This book review was written by Eugene Kernes
“There have been many such unsettling (from religion’s point of view) discoveries since then, but always some notion of the divine has survived the encounter with science. The notion has had to change, but that’s no indictment of religion. After all, science has changed relentlessly, revising if not discarding old theories, and none of us think of that as an indictment of science. On the contrary, we think this ongoing adaptation is carrying science closer to the truth. Maybe the same this is happing to religion.” – Robert Wright, Introduction, Page 10
“However diverse the forces that shape religion, its early impetus indeed seems to have come largely from people who, like us, were trying to make sense of the world. But they didn’t have the heritage of modern science to give them a head start, so they reached prescientific conclusions. Then, as understanding of the world grew – especially as it grew via science – religion evolved in reaction.” – Robert Wright, Chapter One: The Primordial Faith, Page 19
“What’s more, if you have a fruitful relationship with those people – if you trade with them, or join them in military alliance – it might be worth your while to go beyond tolerance and actually affirm your belief in their gods. And maybe they’ll reciprocate.” – Robert Wright, Chapter Four: Gods of the Ancient States, Page 81
Religion provides a moral framework for how people should appropriately behave towards its members and others. Influencing behavior that enables social cohesion. Social cohesion used to coordinate between members of the religion, and others. Raising the costs of exploiting strangers, while providing members with benefits. Cooperation works within the dynamics of nonzero sum relationships, for cooperating would benefit each faction. But cooperation is difficult in zero-sum relationships, for each faction seems to take resources away from the other, which is a source of conflict and tension.
Religions have changed in reaction to social circumstances,
to manage the sources of tension while providing members with benefits. Religion has been challenged, and has done
more than just survive the challenges, for religion responded to the
challenges. Religious ideas changed in
the same way science does, by error correcting and adapting to improve ideas. Evolving the ideas used for social
cohesion. Refining religious ideas, and
moving them closer to truth.
Evolution Of An Idea, And Features:
Many social cohesion ideas were thought to be products of religion, but then could be explained by natural selection. Science, and evolution, seem to be in contrast with religion, but they do not need to be. Religion has survived the encounters with science. In response to discoveries the ideas have changed, much like in the domain of science which changes ideas relentlessly. Idea of gods arouse as illusions, and the illusions evolved. The story of how the illusions evolved is meaningful, and through the evolution became more plausible.
Cultures evolve in the same way biological species evolve. Cultural traits arise or perish, which creates different cultures. Changing the institutions, and belief systems. Religious ideas gain support when they appear to provide effective benefits. Monotheism evolved from primitive religion.
Religion came about from trying to understand the world, but without access to the tools of science. Religion evolved in reaction to more understanding about the world, which includes scientific understanding.
Many of the texts are thought to be wisdom literature. The teachings from wisdom literature, is accumulated astute observations on the human condition. Philo would advise accepting their authority, because it would save a lot of time. But the wisdom was available to everyone, to empirically test them by watching the consequences of behavior. Wisdom literature generalized that virtue is usually rewarded, and wrongdoing usually punished. Not that evil is always punished. Wisdom literature rests on the science of human behavior.
Two perspectives about religion dominate thought. A perspective claims that religion serves society and provides social cohesion. Another perspective claims that religion is a tool of social control, and exploitation.
When interpreting and writing many of the works, ethnic marking takes place. Ethnic marking works by creating biases that provide a constructive identity and the differences between others. Differences that become amplified and embedded in mythology that leads to massive distortion without anyone purposely distorting.
Religious doctrines always needed to provide benefits, out of self-interest. It is the benefits that provide a source of appeal. Self-interest that aligns with other interests. Interests that change with time. Self-interest link with other interests evolved and matured the religious ideas.
Belonging to a religious cult did not mean that the gods did favors, but that the cult members helped each other. Within a religious cult based on commerce, business information could be shared between the merchants and shippers. The cult was a network that created bonds and contacts. The more members in the cult, the more valuable the cult because more information could be accessed.
Ancient societies cannot actually be observed. The ancient religions from which contemporary religions evolved from. Beliefs could not be written down, because the peoples were illiterate. That leaves archeological findings, and records of observed contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Contemporary hunter-gather societies are not exactly like the ancient societies, especially because the process of observation involves contact with the society and potentially influencing the society. Genuine cultural aspects of hunter-gatherer society are usually characterized as widespread and strange (to others).
