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 BCE.

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 vilified.

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 is one."

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."

Muhammad sensed 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 understanding.

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.

Since 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.

Paul 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 Beyond Belief, "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 Christians.

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 extended family.

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 Christianity evinced.

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 trend.

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.

No God

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.

For Wright, 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

By Jack Miles
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 mistake. Now, in the wake of the failure of both modern theism and its atheism, postmodern theology may point toward the recovery of what was lost.

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 world.

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 Orr
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.

Several themes 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.

Later, different 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 small voice."

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.

Turning to 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.

Finally, Wright 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 attitude.

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 circle.

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 problems.

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 real argument.


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.

Human reasoning 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 own contributions.

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.

These 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 fundamentally objective.

2 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 the numinous.

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 and commitments.

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.

Dworkin 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.