Podcast #58 – Robert Wright

We interview Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God and one of the founders of the pundit-driven website bloggingheads.tv.  In The Evolution of God, Wright lays out a convincing case that the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are “illusions” shaped by completely natural forces like commerce, warfare and social instability.  At the same time, Wright controversially claims that Western religion’s progressive march (from shamanistic superstition to primitive polytheism to a monotheism which recognizes the value of individual human beings) reveals an inevitable, even divine “higher purpose.”  For more information visit evolutionofgod.net.

Wright is also known for his books The Moral Animal (a classic explication of the emerging discipline of evolutionary psychology) and Nonzero (which uses game theory to construct a model of human history that dovetails nicely with The Evolution of God).

Read John’s review of The Evolution of God, or buy your very own copy (highly recommended) at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

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Theme music by Body Found.

Recorded July 1, 2009.  Hosted by John C. Snider and David Driscoll.

To listen to this episode click here.

This entry was posted in books, christianity, ethics, history, interviews, islam, judaism, podcast, religion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Podcast #58 – Robert Wright

  1. Bryan says:

    I really enjoy the podcast especially the last couple dozen episodes. But this was one of the strangest author interviews I’ve heard in a long time. John, I think you valiantly tried to make the best of it, and engaged Wright in a friendly and fair manner. But really, Wright couldn’t make a coherent explanation of anything, even the ideas from his own book. Although his anger at, and disapproval of, the modern atheist movement did come through loud and clear, his justification for that did not. He did describe his idea that the Atheist movement is viewed as a “rallying army” and “an instrument of right-wing foreign policy,” but his reasoning was lacking. He didn’t support the “rallying army” charge at all. Personally I am not aware of any army-like qualities of the atheist movement. In contrast, and to its great credit, it has been an entirely peaceful and extremely varied movement. The second charge has some merit, based on certain atheist leaders like Hitchens voicing support for the Iraq war, but most of those leading the atheist movement seem to me to be from the political left. Certainly Dawkins is, and if there is a current leader of the atheist movement in the public eye, it has to be Dawkins.

    All in all, a very strange conversation, I think because Wright seemed simultaneously obfuscating and confrontational. I loved it when he was describing higher purpose and said that “the chances that you understand what I mean are almost nil.” Well, yeah, because he was speaking near nonsense about it for the last ten minutes.

    Anyway, I’m glad you two debriefed a bit about it afterwards which helped clarify why his antagonism was so palpable. Also glad you had the patience to keep the conversation moving and productive. Although I think he is wrong, Wright’s views of the atheist movement probably do represent the majority outsider opinion, at least to some extent. I think it would be worth discussing how that view can be changed, or if it can be, or if it should be. By the way, at the very end of the podcast I noticed you suggested that Wright viewed atheists to all be falling in line behind a bunch of left leaning leaders, but he clearly said he thought they were all right-leaning.

  2. Strider says:

    Wow, guys! Major coup in getting Robert Wright! I can’t wait to listen to the ‘cast.

  3. Satyr says:

    That was a strange interview. Mr. Wright seemed to be defensive about something that he wouldn’t even clearly explain. Also his views appear to be close to atheism or at least non-supernatural and yet he seemed overly critical of atheists.

    I think he made far too much of the difference between thinking that religion is wrong versus thinking religion does wrong. He kept saying that they are a completely separate. I couldn’t disagree more. In my view when religion does wrong it is often precisely because they base their morals on supernatural premises. For example it took mainstream Christianity the better part of two millennia to even begin to treat women as equal to men exactly because they stuck to Bronze Age mythology. Likewise when some religious people do “good” it is for equally dogmatic or supernatural reasons (like thinking they’re going to heaven or obeying the commands of a god.) He also criticized atheists for not proclaiming the “good” things religious people do. Would Mr. Wright feel better if we noticed the “good” things religious people but then explained the supernatural reasons why they did those things? Or that they wanted converts? What if Wahabi Muslims setup soup kitchens and Madrassas in West Virginia. In the face of the maelstrom that would likely produce does he think that we should say something like, “Hey, they’re helping poor people, so stop being so biased?”

    He said the dumbest thing he ever heard was Richard Dawkins’ comment that if it weren’t for religion there would be peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Is it though? What if before 1949 all the Palestinians were Jewish already? I seriously doubt that the European Jews would go around expelling the Jewish Palestinians and I seriously doubt there would be any conflict there at all. In reality, people create in-groups and religion is a very good way of identifying the in-group. Even though the original Zionists were mainly non-religious, they still used “Jewish” as an ethnic tag and the Jews who came soon after them were most certainly very religious and didn’t want people of a competing faith to inhabit their “Holy Land.” So if there were no religion, maybe there wouldn’t have been nearly so much animosity. When you take away religion, Arabs and Jews have a lot in common. Both are Semitic people with a very similar language and culture. It’s at least possible that European Jews could have even just simply immigrated to Palestine and I’m sure there would have been tension but probably not war. It’s odd that Mr. Wright would use such hyperbole against Dawkins’ comment since Mr. Wright talked a lot about religion creating in-groups and becoming more inclusive as time goes on. So isn’t what he says in his books at least in the same ball park as Richard Dawkins’ comment?

