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Transcript:

July 17, 2009

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

Some young and agile environmental activists tried to get Abraham Lincoln's ear last week. And George Washington's. And Thomas Jefferson's. And Teddy Roosevelt's. That's because, they say, President Obama is not listening. In the Black Hills of South Dakota, protestors from Greenpeace USA made a dangerous rappel down Mount Rushmore to unfurl a banner alongside the carved faces of the four American icons. "America honors leaders, not politicians," it read. "Stop global warming." The protestors were arrested, of course. They were trespassing, breaking the law. Much like the non-violent acts of disobedience during the Civil Rights movement.

The willfulness of their act points to the frustration building among the new generation of environmentalist activists. Many of them poured their hearts and souls into Barack Obama's presidential campaign and worked to elect what they hoped would be a greener House and Senate. But now they say President Obama and Congress have been making too many compromises on the environment. Especially the climate bill that was recently and narrowly passed by the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate.

They're not alone, the ECONOMIST magazine has observed that "Rather than shaping public opinion, he is running scared of it. And so, even more, is Congress." That's why those protesters conquered Mount Rushmore last week, trying to wake the public up to what's really happening behind the scenes in Washington.

Mary Sweeters was there, as the organizing manager of Greenpeace USA. She graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, just five years ago and has worked as an organizer for CALPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group, and as Canvass Director of the Fund for Public Interest Research, training grass roots activists.

While Mary was at Mount Rushmore, Erich Pica was back in Washington. Erich is Director of Domestic Programs for Friends of the Earth, the environmental organization that was among the first to endorse Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries last year.

A graduate of Western Michigan University, he has served on environmental planning boards and has experience in political campaigning and on Capitol Hill. Welcome to you both.

ERICH PICA: Thank you.

MARY SWEETERS: Thanks very much.

BILL MOYERS: What did you hope to accomplish with the Mount Rushmore protest? And what was your strategy? Why Mount Rushmore and why now?

MARY SWEETERS: Well, we felt like it was a very appropriate backdrop to do a civil disobedience act. I mean, here you have four great presidents who really stepped up when they were faced with some of the biggest challenges that our nation has seen. And we felt like we wanted to send President Obama the same message. That we want him to step up in a similar manner and really lead the country the way that it needs to be led. You know, the timing seemed to be right. He was at the G8 Summit that day in Italy. And I think he definitely got our message.

ERICH PICA: We were highly supportive of Greenpeace's efforts to prod the president to be more aggressive. It's actually quite surprising to hear his campaign rhetoric, campaigning on health care and global warming and a new economic future for the United States. And then see him as president. Well, he's talking about health care, but he's deafly silent on global warming.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you think that is?

ERICH PICA: I think that there's a lot of moneyed interest in Washington DC that don't want to see a strong climate bill passed. I think, his administration's essentially been kind of convinced that they can't do anything aggressive. That will help solve the problem. Because of the moneyed interest, and I think some of the political appointees he has are not as strong as we'd like them to be. And I think he's been convinced that Congress just isn't willing to go as far as he wants to go.

BILL MOYERS: But, just last week, he did call for a special session at the G8 on climate change. And he himself described this bill that you think is so weak, as extraordinary.

ERICH PICA: Friends of the Earth has 77 member groups around the world. And we've been a part of these negotiations. And what we're hearing for our from our member groups, who were attending these conferences, you know, the Bonn meeting, the G8, the G20, they're saying the negotiators that are being directed by the Obama Administration sound very much like the Bush Administration.

In that there is a slight nuance. But the outcome is the same. They're slow peddling the fact that the United States has to get more aggressive when it comes to our global warming reduction. And they need to lead. You know, when we have France, and we have the developing world, and China and India, telling the United States that what we're what we're negotiating on, which is the Waxman-Markey Bill, is not strong enough, that means that we're not leading the world. We're still following behind.

BILL MOYERS: Give me a simple summary of what you think is wrong with this bill.

