As Wilkinson says:
You may know him as the Felix Unger of Bloggingheads TV. Or you may know him as the author of big-think bestsellers like The Moral Animal and Non-Zero. Today Robert Wright’s years-in-the-making The Evolution of God hits the bookstores and the new issue of Cato Unbound offers you a taste with an essay adapted from one of the later chapters of The Evolution of God on the moral imagination.
The Cato Piece is here. Excerpt:
For most of the book I make this argument by reference to the past. I tell the story of the Abrahamic God as he passes through three thresholds: the emergence of monotheism in ancient Israel, the emergence of Christianity, and the emergence of Islam. I argue that, during all these phases, fluctuations between tolerant and belligerent scriptures—in both the Judeo-Christian Bible and in the Koran—largely reflect fluctuations between zero-sum and non-zero-sum situations (or, strictly speaking, between the perception of zero-sumness and the perception of non-zero-sumness).
With the chapter excerpted below, the book becomes forward looking. It addresses such questions as (a) whether dynamics in the modern world are sufficiently non-zero-sum to in principle foster greater tolerance among the Abrahamic faiths; (b) whether, if so, this principle will indeed be translated into practice. In the process the chapter raises questions about whether human psychology naturally impedes comprehending the true motivations of enemies, even when this comprehension would be in our interest; and (c) whether such comprehension would entail absolving enemies of blame for their actions.
Yet sometimes the Israelites were happy to live in peace with neighbors who worshipped alien gods. In the Book of Judges, an Israelite military leader proposes a live-and-let-live arrangement with the Ammonites: “Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess? And should we not be the ones to possess everything that our god Yahweh has conquered for our benefit?” (See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.)
The Bible isn’t the only Scripture with such vacillations between belligerence and tolerance. Muslims, who like Christians and Jews worship the God who revealed himself to Abraham, are counseled in one part of the Koran to “kill the polytheists wherever you find them.” But another part prescribes a different stance toward unbelievers, “To you be your religion; to me my religion.”
You’d think the Abrahamic God would make up his mind — Can he live with other gods or not? What’s with the random mood fluctuations?
But the fluctuations aren’t really random. If you juxtapose the Abrahamic Scriptures with what scholars have learned about the circumstances surrounding their creation, a pattern appears. Certain kinds of situations inspired tolerance, and other kinds inspired the opposite. You might even say this pattern is a kind of code, a code that is hidden in the Scriptures and that, once revealed, unlocks the secret of God’s changing moods.
Douglas LeBlanc at Get Religion dissents:
Wright does not mention that this offer occurred as the Israelites sought to migrate through the land of the Ammonites; that the offer was rejected; and that the Israelites’ military leader, a man named Jephthah, was then so fired up for battle that he made this troubling promise to God: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Jephthah’s daughter greeted him with joy upon his return, and paid for it with her life. It is one of the most tragic stories in the Jewish Scriptures, and hardly a basis for these sentences by Wright: “You’d think the Abrahamic God would make up his mind — Can he live with other gods or not? What’s with the random mood fluctuations?”
Robert Wright and Andrew Sullivan talking at The Atlantic.
Bloggingheads with Robert Wright and Tyler Cowen
Cowen on the exchange:
For me it was a very interesting exchange, but given the topic I cannot predict that everyone will feel the same way. Other points we touched upon were the beautiful elements in Islam and its notion of religious ecstasy, the appeal of Sufism, why Unitarianism is not more popular, the pagan polytheistic versions of Catholicism, penalty and punishment in Haitian voodoo, the preconditions of tolerance, my views on meta-ethics, what does the concept of God really mean anyway, why dogmatic atheism is so unfortunate, and what is the real metaphysical problem that everyone needs to face up to. Bob of course just wrote a book on religion but from my end I view this as a personal dialog rather than me communicating verified scholarly information in an educational manner.
Lewis Black on God’s moods (in the later part of the video):
UPDATE: Jerry Adler in Daily Beast
UPDATE #2: We’ve got seven clips from a conversation between Ross Douthat and Wright, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.
UPDATE #2: Chris Dierkes at The League
UPDATE #3: Heather MacDonald at Secular Right
UPDATE #4: Jerry Coyne at TNR
Bob Wright rebuts Coyne
Chris Dierkes at The League on Wright’s rebuttal
UPDATE #5: Jim Manzi on Wright and Coyne