Response to Robert Wright

Note to the reader: Unless you’re intensely interested in my to-and-fro with Robert Wright, you probably won’t want to read this, as a shorter version has been published in The New Republic (note: there are two pages). But for those who want to follow the debate to the bitter end, I proffer this long rebuttal.

Robert Wright has responded to my review of his book, The Evolution of God, by posting a long rebuttal on his website.  But rather than deal with the forest of his problematic thesis, he argues about trees – indeed, leaves. For Wright’s response completely neglects with my main criticism: that there is no evidence for his idea that natural selection and evolution could have been set up by God to produce not only the evolution of our own species, but also the social development of our species towards increasing morality. In his last book, NonZero, Wright argued that morality was the inevitable byproduct of increasingly complex societies: as different peoples interacted more and more often, they found it in their mutual interest to become more tolerant. He also floated the idea that both evolution and natural selection were created in such a way that they would yield a predetermined outcome: our own species.

In The Evolution of God, Wright goes further: asserting that, in response to increased social complexity, religions changed in a way to make their scriptures more amiable, more tolerant of other faiths.  And, according to Wright, these ideas are more than mere conjectures: he argues that “facts on the ground” and “scientific evidence” point to a divine hand guiding human biological, social, and theological evolution.

In his response, Wright claims that I have either misinterpreted some of his theological points, or ascribed to him positions that he does not hold.  But a fuller reading, going beyond the quotes Wright trots out of his book, shows that I have not misinterpreted anything.

Wright’s rhetorical strategy in defending his book is a tactic I call The Waffle of Wide Appeal.  In The Evolution of God, he’s constantly straddling the fence (indeed—pirouetting on the fence) between a secular and a divine interpretation of biology and history.  He defends both points of view simultaneously, knowing full well that rationalists will fix on one interpretation and religious people on the other. That’s a good way to sell books.  It’s also great for defusing criticism, for when called out for promoting the action of “transcendent forces” in history, Wright can merely trot out a few of the pro-secular sentences (or vice versa). In this way he can claim that any review is misguided!

Rather than reprise my main criticisms of Wright’s book, I’ll address in order the six “false or misleading things” of which Wright accuses me.  To help the reader I’ve put Wright’s own words, from his website, in italics, while my response is in Roman type.  Quotes from his book are indented.

Misrepresentation #1:My beliefs about God

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.

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.

This shows Wright’s chameleon-like approach to not only his book, but to his interpretation of scripture, an approach that involves selective quotation. Here he claims that his thesis does not invoke  a “mystical force,” and at best he’s adducing a deistic, hands-off God.  But if you look elsewhere, you’ll find that Wright sees the deity as having done far more than simply created the universe and then withdrew. Wright’s reconciliation between faith and the facts involves not just a deistic God, but one who created natural selection and evolution along with the universe and, more than that, built into those processes (and into the progress of human society) a preordained outcome: rational, moralistic humans whom God, via social and theological change, would pull toward morality:

The suggestion of scientific evidence for God is first raised on the book jacket:

Wright shows that however mistaken our traditional ideas about God or gods, their evolution points to a transcendent prospect: that the religious quest is valid, and that a modern scientific worldview leaves room for something that can meaningfully be called divine.

And then, of course, in the book itself:

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, having concluded that the moral order suggests the existence of some as-yet unknown source of creativity that set natural selection in motion, decides to call that source “God,” well, that’s the believer’s business. After all, physicists got to choose the word “electron.”

. . . .Maybe the growth of “God” signifies the existence of God. That is: if history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, than maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe—conceivably—the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.

What might qualify as evidence of a larger purpose at work in the world? For one thing, a moral direction in history. If history naturally carries human consciousness toward moral enlightenment, however slowly and fitfully, that would be evidence that there’s some point to it all. . . . .The possibility persists that this growing non-zero-sumness was itself set in motion by something else—conceivably an old-fashioned god, as traditionalists might hope, and conceivably something more abstract, more philosophically modern; but in any event, something deeper.

(What, by the way, could be “deeper” than an old-fashioned god?)

