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CORRESPONDENCE: Defending 'The Evolution of God'

Robert Wright responds:

The title of my book refers not to biological evolution but to the evolution of the human conception of God. So it's odd that The New Republic chose a biologist, Jerry A. Coyne, to review the book ("Creationism for Liberals," August 12). But it turns out that Coyne's misplaced expertise wasn't the main problem. Of his many serious misrepresentations of my book, most seem rooted in a simple failure to read it--or read it attentively, at least. Here is a small sample of Coyne's errors. A longer list can be found at

Misrepresentation #1:The evolution of monotheism. Coyne says I posit a "relentlessly progressive evolution of religion" and depict "theology's linear march toward goodness and light." (He doesn't provide any quotes from my book that would support this characterization, and there's a reason for that.) He then writes, "One can in fact make a good case that, contrary to Wright's claim, ethics went downhill as religion evolved--specifically, that it declined in the transition from polytheism to monotheism."

An ethical decline in the transition from polytheism to monotheism is contrary to my view? I encourage Professor Coyne to dip into Chapters 6 and 7, "From Polytheism to Monolatry" and "From Monolatry to Monotheism." The core argument is that ancient Israel moved from a polytheism that reflected a tolerant cosmopolitanism (sponsored by kings with internationalist foreign policies) to a monotheism that was, at its birth during the Babylonian exile, belligerently intolerant (and whose emergence had been abetted by highly nationalist kings, notably the brutally authoritarian Josiah). I expressly dismiss the common view that monotheism was "morally universalistic from its birth" and characterize the mood that motivated this birth as "closer to hatred than to love, closer to retribution than to compassion." Immediately after the Babylonian exile, I argue, Israel's religion did make moral progress, becoming more tolerant of, even compassionate toward, non-Israelites in neighboring lands. But this isn't a function of monotheism; it reflects the fact that many of Israel's erstwhile enemies were now fellow members of the Persian Empire and so no longer threats. I would have expected the same moral progress had Israel remained polytheistic. (In general, the fitful moral progress I do see in religion over the millennia is driven by this sort of expansion of the scope of social organization.)

Misrepresentation #2: Christian inclusiveness.Coyne says that I cast the Apostle Paul's teachings as "a momentous change in Christian theology: an extension of love to non-Christian foreigners." Wrong again. What I say is that Paul extended love across ethnic and national bounds, not religious bounds. In fact, I emphasize that if you read Paul's fine print, you see that "brotherly love" is meant to apply to Christians of the various ethnicities and nationalities. I underscore the distinction in such Pauline passages as, "Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith." I write, "This is the kind of love Paul usually preaches--love directed first and foremost toward other Christians." And I note that, once Christianity became the official Roman church, the line drawn by Paul between Christian and non-Christian became even starker; there was now government-backed "intolerance of non-Christians. So, in moral terms, it isn't clear that Paul's mission culminated in progress." So, when Coyne spends a paragraph triumphantly establishing that "Paul is not promoting love among those of different faiths," and says that this fact calls into question my "sunny view of the progress of theology," it isn't clear whom he's arguing with. Not me.

Misrepresentation #3: Belligerence and tolerance in the Koran. The rhetorical technique shown above--attributing to me views I don't in fact hold, then attacking those views with arguments I myself make--is a favorite of Coyne's. As if in refutation of me, he writes: "Moreover, there is no evidence for an increase in morality in the Qur'an over the years of its composition between 610 and 632 C.E. On the contrary: As Islamic scholars recognize, the later chapters, written after Muhammad's famous flight from Mecca to Medina, display decidedly less tolerance than the earlier ones." No kidding! I guess that would explain why I write that "the earlier suras, revealed in Mecca, tended to be more tolerant." It would also explain why Chapter 15 is titled "Mecca" and features tolerant verses--and ends with the ominous sentence, "Muhammad was about to acquire real power, and things were about to change"--whereas the subsequent two chapters ("Medina" and "Jihad") feature belligerent verses. That my book acknowledges any belligerence in the Koran may surprise readers of Coyne's review. Coyne says I find "tolerance of Christians and Jews" in the Koran by using a "needle-in-the-haystack" approach, and he then sets out to enlighten me about the many intolerant Koranic passages. His first example is this: "O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other."

