HURRIYET DAILY NEWS
To what extent are the Abrahamic religions similar? Can a common pattern be found between Judaism, Christianity and Islam? Would such a comparison produce a result? Is it possible to find sufficient pragmatism and tolerance in the scriptures of these religions to create the dawn of a new global social system?
Robert Wright, in his archaic 541-page book "Evolution of God," (Little, Brown and Company, June 2009), brings a fresh and genuine look at evolution of the ideas of "God." The book begins by looking at evidence from hunter and gatherers societies, and argues, that so far, every society from the earliest time has believed in different gods or polytheistic spirits, but that the idea of god has evolved and changed tremendously throughout history.
According to Wright, the idea of God did not have a moral component at the beginning. In other words, gods did not tell people how to live correctly. Instead, people in hunter and gatherer societies in different parts of the world believed that supernatural beings could reveal answers to questions much like how today we depend on science. For example, they tried to understand the way world works, and more specifically find answers for events, such as why catastrophes occurred, or why wars were lost.
And then they tried to find ways of increasing their success and decrease catastrophes, by behaving according to how they thought those natural beings would expect. Thereby these human societies achieved peace of mind by thinking they could predict when and how luck would be on their side by abiding to each god's wills. Those who could predict results of the events were useful, particularly in military matters. Consequently, those soothsayers would receive favorable status in their society according to the number of accurate predictions they made with the help of the gods.
During the first half of the book, Wright writes about changing ideas and practices regarding gods, and how they changed as each society's knowledge of the universe improved. When the first idea of a universal God, "Yahweh," arrives in human history, the idea of religion takes an unprecedented turn. From then on, human history witnesses the evolution of only one god, beginning with the Israelites, which is what we see in the Old Testament. Although, there is no way that Wright’s book can be discussed thoroughly in this column, what I would like to discuss is Wright's predictions for the future of religions, and how he came by these predicts by using evidence from the past.
What Wright emphasizes is that religion has always been a forceful method for establishing different social systems and sustaining a moral framework in order for social systems to expand. Although, social systems can cohere or collapse, coherence depends predominantly on moral progress, Wright argues. With moral progress, people become better because they learn to empathize with other cultural groups. It is this empathy that leads to respect and appreciation for different cultural perspectives, which is an essential tool for expanding social structures caused by imperial pursuits. Wright elaborates that the Hebrew Bible's social salvation, as opposed to Christianity and Islam's individual salvation, is better at holding an entire social system intact. Although, he mentions that Christianity played an important role in maintaining the cohesion of the Roman Empire, and Islam founded many multinational empires as well.
Therefore, according to Wright, religion, in contrast to what the much celebrated new atheist, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have been writing about, has actually played a constructive role throughout history, and made it possible for social systems to expand and accommodate newcomers.
And Wright argues, in essence, all the Abrahamic religions have enough evidence in their scriptures and in the examples of their prophets to ignore some of the irreconcilable and controversial verses to focus on the more moderate doctrines or even make some amendments to the current doctrines, if necessary. In his book, Wright dwells extensively on the Koran and the history of its prophet, and argues that it has numerous benevolent verses, just as in the Old and New testaments, as well as belligerent ones. However, he claims that the followers of these three main religions, throughout history, have been tolerant in times of crisis, especially when it comes to self-interest. Therefore, Wright says such pragmatism and tolerance is expected from today's religious leaders.
Wright's 'grim optimism' with respect to today and how the three Abrahamic religions might find coherence, and why such developments can happen is the most important point one can take home. Wright argues, that while the world is getting more interdependent and smaller, people need to identify themselves with others even more, for the sake of the global social system that we are currently entering. Therefore, religions have to revisit their tolerant scriptures and doctrines once more to prepare their followers for such a global social order.
Wright continuously points out a moral direction in history achieved by a moral progress. Moral progress is a compromising process that gives each player welfare, and is not a zero-sum game. This process was what made moral progress possible; and in each circumstance people were much more inclined to favor it. Therefore, moral progress, in essence, depends on self-interest or gain, with a kind of a business class morality, which will increase the welfare of all, Wright argues.
When observing the world today Wright’s argument is plausible because religious groups are more successful and expanding at a faster rate. Yes, it is the groups and leaders that preach tolerance and show willingness to compromise, that become powerful and popular. Another point that comes across in the book, from a purely materialistic point of view, is finding enough evidence for the author to believe that there could be a transcendental being or purpose, of which the cultural evolution of human history reveals, and which can subsequently validate some of the theological thinking that has survived today. This validation may help millions of non-believers understand believers better, enabling them to make sense of their, so-called “meaningless” faith, in light of this materialistic-moral progress interpretation. This understanding can lead to even more common ground, thereby amplifying more tolerance.
Wright believes that we live in yet another historic time in terms of religious history and indeed, he makes many exceptional and forceful arguments for it.