In NonZero, Wright suggested some teleology in the evolutionary process itself:

I’m not saying there is proof that biological evolution has a purpose and is the product of design. I’m just saying that it’s not crazy to believe this. Biological evolution has a set of properties that is found in such purposive things as animals and robots and is not found in such evidently purposeless things as rocks and rivers. This isn’t proof of teleology, but it’s evidence of it. . . . Like those biological developments, this cultural development [of increasing complexity] is closer to being evidence of divinity than its opposite would be.

Wright is a bit more explicit about it in The Evolution of God:

If you watched evolution on this planet unfold from a distance (and on fast-forward), you would find it strikingly like watching the maturation of an organism: there would be directional movement toward functional integration. So why can’t the part of Paley’s argument that can be validly applied to an organism’s maturation—the idea that it suggests a designer of some sort—be applied to the whole system of life on Earth?

Contra Wright, what he describes above is very different from what Henry Ford did with his cars.  Ford built his cars, but it was up to the driver to determine where they went.  For Wright, God not only built evolution and human societies, but did it in such a way that where they went was inherent in their design. God apparently made his cars with built-in autopilots and GPSs.

Does Wright really disavow a mystical force?  If so, why does he keep invoking a “larger purpose,” a “special creative explanation,” a “source of creativity”?  If he is so sure that no mystical force enters the system, why is he so anxious to show people how a such a force could have designed humans and their society and pushed them in a predetermined direction?  And what of Wright’s claim that there is “no need to look for a mystical force”? If he really thinks that, then why does he devote so much space in this book (and in NonZero) to claiming that there are plenty of “scientific” facts on the ground for such a force, and then laying out precisely what those facts are?

As I note in my review, quoting Wright:, “An appraisal of the state of things from a scientific standpoint,” he asserts, “yields more evidence of divinity than you might expect.”

Wright continues his rebuttal:

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.”?  p 272

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. [See link on Wright’s webpage.]

Whether this is an interpretation of Hebrew literature is not the point: for this quote precisely represents the view that Wright offers the faithful in both NonZero and The Evolution of God. To repeat: both books aver that religious people can find evidence for a divine force in the process of evolution and natural selection, processes that can be seen as designed to culminate in humans, in their complex societies, and in theologies that increasingly grow more moral.  In fact, the whole confection that Wright offers the faithful is perfectly summed up in the quote, “God was so wise that he set up a world in which the rational pursuit of self-interest leads people to wisdom.”

Wright continues:

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?

The reconciliation involves the whole tension of Wright’s book: he spends much of The Evolution of God showing believers the clear “empirical” evidence for God (or transcendent force—who cares?). That evidence involves both evolutionary change and sociological progress. Wright himself repeatedly claims that there’s scientific evidence for a transcendent force — but avoids explaining why he doesn’t buy this evidence himself.

Then, at the end of his book, Wright finally grapples with the crucial question of whether God, or a god-like force, really exists.  He admits that he’s not sure whether it does, because he’s “not qualified” to answer that question. (He doesn’t tell us who is.)  But his retreat doesn’t square with all the “evidence” that he’s given to buttress the faith of believers. I described Wright’s bizarre admission at the end of my review precisely because he avoids it until the end of his book.

Going through The Evolution of God, the reader continually gets the impression that Wright really believes what he’s saying.  But then we discover that, on the most crucial question of all, Wright ultimately punts.  Rather than hiding Wright’s equivocation about God: I singled it out as the culmination of my review, precisely to underscore that The Evolution of God ultimately appears as an exercise in cynicism.

Misrepresentation #2: The evolution of monotheism

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.

Wright’s thesis is indeed that religion is relentlessly progressive, but over the long term. This progression, he says, can be seen as evidence that God (or the “transcendent force”) is pulling humanity toward greater morality.  Yes, there are short-term reversals, but the long-term trend is the leitmotif of his book, the “scientific” evidence on which his entire thesis rests!

