God, He's moody

In an interview with something to offend everyone, Robert Wright explains why religion has given us a fickle deity

Published June 24, 2009 10:24AM (EDT)

Robert Wright has carved out a distinct niche in American journalism. While his essays range freely across the political landscape -- from foreign policy to technology -- it's his meaty, book-length forays into evolutionary psychology and the sweep of history that have set him apart. Now his latest book goes after bigger game: God Almighty.

Actually, "The Evolution of God" never grapples with the most basic religious question -- the existence of God. Instead it charts the twists and turns of how God's personality has kept changing over the centuries, and specifically, how the rough-and-tumble politics of the ancient Middle East shaped the Abrahamic religions. The book is filled with richly observed details about the Bible and the Quran, though Wright wears his learning lightly as he guides us through several thousand years of religious history.

There's something to offend just about everyone in this book. Wright recounts in harrowing detail how the early Israelites, who'd been conquered and humiliated by the Babylonians, invoked Yahweh to wreak vengeance on their enemies. This is no God for the faint of heart! And he's no gentler on Christianity. Wright's Jesus is not the prophet of peace and love but a sometimes mean-spirited apocalyptic preacher obsessed with the approaching End Times. Islam's founder, Muhammad, comes across as much a warrior as a prophet, bent on annihilating his enemies when they cross him.

Despite all this religious mayhem, the book also shows a gentler side of the Abrahamic religions, especially when they manage to find common cause with their heathen neighbors and rival monotheists.

At first, "The Evolution of God" reads like another atheistic tract exposing the seamier side of religion. But then I came to Wright's account of the "moral imagination" and his surprising conclusion: He may not believe in God, but Wright thinks humanity is marching -- however wobbly -- toward moral truth.

In our interview, we talked about the bloody history of monotheism, what a mature religion would look like, and Wright's own spiritual awakening at a meditation retreat.

At the very beginning of your book, you describe yourself as a materialist. This raises an interesting question: Can a materialist really explain the history of religion?

I tend to explain things in terms of material causes. So when I see God changing moods, as he does a lot in the Bible and the Quran, I ask, what was going on politically or economically that might explain why the people who wrote this scripture were inclined to depict God as being in a bad mood or a good mood? Sometimes God is advocating horrific things, like annihilating nearby peoples, or sometimes he's very compassionate and loving. So I wanted to figure out why the mood fluctuates. I do think the answers lie in the facts on the ground. And that's what I mean by being a materialist.

What do you mean by the facts on the ground?

My basic premise is that when a religious group sees itself as having something to gain through peaceful interaction with another group of people, including a different religion, it will find a basis for tolerance in its scriptures and religion. When groups see each other as being in a non-zero sum relationship -- there's a possibility of a win-win outcome if they play their cards right, or a lose-lose outcome if they don't -- then they tend to warm up to one another. By contrast, if people see themselves in a zero-sum relationship with another group of people -- they can only win if the other group loses -- that brings out the intolerance and the dark side of religion. You see that in the world today. A lot of Palestinians and Israelis think they're playing a win-lose game. They think their interests are opposed and inversely correlated. In the long run, I think they're wrong. They're either both going to win or both going to lose.

And you're saying these attitudes keep fluctuating back and forth over the history of religion. It's not just a gradual movement from less tolerance to more tolerance.

There hasn't been any smooth progression toward tolerance in any of the religions. If you look at the way human beings treated each other 10,000 years ago, it was not uncommon for members of one hunter-gatherer tribe to consider strangers as subhuman and worthy of death. I try to show that all the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- are capable of making great moral progress by extending compassion across national and ethnic and religious bounds. But there has not been any kind of smooth progression.

Do you think religions share certain core principles?

Not many. People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn't originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.

And bad things happened because the gods were against you or certain spirits had it out for you?

Yes, you had done something to offend a god or spirit. However, it was not originally a moral lapse. That's an idea you see as societies get more complex. When you have a small group of hunter-gatherers, a robust moral system is not a big challenge. Everyone knows everybody, so it's hard to conceal anything you steal. If you mess with somebody too much, there will be payback. Moral regulation is not a big problem in a simple society. But as society got more complex with the invention of agriculture and writing, morality did become a challenge. Religion filled that gap.

But it's easier to explain why bad things happen in these older religions. You can attribute it to an angry spirit. It's harder to explain evil if there's an all-powerful, all-loving God.

