The Evolution of God
Robert Wright is a journalist and scholar whose books include The Moral Animaland The Evolution of God.
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST I’m Krista Tippett. Today, a public conversation with Robert Wright. His book The Evolution of God charts an intellectual path beyond the faith-versus-reason debate. Wright takes a relentlessly logical look at the history of religion, exposing its contradictions. Yet he also traces something revelatory moving through human history.
MR. ROBERT WRIGHT: The basic direction in which social organization moved, that is, from hunter-gatherer village to chiefdom, ancient state, empire, and now we’re on the verge of a globalized society, I’m arguing that the affect that that’s had on our conception of God’s compassion has tended to be a good one. That as the world grows, a social organization gets more complex, people get more inter-dependant, you see an adaptation on the part of God, and it does become a God of broader compassion.
TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Robert Wright’s book The Evolution of God has been much talked about in both religious and secular circles. In my mind, this is a bridge book — it has opened new conversation points beyond the religion-versus-science, faith-versus-atheism debates that galvanized American publishing and politics in recent years. Wright’s relentlessly logical approach to the history of the three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — has something in common with the new atheist literature. He shines a light on radical inconsistencies in the Bible and the Qur’an — shifts in authorship and messaging that have been well known to theologians across the generations but not often passed on to lay people. Yet while maintaining his agnosticism, Robert Wright ultimately concludes that these religions do reveal a larger purpose — something one might call revelatory — unfolding through human history.
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TIPPETT: I want to note, as we start, something that I did not know about you, is that you were born in Oklahoma.
MR. WRIGHT True.
TIPPETT: And they were raised Southern Baptist.
MR. WRIGHT I was.
TIPPETT: Did you know that both of those things are true of me as well?
MR. WRIGHT Really?
MR. WRIGHT That’s eerie.
TIPPETT: I know.
MR. WRIGHT So there is a God, then.
TIPPETT: Well, it’s proof of something. I’m not sure what. OK.
MR. WRIGHT This couldn’t be chance.
TIPPETT: After that self-indulgent beginning, some important words as you analyze the human condition of the religious enterprise are purpose and meaning and truth. And I’d like to ask you about the sense of those things, of purpose, meaning, and truth, that you had in that Southern Baptist upbringing in Oklahoma and then I think Texas later on.
MR. WRIGHT Yeah. Well, yeah, there was no doubt about the source of purpose, meaning, and truth when I was Southern Baptist as a child. I had a very kind of pervasive sense of God’s presence, I guess. And, in fact, at age eight or nine I chose to walk up to the front of the church and accept Jesus as my savior. My parents weren’t there and there was no pressure from them at all. They were devout, but I later found out that they actually worried that I wasn’t ready to make a decision like that. So I was, you know, quite religious.
TIPPETT: And then you’ve written somewhere that at some point you were bowled over when you learned about the power and beauty of the theory of evolution. Tell me about that.
MR. WRIGHT Well, I mean, for starters, I should say that because my parents were creationists certainly at that point, there did seem to me to be a conflict between Darwin’s theory of evolution and religion as I understood it. And I remember asking my mother about, “What about these dinosaur bones and stuff?” when I was 12 or 13. But it was when I was a sophomore in high school that I really understood the theory of natural selection. And it is just a beautiful, in the sense of powerful, elegant theory. Very, very, very simple principles can in principle explain tremendous complexity. That’s what, you know, intellectual elegance is.
TIPPETT: So it was in direct conflict with your parents’ understanding of this, but did you immediately see it as an absolute contradiction?
MR. WRIGHT I must have, because I know in high school I was like the village atheist.
MR. WRIGHT In San Antonio, Texas. There weren’t that many avowed atheists.
MR. WRIGHT I wouldn’t call myself an atheist now, but in high school, that was my little niche.
TIPPETT: So one of the things that you say in The Evolution of God, this becomes very nuanced in the course of the book, but you say that gods arose as illusions and that the history you’re tracing is, certainly in one sense, of the evolution of an illusion. And, you know, when did you first think that?
