Thursday, July 16, 2009

"THE EVOLUTION OF GOD:" A Review of a Review

Assuming that someone who is reading this post also read yesterday’s post about the history of thought and specifically the progression of queer cinema, I would suggest that books like “A Biography of God” and “The Evolution of God” are pretty risky if you’re emotionally attached to your own concept of what the Deity might be like. Terms like biography and evolution imply a beginning and an end, but that’s one of the basic characteristics of the Middle Eastern religious mythology: that it begins in some kind of chosenness and ends in the apocalyptic destruction of all but the (still chosen) few. This is the spine of belonging to a tribe, which was the social organization of the time of the birth of God and Jesus, and is still a concept that haunts our understanding, even in science. We’re forever looking for the “first dinosaur” or the “last dodo bird” instead of seeing the great undulant sheet of being that covers the planet as the real life of it.

I subscribe to Powell’s daily email review. Yesterday’s was about “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright reviewed by Troy Jollimore writing in Truthdig. Robert Wright grew up as a Southern Baptist, cast enough metamorphic skins to get to Princeton where he earned a degree in politics, and became a science journalist who then invented the “diavlog” a form of mp3 at “” that I have not visited but that I deduce is a form of debate. One of his previous books is “The Moral Animal,” which argues that morality has evolved. Obviously all this will affect his notion of God. Besides, he circulates in all the best journalist circles, including the NYTimes.

Troy Jollimore also has a Princeton Ph.D. but he comes down from Canada, Nova Scotia no less, teaches in California, and his book on morality is in terms of friendship. So the review is intended to look at God in terms of morality. But he also writes poetry.

Jollimore’s version of Wright’s key idea is that globalization (which they both equate with evolution) will “push societies toward directing their energies at one comprehensive, universalistic, all-powerful god. This god -- the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- eventually becomes perceived as a just and loving father figure and is associated with modern ethical ideas like universal rights and the equality of all persons.” This will come as a surprise to Buddhists and those who have noted the disintegration of the family, even if you define it as a tribe, which is also a challenged concept. It also assumes that kinship will lead to compassion which will lead to morality based on universal rights and equality. That has not been my observation.

But then Wright is big on game theory and he admits that God is just a head game, though he seems to think that the electrical twiggles detectable in people’s heads are evidence that they’re contacting something real. As a scientist would tell him, it does not mean anything of the kind. It just means something is happening in the brain. Period.

Wright also suggests that the term “God” is like the term “electron” which we simply can’t understand, though we can detect its impact on other phenomena in that context. He doesn’t seem aware that there are a lot of words that refer to things that don’t have any impact or any discernible existence at all, but that are simply ineffable in both the technical and the rude sense. There is no “flesh.”

Here’s the next step: “In part, again, this "moral order" seems to consist in the fact that the world is perceived by humans as having some sort of moral dimension, some sort of "transcendent" purpose. More ambitiously, perhaps, the fact that in the long run certain human behaviors, but not others, tend toward general social cohesion and flourishing is supposed to be what provides evidence of God's existence.” You could interpret this as God makes us good (so why doesn’t he make EVERYBODY good?) or people are only good because they fear God or love God and God gives them the script. Why can’t they just look around and realize that what goes around comes around? But then, no one told Bernie Madolf that was true.

The hidden question behind all this diavlog is “am I the fittest?” and “will I and my kind survive?” The idea is that having the right concept of God will cause one to survive. But survival is impossible to predict: evolution is a hindsight science. Necessarily it is a scientific history of phenomena. Of course, one can do a history of the phenomena of thought or anything else, even queer cinema, but it has little predictive power. Where do we go in the future from teens with video cameras and a YouTube account? No one knows.

The other problem is that “fitness” is constantly confused with “fittingness.” (This is my own point of obsession.) Survival is about fitting one’s circumstances well enough to stay alive and reproduce. It’s almost the same thing as adaptability because, as we’ve seen with cinema, something can come in from completely outside the situation and change the terms entirely. Like pine bark beetles. Those humans who adapt in the future may be those who fit the clearings rather than the trees. But evolution takes advantage of abundances, so it may be that something that eats pine bark beetles will show up. (Those who keep coming back to human overpopulation are very aware of this: the way to trigger a pandemic is to create an overabundance that stresses the edges enough to allow opportunist forces to enter.)

Jollimore takes Wright’s book as an effort to reconcile science and religion but I don’t see it as anything of the kind. Wright is a journalist, a refuter, a term slider, with no training in the history of religious thought that I know of. He’s just grabbing a high profile issue and covering old ground. Making political hay.

Now if Jollimore would decide to write a book about “the Poetry of God,” that would be a lot more interesting. Especially if he were to set it in Hallifax, the scene of a huge explosion that nearly eliminated the town, innocent and guilty alike.

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