ERICH PICA: There's a number of things. But the big ones are, one, the bill doesn't reduce global warming emissions in the United States fast enough. And the emission reduction targets are just inadequate. Particularly if we're trying to be a global leader. Two, it strips away the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

BILL MOYERS: The Environmental Protection Agency.

ERICH PICA: The Environmental Protection Agency. Which is a key tool that environmentalists have been using to shut down coal plants. Three, it gives away a tremendous amount of money. Hundreds of billions of dollars to the polluting industries that have, essentially, caused the problem of global warming. The Duke Energies, Shells, Conocos of the world. Gives a lot of a lot of free giveaways in the in terms of permits. Four, and this is kind of overwhelming the entire system, is that it relies on Wall Street to help solve the problem of global warming.

BILL MOYERS: By?

ERICH PICA: By allowing them to manage the trading system that's created underneath this bill:

BILL MOYERS: A derivative, right?

ERICH PICA: Subprime mortgages. We feel there's going to be subprime carbon in this market. Where they're going to be trading these derivatives and these various securities that may have global warming emission reductions associated with them. May not. But it's going to be so large. And Wall Street is going to work feverishly to erode any of the standards and protections that are put into this bill to prevent Wall Street from gaming the system. Then, a matter of time, it's not going to matter what we put in this bill, 'cause Wall Street, as we've seen over the last 20 years, seems to always win. When it comes to deregulating the very agencies that are responsible for monitoring and enforcing the rules.

MARY SWEETERS: You know, it's just it's been an entrenched system. They're there to, just further their profits. To continue business as usual. And they see this as potentially a threat. So they've turned this bill into something that's a gain for them.

You know, I think I heard, just a week or two ago, the American Enterprise Institute called this the Coal Preservation Act. So that just kind of gives you an indication of they're very excited for this bill because they don't think that it's going to harm business as usual.

BILL MOYERS: But some people are going to say, "If it's good for business, it has to be good."

ERICH PICA: I don't necessarily disagree if it's good for business. But it's got to be good for the environment. And it's got to be good for the people of this country. And it's got to be good for the world. I cannot conceive of trusting Wall Street to solve global warming.

They've been responsible, over the last 150 years, for many of the resource, environmental destruction that has occurred in this country, and around the world. It's been for profit and greed. This system, will try to utilize that profit and greed for an environmental good. And I think it's naïve, at best, that we think we can steer Wall Street in that direction. And, at worse, I just think it's at worst it's just being an outright disingenuous.

BILL MOYERS: But, when so many of your environmental allies, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change support this bill, how can it be as bad as you think it is?

MARY SWEETERS: Oh, well, I think some groups have decided that making some compromises will get us further. Is actually a step in the right direction. And Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and many other groups across the country disagree with that. We're looking at what the science is saying and what it's recommending to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And we're sticking with that. And looking at this bill and saying, "This doesn't measure up."

MARY SWEETERS: A big part of the frustration, I think, is that during his campaigning, President Obama committed to restoring science to its rightful place within the government. And, you know, emission reduction targets that we're seeing in this bill, this is not based on science.

MARY SWEETERS: Scientists have recommended to us to reduce our emissions a certain amount. 25 to 40 percent before 1990 levels by 2020. And this bill doesn't do it.

BILL MOYERS: But even Al Gore supports this bill.

ERICH PICA: Which is unfortunate. I mean, he's been a leader in this on this issue for, you know, his Vice Presidential career, when he was in the Senate, and now as a private citizen. And I think he's looking at the politics. And he thinks he needs to compromise to get something done. Anything done. The US can't do this by ourselves. And it's going to require a global agreement and global initiative. And this is where President Obama has, you know, in our in our minds, has failed us. He's not leading the globe in solving this problem. And the bill that he is backing actually, we believe, undermines the ability of our negotiators in the United States, and the rest of the world, to actually agree on on a treaty that will allow us to solve this problem.

MARY SWEETERS: This problem cannot be addressed with, you know, half measures. You can't go halfway. And say, "Oh, we've done some, and now we've solved this problem." This is this issue you know, climate change is so urgent right now. The timeframe that we have is so critical. That we have to take the strongest steps possible.