MR. WRIGHT Wow. Let’s see. Well, the title of the book was in place 10 years or so ago when I started kind of thinking about it and working on it. So I guess at that point the idea was there. The question is could it nonetheless be, even if back when there were only hunter-gatherer villages, these were kind of flat-out illusions and fictions and just kind of extensions of human cognition in a context of trying to make sense of the world. Can’t it be that they started out like that, but as kind of the history of religion advances, or at least moves forward, and people refined their conception of God, that eventually you could get closer to something that is actually the truth about God or about the divine or about something? And that’s one thing I’m trying to look at in the book.
TIPPETT: OK. So what I’d like to do is talk about some of the overriding themes, some of the overriding story you tell, and some of the most striking observations you make, and original observations, and then talk about what it all means.
MR. WRIGHT OK. Well, the first complication is that the books as they appear in the Bible are not appearing in the order in which they were written. So the second chapter of Genesis to which you referred was apparently written before the first.
TIPPETT: Right. And it’s not the same God.
MR. WRIGHT Right. And so you have a more manifestly anthropomorphic God in the second chapter and you do see, you know, over the longest haul, see a couple of things. The conception of God gets less anthropomorphic, not in any straightforward linear way, but people think less of a God as a guy sitting on a throne, although that really seems to have been very much the original conception. And then the other thing that’s changing and in a way the thing I was most interested in, was kind of the moral tenor of God. How broad is God’s compassion? Does God’s compassion extend beyond the Israelites?
MR. WRIGHT And I tried to show that God’s compassion is a function, to a large extent, of kind of what’s happening on the ground in terms of political and economic things. And I make the further argument that that’s kind of good news in the following sense — that the basic direction in which social organization moved, that is, from hunter-gatherer village to chiefdom, ancient state, empire, and now we’re on the verge of a globalized society, I’m arguing that the affect that that’s had on our conception of God’s compassion has tended to be a good one. That as the world grows, as social organization gets more complex, people get more interdependent, you see an adaptation on the part of God and it does become a God of broader compassion. Again, not in a straightforward linear way, in fits and starts. But I think you see it, and I try to tell that story in the context of initially the Hebrew Bible.
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TIPPETT: In the course of the Hebrew Bible and between what Christians know as the Old Testament and the New, as Robert Wright sees it, God broadly becomes less mercurial and wrathful, more loving and more universally compassionate. Christianity spread correspondingly beyond its origins in Judaism and across lines of tribe, class, and national borders.
MR. WRIGHT I’m a Philo fan.
TIPPETT: You’re a Philo fan. And again, you know, Philo is someone who scholars of the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible write about, but you really emphasize him. You write, “Philo’s tolerance was non-zero-sum logic incarnate.” So tell us what that means.
MR. WRIGHT Right.
TIPPETT: What you mean by that.
MR. WRIGHT So I should say a couple of things. Who was Philo? He was a Jew living in the Roman Empire and very much influenced by Greek culture at the time of Jesus. A word that was at the center of his philosophy that I look at pretty closely was the Logos. Now, when you read the Bible and the Book of John when it says, “In the beginning was the word.”
TIPPETT: In the New Testament.
MR. WRIGHT In the New Testament, yes. And the word that’s translated as “word” is the Greek word “logos.” And almost certainly that word was intended to have much the philosophical resonance that it had for Philo.
TIPPETT: But there was behind that also a faith that there are orderly laws that — natural laws that govern them all.
MR. WRIGHT Yeah. Well, Philo was trying to reconcile the Greek philosophy that he was encountering, which had a kind of a scientific aura, with his Jewish heritage. Trying to reconcile the Torah with a kind of scientific outlook. And I think that’s why he talks about a God that’s not anthropomorphic and talks about a God that imparts this order to the universe. So the laws of nature are manifestations of Divine Will. And a really interesting thing about Philo — we’re getting around to the non-zero-sumness part — Philo saw the world as moving towards greater and greater interdependence and ultimately, as history is culminating, in a giant global society and, in fact, a democracy. And he saw that driven by the interdependence of people, but that society would congeal on a global level he saw as being driven by the kind of need that people have for one another as a practical matter. They have to get along. And this brings us to the term “non-zero-sum.”
TIPPETT: So the win-lose scenarios make less sense for anyone. Right?
