What Makes Religion a Force for Good or Evil?

Christianity, Judaism and Islam are both peaceful and violent. Robert Wright discusses what circumstances bring out the best and worst in religion.

July 11, 2009|  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.

I argue that after the exile, you get much more charitable scriptures with respect to people like the Syrians and Molobites, who before the exile are often depicted unfavorably. If you look at the kind of theological language, even the terms they’re using for God, I think you get a more inclusive monotheism.

The monotheism that had emerged during the exile had a very belligerent kind of retributive air. In the part of Isaiah that they think was written during the exile, you see tremendous amounts of animosity towards the larger world.

But I think the monotheism acquires a more tolerant spirit after the exile. There’s the suggestion in some of the terminology favored by post-exilic authors of the Scripture that they’re buying into a notion of “the godhead,” where different gods are manifestations of a single God, a unified divinity.

Now that’s pretty speculative, but it’s been argued by people other than me, and I think it’s plausible. There’s a very curious fact about the nomenclature for God. There’s this term Elohim, favored by an author writing after the exile to refer to Yahweh, and Elohim is a plural noun. No one’s ever understood that, but some people think it’s a way of saying “these gods,” all the gods of the Persian empire.

After the exile, there is still tremendous animosity toward Egypt and Egyptian gods. They’re beyond the bounds of the empire, so it’s still zero-sum with Egypt.

TM: All of this fits into a bigger picture in which you speak of a direction or an arrow of history. Could you talk about that?

RW: There are two separate issues: whether there’s direction in both biological evolution and human history, and whether that direction signifies some kind of purpose. That’s one, that’s an analytical question.

There clearly has been a direction in the sense of growing complexity through biological evolution. That’s not to say that all organisms are always getting more complex, but if you go back to an earlier time and find the most complex organism, the envelope of complexity tends to rise with time.

And since cultural evolution started really moving 10,000 years ago, there’s a growing complexity of human societies. You go from hunter-gatherer village to agrarian chiefdom to ancient city-state and so on. Today, we’re on the verge of globalized organization. So there’s a direction toward growing complexity, that’s hard to deny.

It’s a separate and much more difficult question whether that signifies something you could in some sense call “purpose.” First of all, you can mean a lot of things by purpose.

Then the next question: Is the purpose on balance a good one? In other words, is the direction tending toward the good? And I don’t really have a simple answer to that question.

I’m not a technological utopian, but I do think there’s one dimension along which human history, broadly speaking, has brought moral progress. That’s expansion of the moral compass, in the sense of getting people to acknowledge the fundamental humanity of people of different ethnicities and nationalities.

As far as anthropologists and archeologists can tell, 15,000 years ago, if hunter-gatherers saw somebody they’d never seen before, and you didn’t know where they came from, and there were four of you and one of them, you’d probably kill him. Theirs was not a highly cosmopolitan situation.

TM: Within the hunter-gatherer village, it’s a different story. Everyone knows each other, everyone’s interdependent, and so morality is high.

RW: There can be fierce fighting in a hunter-gatherer village. There can be deaths, and villages even divide sometimes over fighting, but by and large, when you have to live with a small group of people day in day out, there’s a fairly simple system of moral self-regulation.

In The Evolution of God, I note that religion doesn’t have a big moral component in hunter-gatherer societies. The moral system works very simply, you don’t need extra incentives to be nice to people.

TM: So there are spirits, and there might be entities that regulate the sun and the weather and the harvest, all those sorts of things, but religion doesn’t need a moral dimension.

RW: But from the very beginning apparently, they do use religion to explain why good things happen and why bad things happen, and to try to increase the ratio of good to bad. From the beginning, religion was fundamentally about that.

TM: Within your own territory, self-interest serves morality, but strangers are a threat.

RW: Over the sweep of history, for reasons that I think are intelligible, social organization expands. You see more class differentiation and hierarchies of power grow more pronounced, but you also see movement toward a cosmopolitan ethos.

In America today, asked if most people of any race, creed or color are humans and should get minimal human rights, people say yes and mean it. They may sometimes honor it in the breach, but I believe the expansion of the moral compass in that one sense is built into the direction of history.

TM: Whereas long ago, someone from another tribe, someone you’d never met before, might not even be considered human.

RW: The language suggests that in some cases. Certainly they would not be accorded the rights that everyone in your village might take for granted.

TM: For the sake of perspective, many people would point to moral progress by saying we’ve done away with slavery. Yet, Kevin Bales, Ben Skinner, a lot of human-rights folks would say, not so fast, there are more slaves — that is, people that have no control over their lives or their work — than ever before, and they’re valued less than they ever were. How does that fit into this evolution of morality?