The problem of evil is a product of modern religion. If you believe in an omnipotent and infinitely good God, then evil is a problem. If God is really good -- and can do anything He or She wants -- why do innocent people suffer? If you've got a religion in which the gods are not especially good in the first place, or they're not omnipotent, then evil is not a problem.

Why did monotheism first develop?

My explanation for Abrahamic monotheism is different from the standard one. I believe it emerged later than most people think -- in the 6th century BCE, when Israelite elites were exiled by the Babylonians who conquered them. The spirit of monotheism was originally a lot less sunny and benign than people claim. Morally, it got better, but at its birth, monotheism was fundamentally about retribution.

Israel was a small nation in a bad neighborhood that got kicked around. This culminated in the exile, which was humiliating. It dispossessed the Israelites. It's not crazy to compare the mind-set of the Israelites then to the mind-set of today's Palestinians, who feel humiliated and dispossessed. This kind of mind-set brings out the belligerence in a religion. You see that in the Book of Isaiah, thought to be written by so-called Second Isaiah. These are the earliest scriptures in the Bible that are clearly monotheistic. You get the sense that monotheism is about punishing the various nations that have persecuted Israel.

So you see a connection between the political power of a people and the god they believed in?

In ancient times, there was always a close association between politics and gods. The victor of a war was always the nation whose god beat the other god. But the specific political dynamic that monotheism reflected at its birth was Israel's desire to punish other nations by denying the very existence of their gods, and also envisioning a day when Israel's god, Yahweh, would actually subjugate those nations.

Does Yahweh become a tool for Israelite kings to consolidate power?

You see that especially with King Josiah. Israel was polytheistic for a lot longer than most people think. A lot of things factored into its movement toward monotheism. One was a king who wanted to eliminate domestic political rivals. Those political rivals would have claimed access to various gods other than Yahweh, so King Josiah wanted to eliminate them. He killed some of them and also made it illegal to worship their gods. That gets you to the brink of monotheism. I think the exile pushes you over. You have a very belligerent, exclusive monotheism, whose very purpose is to exclude other nations from this privileged circle of God's most favored people.

King Josiah comes off rather badly in your book. He's hugely influential in the development of monotheism, but also a brutal tyrant who tried to wipe out people with competing religious beliefs.

He was an authoritarian. By the standards of the day, maybe not an unusually harsh one. Politics were pretty rough and tumble in those days. He was a nationalist, populist authoritarian -- maybe a little bit like Hugo Chavez. It was a rejection of cosmopolitanism and internationalism. By our standards, King Josiah was a bad guy. He kills a bunch of priests who had the misfortune of not focusing their devotion exclusively on Yahweh. He cleans out the temple.

For people who claim that Israel was monotheistic from the get-go and its flirtations with polytheism were rare aberrations, it's interesting that the Jerusalem temple, according to the Bible's account, had all these other gods being worshiped in it. Asherah was in the temple. She seemed to be a consort or wife of Yahweh. And there were vessels devoted to Baal, the reviled Canaanite god. So Israel was fundamentally polytheistic at this point. Then King Josiah goes on a rampage as he tries to consolidate his own power by wiping out the other gods.

However, after the exile, monotheism evolves into something much more laudable and inclusive. Now the exiles have returned to Jerusalem and Israel is in a secure neighborhood. It's part of the Persian empire and so are its neighbors. So you see a much sunnier side of God, with expressions of tolerance and compassion toward other nations. This shows that monotheism isn't intrinsically good or bad. It depends on the circumstances in which it finds itself.

This gets pretty confusing for today's religious believer. There's a vengeful God in some of these early books of the Old Testament -- a God who at times says you need to wipe out people with different religious beliefs. But within this same sacred text, you can also read about a very compassionate God.

You're right, the contrasts are extreme. At one point in the Hebrew Bible, God is saying, "I want you to annihilate nearby peoples who worship the wrong gods." He says do not leave anything alive that breathes -- not livestock, women or children. Then other times you have Israelites not only tolerating a neighbor who worships another god but using that other god to validate their desire for tolerance. So they'll say to the Ammonites, "Look, you've got your god, Chemosh. He gave you your land. We've got our god, Yahweh, who gave us our land. Can't we just get along?"

You see this kind of vacillation in the Bible and also in the Quran. In both cases, it's a question of whether people think they can gain through peaceful interaction with other people. That's also the challenge in the modern world. Barack Obama gets this. So long as Israeli settlements are expanding, you're not going to convince Palestinians that they're playing anything other than a zero-sum game with the Israelis. Obama understands it's partly a question of perception. Muslims who feel disrespected -- whether or not they really are -- will fuel religious extremism.