MR. WRIGHT Well, I’m sure all of us can think of people with whom we have kind of win-lose situations. We can think of rivals and competitors and so on. But I do think that over time, more and more people come into non-zero-sum relationships, potentially win-win relationships, with more people further and further around the world.
MR. WRIGHT And because I think that actually drives a kind of moral progress, that is, it’s a tolerance of other people. And I think Philo is a good example of that as well, some of his writing is. I think that’s among the evidence that maybe there is some larger purpose unfolding. And that’s quite consistent with his philosophy.
TIPPETT: Let’s talk about the New Testament briefly and a little bit more. You portray the apostle Paul as a great marketing guru, but I think the analogy that struck me more was you called him “the Bill Gates of his time.” You know, what do you mean by that and what does that have to do with the evolution of God as seen in the New Testament?
MR. WRIGHT Well, it’s very closely related to what I just said about how expanding social structure can lead to moral progress. OK. It has to do with Paul’s — you could call it his entrepreneurship. Although I do think he was sincerely motivated. I don’t think he was cynical. I think he was a believer, but I do think he had the ambition of starting an empire-wide church. And because the Roman Empire was multinational, that dictated that he emphasize a love that crosses national bounds. And I think that’s where, you know, there’s his famous line, “There’s neither Jew nor Greek, all are one in Christ.”
TIPPETT: “Neither slave nor free.”
MR. WRIGHT “Neither male nor female, neither slave nor free.” What I’m arguing is that there you’re seeing an example of when social structure expands to this multinational level within the Roman Empire, that fact generates doctrines of tolerance and even universal love. I don’t mean to say that it’s inevitable that those doctrines win out and right now we’re at a time in history where that’s the question. We are in a situation of global interdependence where certainly the rational thing for humanity to do is get along, which would be abetted by doctrines of tolerance and even love. And there are people who are on the job, but obviously there are forces working in the other direction and so the outcome is not clear.
But what’s interesting to me is that the world seems to be set up in such a way that either humans make moral progress in the sense of expanding their conception of compassion and love more broadly or they pay the price of social chaos and collapse. I really think the world is set up that way, and that’s why I think it’s not crazy to speculate that there’s a purpose that merits the term “divine.”
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TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media today in a public conversation with Robert Wright about the evolution of God. In his book of that title, he argues that one effect of successful religions across human history has been to keep chaos at bay, encouraging salvation at a social, not merely a personal, level. He notes the irony that at the present moment, the global social order seems threatened precisely by religious tensions and religious people. But, Robert Wright concludes, “Their scriptures are, beneath the surface, maps of the landscape of religious tolerance and intolerance, maps that amount to a kind of code for the salvation of the world.”
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TIPPETT: You bring your game theory back into this. In the sweep of these texts there are violent impulses and there is the love impulse. Right?
MR. WRIGHT Yeah.
TIPPETT: There’s kill your enemies and there is love the stranger, love your enemy.
MR. WRIGHT Mm-hmm.
TIPPETT: One thing you say that I think speaks to a lot of discussion and hand-wringing and genuine anxiety that a lot of people have had about religion in the world in the last decade especially, you talk about when people see themselves in a zero-sum relationship with others, they tend to resonate with the intolerance side of scriptures. That’s also, I think, when they’re fearful, not just angry. When they tend to have more non-zero-sum, win-win attitude towards life and also the confidence and security to have that, they tend to resonate with the tolerance strains in scriptures.
MR. WRIGHT Right. I mean, you know, this is a — although I had the book in mind before 9/11. Certainly 9/11 gave it kind of more relevance and one big question was what brings out the worst in religion, what brings out the best?
MR. WRIGHT And some people after 9/11 went out and got copies of the Qur’an to try to understand what had happened, and that’s not irrelevant to what happened, but I do try to emphasize that people have a scripture but they can pick and choose from the scripture what they want to emphasize and what’s interesting to me is what makes them choose that.
When I talked about ancient times and the question of what kind of mood is God in at a given point, why these mood fluctuations between belligerence — in both the Bible and Qur’an. You have God at one point …
TIPPETT: Yeah, all of these inconsistencies, everything I just said, is true of the Qur’an as well.
