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Transcript:

July 17, 2009

BILL MOYERS: It's quite rare for a book about a serious and provocative topic to leap onto the best seller list without much in the way of publicity, especially in this summer season of easy reading for the beach.

But that's what has happened with Robert Wright's new book, THE EVOLUTION OF GOD. Maybe that's because the author's reputation precedes him. Robert Wright is a journalist known for tackling big ideas with clarity and insight. In his 1994 book, THE MORAL ANIMAL, he argued that the biological process of natural selection that determines the fate of a species can create a more ethical human society. And in his book, NONZERO, published in 2000, he used game theory to speculate that existence in the contemporary world doesn't have to be a win-lose proposition. Now, ten years in the making, comes THE EVOLUTION OF GOD. Wright brings a fresh perspective to the tumultuous rise of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He concludes that whether god truly exists may not be as important as how the idea of god has changed over the centuries, often struggling to evolve from the idea of a belligerent deity to one of tolerance and compassion.

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy institute, and editor-in-chief of Bloggingheads.tv, a website attempting constructive dialogue between left and right.

He also serves as a contributing editor at the NEW REPUBLIC Magazine. Robert Wright, welcome to The JOURNAL. It's good to meet you after all these years.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: So, here's my journalistic lede I would use if I were reviewing your book. "Robert Wright has made a convincing case that if circumstances change, god has changed, because the story of god is intrinsic to the human story. But what Wright has not done is to make a convincing case that god exists."

ROBERT WRIGHT: I would say it's hard for anyone to make a convincing case that god exists in the sense of pointing to evidence. And I don't really try to do that. I mean, I do argue that there is evidence of some sort of larger purpose unfolding through the workings of nature. But that doesn't tell you much about what might have infused the purpose.

BILL MOYERS: As I read your book, I kept thinking, human beings have been yielding great power over their lives for a long time now to a supreme being whose existence they can't prove.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Uh-huh.

BILL MOYERS: What is there in human nature that does that?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Back before the invention of agriculture, when so far as we can tell, every hunter-gatherer society on the planet believed in more than one God and, yeah, you do have to ask, "Why does this happen everywhere?"

I do think it emerges naturally from human nature. I don't think there's kind of a god gene. Or that it was designed-- that religion was designed in by natural selection because it helps us survive and reproduce. But I don't think it grows naturally out of various parts of human nature. And in the first instance, back at the beginning of religion, the main purpose seems to be to explain to people why good things happen and why bad things happen and how you increase the number of good things and the number of bad things.

Now, it doesn't initially serve a moral purpose, in our sense of the term. So, it's not about discouraging theft or discouraging lying or anything. It's about people trying to figure out why disease afflicts them sometimes. Why they lose wars sometimes and win them. They come up with theories that involve gods. And then they try to manipulate the gods in ways that will make things better.

BILL MOYERS: So, did god begin as a figment of the human imagination?

ROBERT WRIGHT: I would say so. Now, I don't think that precludes the possibility that as ideas about god have evolved people have moved closer to something that may be the truth about ultimate purpose and ultimate meaning.

In my earlier writings about evolutionary psychology, one thing that became clear to me is that the human mind is not designed to perceive ultimate truth or even truth in a very broad sense. I mean, the human mind was designed by natural selection to get genes into the next generation. To do some things that help you do that like eat and reproduce. And as quantum physics has shown us you know, in highlighting our inability to think clearly, even about things like electrons. The human mind is not designed to perceive truth that go beyond this narrow part of the material world.

BILL MOYERS: But there was something in it, in even the primeval brain that was able to conceive of the supernatural of what lay beyond the workings of nature.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Yes. Very early on, apparently people started imagining kind of sources of causality. Imagining things out there making things happen. And early on there were shamans who had mystical experiences that even today a Buddhist monk would say were valid forms of apprehension of the divine or something. But by and large I think people were making up stories that would help them control the world.