BILL MOYERS: But you've been in Washington ten years now, with Friends of the Earth, right? What do you say to people who argue that, given the culture of Washington, you can't have a perfect bill.

ERICH PICA: I don't think that we're looking for a perfect bill. You can have a compromise bill that still gets what needs to be done through science. And the perfect can't be the enemy of the good, but the perfect can't be below what science is telling us. So if it's not getting the job done, then it's, you know, why are we, you know, then we need to fight harder to do it.

BILL MOYERS: So let me see if I understand this. You're saying that the bill that the House passed sets target levels for emissions that are far below what's needed for global warming.

ERICH PICA: Yeah.

MARY SWEETERS: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: And far below what the European countries have already adopted as their goals, right? And the consequence of that would be?

MARY SWEETERS: We're going to be seeing you know, climate catastrophes globally. Increased drought. Flooding in places. Already there are coastal areas, island nations, that are considering moving to higher ground. Because the sea levels are rising around them. You know, so some scientists are predicting that certain infectious diseases that are spread by things like mosquitoes are going to be moving to places they've never been before. Because of higher temperatures.

BILL MOYERS: And you honestly believe this bill does not address those symptoms, those conditions?

MARY SWEETERS: No, this doesn't. Some people see that a compromise any step forward, as, you know, a good thing. I just, I can't reconcile I can't tell my two year old nephew, in 25 years, that we kind of did it. We went part way. You know? That just that doesn't add up. And I want to say to him, "We looked at the science, and we did what was right. So that, you know, you're going to grow up in a better world."

BILL MOYERS: So, what's at stake, in your judgment?

MARY SWEETERS: I remember standing in Grant Park on election night. And feeling absolutely hopeful. And just waiting for the days to count down 'til inauguration when Obama could, you know, get to work. And, really, what's at stake, to me as a grassroots organizer I have talked to retired school teachers who are concerned about, you know, their students' futures. I've talked to parents who are concerned for their children and the world that they're going to grow up in. Farmers in the Midwest who are facing another year of flooding. You know, firefighters in California. My brother is a firefighter who has gone to Southern California three years in a row now to fight record breaking fires. These are the things that are at stake. To me, there's a balance you know, ecologically, economically. And we are not addressing it properly. And that's why we really feel like President Obama needs to step up. He needs to be the leader that we're waiting for him to be.

ERICH PICA: And if he were stronger, and if he were out there more, I think he could break through this kind of special interest den that controls Washington DC. And he just hasn't done it.

BILL MOYERS: The special interest den you talk about has been spending, I mean, the energy companies have been spending, I read, just this week, almost $24 million already in the first quarter of this year. That's about $260 thousand a day on lobbying. Is it conceivable to you that he didn't realize the powerful interests that gridlock Washington?

ERICH PICA: I think that's part of it. And I think that, you know, when you have so much on his agenda, you know, the economic recovery, health care, global warming, terrorism, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, you know, things happen. Agendas shift around. And I think global warming has just been one of those pieces that he's spending his political capital elsewhere. And he's not spending it on this very key issue to the United States and to the planet.

BILL MOYERS: But hasn't Barack Obama, in six months, done more to address climate change than George W. Bush did in eight years?

ERICH PICA: He has. I mean, in the recovery package, it was one of the largest investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy that this country's ever seen. But, when you have eight years of doing nothing, and, in fact, taken us backwards, and when you have Congress, a Republican Congress before that, essentially eviscerating and gutting many of the programs that the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency, that are supposed that were supposed to be working to solve global warming, we our benchmark and our measurements can't be, oh, he's better than President Bush. His benchmarks and measurements need to be is he leading the world and this country using the bully pulpit of the presidency to lead this country to make the reductions necessary to solve this problem?

BILL MOYERS: This bill, by the way, was shepherded by two prominent liberals in the House. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey. Now it goes to the Senate. What do you hope happens then? What do you think will happen then?