Within small societies like hunter-gatherer villages, everyone knowns everyone else. There are no anonymous relationships. Most relationships are enduringly cooperative via reciprocity or kin selection. Rivalry does occur, but the rivals can either figure out a way to cooperate or someone has to go to a different society. There is a lack of opportunity to purposely exploit other members of the group and get away with act. No need to for the small societies to preach virtues or require external threat to have the virtues, because they already inhabit those virtues and are implicitly reminded of them frequently. Those virtues need to be preached and externally enforced when people are in contact with larger society. When individuals need to adjust to people who they are not close to.
Primordial religion was based on explaining why things happens, predict them, and potentially intervene. Even in non-religious institutions, such as the stock market, there are those who claim to have special insights and predictive powers. People who make such claims are mostly wrong, but they still exist and profit. The reason is because people want to understand complex forces, and learn how to manage them. Convincing others that the individual does comprehend the complex forces, leads to statues within society. This is how it started with religion as well, for a belief in a supernatural force, created a demand for people to claim to understand it. There are some shaman which obtained a reputation for success, enabling them to become leaders and sustain the practice. Within some societies, shaman could improve the success rates of their interventions, and thereby protect their careers. The ways they did so was by turning down dire cases, or blaming destiny rather than the shaman, or even countervailing sorcery from another hostile shaman.
Gods of early civilizations, much like their ancestors, were humans but with supernatural powers. Even when taking on various nonhuman forms, they were mentally human. Even during the transition from chiefdoms and states, paragons of virtues for social organization have not yet been developed.
The Politics of Religion, and Politics:
Political and religious systems are deeply intertwined. Using special connection to the divine for political use. Ancient states relied on religion to provide a moral code to encourage appropriate behaviors between people. Moral codes existed even in smaller societies, but was depended upon in the large societies of states. Science, economics, law, government have evolved from cruder forms which were symbiotically intertwined with religious thought. Social institutions which might not have been possible without religion facilitating social organization.
Law has become secular and enforced by police without supernatural support, but early laws required divide authority to make and enforce. Unlike a state government which normally has a monopoly on legitimate use of force, within chiefdoms grievances can have violent retaliation. Recriminating acts are not lawless, but is limiting as a source of social order. Within small hunter-gatherer societies, temptation to exploit is so low because the costs of harming someone are large especially because everyone might be needed. Chiefdoms have many more people which include many remote peoples who’s costs to exploit is low. Religion facilitated in increasing the costs of exploiting remote peoples within the chiefdoms.
The chief was limited in the ability to use powers to exploit. Having to make sacrifices, and perform social services. The reason is that people do not appreciate exploitation and would have revolted. There are more less powerful people who will defend their interests. People might be susceptible to forces of social cohesion, but they are not easily blinded by them. An external limit on exploitation would be competition with alternative social systems.
Basic theology were partly based on governmental structures, which included a council. Many religions had a pantheon of gods, an assembly of gods. Canaanite tradition had a similar theme.
Polytheism And Commerce:
During the 3rd millennium BCE, contact was on the rise between cities not under a single regional government. Contact that was a combination of trade and war. Contact with different beliefs in different gods. But the people were polytheists, which meant that the gods were not making competitive claims about religious truths. More than just tolerating other gods, the cities began to cooperate with other peoples, each affirming the others gods in reciprocity. Within Mesopotamia, the gods were accepted into a pantheon and the cities determined their relations within the family. To unify Mesopotamia’s diverse peoples, there was an attempt to unify the concept of divinity
Polytheism is seen as a tool to subdue masses, or can be seen as providing intercultural amity. As states expanded, they drew in different peoples and beliefs that had economic and cultural exchange. As monarchs wanted to cooperate with others, through trade or military alliance, they developed interfaith harmony out of self-interest. The different monarchs were each able to benefit from the cooperation, because economic interaction is non-zero-sum.
Intercultural connection would continue through technological evolution. Empires expanded with advances in transportation and communication, which would put more people in contact with other peoples. But contact that at times had hostility within religious doctrines and moral attitudes. War and other forms of antagonism foster a theology of intolerance, but because of non-zero-sum interactions between people, there is trend for tolerance and caring for the welfare of others.