BILL MOYERS: I chuckled when you compared the shamans of early times, the first religious experts, we might say to stockbrokers today. Each claiming to have special insights into a great and mysterious force that shapes the fortunes of millions of people. Right?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Right. Some serious economists have argued that you're better off throwing darts at you know, a list of stocks on the wall, and choosing your stocks, than listening to any broker in particular. And yet, we continue to pay them tremendous credence.

And I think what that shows is whenever there's a kind of mysterious force that-- whenever you don't understand what it is that's influencing very momentous events, you will pay attention to anyone who credibly says they have the answer. And I think that's in the beginning of shamanism. That's what's going on. People say, "I understand the will of all these Gods."

BILL MOYERS: What does that say about human nature that we will turn to an intermediary?

ROBERT WRIGHT: I guess it says that we get a little desperate when we're faced with actual ignorance and mistakes matter. But it's certainly true that this just pervades society. Not only in the religious realm but in financial markets. And things like that.

BILL MOYERS: The God of the market has failed, of course, again. We're living through that period right now. When there is no God on Wall Street anymore. And that God has failed. But the God of Abraham thrives. What does that say about us? That this ancient religion still has a vitality and a vibrancy?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, I think it's a tribute to the evolutionary power of cultural change. And it shows us how god has adapted to varying cultural circumstances because the god that is believed in now, first of all, assumes many different forms, even among believers.

I mean, the difference between the god I was brought up with in Southern Baptist church. And the way god would be conceived by an Anglican priest or something, you know, are very different. And similarly, there's been change over time. And the fact that god can adapt does account for his longevity. And also, at crucial points during that evolution, he acquired features that have proved very attractive.

I mean, the Christian doctrine of individual salvation of an eternal afterlife, if you qualify, certainly helped the church flourish and was picked up by Islam. By Muhammad, who was in touch with these doctrines. And has proved very popular. Look at the number of Christians and Muslims around today. So, the very appealing parts of god endure. I mean, particularly appealing parts. But then there's adaptation. And I think the adaptation accounts for some of the real moral growth.

BILL MOYERS: So, if we are propelled along by natural selection, is it okay to say god is, as well. That god is a product of natural selection?

ROBERT WRIGHT: The god that I show evolving is undergoing a process very analogous to natural selection. You know? New traits arise, and if they succeed in enhancing the power of the god, by, for example attracting new believers then they remain. And if they don't work for one reason or another, they fall by the wayside. So, god has evolved very much the way, you know, human organism evolved through natural selection, yes.

BILL MOYERS: You go to considerable length in here to make sure that we remember gods are products of cultural evolution not biological evolution.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. And it's a much-- cultural evolution is a much messier process than biological evolution. So you and I can point to our-- the source of our genes very easily. Our parents and then their parents and so on. It's very easy to see the channels of influence. And I'm not going to transmit any genes to you in the course of this conversation. It doesn't work like that.

But with cultural evolution, either of us could, actually, influence the ideas in our heads through conversation. And, similarly a god in-- let's go back to the Roman empire when the Christian God is kind of in flux and is taking shape. It's not just a question of who so to speak his ancestor was. His ancestor was the God of the Israelites. Okay?

We know that. But meanwhile he can be picking up traits from all kinds of gods in the environment. And in fact, one thing I argue is that maybe the idea of individual salvation and being rewarded with a blissful afterlife if you live your life here right, may have come from one of the Egyptian cults, originally Egyptian cults, that was competing with Christianity in the Roman Empire.

And that's why it's hard to disentangle who's influencing whom. I mean you can go back there and read the texts written by adherents of the so-called mystery religions. The Greco-Roman mystery religions. And it will describe a born again experience that sounds very much like one a Christian might describe today. And it's really not clear who was copying whom back then

BILL MOYERS: Your own perception of god has evolved. As a child, god was real to you, right?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Very much.

BILL MOYERS: Nine years old and you had a born again experience of your own?