MR. WRIGHT Yeah. And what is it that accounts for it? You know, the argument is you put it in game theoretical terms but in other terms you could just say that people see other people as threatening, they’re more likely to see their God as counseling belligerence toward those people. When they see them as people they can in some sense do business with, people they can constructively interact with, they’re more likely to see their God as counseling tolerance. I’m arguing that explains both the tolerant and belligerent scriptures in the first place, and it explain what circumstances will make people interpret their scripture in either a constructive or destructive way in the modern world.
And I think, you know, when you see President Obama at the beginning of his administration trying to emphasize that the respect that he and Americans have for Muslims, that’s an acknowledgement of that dynamic. That if people feel you don’t respect them, then they are more likely to perceive you as a threat and they are more likely to go look for the parts of their scripture that would seem to justify violence.
TIPPETT: So having let you establish that, I also want to talk about the conclusion you reach about Islam in The Evolution of God, which does stand in a pretty striking contrast to a lot of the headline-driven wisdom about Islam that’s waxed and waned since 9/11. Here’s what you wrote about the sweep of that tradition, that scripture. “In terms of forces conducive to amity and tolerance in human history, in no other Abrahamic scripture are they as evident as in the Qur’an. No other scripture so deeply cuts across the full spectrum of dynamics from intensely zero-sum to intensely non-zero-sum or so sharply expresses the intended moral tenor.”
MR. WRIGHT Yeah. I mean, this is, in a way, a discovery that Islamic scholars made a long time ago. I mean, people are themselves believing Muslims and are scholars of the Qur’an. They, long ago, set about dividing the different parts of the Qur’an according to when apparently they were uttered by Muhammad. And you had these various phases of his career. The main distinction is between the verses in Mecca and the verses when he moved to Medina and his political situation changed. And they have noted the correlation between circumstance and the tenor of the verses. And it’s very evident and it’s just a textbook illustration of how circumstance drives your conception of God’s will. There’s the whole menu of verses there to choose from.
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TIPPETT: We have an ongoing aspiration at Speaking of Faith to include as many of you as possible in public events like this conversation with Robert Wright, even if it happens on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in the dead of winter. At speakingoffaith.org, we did just that. We streamed video of this interview in real time and invited you to submit questions as if you were one of the hundreds sitting in the room. If you weren’t one of the thousands who watched it live, you can still see the recorded video of this interview on our Web site. Or, if you prefer, download MP3s of this program and my unedited interview. And in March and April, we’ll be streaming public conversations I’ll be having at the New York Public Library and at gorgeous theaters in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Check out our SOF Live page and take part at speakingoffaith.org.
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TIPPETT: After a short break, we’ll wonder what cannot be understood by the kind of deconstructionist approach Robert Wright takes to religion and what image of God he ends up with.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett, today in conversation with journalist and scholar Robert Wright about the evolution of God. His book of that title has opened new conversation points beyond the religion-versus-science, faith-versus-atheism debates that have galvanized American literary and political culture in recent years.
ROBERT WRIGHT SCRUTINIZES THE THREE MONOTHEISTIC RELIGIONS THAT INFORM SO MUCH OF GLOBAL CULTURE, SHINING A LIGHT ON INCONSISTENCIES THAT POINT LESS AT A DISPASSIONATE REVELATION ABOUT GOD THAN THE MESSY TRAJECTORY OF HUMAN CULTURE AND MORALITY. YET HE CONCLUDES THIS: “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.” I spoke with Robert Wright before a live audience.
TIPPETT: I know that you’re not suggesting that this is the only way to analyze these texts and traditions but …
MR. WRIGHT Actually, it’s the only way to ana — no. OK.
TIPPETT: I think it’s pretty fascinating how constructive your materialist approach turns out to be and in some sense is validating, but I would like to talk a little bit about what gets lost when you do it that way. And one thing that I kept thinking about when I was reading The Evolution of God was a comparison that I really like that John Polkinghorne made. He’s a quantum physicist who also became an Anglican theologian later in life, and he talked about how we need different ways of seeing the world to understand the complexity of the world. And he talked about how you could take a beautiful painting and a chemist could analyze the painting and could take off scraps of paint and tell you everything that was in them. And in the process, they would destroy the painting and would miss the point of the painting, though they would discover some useful things.
MR. WRIGHT Right.
