Archive for June, 2011

Book Review: The Evolution of God

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Since I haven’t had much to write about recently, I’ll throw in some material related to books I’ve been reading.  The first article is a review of The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (2009), which I finally got around to reading in entirety after first encountering while writing this essay on Extended Natural Selection.

As the title implies, the book is a tour of religious evolution told from a historian’s perspective.  The first several chapters describe primitive religions, followed by lengthy sections focusing on the origins of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures.  There is little reference to Eastern religions or the history of the Western monotheistic religions after their scriptures coalesced.  Instead, the primary theme is how the attributes of the modern, monotheistic God developed historically.

The first religions were those of tribes or chiefdoms, although religious instinct or what some would call superstition must have been present long before recorded history.  There are few surprises in these chapters; this material provides groundwork for the later evolution of monotheistic religion.  Religion’s purpose at that time, and one of its purposes still today, was to explain why good and bad things happen.  Later, in larger civilizations, a second major purpose would arise: as a propaganda tool for political rulers through whom the gods revealed themselves.

A couple of my favorite passages from this section:

  • “An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning).” (p. 37)
  • “In Samoa, adultery could bring a broad range of informal punishments unless committed with a chief’s wife, in which case the punishment was formal and ranged only from death by drowning to death by beating.  In the Society Islands, one anthropologist noted, candidates for sacrifice fell into several categories, including prisoner of war, blasphemer, and ‘person obnoxious to the chief or priest.’ ” (p. 60)

Wright does go on to note that the wisdom of the shamans or priests were not regarded as infinite; if the shaman’s attempts to bring rain or other good fortune were continually ineffective, he could be removed from his position, and priests and chiefs acted checks on each other’s power, much like princes and bishops in medieval Europe.

The next section, “The Emergence of Abrahamic Monotheism,” discusses the transition from ancient polytheism to the singular Hebrew deity Yahweh.  This was not an immediate transition (one of the chapters is even titled “Polytheism, the religion of ancient Israel”).  Instead, what often happens is that when a ruler or prophet wants to adopt a particular concept, he attempts to strengthen his position by arguing that the concept has really been there all along.  Thus, scripture became convoluted and even contradictory, even if we read it in the order it was written (which is not the order of the Hebrew scriptures).

I’ll summarize Wright’s arguments for this transition as follows.  First, ancient city-states in the Middle East usually had a pantheon of gods and goddesses, one for fertility, one for rain, one for love, etc.  When city-states formed alliances with one other, or conquered a neighbor and wanted its citizens to quickly become loyal taxpayers, a common gesture of goodwill was to accept the neighbor’s patron god into your pantheon.  Alternatively, if two gods were similar, a king could declare that they were actually the same deity.  In Wright’s words, these gods frequently exchanged DNA as they were merged and mixed with other gods in the region.

However, there were those in society who felt they were on the short end of trade alliances; they saw elites and merchants prospering from trade, but not themselves.  They were represented by prophets who railed against foreign influence and, specifically, worship of “foreign” gods (analogous to protectionism or union propaganda).  On the domestic side, priests could challenge kings’ power, especially in far-flung territories.  To curb the power of the priests, a king could try to stipulate the priests’ gods out of existence, define a one “true” god, and declare himself the embodiment or sole source of communication with that god. (Henry VIII turned a similar trick when he dissolved the monasteries in 16th century England.)  These forces are what eventually drove Israel to monotheism, and they occur periodically in places such as Egypt and Mesopotamia as well.

Some interesting notes:

  • p. 139: There are so many references to other gods in Hebrew scripture that it is obvious that Israelites acknowledged their existence and sometimes worshiped them.  The first of the Ten Commandments – “You shall have no other gods before me” – suggests that initially Yahweh also acknowledged their existence.  (Exodus 20:3)
  • p. 100-105: The Yahweh described in Genesis and Exodus was much a warrior-god, directing Joshua to attack and slaughter armies and producing scores of dead Egyptians, Syrians, and others.
  • p. 163:  ‘You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.  You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded…’ (Deuteronomy 20:16)
  • p. 103: Yahweh apparently wasn’t omniscient in the Garden of Eden.  After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they avoided God by hiding.  Seems like a dumb strategy to employ against an omniscient being.  But then God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’  (Genesis 3:9)
  • p. 106-109: Archaeological evidence is not in favor of a mass exodus from Egypt ever happening.  Although Egypt was powerful and held enemy subjects as slaves, it appears likely that most Israelites came from Canaanite society itself, possibly nomadic herders forced to build new cities due to environmental change on their land.  On p. 162, a reason for this revisionist history is postulated – that once Israel became monotheist, it became desirable to make its past distinct from the polytheist Canaanites, thus the story about exiles from Egypt.
  • p. 110-130: Lots of discussion on how the “DNA” of other gods could have been fused with Yahweh.  A lot of this depends on the murky translation of Hebrew texts.  Specifically, a northern Canaanite god “El” is referenced multiple times in scripture as a legitimate creator-god and could have fused with a southern god “Yhwh” when northern and southern tribes formed an alliance against their strongest neighbors, Egypt and Assyria.

