Is religion a force for good or ill?
This question has been more energetically debated over the last few years, globally, due to the West's confrontation with radical Islam, and in the U.S., to the political emergence and activism of evangelical Christians. This was brought to a head with the misadventures of George W. Bush, from Teri Shiavo to Bagdhad.
Robert Wright takes on big questions, and he's taken this one on in his new book, The Evolution of God. He follows the changing moods of God as reflected in ancient Scripture, to see what circumstances brought out the best and worst in religions.
According to Wright, "The moral of the story is simple: When people see their interests threatened by another group, this perception brings out the most belligerent parts of their religion. Such circumstances are good news for violent extremists and bad news for moderates. What Obama is trying to do -- make Palestinians feel less threatened, and make Muslims generally feel more respected -- may now, as it did in ancient times, bring out the tolerant side of a religion."
Wright is a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and founder and editor of bloggingheads.tv. His books include: Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information; The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life; and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.
Terrence McNally: What leads you to consistently write about big questions? This is your second book with the word "god" in the title.
Robert Wright: I think it has something to do with the fact that I was brought up a Southern Baptist, and that's a very intense experience. I remember responding to the altar call at about age 8 and going to the front of the church, which means you've decided to accept Christ as your savior.
TM: How did your parents react?
RW: My parents weren't there. It was in the middle of an evening service. There was an evangelist named Homer Martinez visiting our church in El Paso, Texas, and he got us fired up. My parents were both very religious, my mother in particular. When they were told I'd done it, they were concerned that I wasn't old enough to make the decision wisely. It wasn't as if they thought it wasn't the right decision, but they wanted it to be a considered decision.
The commitment didn't last; I did not remain a Christian. Unlike the new atheists, I do think there is some larger purpose at work in the universe, but I don't have a very clear conception of a god. I don't buy into any of the claims of special revelation in any of the religions, although I talk about them a lot in the book. I'm just trying to figure it out for myself.
TM: You're founder and editor of two Web sites, meaningoflife.tv and bloggingheads.tv. What's that about?
RW: In my last book, Nonzero, which came out in 2000, I compared the Internet to the printing press in terms of the way it would decentralize power and give new people access to channels of communication. I made the argument that video was going to become a much less centralized medium. I got a small grant to start meaningoflife.tv, which consisted of me interviewing people. At this point, it's essentially archival.
TM: And bloggingheads.tv?
RW: Greg Gingle, now at Facebook, helped me create what is, so far as I know, the first split-screen video Web site. Any two people anywhere -- as long as they have a phone connection and could eventually find a place to upload a file -- can have a video dialog. The New York Times online excerpts a clip three times a week.
TM: Who will visitors find there?
RW: People on both the left and right. I discovered that unless there's some degree of disagreement, it's not interesting to people. And if you're not forcing fireworks, it can be illuminating to see both sides of an issue. We have a fairly ideologically diverse comment section, which is rare. The Web naturally creates "preaching to the choir" sites.
TM: And the choir replies, just as they do in church.
RW: It's call and response. Mobilizing the base can be good, but if you want to convince some uncommitted people that maybe your views have some merit, there's value in having an ideologically diverse community.
Right after the Iraq war, I made a point of featuring conservatives who had opposed the war, so folks could see that you could be a conservative without being a hawk.
TM: How long are these conversations?
RW: People do it for free, and I want them to enjoy it, so I don't impose a strict time limit. The whole thing is there unedited, but we also make it accessible, sorted by topics. You'll find five-, six-, seven-minute clips on the site.
TM: Why did you write The Evolution of God?
RW: I guess I had it vaguely in mind for a long time. Well before 9/11, I'd been interested in relations among the world's religions -- how they were going to modernize and try to stay compatible with the scientific world view and all that.
After 9/11, the question of how the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- were going to reconcile themselves with one another acquired a new urgency.
Asking whether Islam -- or any other faith -- is a religion of peace or of war, is just a dumb question. I don't want to offend anybody, but all religions have their good moments and bad moments. In the scriptures of all of them you see belligerent passages and you see tolerant passages. I wanted to look at what circumstances gave rise to those two kinds of scriptures.
What was going on on the ground when, in the book of Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites to annihilate all nearby people who don't worship him? And what's going on in other parts of the Hebrew bible, when the Israelites say to a neighbor, "You've got your God, we've got our God, can't we get along?"
You see the same kind of variation in all the Abrahamic scriptures. I wanted to know how you account for the difference, hoping that would tell us something about what circumstances bring out the best and worst in a religion today. That's the basic mission.
TM: Religion has to do with building constituencies, survival, expansion, so the political, economic and cultural circumstances of the moment mean a lot.
RW: To a large extent, the mood of a religion is a function of the material, political and economic facts on the ground. It's a little Marxist, not in the sense of anticipating the triumph of communism, but in the sense of seeing a material basis for a lot of what happens in the world of culture and ideas.
This is a more important issue than I think people realize. On the right in particular, you hear that religions have an eternal character; Islam is a religion of violence; there's no point in making concessions or addressing grievances. This is a consequence of viewing a religion as unchanging, with an intrinsic and essential character, impervious to changes in the material world.
In fact, I object when some of the so-called New Atheists talk as if religion is an intrinsically bad thing, because I believe they're giving aid and comfort to the right.
TM: How so?
RW: Chris Hitchens, who favored the invasion of Iraq and is to the right on some foreign-policy positions, talks as if religions have this eternal character. Sam Harris may not consider himself on the right, but he has written that there is no point in looking for the root causes of terrorism because it flows through religion, and so on.