TIPPETT: And I wonder if you thought about that as you were scraping off the …
MR. WRIGHT I mean, I was aware that that’s the way it looks to a believer, what I’m doing. It’s a totally materialist deconstruction of the history of religion. As I said, what distinguishes it from most of those kinds of enterprises by scholars is that I’m arguing that after you do the deconstruction you see a pattern suggestive of some sort of larger purpose.
MR. WRIGHT But I still recognized that the very mode of analysis is pretty left-brain and religious experience is thought of as kind of right-brain, I mean, to of course stereotype these experiences. You know, I just can’t help it. I mean, I don’t get into this in the book. I’ve actually done a couple of one-week silent meditation retreats in a kind of secular Buddhist tradition.
TIPPETT: I’ve read some of the things you’ve written about that.
MR. WRIGHT And that takes me out of that mode and, in fact, has been an extremely profound experience for me and briefly transformative. It’s hard to keep those transformations going. But I plead guilty. I’m a left-brain thinker.
TIPPETT: Yeah. And I’m not really trying to condemn you either way, but it’s just that there is something else going on in these texts. There’s truth of a different kind. There’s wisdom about the …
MR. WRIGHT Oh, there’s definitely wisdom.
TIPPETT: You know, there’s wisdom about the human condition in addition to it being a reflection of wherever human beings were when they were writing it.
MR. WRIGHT Yeah.
TIPPETT: You know, a lot of it’s poetry, not journalism.
MR. WRIGHT You look at me as if I wouldn’t understand.
TIPPETT: No, no. I know you understand.
TIPPETT: I know you understand. But, so, OK. Here’s what I wanted. I guess I do want to get at whether there might be some different ways to — or what have you thought about this.
MR. WRIGHT Yeah.
TIPPETT: So you say that cultural evolution pushed divinity and hence humanity toward moral enlightenment. Would another way to look at it be to say that human beings grew — let’s assume that there is a God and a moral God, or some kind of moral truth that this is all pointing towards.
MR. WRIGHT That saves us time. Let’s just assume this is the God. OK.
TIPPETT: Let’s just assume it. That human beings, in fact, have grown in their ability to comprehend that divine morality. That that’s another way of looking at the story that’s being told.
MR. WRIGHT But, see, in a sense I kind of am saying that, without claiming to be sure whether there’s a God or anything, but I am arguing that there seems to be a moral order out there in the sense that the world is set up in a way to drive people toward — I would say not just moral progress but something you could call moral truth.
MR. WRIGHT So it is a story of humanity growing intellectually. Human nature, by inclining us to be capable of kind of expanding our moral imagination to people when it’s in our interest, puts us on this intellectual path where as we think it through, we actually reach conclusions about what moral truth is. And so I’m kind of arguing that maybe history is set up to be revelation.
TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I mean, I also kept thinking about a conversation I had quite a few years ago with a South African cosmologist named George Ellis. And he believes that — he’s Quaker and he’s a scientist. He analyzes even social justice by way of mathematics, but he believes that there are moral truths that are embedded in the fabric of the universe the way the laws of physics are embedded in the fabric of the universe, which is to say, not there for us to invent but to discover.
MR. WRIGHT Right.
TIPPETT: And he sees some of these core moral underpinnings that have different vocabularies and different practices attached to them but that recur in the great traditions as a kind of evidence of that. So that religious people across the ages have been explorers and excavators of that.
MR. WRIGHT Yeah.
TIPPETT: And I think that’s compatible with what you’re saying.
MR. WRIGHT I think so. And I think, you know, the fact that hey show up in these different traditions — Buddhist scripture, the earliest actually concrete manifestation of Buddhist scripture occurs during a reign of the Emperor Ashoka in circumstances very much like the Roman Empire, and it’s good news to me if indeed this kind of growth of social organization leads people toward moral truth.
TIPPETT: And then another way to look at it would be through the eyes of process theology, which you probably know, which would say, in fact, that God did change and that God changes in relationship with humanity which has free will. And, you know, relationship is I think is also what gets lost in this materialist view because the story that’s being told, I mean, especially in the Hebrew Bible is not just of God evolving or what’s happening with human beings, but of that relational evolution.