Much of the Hebrew scriptures can be paraphrased as ‘People make covenant with God.  People break covenant, God punishes them.  Prophets call people back to covenant.  People break covenant again, repeat.’  A large part of the transition to monotheism appears to be due to the need to explain why bad things kept happening, especially militarily.  After the Babylonians conquered Jersualem, they destroyed Yahweh’s temple and exiled the survivors.  Normally, this would be a sign of the superiority of the Babylonian creator-god, Marduk.  But the Hebrews in exile turned the argument around, suggesting that Yahweh was simply using the Babylonians as a vehicle for punishing Israelite sins.  Then the Persians conquered the Babylonians and let the exiles return to Israel.  Aha!  Yahweh must also control the Persians!  He must be the only god out there.

Following the evolution of monotheistic religion, God acquires the attributes of universal love, the hallmark of Christian scriptures.  One chapter is devoted to whether the historical Jesus really advocated interethnic brotherly love, or if this doctrine evolved in the centuries after.  To find out what Jesus was really like, scholars give more credence to the earliest written gospel, Mark.  Mark was written about 40 years after Jesus’s death, when people who had seen him were still alive, making it more difficult to embellish stories or overlook inconvenient facts.  Matthew and Luke were written about a decade later and referenced both Mark and an unknown source called Q, written after Mark.  John was written about 100 CE, 70 years after the crucifixion.  There is no discussion of the many non-canonized gospels.  In any case, whenever discrepancies exist among the gospels, historians are more likely to trust Mark because it is the earliest source.  Here are a few examples:

  • p. 250: Hebrew prophets predicted a messiah who, like King David, was born in Bethlehem.  There are differing accounts in the gospels for how Jesus’s parents ended up in Bethlehem.  In Luke, they went for a census and returned to Nazareth after the birth.  In Matthew, they seem to live in Bethlehem before the birth, but flee to Egypt and eventually wind up in Nazareth.  But in Mark, there is no mention of Bethlehem.  Jesus of Nazareth appears to be from Nazareth.
  • p. 250-251: More discrepancies among the gospels as to what Jesus’s final words were.  In Luke, he says ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’  In John, his last words are ‘It is finished.’  But in the earliest source, Mark, (and in Matthew) he says ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  That seems like an odd thing to say for someone who supposedly knew from the beginning that his death would be part of a grand plan – an inconvenient fact that had not yet been covered up when Mark was written.
  • p. 257-260: Lots of discussion on whether Jesus really preached a doctrine of universal love.  Some say this is what he meant by the Kingdom of God, but Wright points to evidence in Mark and Q that suggests Jesus really was referring to something like the earthly restoration of a Kingdom of Israel.  The Good Samaritan story isn’t in either of these sources, and instead Jesus says things like, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
  • p. 246: Interesting and somewhat paradoxical scholarly principle: the less a religious claim makes sense, the more likely it is to have happened historically.  In other words, events and words that don’t fit the story a religious author is trying to tell tend to get edited out or sugarcoated.  But some events are so widely known that to ignore them would risk losing credibility.  Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus is very likely to have happened, because it doesn’t fit with the then-contemporary idea that a messiah was supposed to be king who would drive out the Romans, not be executed by them.

A lot of attention is given to Paul and his efforts to build the Church in the first century.  Wright speculates that the Roman Empire was ready for a unified religion that embodied a moral code of interethnic cooperation.  This would be conducive to trade across the then-peaceful Mediterranean region, and provide a framework of social cohesion at a time of increased migration within the empire.  Paul appears to have sincerely identified with the fledgling Christian movement, and took advantage of its established Jewish roots to build what became Christianity.  A good discussion question would be whether the Roman Empire would have soon adopted a religion similar to Christianity, with universal love at its core, had Jesus and Paul not come along.

The last major section focuses on Muhammed and the Koran.  Much of Muhammed’s motivations were similar to those of earlier Christian or Jewish prophets, so a lot of the theories from earlier chapters are repeated.  One important difference is that Muhammed became a political and military leader of a rapidly growing empire during his lifetime, and thus the Koran’s attitudes towards people of other faiths appears to be highly dependent on how cooperative they were within the empire.  The historical record shows that for most of the last millennium, Muslims were much more tolerant of Christians and Jews living within various Arab empires compared to European Christians of the same period.

