God Grows Up: Robert Wright’s Evolution of God

Ten Questions for Robert Wright on The Evolution of God, (Little, Brown and Company, 2009).
(Purchase at an independent bookstore or Amazon.)

What inspired you to write The Evolution of God? What sparked your interest?

For one thing, I wanted to figure out why God’s mood keeps changing in both the Bible and the Koran. One minute he’s belligerent, advocating the annihilation of infidels, and the next minute he’s tolerant and broadly compassionate. I figured if I could isolate the circumstances that had given rise to these two kinds of scriptures, that might tell us something about the circumstances that would bring out the best in religion today. Also, more generally, I felt that the standard histories of God, such as Karen Armstrong’s, do a good job of showing how our ideas about god change over time but don’t spend much time on the question of why.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That there’s no such thing as a “religion of peace” or a “religion of war.” Any religion can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances that believers find themselves in. If you arrange things so that two religious groups can benefit through peaceful interaction, then more often than not they’ll both find a basis for tolerance in their scripture. But if one group feels threatened by the other—feels materially threatened or feels a threat to its values or senses disrespect—then they’ll try to find a scriptural rationale for belligerence. And they’ll succeed in finding it; because both the Bible and the Koran offer plenty of scriptures that seem to justify violence.

In the book I illustrate this by reference to the ancient world. I follow God’s development through the emergence of monotheism in ancient Israel, the emergence of Christianity, and the emergence of Islam. But the take-home lesson is meant to apply to the modern world. And, actually, though I’m pretty sure President Obama hasn’t read the book, his foreign policy is consistent with the moral of the story. In his Cairo speech he emphasized America’s respect for Muslims. And his attempt to get Israel to completely stop settlement activity is a way of making Palestinian Arabs feel less threatened. Both things, if experience is any guide, should help dampen religious radicalism.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Yes. Mainly excursions into intellectual history, but also some pet theories about the Bible. Initially I had a long explanation of how Jesus came to be called by the curious title “the son of man.” I wound up compressing this discussion in the book, but I did put the director’s-cut version on the Web.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

1) That religion, at the time of its origin back in hunter-gatherer days, had anything to do with morality. Divine sanctions against stealing, lying, etc., aren’t much needed in a hunter-gatherer village, because it’s harder to get away with these things in the first place when you live with a very small number of people.

2) That ancient Israel was monotheistic from the get-go. I don’t think monotheism emerged until the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE—nearly half a millennium after King David and way, way after Moses and Abraham supposedly signed on to monotheism.

3) That Jesus said “Love your enemy” and espoused universal love. I think the emphasis on a love that crosses ethnic bounds emerged after the crucifixion, especially through the ministry of Paul, and then later gospel writers attributed this idea to Jesus. And I think this very laudable doctrine flowed from Paul’s practical needs. Love was a way of holding together his international network of churches.

4) That Muhammad was a religious fanatic. As I try to show, he was a cool pragmatist, willing to compromise on theological issues in order to build a political coalition. Apparently he even flirted with polytheism at one point.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Two audiences, actually. I wanted the book to be accessible to a lay audience but also of interest to a scholarly audience. There’s tension between the two goals, and I still second-guess myself over whole chapters that I left out or left in.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

Well, I didn’t really plan it this way, but as the New York Times review of my book put it, “there is something here to annoy almost everyone.” Christians, Jews, and Muslims may not like my materialist account of their religious histories, and atheists won’t like the fact that I think there may be a larger purpose unfolding through the natural, material workings of the world. At the same time, atheists should love my account of religious history. And some theologically liberal believers, like Andrew Sullivan, have actually liked the book quite a bit, because I argue that even in a scientific age there’s room for something that you can meaningfully call the divine. I get into this in the book’s afterword, which is available online.

In any event, I do hope the historical narrative will be fun and informative even for readers who don’t accept the arguments. And, by the way, most of the book is historical narrative, not arguments.

What alternative title would you give the book?

This is the first book I’ve ever written where the title on the original book proposal remained the title of the actual book. And at no point did I lose faith in the title. So I don’t have a lot of alternative titles in mind. I guess I could appropriate the title that Salon put on a piece about the book: “God, He’s Moody!”

How do you feel about the cover?

I love, love, love the book jacket. And I love the fact that my publisher was willing to go without a subtitle. This almost never happens with a nonfiction book these days. But I think when you have a title like ‘The Evolution of God’ (which, I admit, is a little grandiose) almost any subtitle would tend to diminish the title. Also, I think there’s something to be said for encouraging book browsers to pick up the damn book and open it in order to figure out what it’s about. Getting them to pick up the book is the first step toward getting them to read it.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. It’s a century or so old, but it still sells, and the reason is that James was that rare combination of a really first-rate writer and really brilliant scholar.

In fact, James’ insights are so enduring that, a century later, I found myself echoing them in a few respects. The argument I make in the aforementioned afterword is very much in the spirit of James’s “pragmatic” argument for believing in God. And I agree with James that our ordinary waking consciousness is in some ways arbitrary, and there may be alternative modes of consciousness that get us closer to the truth in certain realms.

Six years ago I did a one-week silent meditation retreat and at the end of it my state of mind had been transformed. My perspective was less warped than usual by self-centeredness, and in that sense was closer to the truth about the world. Of course, the effect didn’t last. Still, I got a glimpse of an alternative, truer view of the world.

What’s your next book?

God only knows. I’ve found that each book you write winds up redirecting your work in some way, and it takes awhile to figure out what the new direction will be. So I’m waiting to find out.

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