Jerry Coyne and The Evolution of God
by Robert Wright
Here is a partial list of false or misleading things Jerry Coyne says about my book The Evolution of God in his review of it in The New Republic. I want to emphasize that I think these are innocent mistakes. I have no reason to believe he intentionally misrepresented my argument. Indeed, his errors are of a kind that most of us have committed under deadline pressure or under the influence of deep intellectual passions. Nonetheless, his misrepresentations are collectively significant, because together they form the foundation of most of his criticism of my book. Once you correct them, his critique basically collapses. If Coyne wants to write a devastating review of my book—and there can be little doubt that he wants to—he’s going to have to start over.
Coyne writes, “Wright suggests that the moral sentiments themselves may have come from an evolutionary process guided by God.” And: “Wright makes a really remarkable claim, a metaphysical one, that this whole process is driven by God.”
Guided by God? Driven by God? Here’s what my book says (p. 448):
“This book’s account of the moral direction of history has been a materialist account. We’ve explained the expansion of the moral imagination as an outgrowth of expanding social organization, which is itself an outgrowth of technological evolution, which itself grows naturally out of the human brain, which itself grew naturally out of the primordial ooze via biological evolution. There’s no mystical force that has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.” And (on p. 401): “We can explain the complex functionality of organisms without positing a god. The explanation is natural selection.”
In other words, if there’s a God involved, it’s a God of a deistic sort, who set the whole system, including natural selection, in motion and then kept his paws off. The process would be “guided” by God, and “driven” by God, in the sense that every Ford is “guided” and “driven” by Henry Ford.
Moreover, I’m agnostic on the question of whether there’s even a deistic sort of God. But, you may ask, if I’m agnostic, then how can Coyne quote me saying things like this: “God was so wise that he set up a world in which the rational pursuit of self-interest leads people to wisdom.”?
Answer: By taking that quote out of context. That passage characterizes not my view, but the theology implicit in the Hebrew wisdom literature. To fully appreciate how negligent a reviewer would have to be to miss this fact, I recommend reading the quote in context. It’s in the final paragraph of this passage.
If faced with these misrepresentations of my views, Coyne’s alibi might be that at the end of his review he sets the record straight by noting (indeed, complaining) that I don’t profess to know whether any god exists. And, indeed, the closing paragraphs of his review do contain a refreshingly accurate portrayal of my position. But how does Coyne reconcile this portrayal with his earlier assertion that God’s existence is a “claim” that I make?
Coyne says I posit a “relentlessly progressive evolution of religion” and depict “theology’s linear march toward goodness and light.” (He doesn’t provide any quotes from my book that say anything like this, and I can guarantee that he never will.) He then writes “One can in fact make a good case that, contrary to Wright’s claim, ethics went downhill as religion evolved—specifically, that it declined in the transition from polytheism to monotheism.”
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.”
How could Professor Coyne have actually read chapters 6 and 7 of my book and come away thinking that I believe the transition from polytheism to monotheism involved moral progress? Again, this seems to be an honest mistake—but it’s a big one.
Coyne says I characterize the Apostle Paul’s teachings as “a momentous change in Christian theology: an extension of love to non-Christian foreigners.”
Once again, we don’t have to worry about Coyne ever providing a quote from my book that supports this claim, because there isn’t one. What I say is that Paul extended love across ethnic and national bounds, not across religious bounds. In fact, I emphasize that if you read Paul’s fine print, you see that “brotherly love” is meant to apply to Christians of the various ethnicities and nationalities. I underscore the distinction in such Pauline passages as “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” I write (p. 280), “This is the kind of love Paul usually preaches—love directed first and foremost toward other Christians.” And I note that, once Christianity became the official Roman church, the line drawn by Paul between Christian and non-Christian became even starker; there was now (p. 298) government-backed “intolerance of non-Christians. So, in moral terms, it isn’t clear that Paul’s mission culminated in progress.”
So when Coyne spends a paragraph triumphantly establishing that “Paul is not promoting love among those of different faiths,” and says that this fact calls into question my “sunny view of the progress of theology,” it isn’t clear whom he’s arguing with. Not me.
And as for Coyne’s next paragraph, which begins: “And is Paul really the epitome of Christian tolerance? Consider what else he says: non-believers, backbiters, and fornicators, among others, are ‘worthy of death’....” Here again, New Republic readers might think Coyne is arguing with me—unless they had read this (p. 265) part of my book: “Why did Paul become the point man for a God whose love knows no ethnic bounds? Is it because he was naturally loving and tolerant, a man who effortlessly imbued all he met with a sense of belonging? Unlikely. Even in his correspondence, which presumably reflects a filtered version of the inner Paul, we see him declaring that followers of Jesus who disagree with him about the gospel message should be ‘accursed’—that is, condemned by God to eternal suffering.” And (p. 272) “In his letter to the Galatians he expressed the wish that those who preached mandatory circumcision would ‘castrate themselves!’”
By now one pattern should be clear: Coyne often attributes to me views that I don’t in fact hold, then attacks those views with arguments that I myself make. Here goes:
As if in refutation of me, Coyne writes: “Moreover, there is no evidence for an increase in morality in the Qur’an over the years of its composition between 610 and 632 C.E. On the contrary: as Islamic scholars recognize, the later chapters, written after Muhammad’s famous flight from Mecca to Medina, display decidedly less tolerance than the earlier ones.”
No kidding! I guess that would explain why I write, on p. 382, that “the earlier suras, revealed in Mecca, tended to be more tolerant.” It would also explain why Chapter 15 is titled “Mecca” and features a number of tolerant verses—and ends with the ominous sentence, “Muhammad was about to acquire real power, and things were about to change”—whereas Chapter 16 is called “Medina” and features a number of belligerent verses.
