As promised, here are my thoughts on a hypothesis propounded by Robert Wright, briefly excerpted in a previous post.
- Ultimately, Wright’s argument is bound to disappoint theists and anti-theists alike.
Most believers are committed to a particular scripture and a particular understanding of God. As Wright comments, “They don’t want to just hear that some conception of a god might be defensible, or that a personal god is defensible as some sort of approximation of the truth.”
Meanwhile, anti-theists are dismissive of all arguments for God’s existence. They see no direct evidence of God’s existence, and no need to appeal to God as an explanation for any phenomenon — including the moral order.
Thus Wright’s book is likely to annoy many people and satisfy few.
- But Wright’s argument may have some appeal to a certain class of believers — people like me.
I have come to the conclusion that the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence are anything but. For example, the resurrection of Christ. It might have sufficed as a proof in the first century, when you could investigate the event for yourself by talking to the various eyewitnesses — Peter, John, James, Paul, etc. But 2000 years later, the resurrection is merely an article of faith rather than a compelling demonstration of the truth of the Gospel.
Meanwhile, the theory of evolution, substantiated by a solid body of evidence, and subsequently corroborated by discovery of how DNA works — these scientific insights have provided an alternative explanation for the world that we inhabit. The ancient proof from nature — “The heavens declare the glory of God / the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1) — is no longer the only explanation on offer.
What evidence, then, can we still appeal to — those of us who accept the conclusions of science, yet stubbornly persist in our belief in God? In my view, we are left with intimations of God’s existence rather than proofs.
Wright is offering exactly that — an intimation of God’s existence — when he describes God as the source of the moral order. Wright interprets human history as a long arc toward a higher morality. To give some examples of my own choosing (I’m not sure what examples Wright would offer) :
- “an eye for an eye” has been supplanted by, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44);
- a love that was circumscribed — reserved for fellow tribesmen — has been superseded by the ideal of the “brotherhood” of all humankind;
- a reflexive human tendency to organize people into castes, with kings and landowners at the apex, and common labourers near the bottom, and women as slaves to the slaves — has yielded to our democratic norms: i.e., that every person is entitled to one vote, and women can rise to any office in the nation.
- the arbitrary and absolute power of despots has been called to account by an international recognition of human rights: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”; “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”; “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”, etc.
Too often, the above ideals are honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. Nonetheless, Wright is correct to recognize a remarkable trajectory from a dimmer understanding of morality to relative moral illumination.
Wright then intuits “God” behind this remarkable display of moral progress: