Greg Graffin, the legendary punk rocker turned evolutionary biologist, concluded in his doctoral dissertation, “Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist World-View: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology,” that there’s “no conflict between evolutionary theory and religion on the one important condition that religion is essentially atheistic.” As he told Books and Culture in a 2004 interview, naturalism is set to become a new and influential religion.

Like Gaffin, I’ve long believed that the naturalistic worldview would produce an influential religion. Rather than birth a completely new entity, though, I think we’ll see a reemergence of an old religious idea, a blend of naturalism and deism. This neo-deism—or as I prefer to call it: neism —will likely be radically different than the eighteenth century variety of deism. While its still too early to determine how the belief will evolve, its materialistic nature will no doubt have a profound effect on metaphysics and ethics.

Neism, however, has had one significant limitation: It’s been a theology without a theologian. Numerous thinkers have picked at strands of the idea (philosopher Richard Rorty’s Romantic Polytheism is a prime example) but no one has had the audacity to produce a systematic theology. The time, however, is ripe for a brilliant expositor who possesses the courage to reinterpret every religious impulse—from primitive animism to Hegel’s panentheism— through a neistic framework. Enter Robert Wright.

As evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne writes in a review of Wright’s new book, The Evolution of God :

[T]here are some for whom the true evolutionary tale of human life is not sufficiently inspiring or flattering. After all, the tale seems to hold no moral other than this: like all species, we are the result of a purely natural and material process. While many religious people have been persuaded by Darwin’s overwhelming evidence, there still remains a need to find greater meaning behind it all—to see our world as part of an unfolding and divinely scripted plan. As the theologian John Haught notes, “For the universe to transform our hearts as well as our minds it must allow itself to be read—in one way or another—as having a purpose. To say that the universe has a purpose means quite simply that it is in the process of realizing something that is undeniably good, and that this good is also in some sense imperishable.”
And so the faithful—the ones who care about science at all—have tweaked the theory of evolution to bring it into line with their needs, to make it more congenial. Although life may indeed have evolved, they say, the process was really masterminded by God, whose ultimate goal was to evolve a species, our species, that is able to apprehend and therefore to admire its creator. This progressivist and purpose-driven view of evolution, rejected by most scientists, has been embraced by Haught and other theologians, by religious biologists such as Francis Collins, and, unsurprisingly, by the Catholic church itself.

Yet the notion of guided evolution leaves a problem. What good is a God-evolved species if it must inhabit a world as messy, contingent, and stricken with unpredictable horrors as the process of evolution itself? Is there any way that we can affirm, however dimly, that the world is getting better? And if so, might this, too, have something to do with God? The journalist Robert Wright has devoted much of his career to speculating about these questions, seeking divine purpose behind what he sees as social and biological “laws.” His thesis, in The Evolution of God , is that theologies have changed over time to accommodate the increased interactions among cultures that come with a more complex world, and that this theological change has made the world a more moral place. This is a historical claim about morality’s progress. But atop this claim Wright makes a really remarkable claim, a metaphysical one, that this whole process is driven by God, who is pulling society toward moral perfection. What’s more, he says that this conclusion is not religious but scientific—that it is based on “facts on the ground” that should be obvious to any observer. In what he sees as the relentlessly progressive evolution of religion, Wright seems to find an argument for the existence of God.

Hardcore atheistic materialists like Coyne naturally sneer at Wright’s neistic explanations. (Coyne once wrote in a letter to Nature : “You suggest that science may bring about “advances in theological thinking”. In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.”) They are reconciled to the existentialist—if not the nihilistic—conclusions of their beliefs and feel no need for a deeper spiritual understanding.

But there is a broad range of intelligent, agnostically-inclined non-believers who are turned off by both traditional religions and the New Atheists and are looking for something more. Frustrated with the just-so stories of evolutionary psychology and the inability of sociobiology to account for ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical truths, they are eager to embrace a more robust and satisfying form of non-theism. As Coyne writes, “In this season of the ‘new atheism,” believers are looking for ways to remain faithful but still feel smart. Wright’s elaborate argument can do the trick.”

Indeed, Wright could very well be the religious genius that transforms modern naturalism, similar to the way Friedrich Schleiermacher transformed modern Protestantism. Even before he published The Evolution of God Wright laid the intellectual groundwork for his systematic theology with Non-Zero , a brilliant tour de force and one of most accomplished works of special pleading ever written. Bill Clinton claimed it was a book that he “completely agreed with”, something the Southern Baptist likely could not say of the Bible.

Wright’s ability to influence leaders and thinkers—from college students to Presidents of the United States—is what makes him more dangerous than atheist caricatures like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Since our religious intellectuals are busy burning down the strawman factories of the New Atheists, who is going to take on Wright, the founding theologian of neism?

Articles by Joe Carter


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