Let's skip ahead to the next great monotheistic religion. Why did Christianity take root?

The doctrines we associate with Christianity probably took root a little later than most people think. There's reason to doubt that Jesus is the source of the stuff we consider most laudable in Christianity: universal, transnational, transethnic love. I think that is a product of people like the Apostle Paul, who, after the crucifixion, carried the Jesus movement into the Roman Empire. Paul wanted to build a network of churches. He was a true believer, but he went about this in a very pragmatic, businesslike way. In many ways, the church served as a networking service. That was part of its appeal. The network of Christian churches made it easier for merchants to travel from city to city in the Roman empire and do business.

Paul also made some good strategic choices. There were followers of Jesus who dictated that any non-Jews who became part of the Jesus movement had to be circumcised. Adult men had to be circumcised to join the church. This was before modern anesthesia, so you can see this would be a disincentive. Paul said no, and they don't have to follow the dietary laws either. They also developed an attractive doctrine of an afterlife. The Roman empire was in a way waiting for a church to dominate it. The more Christians there were, the more valuable it was to join that network. When Christianity reached critical mass, then its dominance of the Roman Empire became almost inevitable.

So later Christians, Paul among others, really institutionalized Christianity. What about the historical Jesus? What do we know about him?

It's popular to say he said the good stuff and not the less good stuff. I think it's the opposite.

He's typically seen as the great prophet of peace and love.

Yeah. But the fact is, the Sermon on the Mount, which is a beautiful thing, does not appear in Mark, which was the first written gospel. And these views are not attributed to Jesus in the letters of Paul, which are the earliest post-crucifixion documents we have. You see Paul develop a doctrine of universal love, but he's not, by and large, attributing this stuff to Jesus. So, too, with "love your enemies." Paul says something like love your enemies, but he doesn't say Jesus said it. It's only in later gospels that this stuff gets attributed to Jesus. This will seem dispiriting to some people to hear that Jesus wasn't the great guy we thought he was. But to me, it's actually more inspiring to think that the doctrines of transnational, transethnic love were products of a multinational, imperial platform. Throughout human history, as social organization grows beyond ethnic bounds, it comes to encompass diverse ethnicities and nations. And if it develops doctrines that bring us closer to moral truth, like universal love, that is encouraging. I think you see it in all three religions.

If Jesus was not the prophet of love and tolerance that he's commonly thought to be, what kind of person was he?

I think he was your typical Jewish apocalyptic preacher. I'm not the first to say that. Bart Ehrman makes these kinds of arguments, and it goes back to Albert Schweitzer. Jesus was preaching that the kingdom of God was about to come. He didn't mean in heaven. He meant God's going to come down and straighten things out on Earth. And he had the biases that you'd expect a Jewish apocalyptic preacher to have. He doesn't seem to have been all that enthusiastic about non-Jews. There's one episode where a woman who's not from Israel wants him to use his healing powers on her daughter. He's pretty mean and basically says, no, we don't serve dogs here. He compares her to a dog. In the later gospels, that conversation unfolds so you can interpret it as a lesson in the value of faith. But in the earliest treatment, in Mark, it's an ugly story. It's only because she accepts her inferior status that Jesus says, OK, I will heal your daughter.

But wasn't Jesus revolutionary because he made no distinctions between social classes? The poor were just as worthy as the rich.

It's certainly plausible that his following included poor people. But I don't think it extended beyond ethnic bounds. And I don't think it was that original. In the Hebrew Bible, you see a number of prophets who were crying out for justice on behalf of the poor. So it wasn't new that someone would have a constituency that includes the dispossessed. I'm sure in many ways Jesus was a laudable person. But I think more good things are attributed to him than really bear weight.

So you are distinguishing between Jesus and Christ -- Jesus the flesh and blood historical figure as opposed to how he was later represented as Christ, the son of God.

That's right. There's no evidence that Jesus thought he should be equated with God. He may have thought he was a messiah, but "messiah" in those days didn't mean what it's come to mean to Christians. It meant a powerful figure who leads his people to victory, perhaps a successful revolt against the Romans. But Christ as we think of Christ -- the son of God -- that's something that emerges in the later gospels and reaches its climax in John, which is the last of the four Gospels to be written. So the story of what Jesus represents in theology did not take shape during his lifetime.

Do you see Islam as essentially an offshoot of the Judeo-Christian tradition or as something fundamentally new?

