THE BLOG
09/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

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

This is Part 2 of interview excerpts that do not deal with the big idea at the center of Robert Wright's new book.

In The Evolution of God, Wright follows the changing moods of God 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."

Robert Wright asks a lot of big questions and thinks a lot about God -- two of his four books have the word in the title -- and he founded a video site called meaningoflife.tv, so we also talked about consciousness, physics, evolution, atheism and Obama. I'm sorry I took a while with Part 2. I kept trying to trim it in half, but decided not to edit someone speaking as carefully as Robert Wright is on questions like these.

A print version of our full interview was a lead article at AlterNet.org and you can hear the full podcast at terrencemcnally.net You can read Part 1 here.

MCNALLY:

You raise the question: Is belief in God any weirder than belief in electrons?

WRIGHT:
That's in the afterward of the book, and the whole text is online. It's very much in the spirit of an essay I read a long time ago by William James called The Will to Believe.

Scientists say, "Yes, I believe in electrons." Now, it isn't just that they've never seen one, it's that we know from quantum physics that electrons are inconceivable. They have internally contradictory properties. You ask, "Is it a wave or a particle?" And they say, "Both." And you say, "What do you mean both? I can't conceive of that."

MCNALLY:
The human mind likes to think in "eithers" and "ors"...

WRIGHT:
Saying it's a particle is not a comprehensive ongoing explanation of an electron, it doesn't account for all its behavior. In fact, there is no easily conceivable image that accounts for everything electrons do. It's beyond human comprehension.

Some physicists would say, "I'm not sure electrons per se really exist. It is, however, useful to talk as if electrons exist. You get good scientific results using that kind of language." So the question I raise is, "If thinking of divinity as something that exists leads people to behave in a morally progressive fashion, might that give validity to a conception of divinity?" In much the way our belief in electrons is ultimately vindicated by the practical result that follows from believing in them.

When I first heard an argument very much like this from William James, I thought that's nuts. Maybe I'm just getting old and soft-headed.

MCNALLY:
Is it enough to say that this line of thinking may not be as nuts as some people think it is?

WRIGHT:
Yes. Have a little humility. This bothers me with some of the new atheist writing. Fact is, we just don't know.

Strictly speaking, I don't understand how people can call themselves atheists, if the term means you're sure there's no God. I don't see how you can be sure of anything in this world. I'm technically an agnostic, although one with spiritual and religious leanings. But I don't know anything, and I don't know how anyone can say they know there's no God.

If you have a religious experience and God appears, I can see how you'd be pretty convinced. Strictly speaking you still don't know that it's not an illusion, but it's easier for me to understand someone who says they're a religious believer than somebody who says they're an atheist. Because the religious believer says, "I saw it."

MCNALLY:
In high school as I was moving away from Catholicism -- now I'm basically "spiritual but not religious" -- I would have debates. I can remember clear as a bell the moment when one friend of mine said, "You can't argue me out of God, I've experienced him." What could I say?

WRIGHT:
I did a one-week meditation retreat: silence, five-and-a-half hours of sitting meditation a day, five-and-a-half hours of walking meditation, no news from the outside world, no phone calls, no speech. That was an amazing experience, not in an especially theistic sense.

It moved me to be much more appreciative of other beings in the world. I remember seeing weeds and thinking, "I can't believe I killed these things, they're beautiful." And that's really the truth. "Weed" is a label we've imposed.

MCNALLY:
A dandelion, the scourge of people's lawns, is nature's geodesic dome. Buckminster Fuller could do no better.

WRIGHT:
This gets at another thing William James said, that our ordinary state of consciousness, the one we use to drive to work and get through life, is just one possible state of consciousness, and there's no reason to assume that it's any more valid than a lot of other possible states. I think in some ways it's manifestly less valid, because our ordinary state of consciousness was designed by natural selection to serve our own interests. And it is an illusion.

MCNALLY:
I recently interviewed Winifred Gallagher about her book Rapt. She points out that attention is mainly about cutting things out so we can function, because there's too much going on.

WRIGHT:
It's not just that we narrow our focus, our whole evaluation of other people becomes subservient to our individual goals.

Getting back to what brings out the best and the worst in religions -- when you're in a zero-sum situation with another group, you tend to judge their religion uncharitably. Your evaluations are slaves to your self-interest. This was a fundamental insight of Buddhism way back: We go around evaluating everything all the time, and our evaluations are not fundamentally valid. They impose a self-serving judgmental scheme on reality.

MCNALLY:
We've got some trends that are looking poorly now: climate change; the end of oil; huge inequities between and within societies; violent confrontations based on tribal, ethnic, and religious differences, and so on. If you could stand in 2025 and look back, did humanity turn things around and if so, how?

WRIGHT:
Some of the things you laid out have non-zero-sum implications. It's in the interests of people in lots of continents to solve climate change. Likewise, over-fishing the seas, or just keeping the global economy on track. To meet these challenges, it is in the interests of people to cooperate with others. And if they pursue those interests rationally, that will tend to subdue the other threat you mentioned, which is conflict among people and religions.

The argument in this book: to the extent that we accurately perceive non-zero-sum relationships, we can be more tolerant of others and their religions.

Westerners are actually in a non-zero-sum relationship with Muslims for lots of reasons. If Muslims get less and less happy with their place in the world, that foments extremism and is bad for the West; and if they get happier, that's good for the West.

As we both realize we're in a non-zero-sum relationship, we will tend to judge them more charitably, they will tend to judge us more charitably. I hate to say "them" and "us," because I know there are lots of Muslims in the West, and the whole idea of a Muslim world is a vast oversimplification. But you take my point. Once Israelis and Palestinians see that it's "lose-lose" to leave their situation unresolved, then, assuming a certain amount of trust, you can start building the more charitable view of each other that fosters cooperation.

MCNALLY:
Can you imagine how we're going to get there?

WRIGHT:
I think it takes leaders of vision and inspirational power, and I think Barack Obama is pretty good in that regard. I was very impressed by his Cairo speech. Very early on I said, this guy is well positioned by background to teach the world that we all have an interest in cooperation, that violence is senseless, and that we should come to our senses.

MCNALLY:
I consider myself a progressive. When we find fault with the way he's handling the bailout or Afghanistan, those are real arguments. But you know, he didn't specifically say he was going to do too many of those things. He said he was going to change the way we deal with each other, the way we govern. He basically argued for a non-zero-sum worldview more than he argued for any one progressive policy.

WRIGHT:
He's been more pragmatic on some political fronts than I would like, but in some areas I think he's stuck to his guns. For example, I think for domestic political purposes, it would have been easier for him not to insist that the Israeli settlements be completely stopped. I've been a little despondent over some of his compromises, but you can't be picking a fight on every front at all times. To the extent that he's focusing on global issues of international, trans-ethnic and trans-religious cooperation, I think that may be where he should put his chips. That may be where his assets can best be deployed.