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Rainn Wilson urges a spiritual revolution in his new book 'Soul Boom'

The cover of Rainn Wilson's new book.
Hachette Books
The cover of Rainn Wilson's new book.

"Why the hell would the guy who played Dwight on The Office be writing a book about spirituality?"

Emmy-nominated actor Rainn Wilson says he knows that's the question people ask when hearing about his new book Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution.

In an interview for Morning Edition, Wilson tells NPR's Rachel Martin about a spiritual odyssey that began as a child, growing up in the Baha'i faith of his family. Later, he began rejecting "everything to do with religion and faith and spirituality."

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Then he says, in his 20s, when he was struggling to make it as an actor in New York and suffering from acute anxiety, depression and addiction — he began looking for answers.

That set him on a journey. "The very first question that I pondered as I was on this journey was, is there a God? ... I would ask my friends, 'Hey, do you believe in God?' "

It's not easy being the "God guy"

"It's so not cool to be religious," Wilson says. "And it's so funny because I've always identified as being a dork and a misfit and an outsider. Maybe that's why I played Dwight so effectively, apparently."

He says the answers from those around him helped ignite his "spiritual quest."

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Wilson, who is also a podcaster and cofounder of the media company SoulPancake, says he has now resolved any personal uncertainty about a higher power. "I know there's a God. It's not a faith thing. God is as real to me as my body is – as my rapidly decaying body," he said.

"How do I know? I know that I love. I know that I love my wife. I know that I love my son. I know that I love my father who passed away a few years back," Wilson says, tearing up.

Rainn Wilson
Kwaku Alston / Hachette Books
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Hachette Books
Rainn Wilson

Seeking the sacred in everyday life

While he insists he doesn't have all the answers to the big questions in life — "just a lot of questions" — Wilson does offer suggestions in his book, including an entire section dedicated to a proposal for a new religion. "We need to strive to go back to so many indigenous faiths [where] art, nature and faith were interconnected and not divergent," he says.

When talking about his own search for the spiritual, he notes a "transformative" encounter with his onetime acting teacher André Gregory, the director, writer, and actor who plays a version of himself in the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre.

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"I had tea with him once and he said, 'How are you doing, Rainn?' And I said, 'You know, André, I'm just feeling so cynical. I'm feeling pessimistic.' He grabbed my arm like a vise, and he looked into my eyes and he said, 'Stop it, don't do it. Don't be cynical. If you're cynical, they win.' "

"I realized that fostering hope and joy in others is maybe our highest spiritual calling," he said. "And that is a key pillar to this spiritual revolution."

An extended version of the interview about Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution is airing on Weekend All Things Considered in early May. Wilson hosts a travel series that debuts on Peacock on May 18, Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Interview highlights

On rediscovering his spirituality

I rejected anything and everything to do with religion and faith and spirituality when I was in my twenties. And well, then things just started to break down for me and it led me back on a spiritual quest where I was like, you know, maybe I lost something by getting rid of anything and everything to do with spirituality. Maybe, maybe there's some answer there.

On seeking answers about God

Almost to a person, my artist friends would say, "Well, I certainly don't believe in an old man on a cloud, you know, with an agenda scowling down at us. But I believe that there's something more out there. There's some kind of energy." And I was with them on that, but that wasn't enough for me. I was like, wait a second. So there either is a God or there's not.

On the certainty of his own belief

The first step in knowing that there is a creative force in the universe is I know that there is love. I also know that there is beauty. I also know that there is art and there is music. And all of these things that are ineffable and transcendent are footprints. They're handholds on the path to finding the great mystery.

On finding the sacred

There has been a profound loss of the sacred in contemporary Western civilization. Nothing is sacred anymore. And I think sacredness and holiness is part of the conversation that we need to have collectively. We can certainly experience it in nature. And for religious people, we can experience it in holy sites. But how can we nurture the sacred as a condition in our hearts that we can carry with us so that a conversation like we're having can be sacred?

Lilly Quiroz produced the audio version and Miranda Kennedy edited the digital version. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jan Johnson
Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, and a founding host of NPR's award-winning morning news podcast Up First. Martin's interviews take listeners behind the headlines to understand the people at the center of those stories.