And if you read not just chapters 6 and 7, but also chapters 4 and 5, you’ll see that although Wright agrees that the transition from monolatry to monotheism involved short-term Jewish separatism and identity politics rather than inclusiveness, he also asserts repeatedly that the transition to monotheism was a big moral improvement in the long run —precisely what I claimed. Here’s what The Evolution of God says about this transition:

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. Fortunately, the previous sentence has an asterisk: but it doesn’t matter. The salvation of the world in the twenty-first century may well hinge on how peaceful and tolerant Abrahamic monotheism is. But it doesn’t hinge on whether these attributes were built in at monotheism’s birth.  That’s because monotheism turns out to be, morally speaking, a very malleable thing, something that, when circumstances are auspicious can be a fount of tolerance and compassion.  As well see in subsequent chapters, this fact is manifest in the subsequent history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Even though one driving force behind monotheism’s emergence seems to have been hostility, the God that emerged needn’t remain hostile toward Israel’s neighbors. Even if the ‘universalism’ so often attributed to the God of the exile is partly a euphemism for far-flung retribution, this God was capable of moving toward moral universalism, toward universal compassion. .  .What’s more, even if there is backsliding, every burst of moral growth God exhibits, once etched in scripture, can be revived later, even amplified, when circumstances are conducive.

With P [the Priestly source of the Bible], it seems, Abrahamic monotheism has been converted from a fiercely nationalistic and exclusive theology — the theology present at its creation — to a more international and inclusive one.  If so, this is yet another tribute to the malleability of God. Monotheism had emerged as a tool for elevating Israelites above their neighbors, and now it was becoming a way of putting Israel on the same platform as its neighbors. The Abrahamic God was growing.

Misrepresentation #3: Christian inclusiveness

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.

Again Wright uses selective citation to tell only half the tale. Yes, Paul extended love to Christians from other nations, but, as Wright makes palpably clear, Paul’s other great achievement was to extend Christian amity to their non-Christian opponents, an important tool in promoting the growth of his faith via conversion.  A few Wrightean quotes to this effect:

On the one hand Christianity made a name for itself by extending generosity to non-Christians. Some of those it befriended joined the church, others no doubt spoke highly of it thereafter, and various observers were impressed by the church’s sympathy for the unfortunate. Yet Christianity couldn’t extend generosity to non-Christian infinitely . . . The key to Christianity’s growth was to be nice to outsiders, but not endlessly nice  — unless, of course, they became insiders, after which they were expected to give and not just get.

There is one kind of Christian love that doesn’t fit into this formula, and so can’t be explained in terms of intra-congregational or inter-congregational bonding. In two of the gospels Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” What is the practical logic behind that kind of love?  And if there is a practical logic behind it, why isn’t the logic sensed by Paul, who never utters these words.

Actually, though Paul doesn’t say “Love your enemies,” he comes pretty close. So close, in fact, as to suggest that he did sense the logic behind it – that in fact he may be the one who injected the idea into Christian literature. Only later, perhaps, was it attributed to Jesus, if in fuller and richer form.

Actually, Paul wasn’t the first to figure out that befriending an enemy can be a potent counterattack.  His “burning coals” line comes from Proverbs, where it is preceded by this advice: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.” Paul, in injecting the doctrine of kindness toward enemies into Christianity, wasn’t just being wise; he was being wise with the guidance of the Hebrew wisdom literature.

Misrepresentation #4: Belligerence and Tolerance in the Koran

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.

Nope.  What I’m pointing out is malleability of Wright’s thesis, his ability to cite facts that seem to refute his thesis (without seeming to realize this), and a discursiveness of prose that enables one to demonstrate almost anything by judiciously selecting quotes from his book.  Wright continues:

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.”

Yes, of course Wright recognizes the difference between Meccan and Medinan verses of the Qur’an—this book is in fact where I first read about this dichotomy of tone.  But Wright doesn’t seem to recognize that, in contrast to his thesis, this difference and its interpretation by later Muslim theologians shows that Islamic theology has gotten more belligerent over time – not just over the short term, but over the long term. Not only is the Qur’an less amiable in its later-written parts, but Islamic theologians have decided that the less amiable parts take permanent precedence over the more amiable ones. Nor did the hadith (the sacred collected sayings and stories about Muhammad), compiled after the Qur’an, make things better, for the hadith are even less conciliatory than the Qur’an.  Over the long term, then, Islamic theology has created a less conciliatory God – the opposite of Wright’s thesis.

Wright continues:

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.”

I disagree. Wright does indeed quote some of the un-sunny verses, but definitely downplays them. After all, he has to show that, like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is being pulled toward greater tolerance and morality.  Rather than arriving at his thesis from considering the facts, Wright uses the decidedly unscientific tactic of deciding what he wants to show beforehand, then presenting only those facts (or pieces of scripture) that support it.