ERICH PICA: Hope and think, I think, are maybe two different things. Unfortunately there are the same regional special interests that help undermine the Waxman-Markey in the House are probably stronger in the Senate at this point. And so it I think we need to really think about the implications that this bill, coming out of the Senate, unless the environmental community and President Obama and, you know, the progressive environmental champions of the Senate, and the general public, unless we start speaking out now this bill could end up being worse than what came out of the House.

BILL MOYERS: So, Mary, what could the President do immediately to affect the outcome in the Senate that would restore the faith you had in him that night at Grant Park when he won the election?

MARY SWEETERS: I mean, I think that he needs to sit down and have some serious conversations with members of the Senate. With the leadership that's in the Senate. And, you know, refer to his meetings that he's having at the G8 and his international talks. Expressing the concern that, you know, the rest of the world has.

Globally this bill was not received very well. It was seen as really a half measure, and something that is not going very far. And I think that it's up to President Obama to have a heavier hand in this legislation. And to really weigh in on, you know, what needs to be done based on, you know, what the United States needs to commit to. What we're obligated to do, both as a major player, internationally. Both as a major emitter. And then, also, just as a major economic force.

BILL MOYERS: And, if it doesn't, are you all going back to Mount Rushmore?

MARY SWEETERS: I don't know that we'll be so welcome back to Mount Rushmore. But Greenpeace is definitely not going away

BILL MOYERS: What do you say to your what do you say to your allies in the in the environmental industry who say, "Well, publicity stunts like that don't really affect, in fact, they distract from the dialogue, the serious dialogue in Washington"?

MARY SWEETERS: Civil disobedience like this, protests like what we did on Mount Rushmore, I think underscore the seriousness of this issue. That we are willing to, you know, put ourselves out there. We are willing to take risks. Because we do see that this is such a critical issue. They need to be responding to the seriousness as well.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I want to thank both of you for being with me on the Journal. We'll be following you know, what happens in the Senate with the big interest. Thank you very much.

MARY SWEETERS: Thank you.

ERICH PICA: Thank you.

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.

BILL MOYERS: This week, Regina Benjamin was nominated by President Obama to be our next surgeon general, charged with keeping the American public informed about our health. She's a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Medical Association and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation 'Genius Grant.'

But more important, she's a country doctor, a family physician along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, serving the poor and uninsured. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed her clinic a second time, she mortgaged her own home to rebuild it. The day it was to reopen, a fire burned the clinic to the ground. Moving to a trailer, Dr. Benjamin and her staff never missed a day of work. Dr. Benjamin will no doubt bring that same ethic to the fight for health care reform.

Many of the folks in Regina Benjamin's bayou town are so poor that sometimes she's paid with a pint of oysters or a couple of fish. She buys medicine for her patients out of her own pocket, and she makes house calls.

Now meet H. Edward Hanway, the Chairman and CEO of Cigna, the country's fourth largest insurance company. At the beginning of the year, Cigna blamed hard economic times when it announced the layoff of 1,100 employees. But it reported first quarter profits of $208 million on revenues of $4 billion. Mr. Hanway has announced his retirement at the end of the year, and the living will be easy, financially at least. He made $11.4 million dollars in 2008, according to the Associated Press, and some years more than that.

That's a lot of oysters, although he lags behind Ron Williams, the CEO of Aetna Insurance, who made more than $17 million dollars last year, or John Hammergren, the head of McKesson, the biggest health care company in the world. His compensation was nearly $30 million.

Here's the difference. To Dr. Regina Benjamin, health care is a service, helping people in need with grace and compassion. To Ed Hanway and his highly paid friends, it's big business, a commodity to be sold to those who can afford it. And woe to anyone who gets between them and the profits they reap from sick people.

That behavior includes spending nearly a million and a half a day--a day!--to make sure health care reform comes out their way. Over the years they've lavished millions on the politicians who are writing and voting on the bills coming out of committee. Now it's payback time. See for yourself here on our website, where you'll find a link to campaign contributions and the politicians who right now are deciding who wins and who loses the heath care debate.

That's it for the week. I'm Bill Moyers and I'll see you next time.


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