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By Richard Handler
How's God Doing?
The Evolution of God
In his earlier books, The Moral Animal and NonZero, Richard Wright insisted that humans are maturing morally, and his new book continues that argument. Human beings are expanding "the circle of brotherhood," neighborliness, and care for others, he claims. They're learning to play "non zero sum games." Taken from game theory, that's a fancy way of saying that when human beings on opposite sides of a question see themselves as beneficiaries of an arrangement, everybody wins.
In The Evolution of God, Wright argues that, despite all the evidence of the violence done in the name of religion and the direct exhortation to kill those who stand in the way of God as defined in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, our concept of God actually is becoming more compassionate and inclusive.
The ancient gods were typically feuding nature spirits, and it was the job of humans to placate them with prayers and sacrifices. Tribal leaders from Polynesia to aboriginal America allied themselves with their gods and "drenched themselves in authority that emanated from Ôthe divine.'" A chieftain's word became an expression of a something transcendent, superhuman. In the wars between tribes, the gods chose sides (or perhaps more accurately, their followers chose for them).
As tribes and federations began to centralize, so did religion, as seen when the early gods of the tribes of Israel moved from tribal deities to a single dominant god, Yahweh. This took place in stages. There were plenty of pagan deities, like Baal, in the Old Testament. But the Hebrew god was a jealous god, as indicated by the First Commandment: to have no other gods but him.
Yahweh starts life as a "warrior god" who urges the Children of Israel to massacre their enemies as they move from wandering in the desert to invading Canaan, the Promised Land. But with victory and the growth and evolution of these desert tribes, the Lord begins to moderate his ways. He becomes, in Wright's words, "the chairman of the board and the chief executive."
The Lord of All proves to be nothing if not a good manager and businessman. After all, it's easier to run a government by taxing your enemies than by constantly fighting and killing them, Wright reminds us. So, with his added responsibility to govern broadly, Yahweh becomes smarter and more empathetic. Old enemies come in for new consideration, and god the conqueror becomes mellower.