By Robert Wright
Long Story Short: This book has a lot of interesting close-ish reading of the big three Abrahamic religious texts (Torah, Bible, Koran), interspersed with a lot of philosophy and splaining I wasn’t that crazy about.
Why I Chose This Book: I was enthralled by the ideas in Wright’s book, Nonzero, when I read it and I was looking for a book that addressed a more traditional “skeptical” topic to write about between that one about online reputation and the next one about cuddly animals.
The Book’s Strengths: First of all, I like Wright’s writing style. He explains his points well, and he intersperses his texts with just enough humor that it’s a pleasant surprise every time. True, writing style is not a very important part of a book’s message, but it makes it easier to engage with the text, particularly during the slower parts of the book.
I thought the book did a pretty good job of covering the structural evolution of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It starts with exploring religion from pre-literate societies, and it’s very clear on where the limitations are on how much we can deduce about prehistoric religions, and how we know what we know now about the religions of hunter-gatherer communities. For example, we know what the members and/or descendants of these hunter-gatherer societies say, and we have some historical documents from literate people who encountered these groups during the age of exploration and onward, but we can’t say that this is the way prehistoric religions looked because every culture evolves, and Wright points out frequently what aspects he discusses comes from documented sources (and which ones) and what aspects are supposition or speculation.
By and large the strongest parts of the books were the sections–the bulk of the book–about the Abrahamic religions and their major texts. He attempted to demonstrate how Yahweh/God/Allah evolved as a character from a polytheistic entity to the solitary supreme creator He is known as today. I call it close-ish reading because the passages he analyzed from the major texts (Torah, Bible, Koran) were all discussed in English, which, as we know, is not the language they were written in and which have discussions that fill books just on who and how and why they were translated in the way they were translated. When there are major word choice alternatives, Wright would mention it, but for the most part he focused on the story the words were telling. He’d find lines from chapters and books that seemed to refer to immense amounts of backstory regarding the figure of God that were left out of the canonized versions, and seem similar to stories from other non-religious texts, or the way other gods were mentioned in the Bible that suggested they used to have a place in the heavens, too. He brought in information from recorded history and archaeological finds, and slight variances in vocabulary between languages where two groups of people lived as neighbors, and built what I thought was a very strong case for the idea that the God that everyone thinks of in the Abrahamic religions today represents a logical (almost predictable) evolution from a polytheistic character to a monotheistic one.
Note: I am using the word “character” because Wright’s book emphasizes stories from the different religions and the way he discusses Yahweh/God/Allah is as the protagonist of the stories. It’s rather literary, and “figure” doesn’t quite feel right.
Of the three sections on the holy books, I was most interested in the stuff about Jesus and the New Testament of the Bible. It probably has to do with the fact that there is a lot more written work from that era, and because the hard part of building the case for a monotheistic character was in the previous section. I found the information about the Koran very good to learn, but it wasn’t very exciting to read. Wright acknowledges that the Koran itself is a very business-like, heavy-on-government text and lacks the poetry and mythic scale of the Bible and Torah, and presents it as the culmination of the long argument he’s been making, and there’s just not that much to it to catch one’s fancy.
The Book’s Weaknesses: The book really ebbs and flows. The beginning section on the polytheistic religions of pre-history started strong but then just went on and on and on and on. A lot of it seemed like a rehash of the themes of Nonzero, which is bad for me because I’ve read that book but perhaps were necessary for people who hadn’t to understand his large arguments about the world that appear at the end of the book. (More on that in a minute.) It was also a lot of didja know, I know! I told you! now you know. Without original texts to look at–which is a problem there’s no way to solve–it became tedious. I don’t know that quite so many details are required to understand the textual analysis of the next few parts of the book.
By the time we hit the part about the Koran I was very, very tired of the harping about non-zero-sum interactions. It’s a lightbulb moment in the book that’s actually about non-zero-sum interactions shaping history, but in this book you kind of get it the first time, and simple reminders of it would have kept you on track. By the very end I just started flipping pages, and then actively started rolling my eyes when Wright began to surmise that maybe there’s some biological reason from human evolution that made people inclined to seek non-zero-sum relationships and be good to each other and let’s call that “god” shall we? And the epilogues and afterwords that address the god question from various points of view (what would atheists think? what would believers say?) were either silly or else I was just fed up and couldn’t take them in the seriousness they were intended. After a few sentences for each I stopped reading. The book is probably a hundred pages longer than I care about.
For Purposes of Full Disclosure: Right in the middle of the book, within the New Testament Jesus stuff, there is a very long divergence on the philosophical evolution of a concept of Logos, as developed by Philo of Alexandria. Philosophy is my kryptonite, and I followed it for a while and then just gave up. It almost put me off the book, and then it kicked back in with the text analysis and I forgot about it, and then that section concluded with some very wonderful explanation of how Logos fit right in with the Jesus business and if I’d read it I’d probably appreciate it even more. Someone on Amazon.com even raved about the Logos section, but I just couldn’t deal with it. It’s a negative part of the book to me, but I think that it’s my hang-ups making me say that. If you love philosophy, your experienced will be enriched. If you hate it, skip it. Don’t let it bog you down; the rest of that section of the book is worth reading.
What Should Have Happened: I think there could be far less non-zero-sum narrative in the book. I also think that leaving the realm of how God evolved as a character in His story to explore evo-psych/conciliatory?/grand human drama reasons why people believe and the biological “purpose” of the book was a mistake. I’ll concede that maybe it’s a framing device for the text analysis to give people a reason to read this book instead of one written by religious scholars, or else maybe the publisher wanted it to not seem atheist, or maybe it’s just ideas that are in the author’s mind and what he’s really interested in exploring. But the two very distinct parts–the splaining and the close reading–just didn’t really mesh.
Short Story Shorter: I would definitely recommend this book, with permission to skip all the parts that you find annoying. You won’t miss them.