The Evolution of God

Robert Wright

How to make today's fractious religiosity a non-zero-sum equation?

In game and economic theory, zero-sum describes a situation in which a participant's gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participant. If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. In contrast, non-zero-sum describes a situation in which the interacting parties' aggregate gains and losses is either less than or more than zero – situations where both participants gain.

Most discussions about God and religion don’t venture into game theory, but Schwartz Senior Fellow, game theorist and best-selling author Robert Wright did in Launer Auditorium on Oct. 6. Wright's lecture and his most recent book share the same title, The Evolution of God. Wright also contributes to The New Republic, Time, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Financial Times.

Wright's lecture was part of the Schiffman lecture series on religion. He was introduced by Dr. Anthony Alioto, professor of history and Althea W. and John A. Schiffman chair in ethics, religious studies and philosophy. The Schiffmans also were in attendance.

Wright began the lecture by joking that although this was his first time in Missouri, he was a Cardinals fan growing up. The audience, including a group of Columbia high school students bussed in for the lecture, cheered. He then became a San Francisco Giants fan. The audience didn't cheer.

"Allegiance is a fluid thing," he said, largely defined by and dependent on community. So it is with beliefs in God or gods, too, he said.

Wright then embarked on a sweeping journey through religion that began with polytheistic hunter-gatherers more than 12,000 years ago. The invention of agriculture, he said, changed conceptions of God and began the trend toward the monotheism of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are so named because all spring from Abraham.

The religions of hunter-gatherer societies, he said, were not about the morality all three Abrahamic faiths espouse today but attempts to figure out why bad things like famine, floods and sudden death occurred. The answer, he said was obvious to these peoples: some deity had been mortally offended and was exacting revenge. In these small groups, moral and ethic codes simply weren't needed, he said; they were self-regulating or, as he said, "there was nothing to steal and nowhere to hide it." Moral and ethics only entered religion with the development of denser, more settled societies.

For example, he said the archeological evidence is darn near incontrovertible that ancient Judaism's Yahweh was one of a pantheon of Jewish gods. Archeologists have found references to Yahweh's consort, Ashira. The Jews only became monotheistic during the Babylonian exile when most Jews were evicted from Israel, taken into slavery in Babylon and their temple razed. This, he said, was a zero-sum equation for the Jews and Jewish religious scripture became correspondingly intolerant and zero-sum.

When the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians and restored the Jews to Israel, Judaism became more tolerant and non-zero-sum, he said. Judaism was just one of many religions coexisting under the Persians, and Israel and its neighbors had more to gain by coexistence than intolerance.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, he said peaceful, self-interested tolerance fosters "the moral growth of God."

The history of mankind, he said, can be viewed as drawing larger and larger groups of people into a web of connectedness. A financial disaster in 17th century Europe, for instance, would have little or no effect on 17th century China. But a Western financial crisis today has immediate and severe effects globally.

If the three Abrahamic religions can't adjust to each other and make moral progress, the consequences can be severe, as witnessed by 9/11, the wars in the Middle East and the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moral progress, he said, is being able to understand why your enemy sees you in zero-sum terms. He challenged the audience to be able to put themselves in the shoes of a suicide bomber.

"I think it’s a moral test," he said. "I think there's some larger purpose unfolding on the planet." He added that he was not a Jew, Christian or Muslim; neither was he an agnostic or atheist.

He concluded by urging the audience to exercise their moral imagination. "When you exercise your moral imagination, you are doing God's work," he said.

Wright took questions on the stage after the show. And the crowd of students, faculty, staff and Columbians in attendance left with a lot to think about. The high school students were still chattering excitedly as they boarded their bus.


Anonymous said...

It would be nice if there was an author credited for this brief article...and any others.

Neal Fandek said...

Unless otherwise noted, all stories are written by Columbia College's editor, Neal Fandek.

Keep those comments coming!