Although polytheism leaves validity for other peoples’ gods, monotheists appear to be belligerently intolerant to other people’s faiths. Monotheists of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all claim descendants from the same Abraham during the 2nd millennium BCE. Claim lineage from the same god, but do not accept each other as worshipping the same god. A perception creating many Yahweh-on-Yahweh conflict which reinforces Abrahamic monotheism’s reputation for belligerent intolerance.
The Hebrew Bible’s chapters were not written in order, and have different authorship. With an understanding of which texts followed which, provides a guide on how God evolved. Excavations provided evidence clarified events during the biblical story, sometimes at its expense. Earlier sources accept polytheism, but it was later authors and editors decided upon which books and verses to keep or dismiss, with a bias against polytheism.
Yahweh declared oneself a jealous God, because of the existence of other gods. And wanted no other gods to be worshipped. Israelite religion went through a phase of monolatry, the worship of a single god without denying existence of others, before transitioning to a monotheism.
Yahweh started out as a warrior god, not someone who rules the universe. Within the time that polytheism reigned, even Israelites worshipped many different gods. Those who did worship Yahweh, accepted the existence of others. Although Yahweh was not the only god, Yahweh was promoted as the best god that the Israelites should worship.
Yahweh also appears to be a son of God. When Yahweh parent God divided people into ethnic groups, gave an ethnic group to Yahweh. Although low in the pantheon, Yahweh emerged the chief god due to political shifts of power, as Israel gained power so did Yahweh. As Yahweh became more powerful, other gods were being assimilated into Yahweh’s being. A move towards monotheism. As other gods diminished and disappeared, only Yahweh remained a God. Other supernatural beings were demoted to divine messengers or angels.
After escaping slavery in Egypt, Israelites march and conquer a city of Canaanite. They conquered Jericho with Yahweh’s help, then go to do the same with other cities. Although Canaanites are usually seen as the opposition, evidence indicates that Canaanites and Israelites had a history of contact with each other that was peaceful. It appears that Israelites religion might have been part of the Canaanite culture before the divergence. Possible that Yahweh started as a Canaanite god, rather than an import.
As Yahweh became the official religion, there were ordinary peoples who were devoted to other gods. Even several kings were not devoted to Yahweh. For these crimes, Yahweh set to punish Israel. Traumatic religious experiences caused those who suffered, wanted to explain that suffering by forging a religious commitment with ultimate redemptive power.
Bible’s claims about history are evaluated by how much sense they make. The less sense, the more likely it was true. Bible’s authors could have easily invented ideas that collaborated their religious beliefs. Authors struggling with some facts means that they are genuine and could not be ignored.
What Jesus said and done changed with time. The embellishments made by the authors were believed by the authors. What is known about Jesus came much later after Jesus’s death. The initial compositions about Jesus’s life came from recollections from those who might have known Jesus or seen what Jesus did or said. These accounts would limit authors inventiveness, but with time there would be less witnesses and therefore an increase in more dubious information. As an example, the saying about throwing a stone if the individual is without sin, was added centuries after.
Although there is no evidence that Jesus Christ was crucified until claims decades after, it is accepted as the event happened. As Jesus was approaching death, earlier sources indicated surprise by the act and an accusation at God. Which is puzzling given that as a son of God, would have known about the forthcoming resurrection. Later last words of Jesus were more equanimous.
Jesus did not enlighten many people before death. The explanation given was that the words of divinity were cryptic. Later authors would further embellish many explanations that contained inconvenient facts.
Jesus was very traditional given the era, but would later be seen as a radical. What Jesus did appear to envision is a reversal of fortunes of nations that would allow to Israel to rise above other nations. A reversal even within the Israelite nation.
Jesus wanted neighbors to have social cohesion within Israel. Claims that were not intended for interethnic bonding. Loving neighbors should not be confused with loving all humankind. The historical Jesus didn’t emphasize universal love. Many claims that would later be seen as more universal, where originally meant for just Israel.
Jesus did not make love a major Christian theme, it was the apostle Paul. Paul had an experience on a journey, from which Paul decided that Jesus died in atonement for humanity’s sins. Paul’s “brotherly love” was a product of the time, and not an innovation. The Christian church was providing the spirit of kinship, which was considered to be a big family. Other organization were providing similar services. As Paul set up congregations in a city, and went to other cities, Paul could not easily keep church leaders in line. With the ask of brotherly love, Paul could induce congregational cohesion even at a distance. A brotherhood that did not mean interethnic brotherhood.