Indeed, Wright admits that on the whole the Qur’an is a belligerent document:

This is the moral irony of the Koran. On the one hand, it is vengeful; people who read it after hearing only whitewashed summaries are often surprised at the recurring air of retribution. Yet most of the retributive passages don’t encourage retribution; almost always, it is God, not any Muslim, who is to punish the infidels.  And if we confine ourselves to the Meccan years – most of the Koran –Muslims are encouraged to resist the impulse of vengeance.

Here, as in much of his reply, Wright seems oblivious about the disparity between what scripture actually says, and how it bears on his main thesis.  He admits that the Meccan verses are not only written earlier than the Medina ones, but are also superceded by the Medinan verses (in light of this, it’s completely irrelevant which verses make up “most of the Koran”). So what’s the point of emphasizing the sunny verses if they’re rendered obsolete by darker ones? And who cares whether it is God rather than the Muslims who is to punish the infidels? As Wright insists throughout The Evolution of God, it’s how the scripture is interpreted by humans that’s important. If Muslims, in the end, see the Qur’an as mandating vengeance, then Islamic theology has grown less moral.

Wright continues:

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.

No counterarguments are necessary, or even useful; the reader can judge for herself whether those verses – and the Qur’an as a whole — are “indiscriminately belligerent.”  Go, for example, to the Qur’anic section of  “The Scripture Project”  (, where you can browse the entire Qur’an, with verses conveniently labeled as to whether they express “good stuff” like amity, or “bad stuff” like intolerance, injustice, cruelty and violence.  Notice the preponderance of the latter.

Misrepresentation #5:The Islamic doctrine of salvation

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.

Well, Wright is technically correct, but he changed that critical word “peak” from a different word, “culmination,” that appeared in the material I reviewed: the bound galley proofs (I’ve only now received the final book).  The original paragraph says this:

Whether the verse is from Muhammad’s time or after it seems to represent the culmination of a growing salvific inclusiveness.  There are many verses in the Koran suggesting that Jews and Christians are eligible for salvation. Three of those verses add Sabeans to the list, and of the three, this one verse adds Zoroastrians as well. . . It’s possible that all three verses carrying salvation beyond the Abrahamic compass were indeed uttered by Muhammad. Maybe near the end of his career he found small pockets of Sabeans and Zoroastrians within the ambit of his conquests, or maybe he found himself in alliance with towns populated by these non-Abrahamics.  But, regardless of whether these verses come from Muhammad’s time or later, the best explanation for them is an expanded scope of non-zero-sumness. Whether by allying with non-Abrahamics or governing them, Islamic leadership seems to have acquired an incentive to stay on cooperative terms with them.  This is reminiscent of the growing inclusiveness we saw in the Hebrew Bible.” [my emphases in bold]

“Culmination,” of course, can mean something very different from “peak”: culmination means “fulfillment” or “completion,” lacking the idea of a later downhill slide. “Peak,” as Wright notes, means an apogee, a high point.  I apologize for missing this one-word change, as I saw only a penultimate version of the book, and, of course, did not quote the “peak” sentence in my review.

But this quibbling is just that – quibbling.  For nowhere in his book does Wright assert directly that Muslim theology reached its high point with this one verse from the Qur’an.  Does he really believe, as he implies in his response, that Islam has gone morally downhill since  the composition of verses 22:16-17?  And why does he claim in his rebuttal that Islamic morality “peaked” with this verse, but writes in his book that the course of Islam is “reminiscent of a growing inclusiveness”? I seriously doubt that Wright sees Islamic theology as having degenerated in the 1300 years since the Qur’an was written. That would, of course, refute his main thesis.

Wright continues:

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.

Oh dear – another rhetorical diversion.  Yes, Wright has cherry-picked one verse from the Qur’an to show that Mohammed accepted what he saw as the Judeo-Christian god.  But what Wright neglects to add is the crucial fact that only Muslims  — and not Christians or Jews –worship this God correctly! Over and over again the Qur’an says that accepting Islamic dogma is essential for salvation. It is a fundamental tenet of Christianity, for example, that Jesus was the son of God – a divine as well as a corporeal being.  Indeed, many Christians feel that salvation absolutely hinges on accepting this tenet.  But the Qur’an makes perfectly clear — twice — that belief in the divinity of Jesus will send you straight to hell:

5:72-75    They do blaspheme who say: “God is Christ the son of Mary.” But said Christ: “O Children of Israel! Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” Whoever joins other gods with God,  God will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrong-doers be no one to help.

