Today I am reading “The Evolution of God,” by Robert Wright. It is a compelling work, illustrating the hypothetical roots of religiosity by detailing the known characteristics of primitive man’s beliefs in the supernatural. An interesting point he makes: The transition from basic hunter-gatherer tribes (40-50 people each) to chiefdoms (1,000 – 10,000 people each) required a previously amoral religion to begin offering more moral structure for social cohesion. When there are 40-50 people in your tribe, stealing or cheating or violence is unlikely: You have to live with those people, there’s nowhere to hide. In a chiefdom of several thousand you can commit petty crime, stealing for instance, and sneak off.
“In this phase of cultural evolution – with personal policing having lost its charm but with government not yet taking up the slack – a supplementary force of social control was called for. Religion seems to have responded to the call. Whereas religion in hunter-gatherer societies didn’t have much of a moral dimension, religion in the Polynesian chiefdoms did: it systematically discouraged antisocial behavior.” (Pg. 55)
Wright goes on to show how we can see the roots of our modern religious attitude in many of the primitive rites and beliefs and he shows how these early religions likely evolved into our most popular brands today. One of his most compelling chapters is Survival of the Fittest Christianity, in which he shows the evolution of the Christian faith from its Roman precursors and how it became strong. In the first century AD there were many versions of Christianity and much fighting among them. Eventually the weaker strains were killed off, leaving only the strongest version to go forth and multiply itself.
Most interestingly, he concludes the chapter with what seems like a fondness for the Christian attitude: “It may sound paradoxical to say that a Jesus who exists only in imagination is the Logos, or anything else, made flesh. But when Christians revere Christ as they conceive him, they may – according to the theology of the Logos – be revering something authentically divine…when Christians conjure up their image of Jesus, putting flesh around the message of love, the word, — the Logos – is in a sense being made flesh…And maybe worshipping a divinely sponsored illusion is about as close as people can get to seeing the face of God.” (Pg. 302)
Most compelling is Wright’s assertion that religion, having adapted itself over millennia, can adapt itself again. While religion is valuable for social cohesion, he worries about the tendency of the claim to ‘specialness’ of each system of fixed beliefs.
“Is it crazy to imagine a day when the Abrahamic faiths renounce not only their specific claims to specialness, but even the claim to specialness of the whole Abrahamic enterprise? Are such radical changes in God’s character imaginable? Changes this radical have already happened, again and again. Another transformation would be nothing new.” (Pg. 442)
In an age in which rapid technological development and radical expansion of the boundaries of communication have created the need for reassessment of our older and outdated modes of thinking, the implication of the possibility for the evolution of religion is refreshing and much less harsh than the call for the relatively unlikely end of organized worship.