As the Roman Empire was expanding and linking cities via roads and legal system, the linkage benefited commerce and religion. Paul used the road network to build a large religious organization.
Christianity generated a reputation for generosity, even to non-Christians. Non-Christians who might join the church, or speak highly of it. The generosity would not be expected to non-Christians infinitely, as there would be no reason to join the group if the benefits could be had without joining. Nor could a group afford to give endlessly without reciprocating contributions. Entrance into the church had the expectations of contributing to the church, not just taking.
Provoking others would have given cause for retribution. Paul understood that kindness frustrates the opposition by preventing a reason for retribution. Going further as to provide for the opposition. Paul learned the strategy of befriending an enemy as a way to counterattack from Hebrew wisdom literature.
Jews and Christians had a problem with the Roman Empire’s model of religion. Roman government allowed freedom of worship, as long as they also paid homage to the official gods of the empire. Christians would not vindicate Roman gods, nor other people’s gods. Christians challenged the legitimacy of other gods because they were monotheists, and sought conversions.
For a religion to be accepted within the Roman Empire, it had to show historical heritage that predated the empire. Jews and Christians used Hebrew scriptures of evidence of those roots, but the claims were competing as it was difficult to accept multiple heirs to the Hebrew tradition. When Christians sought the empires religious exemption, they had to undermined Jewish claim to legitimacy. The way they undermined Jews was by claiming that they had divine guilt of their god killing the son. Within the context of non-zero-sum relationship, tribes were tolerant towards each other. But competing for the claim of heir to Hebrew tradition was a zero-sum relationship that garnered conflict.
Christianity drew support after Emperor Constantine fought under the symbol of the cross. By the end of the 4th century, Christianity was the official religion of the empire. Even without Paul, the Roman government was trying for ethnic harmony, and asked for tolerance towards the diverse gods of diverse ethnicities. Constantine might have used Christianity for the purpose of social cohesion because of a need to consolidate the empire. By the 5th century, many Christian were being told to avoid going to alternative churches. They prevented communication to Judaism, which meant that they could not utilize Judaism’s infrastructure. Anti-Semitism arising shortly after creation of the Christian religion.
Salvation after death was a Christian evolution, which makes death less harrowing and influences people to be willing to die for the right cause.
Koran is best read in the order of its composition, in which the suras follow Muhammad’s life and the development of moral tones. Much like Moses, Muhammad was outrages by injustice, gave voice in protest, and relocated. Muhammad was eager to build coalitions, and used Islamic scripture to facilitate power. Muhammad did not replace existing tribes, but did unite tribes with ties of devotion.
Raiding was common within Arabia, and Muhammad obtained more support after a raid on a trade caravan by Meccans. Raiding would eventually be considered illegal. Tribes of Arabia, like the Islamic super tribe of Muhammad, obtained and preserved power through raiding and controlling trade. Muhammad controlled most trade of Arabia by 632.
Muhammad was aggressive while expanding the empire. Even with the aggression, there was tolerance towards those who did not share the religion. Muhammad was even making alliances with non-Muslim Arabian tribes, until Muhammad died. As Muslim empire grew, it would sometimes cooperate and sometimes attack others depending on the context. When others attacked Muslim’s, Muslims would retaliate. Peoples who have a strong military tend to pick fights and plan provocations, but even then, normally attacks come after grievances. Even jihad does not provide a reason for preemptive actions.
Islam supports mutual support of its members, and tolerance to others as a way to subdue tensions. Much like prior empires and religion, Islam as an empire would bring antagonistic ethnicities into peaceful coexistence, and as a religion to further that cause.
Islam and Christians see salvation coming from adherence to a moral code, which fosters and encourages socially appropriate behaviors. The 21st and 20th century see more tensions rising between the religions and causing conflicts, and seem to need salvation themselves. Striving for moral truth facilitates respect for others, otherwise there is chaos.
The book contains a lot of historical analysis, which can be difficult to understand and put together. The confusion and uncertainty around many ideas is difficult to clarify because of the differences in translations, interpretations, and source history. Evolution of religion occurred within many ambiguities.
The dominant religions focused on are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and a variety of primordial religions. These religions were used because they’re interconnected within their heritage, making their evolutionary change more salient. This means that the book lacks in applying the concept of evolution to other religions.
The historical analysis uses many different examples. The examples have varying qualities, and
interest in them will depend on reader’s background.