RW: When there are huge differentials of power, you can get away without acknowledging the significance of someone. If you’re doing business with people you have to give them minimal respect. If you’re going to buy cars from the Japanese, you can’t go around talking about them the way you did during World War II and treating them as if they were subhuman. That’s a case where they have some degree of economic power, they’re making something you need.

But when there are huge differentials of power, you don’t get the same thing. Now, as it happens, there are some people in every race, ethnicity or nationality who have enough power that they merit some degree of respect. So that has discouraged people from ruling whole ethnicities and whole nationalities out of the realm of humanity. But it’s certainly true that if huge discrepancies of power persist, individual people are likely to be exploited.

And modern information technology helps in some ways. More and more of this stuff is transparent; it’s easier to document and make vivid.

For example, we now know much more about what’s going on in China than during the Cold War. China wants to be part of the global economy, so they have to let people have cell phones and e-mail. They crack down on the Web, but it’s porous enough that we know more about what’s going on.

TM: We recently saw the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, which is still a secret to many people who live within China.

RW: The government certainly tries to keep it that way. The Chinese government doesn’t want to cede power, but when Chinese peasants use cell phones and so on to organize demonstrations and even riots, which they actually do a lot, the government, just for reasons of self-preservation, sometimes tries to address their grievances.

TM: Let me go back to one of the big questions. You’re willing to say that life or existence might have a larger or higher purpose. Now what do you mean by each of those terms, and where does religion fit into that for you?

RW: “Higher purpose” may be a misleading term, because I think when people think of higher purpose they think of some spooky, mystical force reaching down and messing with the system, and I’m not necessarily saying that.

In deism, which was popular among some of the Founding Fathers, there was a god that set up the universe, but it was like clockwork. He just wound up the clock, let it go, and forever after the material system unfolds. The kind of purpose I’m talking about could be something like that.

Particular kinds of directionality suggest purpose, but it doesn’t need some intelligence to set it in motion. It could perhaps be an unfolding algorithm, and, for some reason we don’t totally understand, it has these properties. I don’t mean to depart from a purely materialistic explanation of natural selection and human history.

TM: And you don’t need to.

RW: The technical term for purpose in philosophy is “teleology,” and I think a lot of people don’t realize you can have a purely materialist teleology.

Some philosophers are comfortable talking about organisms having a purpose built into them by natural selection. They might put the word purpose in quotes, but when an egg moves systematically toward maturation, they would call an organism a purposive system.

And they would say it was set in motion not by a creator, but by a system of natural selection. If I’m right, and the larger system itself has purpose, it could have been imbued by something like “meta-natural selection.”

I’m just saying that algorithms like natural selection don’t fall out of trees. There’s more directionality built into it than you would expect. If this sounds too spooky and weird, I’m not expressing myself clearly.

Or it could be spooky and weird, I’m not ruling that out either. In fact, modern science tells you things are spooky and weird: quantum physics.

TM: You raise the question: Is belief in God any weirder than belief in electrons?

RW: That’s in the afterward of the book, and the whole text is online. It’s very much in the spirit of an essay I read a long time ago by William James called “The Will to Believe.”

Scientists say, “Yes, I believe in electrons.” Now, it isn’t just that they’ve never seen one, it’s that we know from quantum physics that electrons are inconceivable. They have internally contradictory properties. You ask, “Is it a wave or a particle?” And they say, “Both.” And you say, “What do you mean both? I can’t conceive of that.”

TM: The human mind likes to think in “eithers” and “ors.”

RW: Saying it’s a particle is not a comprehensive ongoing explanation of an electron, it doesn’t account for all its behavior. In fact, there is no easily conceivable image that accounts for everything electrons do. It’s beyond human comprehension.

Some physicists would say, “I’m not sure electrons per se really exist. It is, however, useful to talk as if electrons exist. You get good scientific results using that kind of language.”

So the question I raise is, “If thinking of divinity as something that exists leads people to behave in a morally progressive fashion, might that give validity to a conception of divinity?” In much the way our belief in electrons is ultimately vindicated by the practical result that follows from believing in them.

When I first heard an argument very much like this from William James, I thought that’s nuts. Maybe I’m just getting old and softheaded.

TM: Is it enough to say that this line of thinking may not be as nuts as some people think it is?

RW: Yes. Have a little humility. This bothers me with some of the new atheist writing. Fact is, we just don’t know.

Strictly speaking, I don’t understand how people can call themselves atheists, if the term means you’re sure there’s no God. I don’t see how you can be sure of anything in this world. I’m technically an agnostic, although one with spiritual and religious leanings. But I don’t know anything, and I don’t know how anyone can say they know there’s no God.