MR. WRIGHT: Yeah. I don’t know process theology as well as I should but, you know, that’s a view and then there is the view that God is kind of evolving in us in a certain sense.
MR. WRIGHT It seems to me that religion in anything like the traditional sense needs to mean a little more than that.
TIPPETT: Let me ask you a question about personal evolution. When you walked down that aisle to commit your life to Jesus as a Southern Baptist, how old were you, seven, eight?
MR. WRIGHT Eight or nine, I think.
TIPPETT: And then you had that experience years later at a silent meditation retreat. Were those experiences similar? Were they kindred?
MR. WRIGHT Yes. I mean, first of all, I think in a certain sense I was drawn to the retreat by a need for salvation that I think has roots in my Christian upbringing. As it happened, this particular Buddhist retreat was in a building that had once been used — I don’t know if it was for nuns or priests, but to train somebody. So as you walk in the meditation hall every day, there were stained glass images of Jesus on either side of you.
TIPPETT: So you felt at home.
MR. WRIGHT I absolutely felt at home. It really — and I had one really intense, seemed like a breakthrough meditative experience at about day four or five in the first retreat that just felt like kind of coming home.
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TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Evolution of God,” with journalist and scholar Robert Wright. We spoke before a live audience at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Political scientist Michael Barnett of the Humphrey Institute moderated questions from the audience both live and online.
QUESTION NUMBER ONE: Is religion dangerous?
MR. WRIGHT Human life is potentially dangerous and religion is an example, but an argument largely implicit in the book but in some cases explicit is that religious conflict is not fundamentally about religion. OK. I’ve had this argument with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and other kind of famous so-called new atheists. You know, Richard Dawkins made the statement in his book The God Delusion that if it weren’t for religion there would be no Israel/Palestine conflict. Which I think is just wrong. If you know the history, it started out as a dispute about land. It wasn’t fundamentally religious. And, in fact, the Zionists who started Israel were not religious.
TIPPETT: Were secular, yeah.
MR. WRIGHT And to the extent that they made reference to the Bible as justification for Israel being their homeland, it was more in the way of a historical document. In other words, here’s the evidence that our people were here. That was the logic. And then once the conflict started it was, again, at first the Palestinian resistance was fundamentally secular. It’s a classic zero-sum game, an argument about land. Brings out the worst in people. Now, as you let these things fester and don’t resolve them, they can acquire a religious character, but religion is not the driver of that thing. And I think it’s dangerous to look at world affairs with that kind of emphasis on religion as a prime mover because what it leads you to do is throw up your hands and say, “You know, it’s in their scripture. There’s no hope. You know, it makes them hate.” I think fundamentally the so-called religious conflicts have their origin in political and economic factors and that is the place to intervene to stop them.
MR. BARNETT: On a slightly different topic, which concerns more in some sense to the work you’ve done here but also previously on the relationship between religion and science, what parallels and connection would you draw between the current spiritual but not religious trend and what is happening in the scientific community?
MR. WRIGHT Yeah, I think in a way that kind of clichÃ© spiritual but not religious, which apparently is the thing that more and more people say to describe themselves, is in a way an attempt to reconcile in some cases with science. In other words, the idea is, well, if I say I believe in this highly anthropomorphic God, if I’m religious in too old-fashioned a sense or buy into specific claims of revelation, that might not sit well with kind of the modern scientific intelligence. So I guess I think that’s a very good question and I think there is a connection between the two. Yeah.
TIPPETT: I think this is kind of related — it seems to me there is a bit of an evolution of science right now, not necessarily towards scientists believing in God but science taking some of these religious virtues seriously, you know, studying empathy, studying compassion, studying forgiveness.
MR. WRIGHT Yeah. And, I mean, one thing they’re finding out is it’s in our genes.
MR. WRIGHT And this is another, I mean, the whole argument that I would make if you were willing to sit here for, you know, several months, would involve biological evolution as well. I mean, again, straightforward Darwinian version of biological evolution, materialist, leads you to the conclusion, I think, that, you know, the kind of genes for love were in the cards. They were very likely to show up. Certainly the idea that altruism was a very likely outcome of evolution and even the ability, the tendency to extend your altruism beyond the family and your compassion beyond the family, there are biologists who disagree but it wouldn’t get you expelled from the church of Darwin to say it.
