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The Evolution of God

by Robert Wright
an interview with the author
November 2010

This interview may be posted on other web sites provided the interview is linked back to without the nofollow attribute.

Star Burst: What influence has the research process had on your beliefs while you were writing the book?

Robert Wright: On my religious beliefs? None. The only thing that changed was my understanding of religious history.

Robert Tulip: There is not much discussion of gender in "The Evolution of God." Did you consider the argument that early humanity had greater equality of the sexes and that the rise of monotheism was related to a rise of patriarchal society with greater focus on war and social hierarchy?

Robert Wright: I’m not aware of any good evidence that early humanity had, on balance, greater equality of the sexes, and I’m skeptical of claims that the world was once full of goddess-oriented societies. Yes, there were definitely goddesses in the polytheistic cultures that monotheism displaced, and some of the goddesses were very important. In fact, I discuss some of them in my book, such as Ishtar (aka Inanna). But the cultures in which they thrived seem to have been pretty patriarchal, and there were plenty of gods alongside the goddesses.

Robert Tulip: Do you believe that Jesus Christ actually lived as a historic individual, or do you see the Bible story as a pastiche combining stories from a range of stories to produce a believable narrative?

Robert Wright: I think Jesus definitely was a real person. But I also think his life story was brushed up considerably in the gospels. I think the real Jesus was a fiery apocalyptic preacher whose intended audience was confined to Israel and who was somewhat Israelocentric in his world view. I think the emphasis on a brotherly love that crosses ethnic bounds developed after the Crucifixion, during the ministry of Paul, and was then attributed to Jesus. I doubt that Jesus ever instructed his disciples to go preach among the nations, as the Bible claims.

DWill: Given that polytheism seems to have tolerance built into it, and monotheism arrives at tolerance with difficulty and only when advantageous to itself, how would you defend monotheism as a higher prompting of the Logos?

Robert Wright: I don’t think monotheism is, inherently, morally superior to polytheism or is any purer an expression of “the Logos” than polytheism (assuming that there is such a thing as “the Logos” and that monotheism and polytheism are expressions of it-questions that are inherently speculative, though I take them seriously in the book). The purest expression of the Logos as I characterize it in the book would be the religion/philosophy/ethos that is most conducive to harmony among the world’s people, best at getting them to see things from one another’s point of view, etc. In principle, polytheism could do as good a job of that as monotheism, or better.

DWill: One reviewer called your book Hegelian in outlook. Was Hegel an influence on you, or is any resemblance coincidental?

Robert Wright: Whenever I’ve tried to read Hegel I’ve been unable to understand him. But from what I can grasp, his dialecticism is in some ways the opposite of mine. I’m more of a “dialectical materialist,” like Marx. That doesn’t, of course, mean that I buy Marx’s communist economic philosophy. It just means that I, like Marx, view prevailing ideas as to a large extent shaped by material circumstances-economic, political, social factors. In contrast, Hegel seems to view the realm of ideas as fundamental and the material world as in some sense secondary. At least, that’s the sense I get from summaries of Hegel’s thought. (There’s an old joke in academia: Q: “Have you read Hegel?” A: “Not personally”.)

DWill: Would you agree that, in terms of theology fully in accord with non-zero-sumness, evolution probably reached its highest point to date, over 2,000 years ago with Philo?

Robert Wright: I’m not conversant enough in the entire history of theology to make such a judgment. What I say in the book is that (a) as ancient theologies go, Philo’s was relatively compatible with a scientific world view; and (b) yes, it emphasizes what we would now call growing non-zero-sumness as a basic direction in history. And these two properties-compatibility with science and an emphasis on what I see as the basic direction of history--are certainly properties I’d demand in any theology I was going to take seriously.

DWill: Do you think that the expansion of the moral circle can continue considering reasonable doubt that the resources of the planet are sufficient to supply the needs of the burgeoning population?

Robert Wright: Though resource shortages can exacerbate human conflict, they can also induce cooperation. For example, overfishing of the seas can in principle lead to international treaties governing fishing quotas. Also, eternal population growth is hardly a given; birth rates tend to level off once nations develop economically.

DWill: Do you think that the religions themselves will proactively seek to expand non-zero-sum relationships, or will they continue to change only when conditions have made it apparent that they must, or can do so with little risk?

Robert Wright: Actually, I worry that by the time it’s absolutely imperative that religions expand their web of non-zero-sumness, it may be nearly impossible to do it. For example, right now such an expansion is urgent because the tensions among (some segments of) the different Abrahamic faiths has gotten so high; but the tensions themselves make it hard for people to think clearly and calmly enough to get the job done. And I should add that, strictly speaking, the challenge isn’t usually so much to “expand non-zero-sum relationships” as to recognize the non-zero-sum relationships that already exist and respond to them in a rational and productive way. That gets hard to do when tensions are high.

NoAmount: What particular part of "The Evolution of God" did you not feel comfortable about and why did you still include it in the book?

Robert Wright: There’s nothing I feel especially uncomfortable about. There are things I wish I’d made clearer, I guess, but it’s always hard to know which things will be misunderstood until a book is published. Probably the thing most commonly misunderstood is my argument about “higher purpose”. Here’s an exchange I had with the philosopher Daniel Dennett some years ago about that:

Stahrwe: Isn’t the story of the call of Abram (apocryphal or not) a more parsimonious explanation for the emergence of monotheism from polytheism, and while you mention Abraham several times in "The Evolution of God," why did you not directly address the story of his call?

Robert Wright: Actually, even the Bible doesn’t claim that God imparted monotheism to Abraham. God doesn’t, while speaking to Abraham, deny the existence of other gods. And, anyway, the story of Abraham seems to have been handed down through the generations orally for a long time. And stories like that tend to be unreliable. (I don’t understand why you don’t think it matters whether the story is apocryphal. If the revelation to Abraham didn’t happen, then how could it be the origin of monotheism? And if you’re saying that an apocryphal story could launch a whole theology, I’d ask how the story could have found a receptive audience if there weren’t a strong preexisting disposition toward that theology.)

oblivion: Russell Blackford on the Richard Dawkins website, claims you "repeatedly suggest (...) that the narrative of religion's cultural evolution may be evidence for something divine behind it all." Would you care to comment on this?

Robert Wright: I’ve argued, both in Nonzero and the Evolution of God, that the directionality in biological evolution and in cultural evolution suggest that we may be seeing the unfolding of some larger purpose on this planet. I have no way of knowing for sure that this is true, and I certainly have no way of knowing how that purpose might have been imparted. But, yes, I’ve said the source of the purpose could be divine in some meaningful sense. (Here’s my argument that biological evolution is in some sense directional: The comparable argument about cultural evolution consumes much of my book Nonzero.)

Robert Tulip: Do you consider extending "The Evolution of God" to assess the most recent millennium including the classical Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, to assess how theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Martin Luther and John Wesley responded to an evolving cultural, economic and political context?

Robert Wright: If life weren’t so short I’d love to take on that project. But I have other priorities. Not to mention the need to make a living-and I don’t think the book you’ve described would be, as they say in the publishing world, commercially viable.

Robert Tulip: How strongly do you see the memetic analogy between ideas and genes as providing a coherent logical framework for cultural evolution?

Robert Wright: There are many contrasts between cultural evolution and genetic evolution, but the similarities are strong enough to warrant using the word “evolution” for both, I think. And it’s interesting, as I note in my book Nonzero, that both processes tend to carry life to higher levels of organization. But it’s certainly true that defining the term “meme” is way, way harder than defining the term “gene”.

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