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06.29.09

How God Converted an Atheist

In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright takes on fellow nonbelievers Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and argues that religion may be nonsense—but it helps mankind.

God works in mysterious ways, as the saying goes. How mysterious? Well, as Robert Wright, a nonbeliever, argues in his new book, God can save the world even if he doesn’t actually exist. Wright’s The Evolution of God attempts something almost unprecedented in the history of philosophy, a triangulation of the argument between atheism and belief. If you’ve been reading the neo-atheist writings of Richard Dawkins ( The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens ( God Is Not Great), you will understand how audacious this effort is. The Dawkins/Hitchens critique of God is unitary: Religion is both a load of not very convincing nonsense and the source of much of society’s misery and discord. Wright, the author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero, accepts the first premise but not the second. In The Evolution of God he treats religions not as the products of revelation, but reflections of the political and economic needs of the societies that gave rise to them. How people view God, accordingly, has evolved along with the secular trends toward interdependence and tolerance that he considers the defining characteristics of civilization. Religion—yes, the same phenomenon that gave rise to the 9/11 attacks—is, in Wright’s view, actually a medium for disseminating the fundamental moral truth of human equality. He spoke with Jerry Adler for The Daily Beast:

You assert a moral direction in the universe, in the form of increasing tolerance of outsiders and human difference. But there are forces pushing us in the other direction as well—radical Islam, militant evangelical Christianity and Jewish ultranationalism. What makes you so certain we’re headed in the right direction?

Actually I’m not certain. What I’m certain of is that humanity repeatedly faces the choice between moral progress and social chaos. And we’ve seen humanity choose chaos at times in the past. So we may not achieve an orderly and peaceful global social organization, but if we do, it will be because humanity has expanded its moral compass and gotten more inclusive and tolerant. What’s interesting is that the universe—the human predicament—seems to be set up in a way that strongly encourages moral progress. The average person alive today has a much broader moral compass than the average hunter-gatherer of 20,000 years ago, whose affinities didn’t extend much beyond his or her immediate clan.

“I don’t think Jesus ever preached, or even believed, in universal love. That doctrine emerges after his death, as the Jesus movement is taking shape in the Roman Empire. It reflects the kind of cosmopolitan values you see in an empire.”

And if we are on the right course, are we progressing fast enough to outrun religious zealots? Or will they destroy the world first?

That depends on whether world leaders act in accordance with what I see as the lesson of the scriptures, which is that the belligerent and the tolerant passages exist side by side, and people emphasize one or the other depending on their circumstances. When they feel threatened, they latch onto the belligerent parts of Scripture, and when they see the prospect of fruitful cooperation they stress the tolerant parts. I think Obama gets this, in the way he emphasizes respect for Islam, which is one reason to be optimistic.

But he’s up against the surge of end-time prophecy, which is a feature of most forms of monotheism. If you believe history will end with the triumph of the God you happen to worship, you have less reason to cooperate with your rivals in this world today.

book-cover---evolution-of-god
The Evolution of God. By Robert Wright. 576 pages. Little, Brown. $25.99. ()

The apocalyptic stuff can be scary, but thanks to the adaptability of religion, concepts like the end times can either loom very large in the minds of believers, or not large at all. My parents were Southern Baptists, and I assure you they thought of the end times as a distant prospect with no bearing on the way they lived their lives. My father was an Army officer, and he was perfectly capable of getting along with South Korean officers when he was stationed in Korea, whether they were Christians or not. Human nature is pragmatic and people are by and large willing to cooperate when it’s in their interests. My world view is based on the belief that religion isn’t where the real intellectual action is, it’s a response to facts on the ground, a function of human nature and the circumstances in which human nature finds itself.

That was clear in your treatment of Jesus.

Yeah, I don’t think Jesus ever preached, or even believed, in universal love. That doctrine emerges after his death, as the Jesus movement is taking shape in the Roman Empire. It reflects the kind of cosmopolitan values you see in an empire. Historically, moral progress has been driven by the expansion of social organization, which seems to have been an inevitable product of technological evolution. Religion reflects that progress, and mediates it, but doesn’t drive it.

I’m wondering if you’ve gotten any reaction to your book from the neo-atheists. Have you heard from Hitchens or Dawkins or Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith?

No. I’ve never spoken with Hitchens. I met Harris and Dawkins before my book. I have things I’d like to argue with them about, and I’m available.

What would you tell them?

I would, first of all, say that I think attributing all the problems in the world to religion can have unfortunate political consequences, because it makes us ill-inclined to address grievances and defuse tensions. Dawkins has said that if not for religion there would be no Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you believe that, then Obama needn’t bother trying to stop the settlements. We know religion isn’t going away. So if the problem is religion, why make the effort to improve the facts on the ground?

Anything else?

I think Sam Harris believes there is a transcendent source of meaning in the universe, and although I might get there by a different route, I tend to agree. I would say there’s reason to believe there is some sort of purpose unfolding through the natural workings of the world. This doesn’t by itself establish the existence of a god, much less a good one, but it seems to cut against the grain of pure atheism. I don’t know what he would say to that, but it would be fun to have that discussion.

You were brought up a Southern Baptist, but you don’t consider yourself a Christian. How would you describe yourself, religiously?

I try to orient my moral life around the worldview in my book, but I guess the closest I’ve come to practicing any religion as an adult was a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat at a place in Massachusetts. I lean toward a fairly secular neo-Buddhism.

That sounds something like Sam Harris.

Oh, he’s a much better Buddhist than I am. He has the serenity of a good Buddhist, which I totally lack.

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Jerry Adler is a contributing editor at Newsweek, where he writes about medicine, science, and ideas. He is the author of High Rise: How 1,000 Men and Women Worked Around the Clock for Five Years and Lost $200 Million Building a Skyscraper.