I'm very much against this idea and very much for the idea that you can change the mood of a religion and relations among religions by addressing issues on the ground. Judging by the speech he gave in Cairo, President Obama clearly buys into this idea as well.
TM: I interviewed Reza Aslan recently regarding his book How to Win a Cosmic War. He's referring to a religious war that is ultimately unwinnable because it pits good versus evil. His final message: You cannot win a cosmic war, so don't engage in one. Instead, address the actual grievances that fuel conflict, and you can make progress.
RW: I found a basic pattern in ancient times, as well as now: When a group of people believes they can gain through peaceful interaction with others, it brings out the tolerance of their culture and their religion.
Imagine you're competing with somebody for a job or a mate. That's a zero-sum game -- one of you is going to win, one of you is going to lose. You tend to evaluate them not very favorably; you're looking for flaws. That's the way rivalry and competition works. Whereas if you look at somebody and believe you can do a deal or you can work together, then you want to find reasons to like them, you want to judge them tolerantly.
I think that's the basic dynamic that brings out the best and the worst in a religion, and I found it in all three scriptures, the Hebrew bible, the New Testament and the Quran.
TM: The game theory terms zero-sum and non-zero-sum appear fairly central to how you approach things.
RW: There are two basic kinds of games: the zero-sum game is the kind most of us are familiar with, where there's a winner and a loser. When you play tennis with somebody, every point is going to be good for one of you, bad for the other. Your fortunes are exactly inversely correlated.
With a non-zero-sum game, however, there is some degree of correlation in your fortunes. Playing tennis doubles, you're in a completely non-zero-sum relationship with the person on your side of the net, because every point is either good for both of you or bad for both of you.
In the real world, you seldom find either extreme. You find a lot of positive correlations in fortune, though you rarely find a completely positive correlation. For example, the global economy went downhill, and people are suffering all over the world. Globalizing the economy puts people in a non-zero-sum situation, because to some extent their fortunes are correlated.
Economics per se tends to be non-zero-sum, because -- though they may turn out to be wrong, -- both people in an economic exchange are under the impression that they gain. Buying something in a store, you'd rather have the merchandise than the money you're handing over; the merchant would rather have the money than the merchandise.
TM: But your negotiation can be zero-sum.
RW: Right. If you're at a car dealer, and you've decided any price under $20,000 works for you, while the car dealer knows he or she can make money at anything over $19,000, then the bargaining takes place between 19 and 20. That's a totally zero-sum game.
TM: So the purchase of the car is non-zero-sum, but the negotiation between buyer and seller is zero-sum.
RW: There's a zero-sum range of bargaining, but if the deal falls apart, you both lose. That's the interesting tension: You both act as if you're willing to bail, though neither of you wants it to fall apart.
Usually in life there's a combination of zero-sum and non-zero-sum dynamics. You're friends with others because you have some commonality of interests.
TM: And you've both decided that there's mutual gain.
RW: The emotions that undergird friendship evolved by natural selection because they were conducive to non-zero-sum interaction. If you're talking with someone you don't know very well, but you find you have a shared interest -- baseball, a political cause -- you'll warm up to them without necessarily calculating that collaboration will be in your interest.
This is what underlies the dynamic I'm talking about with religions. When you think people are not a threat, you tend to judge their religion more tolerantly. Hamas may say they'll never accept the existence of Israel. That may be their stated position, but human nature makes people's affiliations and relationships more malleable than that.
Ultimately, this is based on a somewhat cynical view of human nature: that people don't actually have very fixed principles. If it's in their interest to change their view on certain things, they tend to do it. So the key is to make it in the interests of people to live in peace. Sometimes the way to lead people to moral truth is to make it in their interest.
TM: Let's look at Hamas and Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been allowed to actually govern in Lebanon, and it has moderated their politics. When Hamas won the Palestinian election, I thought that if they had to fix potholes and meet budgets, they were more likely to moderate. But the U.S., Israel and others wouldn't allow them to govern. That's an opportunity lost, do you agree?
RW: To show you how naive I am, when Hamas won the election, I assumed surely we can't say we were just kidding, you don't get to govern. But that's exactly what we did.
TM: Engagement is a non-zero-sum game.
RW: Economic engagement is. That's why blockading Gaza until the religious extremists moderate their views puts the cart before the horse. You moderate people's views by getting them in a non-zero-sum relationship. So much was backwards during the Bush years.
During the recent war on Hamas in Gaza, people asked why Hezbollah wasn't jumping in. Well for one thing, they were legitimate political actors in Lebanon, and they had an interest in behaving in a more responsible fashion.
TM: So with religions over time, when they engage in non-zero-sum games, they're likely to move toward common interests.
RW: I argue that monotheism doesn't emerge in Israel until the Babylonian exile in the mid-first millennium BCE, later than a lot of believing Christians and Jews would have it.
And I think what drove Israel to monotheism was a very zero-sum view of the world. They were a small nation in a bad neighborhood, and they got pushed around a lot, especially by the great powers -- Egypt and Syria and so on.
Prophets who argued before the exile that Jews should only worship Yahweh were saying don't worship the gods of other nations. They were nationalists and had a very negative view of interacting with other nations. And there was some basis for their belief, because things hadn't worked out well for Israel.
When Israel is conquered by the Babylonians, Israelite elites are sent to Babylon. Then Persia conquers the Babylonians, and Cyrus the Great of Persia sends them back to Israel. Now, Israel is in a much more secure environment, surrounded by countries that are also part of the Persian empire. So it can trade with them and won't get invaded by them.