ROBERT WRIGHT: I went to the front of the church. I had been under the influence of a visiting Evangelist at a Baptist church in El Paso, Texas, whose name was Homer Martinez. He was good. And I'll tell you how he made his reputation. Getting people like me to go up to the front of the church. I don't remember exactly what was said, but I--

BILL MOYERS: Walk the aisle, as we said.

ROBERT WRIGHT: It was a spontaneous thing. My parents weren't there. I went up to the front of the church and accepted Jesus and was baptized some weeks later. And, you know, and then I encountered the theory of evolution and I had come from a Creationist environment, so that was a kind of irreconcilable threat to my faith.

And the theory of natural selection seemed very compelling to me. And my parents even brought a Southern Baptist minister over to the house at one point when I was high school to try to convince me that evolution had not happened. And it didn't work.

I'll tell you one thing I have not lost is I've never lost the sense that I'm being judged by a being. I mean you know, it's a powerful-- if you're brought up believing that a god is watching you, it's a powerfully ingrained thing. And I think just in a vague kind of way I still feel that.

BILL MOYERS: But does one need the god experience to have what you-- I think you're talking about a conscience. A sense that--

ROBERT WRIGHT: Well--

BILL MOYERS: --if I do this wrong, bad things will happen. If I do this right, good things will happen. I mean do you feel that comes from a vengeful god or a watchful, vigilant god?

ROBERT WRIGHT: I don't think people have to believe in god to be-- I know plenty of conscientious people who don't believe in god. On the other hand, it seems to me a not necessarily bad form for the conscience to assume belief in a personal god. I mean, if you believe that there is a moral axis to the universe, okay? If you believe in moral truth--

BILL MOYERS: And do you?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Yes, I do. I believe that there's a purpose unfolding that has a moral directionality. I have barely the vaguest notion of what might be behind that and whether it could be anything like a personal god or an intelligent being or not. That's another question. I don't know. But I will say it's-- whatever is behind it, if something is, it's probably something that's beyond human conception.

Just as thinking about electrons in a definitely simplistic way-- one thing quantum physics has told us is that the way we're thinking about electrons is wrong, A. And B, the human mind is probably not capable of thinking about them really accurately. Okay? And yet, thinking about them in this crude way and drawing little things that you say are electrons, you know, that's a useful-- it's a given the constraints on the mind it's all we can do. And it's useful.

Well, you might say that in the moral realm given the constraints on human cognition believing in a personal god is a pretty defensible way to go about orienting yourself to the moral axis of the universe. I'm-- which wouldn't mean that a personal god exists. But--

BILL MOYERS: An imagined personal god is accountable for our conscience then?

ROBERT WRIGHT: I think evolutionary psychologists know on the one hand how the conscience actually evolved roughly speaking. In other words, we can explain it plausibly in terms of natural selection.

You know, it gets back to these mutually beneficial relationships that like friendships natural selection seems to have equipped us to enter into friendships. And part of that equipment seems to be because friendships are mutually beneficial. They're good. I mean friendless people don't do well in society.

And one of the tools it seems to have given us is that we feel guilty if we neglect a friend or betray a friend. Okay? So these feelings of guilt and these feelings that there is some kind of moral truth out there that sometimes we fall short of that is explicable in terms of natural selection. I don't think you need a god to explain that.

On the other hand if you separately conclude that there is such a thing as moral truth and you want to try to use your conscience, which certainly is imperfect as natural selection shaped it, okay? It's not by itself a reliable guide to moral conduct I think. And so if you want to shape the conscience in a way that makes it a better guide to kind of moral pursing moral truths religious belief is, you know, one certainly defensible and maybe valid way to do that.

BILL MOYERS: But you're not saying that one has to be religious to be moral?

ROBERT WRIGHT: I'm absolutely not. I'm absolutely not. One of my own closer contacts with, I would say, a form of consciousness that's closer to the truth than everyday consciousness, came at a Buddhist meditation center. These were essentially secular Buddhists and that was the context of the experience.

