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Q&A with Robert Wright (Part 1): There Is Some Larger Purpose At Work in the Universe

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In his new book, The Evolution of God, Robert Wright follows God's changing moods in ancient scripture, to see what circumstances brought out the best and worst in religions: "The moral of the story is simple. When people see their interests threatened by another group, this perception brings out the most belligerent parts of their religion. Such circumstances are good news for violent extremists and bad news for moderates. What Obama is trying to do -- make Palestinians feel less threatened, and make Muslims generally feel more respected -- may now, as it did in ancient times, bring out the tolerant side of a religion."

The following excerpts from my interview with Wright, however, do not deal with the book's major premise. Robert Wright writes a lot about God for someone who claims to be an agnostic, and though I was baptized and schooled a Catholic, I now check the box "spiritual but not religious." We ended up talking a lot about that territory, though neither of us claims to have a map. You can hear the full podcast at terrencemcnally.net

TM: This is your second book with the word "god" in the title...

RW: I think it has something to do with the fact that I was brought up a Southern Baptist and that's a very intense experience. I remember responding to the altar call at about age eight, and going to the front of the church, which means you've decided to accept Christ as your savior.

TM: How did your parents react?

RW: My parents weren't there. It was in the middle of an evening service. There was an evangelist named Homer Martinez visiting our church in El Paso Texas, and he got us fired up. My parents were both very religious, my mother in particular. When they were told I'd done it, they were concerned that I wasn't old enough to make the decision wisely. It wasn't as if they thought it wasn't the right decision, but they wanted it to be a considered decision.

The commitment didn't last, I did not remain a Christian. Unlike the new atheists, I do think there is some larger purpose at work in the universe, but I don't have a very clear conception of a God. I don't buy into any of the claims of special revelation in any of the religions, though I talk about them a lot in the book. I'm just trying to figure it out for myself.

TM: You do speak of a direction or an arrow of history. What does that mean to you?

RW: There are two separate issues: First, whether there's direction in both biological evolution and human history, and whether that direction signifies some kind of purpose.

There clearly has been a direction in the sense of growing complexity through biological evolution. That's not to say that all organisms are always getting more complex, but if you go back to an earlier time and find the most complex organism, the envelope of complexity tends to rise with time.

And since cultural evolution started really moving 10,000 years ago, there's a growing complexity of human societies. You go from hunter-gatherer village to agrarian chiefdom to ancient city-state and so on. Today we're on the verge of globalized organization. So there's a direction toward growing complexity, that's hard to deny.

It's another issue whether that signifies something you could in some sense call "purpose." First of all, you can mean a lot of things by purpose.

Then the second question: Is the purpose on balance a good one? In other words, is the direction tending toward the good? And I don't really have a simple answer to that question.

But he does see movement in a positive direction over time.

RW: I'm not a technological utopian, but I do think there's one dimension along which human history broadly speaking has brought moral progress. That's expansion of the moral compass, in the sense of getting people to acknowledge the fundamental humanity of people of different ethnicities and nationalities.

As far as anthropologists and archeologists can tell, 15,000 years ago, among hunter-gatherers, if you saw somebody you'd never seen before, and you didn't know where they came from, and there were four of you and one of them, you'd probably kill him.

TM: Within the hunter-gatherer village, it's a different story. Everyone knows each other, everyone's interdependent, and so morality is high.

RW: There can be fierce fighting in a village. There can be deaths. Villages sometimes divide over fighting, but by and large, when you have to live with a small group of people day in day out, there's a fairly simple system of moral self-regulation.

In The Evolution of God, I note that religion doesn't have a big moral component in hunter-gatherer societies. ...But they do use religion to explain why good things happen and why bad things happen, and to try to increase the ratio of good to bad. From the beginning, religion was fundamentally about that.

Getting back to the arrow of history.

RW: Over the sweep of history, social organization expands. You see more class differentiation and hierarchies of power grow more pronounced, but you also see movement toward a cosmopolitan ethos.

In America today, asked if most people of any race, creed or color are humans and should get minimal human rights, people say yes and mean it. They may sometimes honor it in the breach, but I believe the expansion of the moral compass in that one sense is built into the direction of history.

TM: Yet, Kevin Bales, Ben Skinner, a lot of human rights folks would say, not so fast, there are more slaves, that is, people who have no control over their life or their work, than ever before, and they're valued less than they ever were. How does that fit into this evolution of morality?

RW: When there are huge differentials of power, you can get away without acknowledging the significance of someone. If you're doing business with people you have to give them minimal respect. If you're going to buy cars from the Japanese, you can't talk about them the way you did during World War II, and treat them as if they were sub-human.

Now, as it happens, there are some people in every race, ethnicity, or nationality who have enough power that they merit some degree of respect. So that has discouraged people from ruling whole ethnicities and whole nationalities out of the realm of humanity. But it's certainly true that if huge discrepancies of power persist, individual people are likely to be exploited.

Wright believes global information technology plays a role in the arrow of evolution.

RW: More and more of this stuff is transparent; it's easier to document and make vivid. For example, we now know much more about what's going on in China than during the Cold War. China wants to be part of the global economy, so they have to let people have cell phones and email. They crack down on the Web, but it's porous enough that we know more about what's going on. When Chinese peasants use cell phones and so on to organize demonstrations and even riot -- which they actually do a lot -- the government, for reasons of self-preservation, sometimes tries to address their grievances.

Since publication of The Evolution of God (currently #8 on the New York Times bestseller list), Robert Wright has written some controversial blogposts, linking the "New Atheists" (Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et al) to NeoCon politics, and a print version of this interview was a lead article at AlterNet.org.

Look for: Q&A with Robert Wright (Part 2): Is Belief in God Any Weirder than Belief in Electrons?

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