MR. BARNETT: What do we gain by attributing a direction and purpose of the unknown answers to the greatest questions?
MR. WRIGHT Well, that’s interesting because, you know, some people don’t care whether there’s a purpose, and they are able to have lives that they consider spiritual without that. And maybe the reason I’m so hung up on this purpose question is because I was brought up a Southern Baptist. You know, when there’s a God there’s a purpose. At the same time, I do think there is certainly evidence that, in a more mundane sense, at least, people’s lives are more meaningful to the extent that they feel part of a purpose. You know, it can be part of a basketball team. It can be part of a business. You know, I have been told that not everyone needs a sense of higher purpose or transcendent purpose. I have a friend who’s very energized by the fact that, you know, some of the elements in stars are some of the elements that make us up so we are stardust. You know, some of you may have heard this and this gives her tremendous spiritual sustenance. I totally don’t get it.
MR. WRIGHT You know, it just doesn’t do it for me, but what does it for me doesn’t do it for her. So we’re both doing OK.
TIPPETT: You know, I had a lot of fun reading your first book, Three Scientists and Their Gods.
MR. WRIGHT Three Scientists and Their Gods. Well, God bless you. There aren’t many people who can say they have done that.
TIPPETT: I have. And, you know, I just want to bring it up here because it’s kind of related to the first scientist who you talk about, absolutely fascinating, Edward Fredkin.
MR. WRIGHT Mm-hmm.
TIPPETT: Who thinks of God as a computer programmer, as the cause and prime mover of everything. You have a statement of him. He said, “I don’t believe there is a God. I’m not an agnostic. I’m just in a simple state. I don’t know what there is or might be, but on the other hand, what I can say is it seems likely to me that this particular universe we have is a consequence of something which I would call intelligent.” And, I mean, that’s not quite neutral.
MR. WRIGHT No.
TIPPETT: That’s not quite completely disinterested. But it struck me, from my conversations with scientists across the years, that seemed to be, I think, a place a lot of scientists end up and it’s just not the burning question for them, needing to pin down what that intelligence is …
MR. WRIGHT No.
TIPPETT: … or what its purpose is or whether you would call it God or not.
MR. WRIGHT No. And I had forgotten that particular quote but, yeah, he had this idea that the universe itself is best thought of as a computer algorithm, specifically a cellular automaton. And so kind of like me, except I’m dealing more at the organic level, biological evolution / cultural evolution, he’s dealing at the physical and largely inanimate level. But kind of like me, he says, you know, it just seems to be something that was set up to do something.
MR. BARNETT: Again from online: “As a teacher at a parochial Jesuit high school, I hear a lot of immature adolescent concepts of God. But I’m not completely sure what a mature idea of God might be. The idea that emerges from Psalms may come close, but I’d be interested in your opinion.”
MR. WRIGHT One thing that I would say a mature conception of God does not involve is the idea that God is focused on your own interest to the exclusion of other people’s interest. So, you know, that this team won the football game because, you know, you’ve heard the post-game interviews. Maybe you could make a case with New Orleans and the Super Bowl, actually.
MR. WRIGHT But that’s a special …
MR. BARNETT: You’re doing this in Minnesota so it’s a bad …
MR. WRIGHT Oh, yeah.
TIPPETT: It’s a little raw here.
MR. WRIGHT You’re just getting over a very tough — well, for me, of course, I saw memories of the Ice Bowl when Bart Starr did the quarterback sneak to the disadvantage of the Dallas Cowboys. So the closest I can get to revenge is having a former Green Bay quarterback whose name sounds kind of like Bart Starr …
TIPPETT: Bart Starr, yeah.
MR. WRIGHT … not get to the Super Bowl. But I did not wish that. I did not wish that.
TIPPETT: But you’re saying it may be part of the moral order.
MR. WRIGHT Yeah.
MR. WRIGHT Right. Do we have to get back to God? I think they were starting to get into it.