They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One God. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them.

Why turn they not to God, and seek His forgiveness? For God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

Christ the son of Mary was no more than an apostle; many were the apostles that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. See how God doth make His signs clear to them; yet see in what ways they are deluded away from the truth!


19:35-37.  It is not befitting to (the majesty of) God that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, “Be”, and it is.

Verily God is my Lord and your Lord: Him therefore serve ye: this is a Way that is straight.

But the sects differ among themselves: and woe to the unbelievers because of the (coming) Judgment of a Momentous Day!

Wright even admits this incompatibility in another passage of his book:

Yes, he [Muhammad] was willing to accept the virgin birth of Jesus, to call Jesus the Word and the Messiah. But, at the end of the day, he wanted Jews and Christians to accept his religion—to accept that their own scriptures, however sacred, had been a prelude to the Koran; that their own prophets, however great, had been preludes to himself.

Indeed.  It takes a great feat of intellectual gymnastics to see the Qur’an as saying anything other than this: the road to salvation depends completely on accepting the doctrine of Islam, and if you don’t you’re barbeque. (And of course that’s the way many Muslims interpret their scripture.) But Wright has done the requisite back flip. I stand completely behind my assertion that “the Qur’an is quite explicit that salvation is gained only through adherence to Islam.”

Misrepresentation #6: The geographic scope of progress

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.

Well, on pp. 236-240 you will find this:  a couple of statements from Confucius, Mozi, and Buddhist scripture expressing tolerance (e.g., Confucius: “love your fellow man”).  There is no documentation that these religions were, or are, becoming more tolerant over time. There is only Wright’s assertion that there is a “strikingly broad pattern” of tolerance in the first century BCE.  Well, did Buddhism, Confucianism, or Mozi become more moral over time? Did their theologies develop in a loving direction?  On these questions – the ones critical for Wright’s thesis — he is silent. Citing a statement of amity from each of these three faiths hardly constitutes “covering the work of Buddha, Confucius, and Mozi.” Picking one or a few conciliatory statements from a faith says absolutely nothing about whether that faith is growing increasingly moral.

And Wright says nothing about the world’s 1.2 billion Hindus.  Why is nearly all of his analysis confined to Abrahamic faiths, when he’s purporting to show a pattern that should apply to every religion?

Wright continues:

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.

Nowhere did I say that Wright sees religious belief as a pre-requisite for moral progress.  What I said is this:

“Wright sees faith as a moral lever: ‘Certainly there has been a kind of net moral progress in human history. . . . And certainly religion has played a role in this progress.’ But how much of a role? And if not a decisive role, then what is left of Wright’s belief in the beneficent power of religion?”

As for “atheists being just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers,” well, Wright never deigns to admit that in his book.  But that’s not surprising, for his point is that transcendent “purpose” in the world is revealed through the increasing morality of Abrahamic theology. If those who reject all theology are “just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers,” then religion has apparently contributed little to humanity’s moral improvement.

But how can atheists be “just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers” if an important part of the “underlying dynamic” is the evolution of theology?  Again, Wright seems willing to contradict himself to prove his critics wrong.

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Response to Robert Wright I wrote a book review of Wright’s The Evolution of God in The New Republic.  Wright has objected to this review, and has placed a critique of my piece on his website.  I have written a short response to his post in The New Republic. If you’re looking for my long response, it has been moved here. [...]

  2. [...] vs. Wright, Reader’s Digest version As I promised some time back, I  provided a long answer to Robert Wright, who criticized me on his website for supposedly misrepresenting his views in my [...]

  3. [...] then you miss the point. Coyne has a short reply in TNR and a longer reply on his blog where he quotes Wright several times saying exactly what Wright says he didn't say. Wright's true [...]

  4. [...] to show that when reviewing books I habitually misrepresent them.  Somehow they fail to mention my long response to Wright, showing that his beef turns out to be thin gruel.  (See a shorter give-and-take here.) So it [...]


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