Muhammad was trying to create a synthetic religion, drawing on the existing traditions of Judaism and Christianity. He says very nice things in the Quran about Christians and Jesus, though he can't quite accept the idea that Jesus was the son of God. He also made great overtures toward Jews. He established a fast that was essentially Yom Kippur. The ban on eating pork probably comes as a reflection of Judaism. There's every indication that he hoped to play a successful non-zero-sum game with Christians and Jews and draw them into a larger religion. He insisted that his God was their God. But it didn't work out. Apparently, not that many Jews bought into his mission.

In the standard telling, once Muhammad was ruling the city of Medina and he'd become a statesman as well as a prophet, some Jewish tribes betrayed him and were collaborating with the enemy. So there was a very violent falling out. And he expelled Jewish tribes and in one case killed the adult males. But there's no doubt that the origins of Islam are rooted in the existing traditions of Christianity and Judaism.

You make the point that the Quran is a different kind of sacred text than the Bible. It was probably written over the course of two decades, while the stories collected in the Bible were written over centuries. That's why the Bible is such a diverse document.

We think of the Bible as a book, but in ancient times it would have been thought of as a library. There were books written by lots of different people, including a lot of cosmopolitan elites. You also see elements of Greek philosophy. The Quran is just one guy talking. In the Muslim view, he's mediating the word of God. He's not especially cosmopolitan. He is, according to Islamic tradition, illiterate. So it's not surprising that the Quran didn't have the intellectual diversity and, in some cases, the philosophical depth that you find in the Bible. I do think he was actually a very modern thinker. Muhammad's argument for why you should be devoted exclusively to this one God is very modern.

Do you think it's been harder for today's Muslims to accept liberal interpretations of the Quran because it's linked so directly to Muhammad, while the Bible isn't so closely associated with Moses or Jesus?

Yes, and also because Muhammad spent a certain amount of his career as a politician and a military leader. There are parts of the Quran that are a military manual, which advocate killing the enemy. Of course, the Bible has these things too, but they're a smaller portion of the overall Bible. But when you look at that part of the Quran, it's much more subtle than a lot of people think.

Take the famous verse "Kill the infidels wherever you find them." Actually, it's a mistranslation. It's "Kill the polytheists." So it probably wouldn't include Christians and Jews. If you look at the verse in context, it seems that he exempts those polytheists who are on the side of the Muslims in this particular war. So all that passage says is "Kill the people who are enemies in this war." It's not fundamentally about religion. In this case and others, it complies with my basic argument: When people see themselves in a non-zero-sum relationship with other people, they will be tolerant of them and of their religion. Muhammad probably exemplifies that better than any single figure in ancient Abrahamic history.

Your book focuses on the Abrahamic religions. But aren't Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism actually more open to the idea that other religions can also be the path to truth and salvation?

Yes, it's not uncommon in Asia for somebody to be a little bit of a Buddhist and a little bit of a Taoist. It's certainly possible for religion to be non-exclusive. Parts of Buddhism are exemplary. In some ways it was the earliest religion to recognize the fundamental problem of being human. The challenge is to change the already existing character of a religion. The world is not full of Buddhists. And even Buddhist monks have gone on rampages. There is no religion that is always a religion of peace. But in Buddhism, you're seeing some very interesting developments. The Western, quasi-secular Buddhism is an interesting adaptation to a scientific age because it makes relatively few claims about the supernatural.

You've written a secular history of how religion has been used by various political movements to consolidate power. But you're ignoring the power of personal spiritual experience -- what some people would call revelation. Can you explain religion without acknowledging the importance of actual religious experience?

I do think religious experience has played an important part in religion. I think the Apostle Paul felt genuinely inspired. I myself have had profound experiences that could be characterized as religious. I certainly had some when I was young and a believing Christian. And I've had some since then. I did a one-week silent meditation retreat and had very profound experiences.

What kinds of experiences?

As the week wore on, the walls between me and other people and the rest of reality broke down a little. I became much less judgmental. I remember at one point looking at a weed and thinking, I can't believe I've been killing weeds because they're as pretty as anything else. Who put this label on weeds? And that's just a metaphor for what was changing in my consciousness. It was completely profound by the end of the week. Of course, a week later it wore off and I was a jerk again. But I think it was a movement toward moral truth. The truth is that I'm not special, and you're not special.

That is the key adaptation that religions have to make in the modern world -- to make people appreciate the moral value of people in circumstances very different from their own. That is a move toward moral truth. It's a fascinating feature of the world we live in that as technology expands the realm of social organization, its coherence and integrity depends on moral progress.

