Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God”: An Exercise in Ambiguity

By | March 18, 2010

Although Robert Wright’s work in his latest book, The Evolution of God, offers much to stimulate and challenge students of history, ethics, and religious philosophy, there is much here that is extremely confusing, even bewildering. Case in point is his tendency to equivocate and flip-flop intellectually on such key questions as those concerning the type of historical account that his book develops and that concerning the nature of the “God,” whose evolution he claims to describe.

In the Introduction to his book, Robert Wright writes that the account of religion’s origins, history, and future developed in his book is a materialistic account. Then he adds that he will show that there is an objective moral order, which Philo called the “Logos,” which is real and indicates a divine force working in history. “… the story of this evolution itself points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity;..” (The Evolution of God, page 4)

These propositions, if not mutually inconsistent, at least present a great intellectual conflict; but Wright seems oblivious to this. He uses the concepts of “materialism” and the Logos doctrine as if they could be combined harmoniously. But they cannot. Typically scholars interpret the “Logos” in Philo’s philosophy, in a variety of ways: the utterance of God, the Divine Mind, God’s Transcendent Power, the first-born Son of God (John’s Gospel), the Universal Bond in the physical world and the human soul, immanent Reason, and the Immanent Mediator of the Physical Universe. These are spiritual and metaphysical notions which are not at all compatible with a materialistic philosophy, which typically reduces all reality to matter, physical(including such phenomena as energy, electricity, magnetism, X-rays, and such), chemical, biological, and such. Materialism typically is contrasted with dualistic philosophies, which emphasize the reality of spiritual and mental realms in addition to the material-physical reality.

If Wright uses concepts like the “Logos,” an objective moral order, and a divinity-of-sorts working in history and nature, he should expect that the reader will seriously doubt whether he is really presenting a materialistic view of history. Obviously, the former concepts (Logos, divinity) are very much incongruous with a materialistic account of history and nature.

Is Robert Wright really a materialist, as he claims, or is he a follower of the Logos, as much of the account in his book indicates? In raising this question, I pick out only one of the various aspects of what seems to be “Wright’s specialty”: A marked tendency to equivocate, intellectually flip-flop, and perform sleights-of-hand worthy of the best magicians.

Consider another indicator of this: the theme of his book, namely the ‘God,’ whose putative ‘growth’ and ‘evolution’ he purports to describe in his book. Wright cannot seem to make up his mind whether this is a real ‘God’ that is affirmed by people of religious faith or whether it is just the concept or idea that people have of this “god,” something all (believers and non-believers alike) can accept as fact.

On page 213, Wright titles a section of chapter 8 with the question, “But is it God?” in which he qualifies significantly his talk about “God.” He states,

“The god I‘ve been describing is a god in quotation marks, a god that exists in people’s heads. When I said in chapter 5, for example, that Yahweh was strong yet compassionate, I just meant that his adherents thought of him as strong yet compassionate. There was no reason to believe that there was a god “out there” that matched this internal conception. Similarly when I say God shows moral progress, what I’m really saying is that people’s conception of God moves in a morally progressive direction.


He even says, in reference to the god believed in by Christians, Jews, and Muslims:

“…The god you thought was born perfect was in fact born imperfect. The good news is that this imperfect god isn’t really a god anyway, just a figment of the human imagination.”


It should be emphasized that at this point in his book Wright admits that all this talk about “god” is just talk about people’s conception of god, without committing himself to a God that really exists “out there” to match the conception that people have of him. Even the oft-repeated statements of the “moral growth” of god are really only references to a perceived moral growth in peoples’ ideas of god.

However, when we arrive at the following chapter, “Logos: The Divine Algorithm,” Mr. Wright is singing a different tune. Here he agrees with Philo that by “god” we mean a transcendent, yet immanent, real God, not just a concept that people have of god.

“….the Logos reconciles the transcendence of God with a divine presence in the world. God himself is beyond the material universe, somewhat the way a video game designer is outside of the video game. . . God may be outside the physical universe, but, as Goodenough puts it, there is “an immanent presence and cooperation of divinity in the created world.” Wright then adds that “the job of human beings … is to in turn cooperate with the divinity, a task they’ll do best if they sense this presence and the purpose it imparts.”


Wright does not qualify these statements as an account of what others (e.g. Philo) believed, but gives them as his own (Wright’s own) assertions. We can only read this as saying that Wright himself believes that there is a real, immanent God, a divinity who imparts a purpose on the universe. A real, immanent God who imparts a higher purpose to the created world is more than just the concept of God in people’s heads or just a figment of human imagination. Moreover, what Wright wrote at page 221 becomes an incredible piece of nonsense if he still held to his earlier statement that ‘god’ is just a figment of the human imagination. It is much like the nonsense I would engage in if I told you that, Henry the friendly dragon, is just a figment of my imagination, but he does a lot of the clean-up work in my backyard. Doesn’t Wright owe it to his readers at least to give the appearance of some logical consistency?

Obviously, this is another instance of Wright’s equivocation and flip-flopping. We get more in a single paragraph near the end of the book:

“…when I talked about the “growth” of the Abrahamic god, it wasn’t because I feel confident that this god, or any god, exists (a questioned I’m unqualified to answer). It was because the god of Abrahamic scriptures — real or not — does have a tendency to grow morally. This growth, though at times cryptic and superficially haphazard, is the “revelation” of the moral order underlying history; as the scope of social organization grows, God tends to eventually catch up, drawing a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.”


Notice carefully what Wright is saying here. The Abrahamic god may not exist; he might not be real. We don’t know and are not qualified to say. But this putative god (“god”) who may just be a figment of human imagination has a tendency to grow morally (which means nothing more than we can interpret selected parts of history so that the moral values held by cultures are seen as changing in a progressive way). Furthermore, this putative god (who is really nothing but the concepts —– and they are numerous — which people have of god) reveals a moral order (presumably an objective order) underlying history. Moreover, this putative god (not really a God, you understand) brings a larger expanse of humanity under his protection and his toleration. He may not exist and may not even be real, but he does all these things.

I submit that you DON’T have to be very competent in critical thought and logic to see this as a piece of bewildering gibberish. After reading over 400 pages of the Wright treatment, we cannot even be sure whether he believes or does not believe in God, or whether he is a materialist or a follower of Philo’s Logos doctrine; because states these opposing views repeatedly. He really seems to be in some state of conflict himself. As a “materialist” he really cannot come out and declare clearly that there is a God who is the ground for an objective moral order, as the monotheistic religions claim. Nevertheless, Wright wants to promote his over-stated theory of nonzero-sumness working in history; and he has been impressed by Philo’s doctrine of the Logos. Going from these notions, he then makes the rather the vague inference that these are indicative of a-kind-of-divinity at work in the universe, although he is too embarrassed to state this honestly and forthrightly. Apparently, then, he cannot seem to avoid the types of equivocation and ambiguity which would result in a low ‘C’ grade for an essay submitted in Freshman Philosophy.

One thought on “Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God”: An Exercise in Ambiguity

  1. Firooz R Oskooi

    In modern religious understanding God=Truth and both are unknowable essences. With all humility we must acknowledge that total human knowledge compared to all Truth is like a dot in the immense of a blue limitless sky. So, for these great teachers to teach us about God they have created a haman image of God, who is no one other than these Divine Teachers. For better understanding this topic please refer to "Book of Certitude or Ketabe Iqan" by Baha'U'llah.


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