But through the meditative practice performed intensively for a week. No contact with the outside world. No speaking. Five and a half hours of sitting meditation a day. Five and a half hours of walking meditation a day. I reached a state of consciousness that I think is closer to the truth about things than the form of consciousness that is kind of natural for human beings.

BILL MOYERS: Was it a consciousness that had an ethical and moral issue in it or was it a state of being? A state of simple acceptance?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, it absolutely had ethical implications because it involved much broader acceptance of other beings and it involved being less judgmental of other beings. I mean it reached almost ridiculous extremes. Look looking down at weeds and thinking, "I can't believe I've been killing those things. They're actually as pretty as the grass. Prettier."

But in the realm of humanity, I mean I was just by the end being very much less judgmental about just people I would see on the street.

And I would just my focus moved away from myself. And I think that is movement toward the truth. I mean the basic illusion natural selection builds into all of us is that we are special. You know, that's obviously something if you were natural selection you'd want to build into animals, right?

Because that's how you get them to take care of their own and get their genes into the next generation. But it really is an illusion and it's more fraught with ethical implications than we realize, I think. I mean it just suddenly blinds us to the truth about people I think.

BILL MOYERS: I do find more people like you who are seeking a spiritual practice without a governing deity presiding over it.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. It seems to work. Now these people, they do though, even these secular Buddhists I would say, they do believe in a transcendent source of meaning. They believe that there's something out there that is the moral truth and that they are aligning themselves with.

Secular perspective that doesn't not involve belief in anything that you might call transcendent, although that's a very tricky word.

BILL MOYERS: I know that we can't be precise like the 4th of July, 1776, but was there a moment in the larger sense when god became a capital G?

ROBERT WRIGHT: There is this very curious word in the Bible, in the Hebrew version of the Bible, the Hebrew Bible or what Christians would call the Old Testament. Elohim. It literally is the plural of the generic noun for gods.

Elohim is at this point becoming a proper noun. And so I would say it's not only kind of god with a capital G, if this theory is right, but kind of there's a notion called the Godhead. It comes out of Hinduism, among other places, where the idea is that all the gods are manifestations of a single underlying divine unity. And it may be that that notion of the Godhead is being hinted at in this particular language of God, this particular language for talking about God that's emphasized after the exile.

BILL MOYERS: How do you relate that to the fact that as you say again and again in here, and as all of us know, the three great faiths all embraced the slaughter of infidels?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Right. They do. In the Koran, you can find on one page Muhammad or God speaking through Muhammad is advising Muslims to greet unbelievers by saying, "You've got religion. We've got ours." On another page it says, "Kill the infidels wherever you find them."

Similarly, in the Bible it says at one moment, God is advising the Israelites to wipe out completely nearby peoples, who worship a foreign God. On another page, you've got the Israelites not only suggesting peaceful coexistence to a people who worship a foreign God. But invoking that God to validate the relationships. So, they say, "Your God Khamesh gave you your land. Our God gave us our land. Can't we get along?"

And the question is why does god seem to be in these different moods? Why the mood fluctuations? And I think the answer is actually good news. The answer is that when people feel that they can gain through peaceful collaboration or coexistence with another people, they will find tolerance in their doctrines, by and large. That's what's going on here. Whereas, when they feel threatened by a people, in material terms, or a threat to their values. They're going to be more likely to find belligerence in their scriptures. And I think that's what was going on in ancient times, when God seemed to be changing moods.

And the good news is that although all of that is in the pasts of these religions and surfaces periodically today even. The good news is that when people find themselves in a kind of interdependent relationship. When they see that they can gain through collaboration or that they don't need to be threatened, then doctrines of tolerance tend to emerge.

BILL MOYERS: Are you suggesting in this book that god is ultimately defined, the character of god is ultimately defined by the conduct and interpretation of god's followers?

ROBERT WRIGHT: As I follow god through the book-- that is what god is. A construct. He consists of the traits that are attributed to him at any given time by people. Now that doesn't mean that theology can't get us closer to the truth about something that may deserve the term divinity. But yes, I think in the first instance, god is an illusion. And I'm tracing the evolution of an illusion.