There is another way to understand religion. Certain influential people have intense and profound spiritual experiences, which are later codified and turned into systems of belief for their followers. Do you accept this distinction between spiritual experience and organized religion?

I'm against the idea that there was a golden age of spiritual experience, but then at some point organized religion corrupted everything. I try to show that shamans are as political as anyone and were as self-serving as modern religious leaders. At the same time, there are valid spiritual experiences. I've had them.

But you don't acknowledge that there's anything transcendent about spiritual experience -- any communication with a deeper, alternative reality.

No, I do think the experience I had at that meditation retreat was transcendent. It removed me from the ordinary trappings of mundane consciousness. There is a moral axis to the universe. If we don't make moral progress, chaos ensues. If only in that sense, we are tethered to a moral axis. It raises legitimate questions as to whether the whole system was in fact set up by some being, something you could call a divinity.

It's really interesting to hear you say there's moral truth. That's not the kind of thing we usually hear from someone who calls himself a materialist.

Maybe not, but materialism has gotten a bad name. You can be a materialist and still believe that some larger purpose is unfolding through the history of life on this planet. And you can think of the source of that purpose -- however hard it is to conceive of that source -- in favorable terms. You can use the term "divine," if you want. I do believe there's evidence of some larger purpose unfolding; you'd think religious people would like that. On the other hand, I take a very skeptical view of the claims to special revelation that religions make. You would think my account of religious history would be to the liking of atheists and agnostics.

So we can believe there's an underlying moral truth without believing in God.

The phrase that philosophers use is "moral realism." Do you think morality is in some sense a real thing out there? It's a very elusive question. What I feel sure of is that there's a moral axis to the universe, a moral order, without believing in God.

Are you also saying we can be religious without believing in God?

By some definitions, yes. It's hard to find a definition of religion that encompasses everything we call religion. The definition I like comes from William James. He said, "Religious belief consists of the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting to that order." In that sense, you can be religious without believing in God. In that sense, I'm religious. On the God question, I'm not sure. But I can call myself religious and have a fully scientific worldview.

You write, "Religion needs to mature more if the world is going to survive in good shape -- and for that matter, if religion is going to hold the respect of intellectually critical people." How does it need to mature?

You can't believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago. There's a whole list of things that are not compatible with modern science.

That's obvious. But some people would also say the idea of a personal God does not square with the scientific worldview today.

It's not a logical impossibility that there's a personal God out there. It's not even quite impossible that God intervenes when the scientists are not measuring stuff, when nobody's watching. But if you're going to have a religion that's broadly reconcilable with a scientific worldview and going to win acceptance among intellectual elites, then it's not going to involve an interventionist God. There are certainly people who find tremendous reassurance and guidance from religions that don't involve a god of any kind, and here I'm thinking about secular Buddhism.

Or you have a Christian theologian like Paul Tillich who tried to get away from an anthropomorphic God. He talked about God as "the ground of being."

Of course, he got accused of sugarcoating what was in fact something like agnosticism or atheism. It's easier to get reassurance by thinking there's some powerful being looking out for you than for something called "the ground of being." But for my money, if you're interested in hanging on to some kind of religious worldview that's viable in the modern world, you have to make that effort. I haven't tried to work out any detailed program here. It's something I'd like to think about in the future.

At the end of your book, you say the great divide in modern thinking is between people who think there is some divine source of meaning -- a higher purpose in the universe -- and those people who don't. Is this different than the usual dichotomy between believers and atheists?

It's a little different. I'm trying to get members of the different Abrahamic religions to realize that if they want to have an enemy, there's a bigger one than each other. I don't want them to declare jihad on atheists, but it might be good for them to realize, in the modern intellectual battle, they all have something in common: not only a specific Abrahamic God, but belief in a transcendent source of meaning. And I'd like to add that there are a lot of other people who don't subscribe to your notion of God, maybe not to any notion of God, who do believe in a transcendent source of meaning and a larger purpose that's unfolding.

As opposed to the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who famously said, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

I think he's wrong. But it's not surprising. Physicists don't think much about the animate world. So he probably hasn't given a lot of thought to the human condition and the direction of human history. But I'd say even the realm of physics -- just the weirdness of quantum physics -- should instill in all of us a little humility. It should make us aware that human consciousness, designed by natural selection to do really mundane things, is clearly not capable of grasping some ultimate things that are probably out there.

By Steve Paulson

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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