw conclusions from his exposition. He acknowledges that if there is a moral order, and if conceptions of God have evolved to support it, that does not necessarily mean there is a God. Still, he hopefully asserts, these conditions may tend to tip the balance in favor of the God-hypothesis.

Even if gods arose from illusions, Wright suggests, the evolution of such illusions "points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity." Without insisting that the God hypothesis is is true, he asserts that it is not implausible.

In his valuable commentary at Amazon, Jay C. Smith reaches an unfavorable conclusion. “Wright's reasoning is dubious. From his questionable assertion that there has been moral progress it is a big leap to claim, as he does, that it reflects a purposeful historical goal. Patterns do not necessarily imply purposes. And only after he has smuggled in the idea of purposeful history is it possible for him to speak of a source of the purpose. A ‘purpose’ by its very nature has an agent, some sentient entity capable of intent, at least in our common understanding. Where we see purposes we see agents, just as Wright does here. There are further flaws in his logic, including reliance on a false analogy between propositions about God as the source of moral order and physicists' postulation of electrons to help explain the behavior of matter.”

Presently, I will let Wright speak in his own words, copying the gist of the Internet version of Chapter 13 of his book, which concerns the emergence of the Christian idea of the afterlife.

I preface these passages, though, with the following observations. Some peoples, such as the ancient Greeks, held a somewhat vague idea of the afterlife, suggesting that the dead persist in the form of ghosts, a radically diminished form of existence. This idea has folk survivals in modern observances of the Hallowe’en type. With their idea of living a glorious life in all eternity, the ancient Egyptians had a much more hopeful view--at least for some, because the Egyptians held that before attaining this state one must undergo various perils; succumbing to these would mean extinction.

Another concept holds bad people do not simply disappear, having failed the test for a happy afterlife. Instead, they suffer eternal torment for their sins. This notion responds to the idea that the world must exhibit some overall pattern of justice, whereby the prosperity of the wicked in this life is balanced by punishment in the next. The tremendous contrast between the fate of the blessed and that of the damned probably reflects the influence of Zoroastrian dualism. Significantly, the word “paradise” comes from Old Persian.

Indian religions respond to this concern for inclusive justice by offering a different solution, the idea of samsara, whereby people are reborn in a living state befitting their previous karmic status. Like Christianity and Islam, Mahayana Buddhism also entertained the ideas of heaven and hell, the punishments in the latter being particularly severe.

Any proper sense of the origins of the Christian idea of the afterlife requires attention to anticipations stemming from the late phase of Second Temple Judaism. Much of this material did no make it into the Hebrew Bible. One text, though, did make it: the book of Daniel, which belongs to the second century BCE. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Dan. 12:2). The frescoes in the Synagogue of Dura Europos make it clear that many thought of this awakening as an actual resurrection of the body.

In her otherwise useful and learned book, The Resurrection of the Body (1995), Caroline Walker Bynum ignores this Jewish evidence, maintaining that the idea of the resurrection of the body is sui generis in Christianity. Concededly, it is a strange doctrine, with all sorts of consequences regarding the treatment of the dead. However, it is not unique to Christendom. It is one of a number of significant doctrines that bind Christianity with major strands of the Hellenistic Judaism of the latter part of the Second Temple Era. Because of these connections, Christianity ranks as a continuation of Judaism--in some ways more authentic than the later neo-Judaism of the rabbis--and not an antithesis to it.

Having made these points, I turn to Wright’s own excerpt from Chapter 13 of his book. For convenience I omit quotation marks.

[Robert Wright:]

