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from saturday's books section

God is dead! Long live God!"

Although Robert Wright never makes this proclamation in The Evolution of God, it aptly sums up his approach to the history of monotheism. On the one hand, he uses evidence similar to that of the "God is dead" preachers and agrees with their decidedly human interpretation of religion.

On the other hand, he counters the argument that religion is evil and fastens the future hope of humanity on its continuance, despite the lack of evidence for God.

Wright presents a decidedly materialist account of religious origins. Human conceptions of God evolve and mature in response to factors such as nature, politics, economics and technology, with no influence from divine beings. In a departure from typical materialist approaches, however, Wright maintains the validity of religious world views, arguing that they contribute to human flourishing.

  • The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Little, Brown, 567 pages, $28.99

Wright summarizes and synthesizes a variety of religious texts, anthropological reports and religious-studies theorists. As dull as this might sound, his style is easygoing and engaging and does not labour under heavy academic jargon. In the opening chapters, early religious phenomena are presented functionally as comforting people "in the face of uncertainty or doubt."

Yet Wright is most interested in the development of what would become the three dominant monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic tradition: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That these religions evolved with ethical and universalist impulses gives Wright hopes that they may be at the forefront of peace and tolerance in the 21st century.

Wright, whose previous book was the widely acclaimed The Moral Animal, details how varying, and at times contrary, understandings of the divine pantheon eventually coalesced among the Hebrew people, moving from polytheism (recognition of many gods) to henotheism (the precedence of one god over all others) to monotheism (the existence of a single god).

The texts of the Hebrew Bible reflect "the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end." The driving force behind this was functional rather than theological. "God" provided comfort for the faithful while supporting and sustaining the economic and foreign policies of the rulers. Together, these factors allowed for a sometimes peaceful, if uneasy, co-existence among nations.

In discussing the "invention of Christianity," Wright reads the canonical gospel texts critically, noting the heavy influence of each author's theology and style on the presentation of the Jesus narrative. The historical Jesus was a Jewish reformer who advocated love of enemies among the Israelites, but said little about enemies of the Jews. Nevertheless, Jesus's apocalyptic vision of the rise of the downtrodden gave hope to the oppressed inside and outside Israel. For Wright, it is Paul, the "apostle of love," who broadens Jesus's message to non-Jews and provides the structure for a new religion grounded in caring, rational faith communities.

Wright next presents a sympathetic view of the historical foundations and developing doctrines of Islam, arguing for strong links with its Judeo-Christian forbears. It is another step in the development of God. His careful, contextual, non-sequential reading of the Koran reconciles calls for violence against "infidels" with an overall emphasis on religious tolerance. Mohammed turns out to be much more ecumenical than many of his radicalized followers today would allow. It is only the latter, however, who get any press, wrongly branding Islam as a religion of violence by using incorrect interpretations of scripture to support their views.

In the final chapters, Wright lays out most clearly what is at stake for him: The salvation of the world lies in heeding "the lessons embedded in the Abrahamic scriptures" by "arranging things, wherever possible, so that people of different Abrahamic faiths find themselves in non-zero-sum relationships."

In a non-zero-sum game, all participants recognize that by co-operating with one another everyone comes out better off. Religious non-tolerance will lead to chaos and war, perhaps on a level catastrophic for humankind. In contrast, the tolerance embedded in Judaism, Christianity and Islam needs to be emphasized through an act of "moral imagination" in order to establish peace in a time of globalization.

The Evolution of God presents a crash-course introduction to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the beginnings of Islam. Like any introduction, it includes sweeping generalizations and a rather vague methodology, but unlike many introductory texts, it has a coherent argument that runs throughout. Wright pulls together a vast amount of material from the study of religion and highlights key issues in interpretation and history.

There is much in the book to stir controversy among various constituents. Conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims will be outraged by claims about their sacred texts and founder figures. Fundamentalists will bristle at evolution of any type, but most particularly of God. Atheists will object to suggestions of an "unknown thing that is the source of the moral order, the reason there is a moral dimension to life on Earth and moral direction to time on Earth." Wright's inconsistent treatment of primary texts, uneven use of secondary sources and lack of clearly defined technical terms will irritate scholars. Humanists may protest that his overall call for religious tolerance really boils down to human tolerance, and thus there is no need to preserve religion. Skeptics will question whether humans are progressing morally, with or without religion.

All these voices are engaged to some degree within the book, yet none of these constituents alone is the primary intended reader, whom Wright assumes is the educated generalist. And here he has hit his mark. Small details aside, he has captured some of the major issues in the fields of religious studies and evolutionary psychology in the past century, and brought them together in a coherent and compelling narrative.

Wright wants the tolerance and love at the core of the Abrahamic traditions to overcome elements of prejudice and fanaticism that have manifested themselves throughout history. It may be a utopian vision, but it is perhaps more realistic than imagining that religion will disappear.

Richard S. Ascough is an associate professor in the department of religious studies at Queen's University and has published widely in the area of Christian origins and the religious environment of the Greco-Roman world.