I was once denounced from the pulpit of my mother’s church. The year was 1994. My book The Moral Animal had just been published, and I’d been lucky enough to have it excerpted in Time magazine. The excerpt was about the various ways in which our evolved human nature complicates the project of marriage. One such complication is the natural, universally human temptation to stray, and that is the angle Time’s editors chose to feature on the magazine’s cover. Alongside a stark image of a broken wedding band were the words “Infidelity: It may be in our genes.”
The pastor of the First Baptist Church in Santa Rosa, California, saw this article as a godless defense of philandering and said so one Sunday morning. After the service, my mother went forward and told him that her son was the author of the article. I’m willing to bet that—such are the wonders of maternal love—she said it with pride.
How far I had fallen! Back around age nine, at the Immanuel Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas, I had felt the call of God and walked to the front of the church as a visiting evangelist named Homer Martinez issued the “invitation”—the call for unredeemed sinners to accept Jesus as their savior. A few weeks later I was baptized by the church’s minister. Now, nearly three decades later, another Baptist minister was placing me in the general vicinity of Satan.
I doubt that, if this minister had read my Time piece carefully, he would have come down so hard on it. (I had actually argued that the adulterous impulse, though natural, can and should be resisted.) On the other hand, there were people who read not just the excerpt but the whole book and concluded that I was a godless something or other. I had argued that the most ethereal, uplifting parts of human existence (love, sacrifice, our very sense of moral truth) were products of natural selection. The book seemed like a thoroughly materialist tract—materialist as in “scientific materialist,” as in “Science can explain everything in material terms, so who needs a God? Especially a God who is alleged to somehow magically transcend the material universe.”
I guess “materialist” is a not-very-misleading term for me. In fact, in this book I talk about the history of religion, and its future, from a materialist standpoint. I think the origin and development of religion can be explained by reference to concrete, observable things—human nature, political and economic factors, technological change, and so on.
But I don’t think a “materialist” account of religion’s origin, history, and future—like the one I’m giving here—precludes the validity of a religious worldview. In fact, I contend that the history of religion presented in this book, materialist though it is, actually affirms the validity of a religious worldview; not a traditionally religious worldview, but a worldview that is in some meaningful sense religious.
It sounds paradoxical. On the one hand, I think gods arose as illusions, and that the subsequent history of the idea of god is, in some sense, the evolution of an illusion. On the other hand: (1) the story of this evolution itself points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity; and (2) the “illusion,” in the course of evolving, has gotten streamlined in a way that moved it closer to plausibility. In both of these senses, the illusion has gotten less and less illusory.
Does that make sense? Probably not. I hope it will by the end of the book. For now I should just concede that the kind of god that remains plausible, after all this streamlining, is not the kind of god that most religious believers currently have in mind.
There are two other things that I hope will make a new kind of sense by the end of this book, and both are aspects of the current world situation.
One is what some people call a clash of civilizations—the tension between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim world, as conspicuously manifested on September 11, 2001. Ever since that day, people have been wondering how, if at all, the world’s Abrahamic religions can get along with one another as globalization forces them into closer and closer contact.
Well, history is full of civilizations clashing, and for that matter, of civilizations not clashing. And the story of the role played by religious ideas—fanning the flames or dampening the flames, and often changing in the process—is instructive. I think it tells us what we can do to make the current “clash” more likely to have a happy ending.
The second aspect of the current world situation I’ll address is another kind of clash—the much-discussed “clash” between science and religion. Like the first kind of clash, this one has a long and instructive history. It can be traced at least as far back as ancient Babylon, where eclipses that had long been attributed to restless and malignant supernatural beings were suddenly found to occur at predictable intervals—predictable enough to make you wonder whether restless and malignant supernatural beings were really the problem.
There have been many such unsettling (from religion’s point of view) discoveries since then, but always some notion of the divine has survived the encounter with science. The notion has had to change, but that’s no indictment of religion. After all, science has changed relentlessly, revising if not discarding old theories, and none of us think of that as an indictment of science. On the contrary, we think this ongoing adaptation is carrying science closer to the truth. Maybe the same thing is happening to religion. Maybe, in the end, a mercilessly scientific account of our predicament—such as the account that got me denounced from the pulpit of my mother’s church—is actually compatible with a truly religious worldview, and is part of the process that refines a religious worldview, moving it closer to truth.
These two big “clash” questions can be put into one sentence: Can religions in the modern world reconcile themselves to one another, and can they reconcile themselves to science? I think their history points to affirmative answers.
What would religions look like after such an adaptation? This question is surprisingly easy to answer, at least in broad outline. First, they’ll have to address the challenges to human psychological well-being that are posed by the modern world. (Otherwise they won’t win acceptance.) Second, they’ll have to highlight some “higher purpose”—some kind of larger point or pattern that we can use to help us orient our daily lives, recognize good and bad, and make sense of joy and suffering alike. (Otherwise they won’t be religions, at least not in the sense that I mean the word “religion.”)
Now for the really hard questions. How will religions manage these feats? (Assuming they do; and if they don’t, then all of us—believers, agnostics, and atheists alike—may be in big trouble.) How will religions adapt to science and to one another? What would a religion well suited to an age of advanced science and rapid globalization look like? What kind of purpose would it point to, what kind of orientation would it provide? Is there an intellectually honest worldview that truly qualifies as religious and can, amid the chaos of the current world, provide personal guidance and comfort—and maybe even make the world less chaotic? I don’t claim to have the answers, but clear clues emerge naturally in the course of telling the story of God. So here goes.