Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: The protean figure of god


Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God details what you’d think it would. Looking at how the concept of god has changed from ‘western’ polytheism to Judaism to Christianity to Islam, Wright investigates the way perception of deity (or deities) have influenced the world. In sometimes entertaining and colloquial prose, this tome adds some interesting characters to the religious debate.

As Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have received praise for their fervent atheism, Wright takes a more agnostic stance. Although he himself may not believe, the book itself looks at the arguments for the case of god in a scientific way, without meddling with the author’s own feelings and inclinations.

Wright brings to light a few personalities that I had hitherto not heard of. Philo, a Greek Jew, tried to piece together the majesty of the Grecian gods with that of the Jewish one; he revealed to the forum-going populace how these religions weren’t all that different from one another. (Judaism originally had several gods, which should not be a surprise to anyone; just at some point, as the ancient state of Israel was being formed, someone had a fantastic idea to either unite them into one or get rid of the excess and have one God with a capital G.) Wright explains how Paul, the epistle writer of New Testament fame, was really like a CEO or ambassador, trying to reign in all the different sects of Christianity springing up so that there was some centralisation.

Unfortunately the Islam section doesn’t seem as well researched as the other sections. It’s quite cursory in comparison, making more sweeping brushstrokes than specific and pointed ones. The focus is on Mohammad’s rise to fame, ability to create armies, and his legacy – it doesn’t discuss any real major theories or texts about Islam instead. There isn’t a thorough discussion on Sunni versus Shi’ite Muslims. Thus, it felt more like a history lesson than a true analysis. There was also more contemporary discussion on the effect of Islam (ie: a chapter devoted to the jihad) than that of the time Islam was born, which was a shame since the Islam part should have been the most fascinating and enlightening section of the book (or at least the section of the book that most ‘western’ readers are going to read this for). It was interesting to note though that the Qu’ran is much more poetic than the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, poetic mainly in the sense that it has rhymes and rhythms.

Some of the major weaknesses with Wright’s argument, which also happens to be that of the many of Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, is that a) he doesn’t really discuss any ‘eastern’ religions and b) he really is preaching more to the choir, those that are religiously curious. I feel that Hitchens would be ineffective in a dialogue with a ‘true believer’; I don’t think that would be the case with Wright. But I do think that, although Wright argues the evolution of god relatively methodically and scientifically, there are some hurdles that faith won’t overcome – which is in essence what faith is. One cannot fault him for that, but one wishes that there was some give and take.

On the other hand, I thought the greatest strength of this book was the revelation on how economics and economic theory really played a role in shaping the concept of god. God is shaped into what his believers need him to be: the concept that if we were horses god would also look like a horse. Wright goes into game theory and how religion was also (and of course still is) a business, be it an economic or a political one. He also details the importance and controversy of translations and interpretations. Each religion has its issues when it comes to figuring out what its sacred texts really mean, and Wright does an absolutely wonderful and thorough job looking at how words have multiple or layered meanings, as well as how Allah, Yahweh, and Jehovah are even all linguistically related.

Although this is unfortunately a cursory look at Wright’s book itself, The Evolution of God was a very good read, well argued most of the time and fascinating or refreshing every chapter. Weaknesses aside, it was good to be reminded of the powers of religion and how similar the major monotheistic religions really are, as well as their intense and bloodied histories.


Nihal Parthasarathi said…

Thanks Sal – I read the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and have been curious about the host of other books in this genre. Interestingly, though I'm a steadfast believer in god, the God Delusion was actually fantastically interesting, in many of the same ways you describe here. The arguments were well thought out and the evolution of man was so well described that I became deeply interested for some time in evolution.

Ironically, his book just served to confirm my beliefs rather than question them, which to me suggests that Dawkins, like Wright, was playing to the majority (or that we believers are just never going to be convinced).

One note that I suspect wasn't true for Wright – Dawkins definitely seemed like a guy who had been persecuted for his atheistic beliefs – the entire book had an undertone of 'look, you idiots, this is how it is', which kind of made me feel bad for the poor guy – atheist or not, I'd never want to be as unhappy as he seems!

Salvatore said…

That's really interesting Nihal. I was discussing this topic with a friend over the weekend and we both thought that these authors wouldn't be as powerful to believers; I guess in a way they aren't if they're confirming someone's belief. But the fact that you could read through the entire text without getting frustrated or closing the book entirely now makes me think a bit differently about the situation.

Yes, the contemporary group of atheists seem like some really angry guys. Really angry. And mumblers. Not sure what that's all about.

Kari said…

To me, religious analysis just seems like common sense. Of course, that's not what most churches would want to hear, but I wish Sunday School or Bible Study classes would read a book like this. Just knowing that other religions exist aside from the one in which I was raised piques my curiosity, and I want to know their histories and similarities. It seems silly for individuals to so adamantly believe that one religion is "correct" when other, similar forms of it exist with believers who are just as adamant.

colin said…

Has anyone read “God: A biography” by Jack Miles? It seemed interesting, but I want to know if it was executed well.

Salvatore said…

I haven't, but I like the thesis of that too, and it would probably add to this debate and collection of books I've been reading recently.