The growing belligerence of Koranic verses over time has an implication that Coyne underscores: “according to Islamic tradition, theological disparities between early and late verses—which occur many times in the Qur’an—are resolved by giving precedence to the later ones.” Though Coyne seems to think that this fact would be news to me, and certainly seems to want his readers to think as much, I myself describe, on pp. 381–382, “a crucial decision by Islamic jurists about how to resolve internal contradictions in the Koran. They decided that the more recently Muhammad had uttered a Koranic verse, the more likely it was to reflect the enduring will of God. This skewed interpretation toward belligerence.”
That my book acknowledges any belligerence in Koranic verses at all may surprise readers of Coyne’s review. Coyne says I find “tolerance of Christians and Jews” in the Koran by using a “needle-in-the-haystack” approach, and he then sets out to enlighten me about the many intolerant passages in the Koran. His first example is this: “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other.”
As it happens, the same passage can be found in my book (p. 367). Why didn’t Coyne know this? Maybe he was confused by the fact that I used a different translation: “O Believers! take not the Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another’s friends.” Or maybe he just didn’t read my book as carefully as he might have.
Anyway, more consequential than this minor oversight is the larger impression that every reader of Coyne’s review will come away with: That I quote only the sunny verses from the Koran. Here are some verses I quote in the aforementioned chapter 16: “When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them.” And “kill the polytheists wherever you find them.” And “think not that the infidels shall escape Us! Make ready then against them what force ye can, and strong squadrons whereby ye may strike terror into the enemy of God and your enemy.”
Now, I do argue that these verses, when read in context, are less indiscriminately belligerent than they may sound. Coyne probably disagrees (judging by his attitude toward Islam generally), and it would be interesting to hear his counterarguments. But since forming an interesting counterargument would involve comprehending my argument in the first place, maybe we should assign this job to someone other than Jerry Coyne.
Coyne writes, “And yet, despite all odds, Wright manages to find ‘growing salvific inclusiveness’ in Islamic doctrine.” Actually, no. Here’s what I write about a Koranic verse that declares Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sabeans, in addition to Muslims, eligible for salvation: “It seems to represent the peak of a growing salvific inclusiveness.” Now, since the history of Islamic doctrine is just beginning when the Koran solidifies, to say that a verse in the Koran represents the “peak” of a trend is to say that almost all of the history of Islamic doctrine doesn’t feature a continuation of that trend. In other words, Coyne has once again attributed to me something that is closer to the opposite of what I say than to what I actually say.
In addition to misunderstanding me, Coyne misunderstands the Koran. He writes:
It is nice of Wright to remark that Jews and Christians will gain salvation so long as they believe in God, but he fails to mention that this saving God is the Islamic god, Allah. The Qur’an is quite explicit that salvation is gained only through adherence to Islam:
Those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans—whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right—surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve.
Coyne’s assumption that Muhammad thought of Allah as different from the God of Christians and Jews is popular among laypeople (especially on the right), but it’s not very popular among scholars of Islamic history. In the Koran Muhammad explicitly says he’s talking about the God of Christians and Jews. (e.g. “We believe in what hath been sent down to us and hath been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one.”) And he repeatedly grounds the history of that God in the Torah and the Gospel. And in the various theological arguments Muhammad had with Jews or Christians—such as whether Jesus was the son of God or merely a great prophet—there’s no evidence of any disagreement over the identity of God himself.
Indeed, chances are good that Arab Christians and Jews themselves referred to God as Allah. To this day that’s the word for God used by Arab Christians.
As should be clear by now, some of Coyne’s misrepresentations of my views seem related to an overarching misconception: That I’m positing some inexorable moral progress that never takes a break and never suffers a setback. This, at least, would explain why Coyne erroneously assumes that I think moral progress continued during the two decades of the Koran’s formation, during the transition from polytheism to monotheism, etc.
Which raises the question of what I do believe about moral progress. 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. (2) Unlike Singer, I’m attributing this expanding circle mainly to the expansion of social organization—in particular, to the growing scope of “non-zero-sumness” or interdependence. (3) Though I argue in this book that all three Abrahamic religions have shown a responsiveness to these dynamics—that is, they generally get more tolerant, less belligerent, in response to non-zero-sum dynamics—I emphasize that there’s no guarantee that, as social organization approaches the global level, humankind will make the necessary moral adaptation; we may instead see social chaos on an unprecedented scale.
Anyway, though Coyne’s general pattern is to overstate my claims (i.e. to evince comprehension of little in the preceding paragraph), he in one sense understates them. He seems to think I’m confining my expectation of moral progress to western religion. He asks, “What about other faiths? In his zeal to pull societies toward moral perfection, did the Lord of the Universe forget the Hindus, aboriginals, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Scientologists?”
Well, my book is about the evolution of the Abrahamic god, so you wouldn’t expect me to touch on all religions. But I do make it clear that, yes, eastern religions are subject to the same logic as western ones: “All told, the first millennium BCE brings a strikingly broad pattern: across the Eurasian landmass, from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, sages argue for expanding the circle of moral concern, for harnessing sympathy and hindering antipathy.” I go on to cover the work of the Buddha, Confucius, and Mozi in a discussion that covers pp. 236–40.
And, by the way, I don’t argue that religious belief is a pre-requisite for this moral progress; atheists are presumably just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers. The values system in question—religious or secular—is a kind of “neutral medium” through which underlying social dynamics find their moral manifestation.