Compromising Faith

Are religions animated by a higher purpose and destined to become more tolerant and accepting of others?



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, August 31, 2009


The gods of the ancient world were depraved, petty and cruel; scoundrels writ large, and immortal, to boot. Often, their reward for the ceaseless offerings they demanded simply meant the absence of their malice.


From around the mid-first millennium BCE, however, mankind’s views of the divine began to change. The slavish sacrifices and workaday rites designed to propitiate these capricious beings as unpredictable as the storms, earthquakes and diseases they caused turned into great existential quests for universal meaning and morality. The world, hitherto ruled by erratic deities and forever teetering on the edge of chaos, came to be seen as a divinely guided Cosmos governed by immutable moral principles.

Righteous blood lust has been a permanent feature of most religions from time immemorial


In innovative ethical systems the concept of “sin” (soon coupled to a morally contingent afterlife of rewards and punishments) elevated social deviances to the level of crimes against God. Moral choices suddenly had transcendental meaning. A new type of society was being forged with individuals increasingly seen as agents and guardians of morality, rather than hapless victims of a fickle amoral universe.


But how did we get from fiercely tribal creeds demanding human sacrifice and sanctioning wanton murder of enemies (the early Biblical books abound in divinely mandated genocide) to “world” religions counseling universal brotherhood and peace?


For starters, increased knowledge imposed a measure of order on the world by discovering predictable patterns in it. Once ancient astrologers managed to divine the rhythms of cosmic phenomena like solar eclipses, the need to invoke supernatural beings for producing them vanished. Meanwhile, as agricultural civilization helped tame the vagaries of Nature, it also domesticated hitherto untamed gods.


Another crucial factor, argues Robert Wright in “The Evolution of God,” was religious pragmatism. Enlightened self-interest by believers of different faiths led fitfully yet inexorably to improved religious mores. In his view, moral progress in the history of religion has been the result of “non-zero-sum logic,” a concept of economic game theory which Wright, a journalist and bestselling author whose earlier books include “The Moral Animal” (1994) and “Nonzero” (2000), sees as the driving force behind both natural and cultural evolution. When collaboration brings mutual benefits in a win-win (or non-zero-sum) situation to believers of rival faiths, he says, religious tolerance is sure to follow.


In charting the moral evolution of beliefs from crude prehistoric hunter-gatherer superstitions to complex monotheisms, Wright makes a cogent case for commonsense pragmatism, not divine revelation, as the guiding principle of religious tolerance. Like Play-Doh, God is, he argues, infinitely malleable in the hands of believers who endlessly mold Him to suit contemporary psychological, social and political needs.


All three moralizing monotheisms came into their own, Wright notes, in multiethnic empires (the Persian Empire in the case of Judaism, the Roman Empire in formative Christianity, the new Muslim Empire in Islam), where peaceful coexistence had to be underwritten by more inclusive doctrines in hitherto fiercely parochial faiths. Over time, clannish xenophobia and cultish chauvinism receded in favor of a more universalistic religious outlook.


In context, Wright explains, the famous Biblical injunction “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18), often cited as a divine command for the brotherhood of man, originally referred to Israelites alone and acquired a universal mandate only later. Likewise, in the Gospel of Mark, the earliest and probably most historically reliable account of Jesus’ life, the word “love” appears in a single context: Jesus enjoins his followers to “love thy God... [and] thy neighbor” -- in the vein of Leviticus.


* * *


How did an itinerant Galilean preacher — seen by modern scholars as a Jewish nationalist and the-end-is-nigh prophet who preached restorative national salvation and never claimed to be divine — turn into the Son of God headlining a doctrine of universal love before dying on the cross for our sins? We have the Apostle Paul to thank for it.

During his “ministry to the Gentiles,” the erstwhile Pharisee, who never met Jesus, routinely invoked divine mandate for his mission. An irascible fellow who fell out with Jesus’ original followers and riled against challenges to his authority, Paul seems like an unlikely messenger for unconditional love. The Apostle prioritized the message of neighborly love (of fellow Christians), Wright argues, so as to fortify the bond among his diverse followers.

To attract Gentiles, Paul jettisoned circumcision and strict dietary rules — against the teachings of Jesus, who had emphasized the importance of the Law. Yet it was because of this pragmatic inclusivity that Paul’s brand of Christianity would win the day over Judaizing Christian sects like the Ebionites, who remained more faithful to Jesus’ original message. In Paul’s theology Jesus the person (whom Paul barely mentions in his epistles) was eclipsed by the metaphysical concept the Galilean Jew came to personify posthumously: God made flesh as Christ the savior.

Just like Jesus, his “father,” Yahweh, didn’t spring into existence fully formed as a singular transcendent deity of cosmic benevolence. By painstakingly unraveling the chronological thread of Biblical texts’ composition over several centuries of religious evolution, scholars have plotted the maturation of Yahweh from a tribal warrior god of dubious moral judgment to the first among equals in a regional pantheon of rival deities before finally turning into the one true God with global jurisdiction.


In Wright’s view such theological growth was largely thanks to the changing economic and geopolitical realities faced by the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He traces the first stirrings of Israelite monotheism to the Prophet Hosea in the late 8th century BCE. A political isolationist, Hosea advocated a stridently nationalistic and exclusivist religion of Yahweh, while quietly acknowledging the existence of other gods in a form of proto-monotheism known as monolatry. His dire warnings notwithstanding, Israel’s and Judah’s wayward kings would continue to pay obeisance to foreign gods out of diplomatic necessity, even building temples for them.


