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March 07, 2009, 2:30 PM

Evolution of God(s)

Participants: Jennifer Hecht, Elaine Pagels, Beate Pongratz-Leisten, Tyler Volk (moderator), Robert Wright

The gods have evolved. This is because the gods, as human constructs, have been subject to processes of replication, variation, and selection within cultural evolution, which in some ways is analogous to biological evolution. Indeed, god concepts are often (but not always) biology-mimics, in the sense that they possess symbolic biological or cognitive attributes. Furthermore, their evolution forms "trees" in time, with branching points that follow successful mutations or innovations, with extinctions, and with mergings (syncretisms), creating a nested hierarchy of types that have waxed and waned across the global cultural landscape. This roundtable will examine the dynamics of the evolution of gods, from East to West and from ancient to modern, with an eye to the cognitive and social forces that have caused that evolution.

Jennifer Hecht is the author of five books of history, philosophy, and poetry. Doubt: A History demonstrates the history of religious doubt all over the world, through all history. The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology won the Phi Beta Kappa Society's 2004 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award "for scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity." Her most recent book, The Happiness Myth, brings a skeptical eye to modern science about the good life. Hecht's poetry books have won four national awards, and Publisher's Weekly called her most recent volume of poetry, Funny, "one of the most original and entertaining books of the year." Her prose and poetry appear in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. Hecht teaches in the Graduate Writing Program at The New School University

Elaine Pagels is Harrington Spear Paine Foundations Professor of Religion at Princeton University, having joined the faculty in 1982, shortly after receiving a MacArthur Fellowship. She is the author of The Gnostic Gospels, The Origin of Satan, and Adam, Eve and the Serpent. She has published widely on Gnosticism and early Christianity, and continues to pursue research interests in late antiquity. Her most recent books include Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, which was on the New York Times best-seller list, and Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, co-authored with Karen King of Harvard.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten has worked since 2004 as a lecturer at Princeton University. In fall 2009 she will join the NYU faculty as Associate Professor for Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Her projects involve the development of cultural strategies to sustain political structures and scholarly agency in constructing, transmitting and transforming cultural discourse under ever-changing historical circumstances. Her other project is concerned with the notion of anthropomorphism and divine agency in the Ancient Near East. In connection with this project, she organized an international conference at Princeton in 2007, "Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism," the proceedings of which will be published at Eisenbrauns. She has published several books and numerous articles related to the Ancient Near Eastern History of Religion.

Tyler Volk is Associate Professor of Biology and Science Director of the Environmental Studies program at New York University. He teaches a course called Transdisciplinary Investigations Across Multiple Evolutionary Scales, which includes the evolution of gods, and he has a passionate interest in the structures and functions of all systems and how they weave together. Volk's books include the recently released CO2 Rising, What is Death?: A Scientist Looks at the Cycles of Life, Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind, and Gaia's Body: Towards a Physiology of Earth.

Robert Wright is the author of the forthcoming book, The Evolution of God. He is also the author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, both published by Vintage Books. The Moral Animal was named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 12 best books of 1994 and has been published in 12 languages. Nonzero was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book for 2000, and has been published in nine languages. Wright's first book, Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information, was published in 1988 and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributing editor at The New Republic, Time, and Slate. He has also written for the Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine. He previously worked at The Sciences magazine, where his column "The Information Age" won the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism. He has taught in the philosophy department at Princeton and the psychology department at Penn.


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