I will quote from a New York Times Op-Ed piece titled The Religious Wars that is about some books on religion that the writer believes are a middle ground between recent athiest and theist books. The books he talk about all appear to be from the theist standpoint, but the first book provides an interesting view of the supposed eternal truth of religion by talking about the evolution of it.
First, I will quote the first paragraph that explains why the article is called The Religious Wars:
Just a few years ago, it seemed curious that an omniscient, omnipotent God wouldn’t smite tormentors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. They all published best-selling books excoriating religion and practically inviting lightning bolts. … Fundamentalists fired volleys of Left Behind novels, in which Jesus returns to Earth to battle the Anti-Christ (whose day job was secretary general of the United Nations). Meanwhile, devout atheists built mocking Web sites like www.whydoesGodhateamputees.com. That site notes that although believers periodically credit prayer with curing cancer, God never seems to regrow lost limbs. It demands an end to divine discrimination against amputees.
Now on to the first book:
This year is different, with a crop of books that are less combative and more thoughtful. One of these is “The Evolution of God,” by Robert Wright, who explores how religions have changed — improved — over the millennia. He notes that God, as perceived by humans, has mellowed from the capricious warlord sometimes depicted in the Old Testament who periodically orders genocides.
Mr. Wright also argues that monotheism emerged only gradually among Israelites, and that the God familiar to us may have resulted from a merger of a creator god, El, and a warrior god, Yahweh. Mr. Wright also argues that monotheism wasn’t firmly established until after the Babylonian exile, and he says that Moses’s point was that other gods shouldn’t be worshiped, not that they didn’t exist. For example, he notes the troubling references to a “divine council” and “gods” — plural — in Psalm 82.
In another revelation not usually found in Sunday School classes, Mr. Wright cites Biblical evidence that God (both El and Yahweh) had a sex life, rather like the Greek gods, and notes archaeological discoveries indicating that Yahweh may have had a wife, Asherah.
As for Christianity, Mr. Wright argues that it was Saint Paul — more than Jesus, an apocalyptic prophet — who emphasized love and universalism and built Christian faith as it is known today. Saint Paul focused on these elements, he says, partly as a way to broaden the appeal of the church and convert Gentiles.
Mr. Wright detects an evolution toward an image of God as a more beneficient and universal deity, one whose moral compass favors compassion for humans of whatever race or tribe, one who is now firmly in the antigenocide camp. Mr. Wright’s focus is not on whether God exists, but he does suggest that changing perceptions of God reflect a moral direction to history — and that this in turn perhaps reflects some kind of spiritual force.
“To the extent that ‘god’ grows, that is evidence — maybe not massive evidence, but some evidence — of higher purpose,” Mr. Wright says.
God grows? God changes over time as humanity and our societies evolve? Wouldn’t that actually be evidence that god changes due to the beliefs and whims of his believers instead of vice versa? God and religions change over time because we are changing and evolving and decide to adapt the fictional stories of our ancestors to our changing times. For example, slavery was abolished in spite of Christianity and their Bible instead of because of it.
A response similar to mine appears in the Letter to the Editor section. I will repost it here because it is a good one:
There seems something facile about Robert Wright’s suggestion that the fact that “god” grows better over time reflects evidence that there is higher purpose, or Karen Armstrong’s notion that pushing reasoning powers to their limit, stretching language and living compassionately produce a transcendence that should be interpreted in a religious sense, and I am surprised that Mr. Kristof presents their arguments as if they offer some rational middle ground for discussion.
“God” has gotten more moral over time because even organized religions have been dragged forward, often kicking and screaming, by human reason, which itself has been pushed forward by our discoveries about nature — discoveries that belied obviously false notions about superiority of one race over another or the need to impose divine vengeance to respond to simple, explicable acts of nature.
While it is surely true that faith itself may exist beyond the bounds of rationality, what Mr. Kristof should be praising is reason and not faith.
If one wants to find transcendent examples of pushing reasoning to its limit and stretching language to the end of its tether, one could do worse than to read the books of my colleagues Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.
Tempe, Ariz., Nov. 26, 2009
The writer directs the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University and writes frequently on science and religion.