If you were to believe the incessant barrage of commentary nowadays by politicians, news outlets, and even some of your Facebook friends, you’d have a dismal view of the world and humanity. Every time the doom-and-gloom chatter picks up in my newsfeed, I remember one of the most informative, insightful, and inspiring books I’ve ever read: The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. In a nutshell, Wright explains how human conceptions of God have evolved as human societies have progressed. And the good news is that the overall trajectory of human conceptions about God is positive. That’s a big deal, because human ideas about God are a reflection of humankind. So when we see humankind embracing better versions of God, that’s a sign that humankind is improving.
If you had lived in ancient times, the “God” you would have worshiped would have been one or more of several competing gods. You would have believed your God’s power and authority was limited to your tribe and/or a specific geographic territory. Most significantly, you would have believed your duty to treat your neighbor ethically extended only to your fellow tribe members. So when your tribe’s political or religious leader told you that God had commanded your tribe to go murder and pillage a neighboring tribe that worshipped a different god, you wouldn’t think there was anything evil or wrong about that.
Thankfully, humankind has graduated to better versions of God (with a few rare exceptions that get a highly disproportionate amount of news coverage today). Over time as tribes became chiefdoms, chiefdoms became kingdoms, kingdoms became empires, and empires became states, smaller groups of people with long histories of fighting each other were forced to learn how to peacefully live and work together within newer, bigger boundaries. That process wasn’t easy, and it was often bloody. We humans have a knack for taking two steps forward and one step back. But when we look at the big picture that has unfolded over millennia, in spite of the wars and atrocities we humans have inflicted upon each other, there is a clear overall trend toward peace and progress.
Unsurprisingly, as human beings have learned to peacefully live and work together within increasingly diverse populations, human perspectives on God have followed suit. In the West, the old tribal bloodthirsty gods were replaced by a universal God who was believed to be the Father of all humankind. And with that increase in the scope of God’s power, authority, and concern came a corresponding change in thinking about who our brothers and sisters are, and about who we must treat ethically: Everyone.
We are now living in an age when humankind is progressing at a faster rate than many religions can keep up with. Today people in the West are leaving religion because the current versions of God aren’t being updated quickly enough. Even the 20th Century versions of God are considered outdated. People are abandoning gods who continue to promote sexism and homophobia. And when people are abandoning gods because those gods are seen as being too unloving and inhumane to be worthy of worship, that’s a very good sign for humanity.
Fortunately, we have solid grounds to hope and expect that humankind’s positive trajectory will continue, because the reason we’ve collectively trended toward peaceful coexistence is grounded in cold hard reality. One might even call it a “natural law”: it is the simple fact that cooperation raises our collective standard of living more than conflict does.
In ancient times when zero-sum, win-lose thinking prevailed, people thought the best growth strategy was to massacre a neighboring people and steal their land, riches, and livestock. But over time we have increasingly embraced non-zero-sum, win-win thinking; we’ve discovered that when we peacefully do business and trade with each other, rather than fighting and trying to steal each other’s land and stuff, we create win-win outcomes that in the long term bring more prosperity to all sides than even what the victor would have gained through warfare and conquest.
That hard reality isn’t going away: we will always gain more by cooperating than we could ever gain by fighting. As we human beings often do, we will likely forget that important truth from time to time and bash our heads against each other. But the good news is that no matter how many times we forget, we will inevitably re-learn the unalterable truth that peaceful cooperation—not conflict—is what maximizes our survival and well-being as a species. Which is why I see an ever better and brighter future for humanity no matter how loudly and frequently we’re told to expect the opposite.