BILL MOYERS: So where do you come out in the old conflict among those who say that religion is good for people and those who say religion serves power? You know, Marx's argument that religion is a tool of social control.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, I think religion is like other belief systems in that people will try to use it to their advantage.

BILL MOYERS: That's human nature.

ROBERT WRIGHT: That's human nature. We all try to game the system. And if there are huge discrepancies in power, the powerful will try to use religion to their advantage. I don't think it has to be that way and I think, you know, often religion a benign and good form.

And I think there's a kind of a danger in being too cynical about religion. I think there's a danger in thinking that the so called religious conflicts are fundamentally about religion and that without religion they wouldn't be here. I mean, for example, Richard Dawkins has said, if it weren't for religion there would be no Israel-Palestine conflict.

I mean I think that's A, not true. That conflict started as an essentially secular struggle over land. And B, it leads us to kind of throw up our hands and say, "Well, what can you do?" As long as people are religious, there's no point in addressing any grievances or rearranging the facts on the ground to try to make things better.

I think there's been a dangerous over-emphasis on the negative effects of religious belief in the modern world. Although it has many negative effects.

BILL MOYERS: I don't find any traces of cynicism in the book. In fact, I want to ask you about something you say toward the end. You say that, "Human beings are organic machines that are built by natural selection to deal with other organic machines. They can visualize other organic beings, understand other organic beings, and bestow love and gratitude on other organic beings. Understanding the divine, visualizing the divine, loving the divine--that would be a tall order for a mere human being." But we've not given up trying, have we?

ROBERT WRIGHT: No. And I think, you know, in a way we shouldn't. I mean I think if there is you know, something out there called moral truth. And we should continue to try to relate to it in a way that brings us closer to it. And it--

BILL MOYERS: I don't understand what you mean. Out there?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Well. Well--

BILL MOYERS: What did--

ROBERT WRIGHT: Did I say that?

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you've said it several times. I mean--

ROBERT WRIGHT: I should be careful.

BILL MOYERS: --if you don't--

ROBERT WRIGHT: Because I don't-- what do I mean. I don't--I mean what. Transcendent is a very tricky word. And I get into trouble from hardcore materialists by using it because people think, "Oh, you mean spooky, mystical, ethereal stuff." I don't know exactly what I mean by transcendent.

I may mean beyond our comprehension. I may mean you know, I may mean prior to the creation of the universe or something. I don't know. But I do think that the system on Earth is such that humanity is repeatedly given the choice of either progressing morally in the sense of accepting more people into the moral circle or paying the price of social chaos. Okay?

I would say we've been there before and we're there now. That, you know, we are approaching a global level of social organization. And if people do not get better at acknowledging the humanity of people around the world in very different circumstances, and even putting themselves in the shoes of those other people then we may pay the price of social chaos. So the system is set up that way. And that's just an intriguing fact to me that seems to create a kind of moral axis that we can't help but orient ourselves toward or try to orient ourselves toward.

BILL MOYERS: I expected to find you shrouded in pessimism after exploring thousands of years of how belligerent the great faiths can be. But at the end, you seem to put a light in the window. And a glow comes from it of some hope that these religions, these great faiths, can overcome millennia of belligerence and accommodate.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, they have shown the ability to do that. I think one of the more encouraging facts about the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that if you ask, "When where they at their best? When did doctrines of tolerance emerge?" I answered that they were in periods that were in some ways analogous to a modern globalized environment.

In the ancient world the closest analog to the modern globalized world is an empire. A multi-national platform. And I think all three religions have shown their ability to adapt constructively to this kind of environment. That doesn't mean they'll do it now. And, you know, the moral progress that is needed is not assured. But all three of them have this adaptive capacity that's been proven.

BILL MOYERS: And you say it's going to take an extraordinary amount of smart thinking to deal with this world that's on the verge of chaos, you write. And a world-- and a chaos to which the great faiths have contributed.

