From Steve Paulson’s interview with Robert Wright, “God, He’s moody” (Salon: 24 June 2009):
Do you think religions share certain core principles?
Not many. People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn’t originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.
And bad things happened because the gods were against you or certain spirits had it out for you?
Yes, you had done something to offend a god or spirit. However, it was not originally a moral lapse. That’s an idea you see as societies get more complex. When you have a small group of hunter-gatherers, a robust moral system is not a big challenge. Everyone knows everybody, so it’s hard to conceal anything you steal. If you mess with somebody too much, there will be payback. Moral regulation is not a big problem in a simple society. But as society got more complex with the invention of agriculture and writing, morality did become a challenge. Religion filled that gap.
For people who claim that Israel was monotheistic from the get-go and its flirtations with polytheism were rare aberrations, it’s interesting that the Jerusalem temple, according to the Bible’s account, had all these other gods being worshiped in it. Asherah was in the temple. She seemed to be a consort or wife of Yahweh. And there were vessels devoted to Baal, the reviled Canaanite god. So Israel was fundamentally polytheistic at this point. Then King Josiah goes on a rampage as he tries to consolidate his own power by wiping out the other gods.
You make the point that the Quran is a different kind of sacred text than the Bible. It was probably written over the course of two decades, while the stories collected in the Bible were written over centuries. That’s why the Bible is such a diverse document.
We think of the Bible as a book, but in ancient times it would have been thought of as a library. There were books written by lots of different people, including a lot of cosmopolitan elites. You also see elements of Greek philosophy. The Quran is just one guy talking. In the Muslim view, he’s mediating the word of God. He’s not especially cosmopolitan. He is, according to Islamic tradition, illiterate. So it’s not surprising that the Quran didn’t have the intellectual diversity and, in some cases, the philosophical depth that you find in the Bible. I do think he was actually a very modern thinker. Muhammad’s argument for why you should be devoted exclusively to this one God is very modern.
Are you also saying we can be religious without believing in God?
By some definitions, yes. It’s hard to find a definition of religion that encompasses everything we call religion. The definition I like comes from William James. He said, “Religious belief consists of the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting to that order.” In that sense, you can be religious without believing in God. In that sense, I’m religious. On the God question, I’m not sure.