Book Bleg: The Evolution of God


Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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11 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Have you read it yet?

    Would you say it’s on par with Harold Bloom’s _Jesus and Yahweh_ or Karen Armstrong’s _History of God_?

    As someone who *LOVED* both of those, I’m intruigued by this one.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Jaybird says:

      It’s a really nice complement to both of those, particularly Jesus and YHWH. That book covers the literature of the Bible, whereas this book covers the history and social-political world.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    So now the more materialist the approach to consciousness the less “seriously” it treats the subject. This from someone who insists atheist scientists interested in engaging religious thinkers bone up on theology to the point where they can satisfy a theology instructor in their formulations of his particular doctrine, no matter how elusive, before attempting to do that. Rich.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Michael Drew says:


      All I mean is that it can’t take the ideas on their own terms. It takes them to be derivative of some other process and therefore of (at best) instrumental value. Now I don’t have a problem with Bob’s book as I said because he is upfront that he is doing that. He’s very conscious of and clear about his own first principles. And he is a scientist who knows theology quite adequately.

      But it’s still (imo) one sided. Check the reference list that Jbird gave up for some books that do a good job supplementing the one-sidedness of this text. Just as Evolution of God supplements (arguably) the over-reliance of consciousness studies if you like in the other texts. Putting those three together (Bloom, Armstrong, and Wright) and you get a very good well-rounded whole.Report

      • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Chris Dierkes says:


        I can’t remember now if I responded to your last comment in the previous post–about the degree to which the scientific types should read theology. As I recall you thought I was arguing for some expert level knowledge, but that’s not the case. Only a basic facility with the subject. Basically a layperson’s reading knowledge.

        As a parallel. I read something like 10-20 popular science texts a year. I’ve read Dennett’s books, all of Dawkins’ books, lots of Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewotin’s popular texts, etc. I couldn’t read their more scientific journal article pieces since I don’t have the expertise to handle those debates, just as I don’t expect Richard Dawkins to have a PhD in medieval mysticism and point out the differences between Bernard of Clairvaux’s and The Cloud of Unknowing Author’s views on the will in the mystical ascent.

        But he should know the difference between fundamentalism and theological liberalism/modernism as well as postmodern theological currents. He should know something of the history of Christian mystics (since they are very relevant in the science-religion discussions) and what say the sacramental view of the universe is all about.

        Again an educated layperson level of knowledge. That should be the expectation on both sides in my mind.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Chris Dierkes says:


          I actually wouldn’t hold any religious person to any particular level of basic scientific knowledge to enter discussion with them about the interface of science and religion. I’d rather engage them where they are, however inclined they have been or not in educating themselves about science up to that point. In all likelihood, the level of awareness of basic scientific facts of anyone walking down the street who would also be interested in engaging in such a discussion would be more than adequate to address the basic questions, because basic functioning in modern society compels people to develop such familiarity. And if I happened to encounter someone for whom that wasn’t the case, that’s clearly part of the purpose of such discussions to begin with: to help explain one’s worldview to those who don’t share it.