ROBERT WRIGHT: One thing that in a certain sense the prophets of all three Abrahamic faiths got right that is applicable to this situation in the modern world is in a way what all of them were saying was salvation is possible so long as you align yourself with the moral axis of the universe. Okay?

Now they meant different things by salvation. In the Hebrew bible, they often meant social salvation. In Christianity and Islam they might be more inclined to mean individual salvation. And of course they didn't say the moral axis of the universe. They said God. But to them God was the moral axis of the universe.

But I think when you put it abstractly like that, it applies to the modern world. In other words, if we want to secure the salvation of the global social system, of the planet, in other words if we want salvation in the Hebrew bible sense of the term, we do have to move ourselves closer to what I would call the moral axis of the universe, which means drawing more of humanity into our frame of reference. Getting better at putting ourselves in their shoes. Expanding the realm of tolerance. And it has to happen symmetrically. It's not enough for just the Muslim world or just the West to do it. But I do think it has to happen.

BILL MOYERS: You make me think that perhaps in your head god is the reasoning principle through time?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Interestingly there is this idea of the Logos.

BILL MOYERS: In the beginning was the word, is how the New Testament, the Book of John, translates it.

ROBERT WRIGHT: One place the word Logos appears--yes, is that word in that passage is the translation of the Greek term Logos. And in a way, the term reappears in the Koran when Mohammed says Jesus is the word of God. But it also has an important place in Jewish thought. And in fact, one of the thinkers I fastened on to in the book as some-- an ancient thinker who had I think a pretty good candidate for modern theology, is Philo of Alexandria.

BILL MOYERS: A Jew?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. And who lived around the time of Jesus except in a much more urban environment. And he had access to Greek philosophy. And he had this idea that God is the Logos. Is this kind of logic that is the animating spirit through history. And he said some things that look remarkable from a modern point of view.

He said where history was moving was toward this world of tremendous interdependence and that was part of God's plan was to make it so that individual peoples and even individual species would need one another. Were dependent on one another. And that as history wore on, that would become truer and truer. And as a result, the world would move toward this kind of unity.

I think in terms of a logic you know, animating history, that's a reasonably modern way to think of the divine. If you want to construct a theology that I would say can be rendered in a way that is compatible with modern science, I think Philo of Alexandria is a good place to start.

BILL MOYERS: I keep coming back though to what you instructed us in this book when you talk about how everything we do and see our response to it's affected by brain which has not been prepared by natural evolution for the complexity of the social order today. And you say, "…the way the human mind is built, antipathy can impede comprehension." Rationality. "Hating protestors, flag burners and even terrorists makes it harder to understand them well enough to keep others from joining their ranks."

ROBERT WRIGHT: It's a tricky balance to strike because on the one hand, understanding terrorists and how they became terrorists, which is in our interests if we want to discourage the creation of more terrorists, tends to involve a kind of sympathy that in turn can lead you to say they are not to blame for what they did.

And you don't want to say that because as a practical matter you have to punish people when you can when they do bad things. So you don't want to let go of the idea of moral culpability but you do need to kind of put yourself in their heads. And that is really a great challenge in the modern world.

BILL MOYERS: Are human beings likely to grow out of their need for God?

ROBERT WRIGHT: I think it's going to be a long time before a whole lot of them do, if they do. So religion will be the medium by which people express their values for a long time to come so it's important to understand what brings out the best and the worst in it. And I think, you know, the answer to that question depends partly on how abstractly you define religion. You know, there is this William James quote about religion is the idea that there is an unseen order and our supreme interests lie in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that order. And it's a good definition because it encompasses the great variety of the things we've called religion, I think. And not many definitions do. If you define religion that way I think it'll probably be with us forever, because if you define religion that way, I'm religious. And that's defining it pretty broadly if I qualify.

BILL MOYERS: The book is "The Evolution of God." Robert Wright thanks very much for being with me on the Journal.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Thanks for having me.


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