Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

September 14, 2009

The Strange Case of Robert Wright

Filed under: culture, religion — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:36 am

Robert Wright is a journalist and co-founder of Bloggingheads.tv Bloggingheads.tv is a site that hosts webcam discussions between public intellectuals. Recently, there has been a minor exodus of science luminaries (Sean Carroll, Carl Zimmer, P.Z. Myers, Phil Plait) because Bloggingheads.tv hosted discussions with Paul Nelson, a young earth creationist, and Michael Behe, a proponent of Intelligent Design, which led to a falling out.

On an appearance on the Colbert Report, Wright refused to call himself an atheist, but also stated he didn’t believe in the “Abrahamic” faiths, or any claims of special revelation. He stated that he thought that there could be a larger moral purpose unfolding on earth.

On the Report, Wright was pitching his new book “The Evolution of God.” Jerry Coyne has a lengthy review in “The New Republic.” Wright has also written a response to the Coyne’s critique.

After I read the review I thought the book was merely wrong. After reading the response, it appears to be something worse, clouded. As Coyne puts it in the end of his review:

It is remarkable that a book called The Evolution of God can be so pusillanimous, so dodgy, about the question of whether or not there is a God. Surely the question of God’s existence is the fulcrum upon which any discussion of God must rest. If the entity in his book’s title does not exist, then his book is much, much less than it purports to be. But Wright is content with waffling, and with guarded speculation. When he finally comes to the big question–is there in fact a God who is pulling humanity toward morality?–he suddenly becomes humble and retiring.

But the most damning is Wrights own admission near the end of his response:

Well, (1) I’m only talking about progress along one dimension—a growing circle of moral inclusion, even across ethnic and national bounds, that is visible in most places across millennia, though not necessarily across decades or even centuries. This is the progress that Peter Singer documented in his book The Expanding Circle, that Steven Pinker has noted and theorized about, and that many other thinkers acknowledge as well.

What falsifiable claim is Wright making here? I can’t find one. Singer and Pinker explain moral progress as expanding the realm of moral consideration. For example, the difference between vegetarians and non-vegetarians usually revolves around whether non-human animals are worthy of moral consideration. For the militantly omnivorous, the answering is an absolute “no” which usually manifests itself in the form of “animals are tasty.” But what is Wright’s claim? Nationalism and ethnic prejudice are in decline?

One of the things that makes this claim so meaningless is the timescale. Wright demands that we have to look at it in terms of millennia. But the topic under discussion is “Abrahamic” faiths. So for Christianity we’d have two data points, Islam, even less. Judaism may give us several but it is not missionary, there is little to no focus on conversion.

Wright is conflating an empirical fact teleological purpose. There has been moral progress. This moral progress is manifestly due to expanding spheres of moral consideration. However, it is also historically contingent. That is, early Christianity represented a giant leap backwards. Polytheistic religions lend themselves to pluralism more easily than monotheistic ones do.

Wright seems to admit as much. From his response:

An ethical decline in the transition from polytheism to monotheism is contrary to my view? I encourage Professor Coyne to dip into chapters 6 and 7, “From Polytheism to Monolatry” and “From Monolatry to Monotheism.” The core argument is that ancient Israel moved from a polytheism that reflected a tolerant cosmopolitanism (sponsored by kings with internationalist foreign policies) to a monotheism that was, at its birth during the Babylonian exile, belligerent and retributive (and whose emergence had been abetted by highly nationalist kings, notably the brutally authoritarian Josiah). I expressly dismiss (p. 173) the view that monotheism was “morally universalistic from its birth,” saying, “a candid reading of exilic texts leads to a less heartwarming conclusion—that the universalism present at monotheism’s birth may not deserve the qualifier ‘moral.’” I add, “If you look at the earliest biblical texts that plainly declare the arrival of monotheism and you ask which of their various sentiments seems to most directly motivate that declaration, the answer would seem closer to hatred than to love, closer to retribution than to compassion. To the extent that we can tell, the one true God—the God of Jews, then of Christians, and then of Muslims—was originally a god of vengeance.”

Doesn’t that directly undermine his thesis? I don’t hold out any hope of Wright admitting this since it obviously didn’t occur to him when he wrote it. The truth is his thesis appears to be so nebulous that it can’t be meaningfully contradicted. It is surprising that people can apparently write over 500 pages of this kind of drivel. Although, I guess it should be more surprising that more people buy it. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it seems that books should accomplish something and arrive somewhere. When they fail to do so, they commit a literary offence.

Which brings us to another point, is it mere coincidence that Wright presents such muddled thinking in his book and his promotion of creationist garbage on Bloggingheads.tv? When you are not clear-thinking, does that have a pernicious effect on your acceptance of other wafflers? I think a stronger case could be made for this than anything Wright proffers in “The Evolution of God.”

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