If you have a religious experience and God appears, I can see how you’d be pretty convinced. Strictly speaking, you still don’t know that it’s not an illusion, but it’s easier for me to understand someone who says they’re a religious believer than somebody who says they’re an atheist. Because the religious believer says, “I saw it.”

TM: In high school, as I was moving away from Catholicism — now I’m basically “spiritual but not religious” — I would have debates. I can remember clear as a bell the moment when one friend of mine said, “You can’t argue me out of God; I’ve experienced him.” What could I say?

RW: I did a one-week meditation retreat: silence, 5 1/2 hours of sitting meditation a day, 5 1/2 hours of walking meditation, no news from the outside world, no phone calls, no speech. That was an amazing experience, not in an especially theistic sense.

It moved me to be much more appreciative of other beings in the world. I remember seeing weeds and thinking, “I can’t believe I killed these things, they’re beautiful.” And that’s really the truth. “Weed” is a label we’ve imposed.

TM: A dandelion, the scourge of people’s lawns, is nature’s geodesic dome. Buckminster Fuller could do no better.

RW: This gets at another thing William James said, that our ordinary state of consciousness, the one we use to drive to work and get through life, is just one possible state of consciousness, and there’s no reason to assume that it’s any more valid than a lot of other possible states. I think in some ways it’s manifestly less valid, because our ordinary state of consciousness was designed by natural selection to serve our own interests.

TM: It’s mainly about limiting and filtering.

RW: And it is an illusion.

TM: I recently interviewed Winifred Gallagher about her book Rapt. She points out that attention is mainly about cutting things out so we can function, because there’s too much going on.

RW: It’s not just that we narrow our focus, our whole evaluation of other people becomes subservient to our individual goals.

Getting back to what brings out the best and the worst in religions — when you’re in a zero-sum situation with another group, you tend to judge their religion uncharitably. Your evaluations are slaves to your self-interest. This was a fundamental insight of Buddhism way back: We go around evaluating everything all the time, and our evaluations are not fundamentally valid. They impose a self-serving, judgmental scheme on reality.

TM: One more big one: We’ve got some trends that are looking poorly now: climate change; the end of oil; huge inequities between and within societies; violent confrontations based on tribal, ethnic and religious differences, and so on. If you could stand in 2025 and look back, did humanity turn things around, and if so, how?

RW: Some of the things you laid out have non-zero-sum implications. It’s in the interests of people in lots of continents to solve climate change. Likewise, overfishing the seas or just keeping the global economy on track. To meet these challenges, it is in the interests of people to cooperate with others. And if they pursue those interests rationally, that will tend to subdue the other threat you mentioned, which is conflict among people and religions.

The argument in this book [is]: To the extent that we accurately perceive non-zero-sum relationships, we can be more tolerant of others and their religions.

Westerners are actually in a non-zero-sum relationship with Muslims for lots of reasons. If Muslims get less and less happy with their place in the world, that foments extremism and is bad for the West; and if they get happier, that’s good for the West.

As we both realize we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship, we will tend to judge them more charitably, they will tend to judge us more charitably.

I hate to say “them” and “us,” because I know there are lots of Muslims in the West, and the whole idea of a Muslim world is a vast oversimplification.

But you take my point. Once Israelis and Palestinians see that it’s “lose-lose” to leave their situation unresolved, then, assuming a certain amount of trust, you can start building the more charitable view of each other that fosters cooperation.

TM: Can you imagine how we’re going to get there?

RW: I think it takes leaders of vision and inspirational power, and I think Barack Obama is pretty good in that regard. I was very impressed by his Cairo speech. Very early on, I said this guy is well-positioned by background to teach the world that we all have an interest in cooperation, that violence is senseless and that we should come to our senses.

TM: I consider myself a progressive. When we find fault, myself and others, with the way he’s handling the bailout or Afghanistan, those are real arguments. But you know, he didn’t specifically say he was going to do too many of those things. He said he was going to change the way we deal with each other, the way we govern. He basically argued for a non-zero-sum worldview more than he argued for any one policy.

RW: He’s been more pragmatic on some political fronts than I would like, but in some areas I think he’s stuck to his guns. On Israel-Palestine, I’ve been impressed. I think for domestic political purposes, it would have been easier for him not to insist that the settlements be completely stopped.

I’ve been a little despondent over some of his compromises, but you can’t be picking a fight on every front at all times. To the extent that he’s focusing on global issues of international, transethnic and transreligious cooperation, I think that may be where he should put his chips. That may be where his assets can best be deployed.

You can learn more at evolutionofgod.net and bloggingheads.tv.

As seen on alternet.org


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