The secular equivalent of that is, even if you’re not religious, just letting go of the idea that you’re more important than everyone else. We are designed by natural selection to think we’re more important. That’s what animals do, you know, is they are machines for getting their genes into the next generation and obviously a process whose criterion of design is that is going to instill each animal the sense that it’s special. And in the slightest ways we all go around following that assumption all the time. You know, when you’re trying to flag down a taxi and the person next to you and you’re trying to raise your arm higher than them, implicit in that in a way is the idea that it’s more important that you catch the cab than that they catch the cab. It’s not a tremendously immoral thing to do. I’m not saying that, to try to catch a cab. But in all kind of subtle ways we privilege ourselves above others without realizing it and to some extent you have to do that to get by in life. I mean, my job is to raise my family, and society works better when somebody thinks that way. That’s OK, but there are all these kinds of unconscious bias we have toward our own interest. And I think if you get beyond that, you’re making moral progress. And if your conception of God helps you get beyond that, that’s a more mature conception of God.
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TIPPETT: Do you have any metaphors or words, language, images that are there for you when you think about this if you take this word God seriously?
MR. WRIGHT You know, it’s funny. I actually, although I gave up my Southern Baptist faith and my Christian faith, the residue of it is so strongly with me that I live my life with kind of this image of this guy in the sky passing judgment on me.
MR. WRIGHT I mean, that’s the form that my conscience takes to this day. I’m not saying that’s what God is if there’s a God but in some ways it works. And in the book I do have this kind of afterword that’s really …
TIPPETT: Right. What is God anyway, or something like that?
MR. WRIGHT Well, I forget what I called it, which is not a good sign I guess. Oh, “By the Way, What is God?”
MR. WRIGHT But the argument is that even if God is not a personal being, thinking of God as a personal being may be a valid belief in somewhat the sense that it is valid to conceive of electrons the way that we conceive them. OK. So what I mean by that is this. Quantum physics is showing us that the kind of textbook, you know, idea of an electron, little ball, doesn’t hold up ultimately. Like in quantum physics, electrons start behaving in really weird ways that literally defy certainly common-sense logic. And there are some scientists who will say, “Look. I don’t think electrons really exist.” OK? “It’s useful to think of them as existing. It’s useful for them to build computers with that image in mind of an electron, but I don’t think they really exist.” In other words, what they’re saying is the way we think of an electron is as close as we can get to whatever an electron is, given the constraints on the human ability to conceive of things. After all, we weren’t designed to think of subatomic physics accurately. That’s not what natural selection built us for.
Well, natural selection also didn’t build us to conceive of some source of the moral order that may be in some sense outside of the universe. You know, natural selection did equip us to think about other animate beings as the source of things. And so it may be that when people think of God as a personal thing, that’s as close as you can get, given the constraints of human cognition. And maybe it’s not something you should apologize for because you’re doing the best you can with very limited equipment. And if it works, I mean, to me the test of a conception of God is what kind of person does it turn you into.
TIPPETT: Robert Wright. Thank you for being here tonight.
MR. WRIGHT Thank you.
TIPPETT: And thank you all for coming.
MR. WRIGHT Thank you.
TIPPETT: Here, in closing, are the final lines of the afterword titled “By the Way, What is God,” in Robert Wright’s book The Evolution of God.
HE WRITES: “Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God. … One of the more plausible such properties is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth. … You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.”
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TIPPETT: On our Web site, you can read this and other passages I especially enjoyed from Robert Wright’s book The Evolution of God. And we’ve also put up some passages from his delightful but out-of-print early book, Three Scientists and Their God. One of those scientists was the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. He and Wright connected around big ideas and their common Southern Baptist roots. We also had fun reading the hundreds of fantastic questions and thoughts many of you submitted in advance of my live event with Robert Wright. I drew on them as I prepared for the interview. So there’s already a lively conversation on The Evolution of God happening on our Web site, through our blog, and on our Facebook fan page. To join in with your ideas or your reactions to Robert Wright’s ideas, look for links on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
And there you will also find information about my new book, Einstein’s God, just out direct to paperback in all the usual places. It’s a reflection of my ongoing exploration of the interface between science and the human spirit, from quantum physics to clinical psychology. Again, go to speakingoffaith.org.
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TIPPETT: Speaking of Faith is produced by Colleen Scheck, Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Shubha Bala. Our producer and editor of all things online is Trent Gilliss, with Andrew Dayton. Special thanks this week to the staff of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.