In today's excerpt - new thoughts on the "clash of civilizations" from Robert Wright, author of the highly influential books Nonzero and The Moral Animal, in his new book The Evolution of God:
"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 ... 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."
Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, Little, Brown and Company, Copyright 2009 by Robert Wright, pp. 4-6