The idea of followers of Jesus getting to join him in heaven upon dying probably didn’t take shape until about a half-century after Jesus died. To be sure, Jesus’s followers believed from early on that the faithful would be admitted to the “Kingdom of Heaven,” as the New Testament calls it. But “Kingdom of Heaven” is just Matthew’s synonym for what an earlier Gospel, Mark, had called the “Kingdom of God.” And this kingdom was going to exist on Earth, when God righted history’s many wrongs by establishing an enduringly just rule.
The Gospel of Luke, written around 80 or 90 CE, half a century after the crucifixion, offers the New Testament’s earliest clear expectation of a rewarding afterlife upon death. Luke says that the god-fearing criminal hanging on the cross next to Christ will find himself in “paradise” alongside Christ that very day. Luke also tells a story about the afterlives of a rich man and a poor man. The rich man, who died without repenting his sins, goes to a part of the underworld where, he observes, “I am in agony in these flames.” The poor man has better luck. He finds himself in the company of Abraham—perhaps, as some have argued, in heaven, but, at the very least, in a more hospitable part of the underworld: someplace where “he is comforted.”
Some scholars contend that this idea of immediate reward for the Christian dead goes back to Christ himself—who, after all, is the one who in Luke makes these two references to the afterlife. Yet neither reference is found in the earliest gospel, Mark, or in the earlier-than-Luke “Q source” (the hypothesized source of stories shared by Luke and Matthew).
What caused this shift in expectations by the time Luke was written? For one thing, as the decades rolled by and the supposedly imminent Kingdom of God failed to materialize, there was growing concern among Jesus’s followers over the state of the not-yet-resurrected dead. The Apostle Paul, writing around two decades after Jesus’s death, had reassured followers that recently departed family and friends of believers would join “the rest of us” in the Kingdom once the Kingdom came. But by the time of Luke, more than a decade after Paul’s death, hopes for the Kingdom’s near-term arrival had dimmed.
Now the attentive Christian was concerned not just about whether dead friends and relatives would eventually be resurrected but about what death would feel like until resurrection—since it increasingly looked as if the Christian in question would join his or her friends and relatives in that state before Judgment Day.
Had Christian doctrine not evolved in response to this challenge, it would have lost credibility as the Kingdom of God failed to show up on Earth—as generations and generations of Christians were seen to have died without getting their reward. So the Kingdom of God had to be relocated from Earth to heaven, where generations of Christians had presumably gotten their reward—and you could, too, if you accepted Christ as your savior.
Why is it Luke, not the roughly contemporary Matthew, who makes this pivot? Maybe because Luke is a more “gentile” gospel. Whereas Matthew often seems to be trying to convert devout Jews to the Jesus movement, stressing its compatibility with traditional Judaism, Luke is focused on winning “pagan” converts. And if he is going to compete with pagan religions, he’d better make sure that Christianity can match their most popular features
And one of those features was a blissful afterlife. Though the official gods of the Roman state offered no such thing, the empire had been besieged by foreign cults that, by filling this void, had won followings. These religions of salvation came under a variety of brands. Persian cults talked of souls migrating through the planetary spheres to paradise, and Greek cults offered bliss in Hades, the Greek underworld that had once offered only a humdrum existence for the average soul but now featured lush subdivisions. Many rivals of Christianity seem to have been thriving in part by offering eternal bliss.
Am I saying that Luke stole his afterlife scenario from a competing religion? Not with great confidence, no. But if you wanted to indict him on this charge, you would not be wholly lacking in evidence. The evidence would focus on the Egyptian god Osiris. Osiris bears a certain resemblance to Jesus as Christians would later come to conceive him; Osiris inhabited the afterworld and judged the recently deceased, granting eternal life to those who believed in him and lived by his code. But Osiris was doing this a long time before Jesus was born, and meanwhile he had migrated to the Roman Empire, where he had developed a following.
Certainly that story in Luke about the rich man and the poor man in Hades has Osirian overtones. At the time Luke was writing, a written copy of an Egyptian story about the afterlife was circulating in the Roman Empire. It was about a rich man and a poor man who die and go to the underworld. Both are judged at the court of Osiris.
The rich man’s bad deeds outweighed his good, and so he was consigned to one of the less desirable stations. (Specifically, the story explains: the “pivot of the door” to the underworld is “planted in his right eye and rotating on this eye whenever the door is closed or opened.” Understandably, his “mouth was open in great lamentation.”) In contrast, the poor man, whose good deeds outweighed his bad, got to spend eternity in the company of the “venerable souls,” near the seat of Osiris. Plus, he got the rich man’s clothes: “raiment of royal linen.” (The rich man in Luke’s story wore “purple and fine linen.”) The moral of the story, “He who is good upon earth they are good to him in Amenti (the underworld), while he that is evil they are evil to him.”
Luke’s story about the rich man and the poor man seems to have no precedent in earlier Jewish or Christian tradition. So there is indeed a chance that Luke heard or read the Egyptian story and adapted it for Christian use. But we’ll probably never know, and anyway, that isn’t the point. The point is that, whether or not Luke borrowed this particular story from Egypt’s heritage, this theme—immediate reward in the afterlife—must have come from somewhere, and the likely source is one of the religions with which Christianity competed in the Roman Empire.

[Thus Robert Wright]

There is much that could be said about this exposition. For one thing, it relies upon the concept of the delayed parousia, the purported tardy arrival of the Kingdom, so strongly emphasized by Albert Schweitzer and others of his generation. Yet recent scholarship, notably the members of the Jesus Seminar, tends to downplay this assumption. There is also too much focus on Egyptian sources to the exclusion of others. As I indicated above, Iranian and Jewish precursors played important roles. For an encyclopedic survey of these precursors, see Alan F. Segal Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (2004).



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