Robert Wright puts forward a familiar argument, but with a fresh twist.
In a book with a provocative title — The Evolution of God — Wright proposes that we conceive of God as “the source of the moral order”. (I will be quoting from the book’s afterword, which you can access here).
When he speaks of the “moral order”, Wright isn’t referring to static assertions of good and evil: e.g., “Pedophilia is wrong”. Wright is thinking in terms of the direction of human history: history’s trajectory toward an ever-higher conception of morality.
We humans have made progress in our conception of morality as we have meditated on God as the ultimate source of the moral order:
To quit thinking about God now would be to abandon a path that has been successful on its own terms—not a path of scientific inquiry that has brought scientific progress, but a path of moral inquiry that has brought moral progress.
Wright then puts forward an argument that struck me as refreshingly unfamiliar:
Some people can lead morally exemplary lives without the idea of God. Others need God—and not necessarily because they can lead a virtuous life only if they fear hell and long for heaven; often it’s because they can most readily lead a virtuous life if they think of moral truth as having some living embodiment. They need to feel that if they’re bad they’ll be disappointing some one and if they’re good they’ll be pleasing some one—and this one is the one whom, above all others, it is good to please and bad to disappoint.
This is hardly a surprising need. After all, the human moral equipment evolved in the context of human society, as a tool for navigating a social landscape; our moral sentiments are naturally activated with respect to other beings; we are “designed” by natural selection to be good out of obligation to others, for fear of the disapproval of others, in pursuit of the esteem of others. And for many people, carrying these human relations to the superhuman level works well. They are better people, and often happier people, thinking of a God who is aware of their daily struggle and offers solace or affirmation or reprimand; they can best stay aligned with the moral axis of the universe by thanking God, asking God to help them stay righteous, seeking forgiveness from God for their lapses. It’s nice that some people can be paragons of virtue without this kind of help, but in a way it’s surprising; the natural human condition is to ground your moral life in the existence of other beings, and the more ubiquitous the beings, the firmer the ground.
In other words: given the constraints on human nature, believers in God are interacting with the moral order as productively as possible by conceiving its source in a particular way, however imperfect that way is.
To explain the last statement: Wright is acknowledging that our conception of God is very far from adequate; but thinking about God, even very imperfectly, has resulted in laudable moral progress.
Wright’s argument is multi-layered, and I haven’t done it justice in those brief excerpts. Read the afterword in its entirety : I commend it to you.
I’ll share some thoughts of my own in response to Wright’s argument at my earliest opportunity — perhaps tomorrow.