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Old 06-08-2009, 12:04 AM
LCButterField LCButterField is offline
Join Date: Jun 2009
Posts: 5
Default My Early Critique of Evolution of God

I pre-ordered Wright's EOG from Amazon and received it early. I am a huge fan of his previous work. I have woven his book Non-Zero throughout a course I teach on long run economic growth. I would go so far as to say that the central idea of that book--that gains from trade provide the potential energy driving the rise of social complexity through time--is one of the most interesting I have ever encountered.

So far, on the margin, I am less excited about EOG.

First let me say that, consistent with Wright's past work, EOG is written extremely well. It covers an impressive range of literature from a vast array of disciplines/topics. Also consistent with Wright's earlier work, the depth of knowledge demonstrated by the integration of such a wide range of material is impressive. When I encounter material I am familiar with from my other work, I always find the presentation of the ideas and theories spot on.

So, as always, I am learning a lot from material that reads extremely well. Exposed to a number of big important ideas, I am glad I moved this book to the front of my reading list.

So far my main critique of EOG is in the material concerning the early development of Monotheism. The critique is rather abstract and requires some setup. One of the themes in Non-Zero that impressed me was how the power of the idea rendered many past debates or issues moot. To me the clearest illustration of this is the material on the transition from hunter-gatherer society to settled agriculture. The traditional literature on the issue focuses on a (laundry?) list of potential just-so causes: climate reversals, technological shocks, political shocks, etc. These exogenous, largely unexplained, shocks were all seen as necessary for explaining the transition to agriculture. Wright argued that one did not need to spend so much energy worrying about the details of the transition. First, it happened in many places at many times. Second, it is probably best considered as the outgrowth of growing Non-Zero interactions. Agriculture most likely grew up slowly alongside more traditional subsistence activities. As presented the argument in NZ was persuasive. The persuasive nature of the argument was evidence for the strength of the theory.

The need for Wright in EOG to develop an extremely "just so" story about the evolution of monotheism of a weakness in the theory. Simplifying a complex argument slightly, EOG argues that religious practice evolves in response to material concerns as represented by a linear combination of domestic policy issues (DP) and foreign policy issues (FP) [NB: I find the general position agreeable, although EOG places more weight on FP relative to DP than I might, but that is a different issue]. The problem is that Monotheism emerges in the context of a combination of FP and DP that would appear quite hostile to the development.

Wright needs to confront the emergence of Monotheism directly. If the development of Monotheism did in fact represent a clear break with past religious practice, if it posited a new paradigm, that would pose a clear problem since Wright would have to reestablish his case for the materialist basis of religion. Fortunately for the argument in EOG, the modern literature (both the theological and archeological literature) has moved in the direction of acknowledging the continuity of emerging Israelite religious practice with earlier polytheist traditions. The transition from polytheism to monotheism being a period of monolatry. But this transitional period is problematic because it occurred in a state--downtrodden Israel--that is probably the last place Wright's theory would predict...if it was forced to predict ex ante without knowledge of how things turned out ex post.

Suffice it to say that monotheism, a major advance in the development of religious practice, and a major test of Wright's theory, comes about in a place in which the gains from trade were small (trade had largely collapsed), unequally distributed (the gains went almost exclusively to the wealthy), and foreign engagements had led to a series of disasters of historical proportions (the state was almost utterly destroyed). I will leave the details of how this occurs to EOG, the argument is presented clearly. How is it that in such a situation led to such a dramatic widening of religion's growing universalist impulse? According to Wright the FP disasters faced by Israel were large enough to force Israelite theologians in exile to consider the possibility that Yaweh was the only god (how else could "he" engineer such a catastrophe) but not too large for them to forsake Yaweh completely. DP considerations pushed them to need Yaweh more than ever.

In sum: a theory with half a dozen causal variables is presented in which each of those variables changes just enough in just the right direction. In the end, the prediction of the theory is simply not very powerful. The same conclusion would presumably emerge from considering a crushing Israelite victory (if Yaweh is powerful enough to engineer outright victory, then perhaps there are no other gods) that led to an Israel that traded widely for gains that were distributed equally. Not explained is why scores of earlier disasters from around the region failed to lead to the same development.

And if the theory is not ultimately not a weak tautology, the developments in Israel would not have come about for a wide range of observed FP and DP conditions, then the story becomes highly (highly) contingent. This contingency becomes more and more obvious as Wright spends more and more ink considering scores of "just so" parameter changes impacting exilic thinking. A section of the book that stands in stark contrast to Non-Zeros consideration of the transition to settled agriculture.

And the more contigent the theory becomes at this crucial point, the transition to monotheism, the weaker the theoretical framework appears.

Hopefully the next couple of hundred pages will convince me my early worries are overstated.

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