The final chapters are more or less filled with the author’s speculative implications of the body of evidence he has amassed.  Wright appears to be arguing that there is moral progress in religion and that this implies a preexisting moral order or possibly abstract evidence of what God really is.  I find this sequence of thoughts unconvincing; it seems like he has a conclusion in mind and is desperately trying to philosophize his way to it.  Oddly enough, the book’s title points to a different theme, that religion has evolved to reflect cultural demands, a position similar to the one I take in the article linked at the top.  Religion, like nature, isn’t progressing to any particular destination; it just is.  Wright does return somewhat to this line of thought in the last few pages.

Another nitpick: I would have liked to seen more discussion of religion’s relationship to social class.  On one hand, by discouraging socially disruptive behavior, lasting religions would seem to have some role in promoting social caste systems, by promising the lower classes a good afterlife if they behave and don’t cause trouble.  On the other hand, a major theme of Hebrew and Christian writers is ‘blessed are the poor,’ accompanied by populist messages about the reversal of fortunes on Judgment Day and other redistributionist rhetoric.  This is mentioned briefly in the book, but I’d like to see some empirical evidence of these two effects.

Overall, the presentation of historical evidence was informative and intriguing.  I enjoyed peeling back the literal and theological interpretations of scripture in order to understand its context and the immense influence of cultural circumstances upon it.

Tax dollars at work

Monday, June 13th, 2011

myplate1I wish I could say this is an Onion article, but it isn’t.  The USDA has a new icon (chart? logo?) that supposedly replaces the food pyramid.  Perhaps the reason the US has so many fat people is because we don’t have the right government-designed visual food guide.  Has anyone checked the corresponding European designs recently?  They appear to have a higher percentage of healthy people walking around their cities.

Here is a press release showing the history of USDA food guides.  I now reprint various critiques of the design found in articles online.


“At best, MyPlate triggers nutritional awareness through its pleasing shape and tasty jelly colors.”

“The first flaw is the fork (no spoon or knife) apparently needed to anchor the plate concept. Without the fork, is the plate just a circle?”

“While it is necessary to provide a key for these color segments, simply labeling them in this inelegant manner shows a lack of integration. Incidentally, the design of these segments suggest buttons on a Game Boy or PlayStation, which promise and fail to deliver more interactivity.”

“Exactly how much of each food type should be a part of each meal is not entirely clear from MyPlate, but vegetables play a greater role now…”

Some who have seen the logo compared it with a pie chart, though dessert is hardly the association that the administration would like to conjure up. Others likened it to a pizza cut into slices (equally unpalatable for officials). One person said it called to mind a painting by the artist Mark Rothko, who was known for canvases with blocks of color.

It is “much better than the last food pyramid, which was overly complicated and therefore completely unmemorable,” said Sylvia Harris, principal at Citizen Research & Design.

“They claim this is only an icon design, but viewers will immediately try to attribute meaning to the separate sectors,” said Randy Krum, president of the data-visualization company InfoNewt LLC. “This can confuse the readers, because although the sizes appear to indicate the proportional amounts of the recommended food groups, the actual recommendations may vary quite a bit for different people.”

Nestle generally likes the plate icon, but she sees a missed opportunity in its abstraction away from specific numbers. Citing research showing that people given bigger plates take more food — though not necessarily eating more — than those who are given smaller plates, Nestle wishes the icon would have come with a scale to indicate the plate it depicts measures eight inches in diameter, instead of the 10 inches that has become standard. “People are very poorly aware” of the effect of bigger plates, she said.

Here, for example, the government suggests that most people should eat three cups of dairy per day. Depending on the particular dairy food, that could be a good amount or a crazy amount. It turns out, however, when they tell us to eat three cups of dairy a day, they really don’t mean three cups. But that is the unfortunate term they chose.  A cup of milk is a cup’s worth, and the same goes for yogurt. But when they tell us to eat a cup of cheese, they really mean to only eat as little as an ounce and half. Except for cottage cheese. A cup of cottage cheese should be two cups.  And the ice cream industry really must have lobbied the government hard, because a cup of ice cream is really a cup and half.


The New York Times reported that more than $2 million has already spent on the design and development of this new campaign.  This is very serious stuff for government bureaucrats:

When several participants at that meeting said it would be better to create an improved version of the already familiar pyramid, an administration official rejected that idea, telling the group, “We can’t go back,” according to one person who attended the meeting. The person, who requested anonymity because the deliberations were intended to be confidential, said it was clear that the “marching orders were obviously to come up with something new.”