  4. Jeff Bowie says:

    It amazes me that someone who obviously has the skills to do basic research and understand simple concepts is incapable of understanding the definition of atheist and agnostic. It’s perfectly clear that Wright came to the interview with a deep-seated misunderstanding that being an atheist means “one who knows there is no gods.” How friggin’ pathetic.

    Wasn’t it a classic Chris Hedges or Scott Atran moment, when Wright tried to argue that the Israel/Palestinian conflict has NOTHING to do with religion? Go back and listen to that segment…he was not amenable to that possibility in the slightest. This is typical of those who lack the honesty and maturity to call a spade a spade and recognize that religion gets a free pass. They’re like a little kid being told that that kind of behavior is not right and the kid countering with “So”. Wright commited this grevious error several times during the interview.

    He’s clearly not an atheist and he probably would not balk at being called an agnostic-theist. But, I suspect the real truth why Wright wouldn’t come clean about his “Higher Purpose”, is that it’s ultimate meaning is something really out there. Since he’s cool about it not being supernatural (non-material), it’s probably something along the lines of we’re just part of a computer simulation.

    I really liked his basic precepts about early societies, but he needs to rethink that deplorable attitude about atheists so as to not embarrass himself any further. And to say Hitchens has debated only patsies…WHAT? He’s cleaned the clocks of many and would utterly embarrass this guy. Go ahead, Wright, send Chris an email and set up a debate. Just let him know how superior your position is to him and I’m sure he’ll give you an audience. You pathetic twit.

  5. David Kempster says:

    I am very thankful for your podcast with Wright. I had thought about buying the book “The Evolution of God” but you have saved me the time and money. He is so muddleheaded it is amazing.

    I will focus on just a few points.

    You were overly generous by saying his point that “no one would understand” is subtle. It was trivial. His point is that history also can appear purposeful. The reason that people misunderstand him is he refuses to say “appear” and instead likes to say it is “purposeful”. Yes we can see history as guided by a natural selection process. We have civilizations that “reproduce and survive” and different strategies will lead to different results. But take a look at Guns Germs and steel for possible accidents of history examples.

    As for the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement etc – most of them were full of secular people with the occasional very liberal religious person. The bulk of the religious people in all of these cases were AGAINST abolition and AGAINST women’s rights. You are right Richard you are no historian.

    The point is it is not inconsistent to point out that the good things tend to come about by changes in secular society that people who happen to be religious pick up on. On the other hand what the extreme Muslims are saying, they are saying because they are Muslim.

    I lived in Palestine/Israel for 4 years. Anyone who says that the tension isn’t largely because of the religion has never spent any time there. It isn’t the entire story but it is a huge part of the story and the entire reason anyone cares. (After all there are much worse cases of conflict all over the world. We primarily care about this one because it is “the holy land”.

    His calling Atheists a right wing army just shows how full of crap he is. There are very few Atheists – who are right wing – Christopher Hitchens is the exception and not the rule.

    He makes sweeping claims about Atheists but then says he doesn’t follow the atheist movement. He also seems to imply that Hitchens is ducking him and I would hazard to guess Hitchens has no idea who he even is.

    If this podcast is any indication Richard Wright shouldn’t be bothered with at all.

  6. Rob T. says:

    Dear Mr. Wright,

    Please, pick a side. Your arguments are confusing to all of us.

    Signed,

    Atheists, Agnostics, and Believers
    Evolution Supporters and Intelligent Design Advocates

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  8. Strider says:

    Holy crap! Did you guys see this? More of the same but still….

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2009/07/robert_wright_bashes_the_new_a.php

  9. skepoet says:

    It’s a very odd thing that Wright is trying to do. I like several of the arguments in his book, but he’s essentially trying to be a materialist AND NOT BE a materialist at the same time. He seems to be looking for a fight with the “New” atheists largely based off of… stereotypes?

    I do think that Wright’s book is worth reading and he is very much correct on his historically analysis of the development of religion, but his “faith in progress” as some sort of teleological semi-theology blinds him to some things in the modern world.

    I do think, however, people should still read the book. 1) Most of us on the skeptics side are just as guilty of selecting books that confirm the values we already have (thus giving way to confirmation bias) and 2) Wright is fairly blunt on the destructivist and cynical nature of religion through history.

    But like other people who should know better–say Karen Armstrong anyone?–he seems to demand that he can have it both ways.

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