Faith and Belief: ‘The Evolution of God’ by Robert Wright and ‘The Case for God’ by Karen Armstrong

In her new book, Karen Armstrong traces “The Case for God.”
(David Zentz, Associated Press)

The Evolution of God

Robert Wright

Little, Brown: 576 pp. $25.99

The Case for God

Karen Armstrong

Alfred A. Knopf: 432 pp., $27.95

Until the discovery of DNA’s double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick, prehistory was entirely the province of paleontologists and archaeologists. “But in the past few years,” Nicholas Wade wrote in his 2006 book, “Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors” (a work praised by Watson himself, among many others), “an extraordinary new archive has become available to those who study human evolution, human nature and history. It is the record encoded in the DNA of the human genome and in the versions of it carried by the world’s population.”

In the lost history whose DNA-aided recovery Wade chronicles, one of the most interesting chapters covers “gracilization” -- that is, “a worldwide thinning of the human skull” starting around 40,000 years ago. Why was it that, millenniums before the agricultural revolution, our ancestors became progressively lighter-boned and smaller? A crucial clue: The fossil record and contemporary breeding experiments alike confirm that domestication, whether accidental -- as in the evolution of the dog from the wolf -- or deliberate, induces pedomorphism, or the retention of juvenile features into adulthood. “Gracilization . . . occurred because early modern humans were becoming tamer,” Wade writes. “And who, exactly, was domesticating them? The answer is obvious: people were domesticating themselves. In each society the violent and aggressive males somehow ended up with a lesser chance of breeding. This process started some 50,000 years ago, and, in [primatologist Richard] Wrangham’s view, it is still in full spate.”

For a student of ancient mythologies, this reference to human self-domestication -- sine qua non for the sedentary life that began 15,000 years ago -- brings to mind the oldest of all epics, the 5,000-year-old, originally Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh,” in which the civilized, city-dwelling title character, though he has much to learn from the wild and hairy Enkidu, finally defeats him. Gilgamesh sleeps with any city woman he chooses, when he chooses. Enkidu makes do in the fields with a single woman, and her a prostitute.

Perhaps the “Epic of Gilgamesh” crystallized memories of the long human self-domestication that Wade writes of, but of equal interest is the possibility that rather than merely recalling the change, this and kindred myths may have contributed to it. If such a literary work were recited repeatedly, honored as supreme truth, taught to the young and this over centuries of time -- if, in short, it were turned into sacred scripture, then could it not create social pressure, then behavioral changes and, finally, over a sufficiently lengthy period, even genetic modification?

And setting gracilization aside, can the later scriptures of West Asia -- the Jewish and Christian Bibles and the Koran -- be read as the record of a process of human domestication, a further taming and gentling of mankind over time? In “The Evolution of God,” Robert Wright argues laboriously that they can indeed be so read. After a brief and dated discussion of pre-literate religions, he makes a reading of the three mentioned scriptures in the retrospective light of the steadily growing, gradually more peaceful world community to which they seem to lead. Despite the frequent violence of this three-stranded history, Wright discerns a vector tending distinctly toward unity and away from division. Globalization, for him, is the culmination of this process.

Wright never seeks to demonstrate, however, how in actual practice the scriptures were or might have been deployed to this end. Rather than explain epochal social integration by extrinsic human agency, he looks for an intrinsic explanation -- one written into evolution itself, and the more appealing to him, it seems, the more it defies explanation. Thus, he explains, as natural selection begot cultural evolution and cultural evolution begot successively more comprehensive forms of social organization, “there appeared a moral order, linkage between the growth of social organization and progress toward moral truth. It is this moral order that, to the believer, is grounds for suspecting that the system of evolution by natural selection itself demands a special creative explanation. . . . And if the believer . . . decides to call that source ‘God,’ well, that’s the believer’s business. After all, physicists got to choose the word ‘electron.’ ”

Wright’s title notwithstanding, his God does not evolve. He is rather a constant, the C-factor without which human evolution does not compute. His book, despite many protestations to the contrary along the way, is finally an argument from design for the existence of God, and as such it does not convince.

Karen Armstrong would unhesitatingly dismiss Wright’s vision of a deity inferred from the evidence of human evolution as a lamentable instance of the mistake lying at the core of the West’s disaffection from received religion -- namely, regarding the case for God as one to be made from such evidence. “The Case for God” is in fact largely an elaborate history of the spread of this mistake from the late Middle Ages to the present. The alternative she offers -- the case she finally makes -- is for an ancient way of talking about “God, Brahman, Dao, or Nirvana.” For her, these are conceptually different names for the reality that exceeds human comprehension and escapes human language, including all human predication of existence or nonexistence. The story she tells is primarily about the Christian and post-Christian West because it is here that the ancient way fell first and deepest into oblivion.

The earliest Christian theology was apophatic. Apophatic theology -- the theology of the original, Greek-speaking Christian church -- was “naysaying” theology, a kind of religious language whose difficult task it was to acknowledge in human language the very inadequacy of human language. Whatever it said, apophatic theology immediately took back, and then it took back the taking back. Ordinary language -- the language of evidence and inference, of instance and generalization -- was fine for ordinary matters. But to confess the universal human experience of a final failure in this language is to take back the confession. It is to lose the game before it begins.

In an ambitious work clear in outline and rich in detail, Armstrong writes the history of how apophatic theology was forgotten in the late Middle Ages; how rational and then quasi-scientific Newtonian theology rose to replace it in early modernity; how, when others were recognizing this as a mistake, fundamentalists tightened their embrace of it; and how, in the wake of the passing of modernity and the failure of both its theism and its atheism, postmodern theology may point toward the recovery of what was lost. A god whose existence you can prove is a god to whom you cannot pray, postmodern theology argues, and prayer -- not proof -- is where religion rises or falls. Armstrong’s very considerable service is to show how this novel idea is a very old idea newly recovered.

Miles is distinguished professor of English and religious studies at UC Irvine and general editor of the forthcoming “The Norton Anthology of World Religions.”