And so it went until the late 7th century Judean king Josiah, whom Wright anoints the “Godfather of Monotheism.” Josiah initiated a thorough housecleaning of religious imports and outlawed all foreign cults. He justified his uncompromising stance on a newly codified Yahweh-alone theology provided by what is supposed to have been the Book of Deuteronomy, miraculously “discovered” in the Temple and attributed to Moses. Josiah died prematurely during a skirmish with the Egyptians, yet the reforming king’s work was already done. The purist vision of religious history’s “most perversely successful man,” in Wright’s words, would be reinforced by the trauma of the Babylonian captivity, which drove the exiles to formulate a radically new concept of God.


* * *


In the ancient Near East, gods depended on their worshippers’ military prowess for their supremacy and ultimate survival. Yet in a historic reversal Israel’s God emerges victorious in his chosen people’s humiliation. Vanquished Israelites blamed themselves for their defeat at the hands of Babylonians, construing their plight as God’s punishment for their disobedience.

Even the world’s most powerful empire would henceforth be seen as a mere instrument of God’s will — “the rod of Mine anger, in whose hand as a staff is Mine indignation!” (Isaiah 10:5). On the battlefield of theology Israelites triumphed hands down: their once highly territorial God now held dominion over all nations from one end of the earth to the other. Compared to such an awesome presence, what was Marduk the Babylonian god but a puny idol? This postexilic view of Yahweh as Israel’s stern mentor was also read back into the earlier books of the Bible by subsequent redactors of sacred texts.

A popular bumper sticker calls on people of all faiths to live together peaceably


Meanwhile, the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great soon conquered Babylon and liberated the Jews. Now that Israel, Wright notes, “was a member in good standing of the Persian Empire, the case for interethnic amity grew” — which was duly reflected in scriptural changes advocating interethnic goodwill. God’s “expanding circle of moral concern” in the Bible, Wright says, reflected human insights grounded on pragmatic self-interest. Just as God, whom the agnostic Wright considers “a figment of the imagination,” modulated human ideas through scripture, He was modified in turn by new social, political and intellectual realities in a constant feedback loop.


Not surprisingly then, Mohammed, too, was attuned to day-to-day realities in his putatively timeless message. He could be magnanimous and conciliatory one day; vindictive and bellicose the next. His mood turned on changes in his fortune, Wright says. Once he established himself as a powerful chieftain in Medina and God’s unchallenged messenger, the formerly ridiculed and embattled prophet saw less reason for a conciliatory tone towards enemies and detractors in his native Mecca.


A case in point is Mohammad’s mercurial relationship to Jews and Christians. His initial respect for “the People of the Book” soon gave way to derisive enmity. Accordingly, the Koran gravitates from “Do not argue with the followers of earlier revelations” (29:46) to the chronologically later “O Believers! Take not the Jews and Christians as friends” (5:51).


Why the change? Mohammed’s increased confidence and political prowess, Wright says, saw him graduate from seeking useful allies among Arabian Jews and Christians to openly persecuting them if they refused to submit to his authority. Yet despite Mohammed’s proselytizing militarism, Wright insists that the Prophet was a pragmatist at heart. Rather than kill infidels, he was generally content to merely subjugate and tax them.


* * *


Progressive religious pragmatism has long been evident in exegetical choices. The contradictory statements that exist in any corpus of holy texts may undermine a faith’s theological coherence, but they help make a religion more pragmatic. By selecting this passage or that for moral guidance, believers can respond to temporary priorities by invoking divine mandate for their actions. When tolerance is in their interest, passages that counsel tolerance gain prominence. When war is called for, more belligerent texts gain the upper hand.


Yet the overall tendency has been toward the former, Wright says. The author sees the “moral direction in history” as evidence perhaps of an underlying transcendent purpose. In this he avowedly follows the 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who tried to reconcile Biblical revelation with Greek empiricism. The progressive complexity of both life (from primordial microorganisms to human intelligence) and human civilization indicates, Wright believes, some sort of built-in design, if not necessarily designer.


Be that as it may, scientifically-minded readers may want to see some tangible evidence of that guiding force beyond hypothetical conjecture. Just like the notion of gods, morality is a manmade concept: the natural world shows no signs of it. Several species from ants to higher primates do demonstrate altruistic behavior, but this is invariably motivated by self-serving survival and breeding strategies, not morally driven goodwill for fellow creatures.


Wright’s solipsistic and at times contradictory postulate of a “higher purpose” behind our moral evolution, which he insists is expressly not God in any traditional sense, remains ambiguously phrased without clear empirical contours. Although he seeks an elusive synthesis of science and faith, neither scientific materialists nor religious believers will likely be won over by his arguments. “[I]f we could magically replace the Koran ... and the Bible with a book of our choosing,” the author writes, “we could probably make Muslims, Jews and Christians better people.” Yet elsewhere he argues that theology comes a distant second to “facts on the ground” in influencing religious beliefs.


Some might view that as having it backwards. Believers who predicate their entire behavior and worldview on the “Word of God” will inevitably see things filtered through the prism of their religious beliefs. Yes, mundane self-interest will no doubt motivate them; yet their self-interest, too, will be largely determined by the content of their beliefs. Ideas, whether religious, philosophical or political, can and do condition our views and behavior. Wright does us a disservice in an otherwise learned (if at times rambling and belabored) treatise by presenting religious belief as always the result of “facts on the ground,” rarely their cause.



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