As it happens, the same passage can be found in my book. Why didn't Coyne know this? Maybe he was confused by the fact that I used a different translation. ("O Believers! take not the Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another's friends.") Or, maybe, his eyes never fell on that particular page--or on the pages where I quote numerous other belligerent Koranic passages. (I argue that some of these verses, when read in context, are less indiscriminately belligerent than they may sound. Coyne probably disagrees, judging by his attitude toward Islam generally, and I'd be interested in hearing his counterarguments.)

Misrepresentation #4: Muhammad's God. In addition to misunderstanding me, Coyne misunderstands the Koran. He writes: "It is nice of Wright to remark [in reference to a particular Koranic passage] that Jews and Christians will gain salvation so long as they believe in God, but he fails to mention that this saving God is the Islamic god, Allah." Coyne's assumption that Muhammad thought of Allah as different from the God of Christians and Jews is popular among laypeople (especially on the right), but it's not very popular among scholars of Islamic history. In the Koran, Muhammad explicitly sayshe's talking about the God of Christians and Jews, and he repeatedly grounds the history of that God in the Torah and the Gospels. In the theological arguments Muhammad had with Jews or Christians, there's no evident disagreement over the identity of God himself. In fact, contrary to the popular accounts of Islamic history with which Coyne may be familiar, chances are good that Arab Christians and Jews referred to God as Allah.

Coyne will now be given a chance to reply to this. In the likely event that I find his reply in need of corrective comment, I'll post my comment at, again, readers can find a fuller list of Coyne's misrepresentations of my book. Together, these misrepresentations form the foundation of most of his criticism of the book. If Coyne wants to write a devastating review of The Evolution of God--and he sure seems to want to--he'll have to start over.

Robert Wright is Editor in Chief of and the author of The Moral Animal (Pantheon, 1994), Nonzero (Pantheon, 2000), and The Evolution of God (Little, Brown, 2009). He is a contributing editor for The New Republic and a contributor to Time and Slate.

Jerry A. Coyne responds:

Robert Wright fails to respond to my main criticism: that there is no "scientific" evidence for a transcendent force which, by coupling social interaction to theological change, pulls humanity toward ever greater morality. Instead, his defense rests on selectively quoting his own book. (I've posted a longer response at

I'll take up Wright's four points in order.

1. While Wright asserts that the origin of monotheism was attended by belligerence, his book states unequivocally that the adoption of monotheism was critical in our march toward moral progress: "To the extent that we can tell, the one true God--the God of Jews, then of Christians, and then of Muslims--was originally a god of vengeance. Fortunately, the previous sentence has a hidden asterisk: But it doesn't matter. The salvation of the world in the twenty-first century may well hinge on how peaceful and tolerant Abrahamic monotheism is. But it doesn't hinge on whether these attributes were built in at monotheism's birth. That's because monotheism turns out to be, morally speaking, a very malleable thing, something that, when circumstances are auspicious, can be a fount of tolerance and compassion. As we'll see in later chapters, this fact is manifest in the subsequent history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims."

2. Although Wright denies claiming that Paul extended Christian love to those of other faiths, his book states this several times. One example: "Actually, though Paul doesn't say ‘Love your enemies,' he comes pretty close. So close, in fact, as to suggest that he did sense the logic behind it--that, in fact, he may be the one who injected the idea into Christian literature."

3 & 4. Wright seems not to recognize that Islam--which ultimately gave precedence to divisive over amiable theology and sanctified the decidedly belligerent post-Koranic hadith-- violates his own thesis of long-term theological progress. And, while he recognizes some antipathy in the Koran, Wright downplays it. For example, he cherry-picks a Koranic verse in which Muhammad considers Islam's god identical to that of Christians and Jews. But he fails to mention verses insisting that salvation is attainable only by worshipping God in an Islamic way. Twice, for example, it specifies that anyone who considers Jesus as the son of God will roast in the fires of hell.

Wright can selectively quote himself like this, because his book repeatedly hedges on some pretty fundamental points. Although claiming to reject mystical forces, Wright constantly reassures us that biology and history exude scientific evidence for a "larger purpose" and "a special creative explanation." This pervasive waffling makes it easy for him to claim that any interpretation of his book is wrong.

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and the author most recently of Why Evolution Is True (Viking).