          You’re a different case. You obviously have a keen prior interest in this question, so you have read deeply in it. But that is your choice; there is no particular reason that another religious person interested in engaging those who hold the scientific-secular worldview would have to read as much on science as you have chosen to do before they engage (by my lights). Quite apart from necessary preparation for this debate, I suspect the reason you choose to read widely on science is, first of all, a genuine curiosity about the world as science has so far discovered/explained it. But I suspect you’re also aware of the ways science inevitably asserts itself on honest, intelligent observers of all stripes because its relentless methods of confirmation or (really through) rejection of propositions compels them to reckon with it, and you can see clearly that an encounter of some sort is inevitable between the undeniable implications of science and parts of your worldview, and that you, as an honest, intelligent person will have to reckon with that eventually. And so you are left with the alternatives either to broadly if not completely deny the scope of what science explains and how (not an option for an honest, intelligent person), or else engage it head on by immersing yourself in it and seeking reconciliation. Obviously, and with good reason, you choose the latter. It is not a matter of meeting a prerequisite for entering the debate: you by your own choice seek to burnish your knowledge and perspective on these questions, partly (again, I would suspect) because you are compelled by aspects of your worldview and science’s intellectual coherence and cultural currency to reckon with it. The reverse is not true for secular-scientific-minded folks (to be clear: I am not a scientist, merely oriented toward it) with respect to religion. Religion is an exclusively private matter in the pluralistic social arrangement in which we coexist, and it is not in any way pressed upon those uninterested in it. Moreover, while there are certainly multiple perspectives on many questions of research in science, the nature of science is such that those perspectives are constantly in the process of being reconciled or at are at least in mutual conversation such that a general description of the currently accepted view can be described, even if it is a composite one. Religion does not work that way. The religions (more precisely, sects) of the world operate in parallel, with basically no possibility of reaching any kind of broad commonality to rely on that preserves anything like the level of familiarity you are describing for yours in particular. The secular scientist who seeks engagement with religious observers has no way to limit the demands she would face if expected to reach even the level of knowledge you describe with respect to one particular theology for all those whom she might seek to engage.

          I realize that to you the concepts you would like the uninitiated to come to the table with represent the most basic of basic points of doctrine necessary to begin discussion, but I would suggest that you are not accounting for your uncommon familiarity with the matters at hand. Allow me to assure you that what you have described above would deter a considerable portion of those open-minded secular people who might otherwise be interested in engaging with you from doing so. I am an atheist today, but I was confirmed in the Lutheran church and have been turned to among some of my friends those who can speak as an pseudo-authority on religious matters when the topic comes up. What you describe above runs well into what I would consider areas of arcana that I would only listen to experts explain to me, not that I would have a chance of grasping through personal research. And let me be clear: if we were to engage in a debate/discussion and you considered these matters essential to my understanding of your view of compatibility or otherwise, I would be all ears to hear it all laid out for me. I don’t want to exclude such concepts from the discussion. I would just expect them to be subjects of the discussion itself, rather than prerequisites for engaging with you. Likewise, I would be prepared to explain any scientific examples important to my view of the question if my interlocutor wasn’t familiar with them. If this wouldn’t work for you, I would simply find someone interested in a more inclusive discussion to engage with.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        Robert Wright is not a scientist, but rather a journalist who writes on scientific matters with a very particular bent: to show that there is a clear moral directionality in the unfolding of natural and social history. While I don’t have my copy of The Evolution of God yet, my sense is that his lifelong project in that regard is essentially an extremely subtle rear-guard endeavor to excavate a structurally sound conceptual refuge within which to preserve and protect a vestige of the concept of God from the cascading avalanche of contrary evidence and attitude that modern society, science, and modernity itself continuously expose it to. I believe (though I could be mistaken) that he is a still-observant Southern Baptist.Report

  3. It gets even a little more controversial in that Wright is an epiphenomenalist: he gives consciousness a degree of validity but sees it as a by-product “designed” by natural selection

    That’s not epiphenomenalism. That is in fact a standard “byproduct” view of the evolution of some trait. Epiphenomenalism is the view that consciousness is a mere side-effect of physical biological processes in the brain, and has no causal role back on the behaviour of the body. It is, as it were, “froth on the water”.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to John S. Wilkins says:

      I don’t know about that John. If you watch Wright’s interview (on Meaningoflifetv) with Daniel Dennett, Wright clearly believes out of material processes something ‘more’ is going on that needs to be taken seriously. Dennett keeps retorting that there is no more. It’s nothing but the neurons crashing together. I take Dennett’s position to be much more the mainline view and Wright’s the outlier.

      But even if we take Wright’s to be a mainline position, then to me it only shows the inconsistency of the approach. If natural selection selects for self-reflective thought and the ability to put oneself imaginatively in the existence of another (a point Wright emphasizes strongly in his book), what is it that has been selected for? What is the quality of self-awareness?Report

  4. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Sounds interesting. So I have to add this to Life Inc. as non-fiction I need to read someday hopefully soon….Report