Tag: religion

Robert Wright at Cato Unbound

This month’s Cato Unbound features Robert Wright, who offers us an excerpt from his new book, The Evolution of God. He looks at the possibility of religious tolerance from a game theoretic and evolutionary psychology perspective: Is there a fundamental “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West? Or just a communication failure? Wright argues that we can work toward understanding by realizing the limits and biases of human moral reasoning:

You might not guess it to read the headlines, but by and large the relationship between “the West” and “the Muslim World” is non-zero-sum. To be sure, the relationship between some Muslims and the West is zero-sum. Terrorist leaders have aims that are at odds with the welfare of Westerners. The West’s goal is to hurt their cause, to deprive them of new recruits and of political support. But if we take a broader view—look not at terrorists and their supporters but at Muslims in general, look not at radical Islam but at Islam—the “Muslim world” and the “West” are playing a non-zero-sum game; their fortunes are positively correlated. And the reason is that what’s good for Muslims broadly is bad for radical Muslims. If Muslims get less happy with their place in the world, more resentful of their treatment by the West, support for radical Islam will grow, so things will get worse for the West. If, on the other hand, more and more Muslims feel respected by the West and feel they benefit from involvement with it, that will cut support for radical Islam, and Westerners will be more secure from terrorism.

This isn’t an especially arcane piece of logic. The basic idea is that terrorist leaders are the enemy and they thrive on the discontent of Muslims—and if what makes your enemy happy is the discontent of Muslims broadly, then you should favor their contentment. Obviously. Indeed this view has become conventional wisdom: if the West can win the “hearts and minds” of Muslims, it will have “drained the swamp” in which terrorists thrive. In that sense, there is widespread recognition in the West of the non-zero-sum dynamic.

But this recognition hasn’t always led to sympathetic overtures from Westerners toward Muslims. The influential evangelist Franklin Graham declared that Muslims don’t worship the same god as Christians and Jews and that Islam is a “very evil and wicked religion.” That’s no way to treat people you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with! And Graham is not alone. Lots of evangelical Christians and other Westerners view Muslims with suspicion, and view relations between the West and the Muslim world as a “clash of civilizations.” And many Muslims view the West in similarly win-lose terms.

So what’s going on here? Where’s the part of human nature that was on display in ancient times—the part that senses whether you’re in the same boat as another group of people and, if you are, fosters sympathy for or at least tolerance of them?

It’s in there somewhere, but it’s misfiring. And one big reason is that our mental equipment for dealing with game-theoretical dynamics was designed for a hunter-gatherer environment, not for the modern world. That’s why dealing with current events wisely requires strenuous mental effort—effort that ultimately, as it happens, could bring moral progress.

Some Early Thoughts on Obama’s Speech

I listened live to the president’s Cairo speech this morning on my ride into work. I know that it will be parsed and dissected. Passages will be taken out of context, and sentences twisted beyond recognition. At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups.

That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising. He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions – including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda – that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

Two particular comments jumped out at me (the speech text can be found here):

1. The president clearly stated his goals for the U.S. military presence in Iraq. He pledged to “honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically-elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July,” “the removal of our combat brigades by next August,” and “to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012.”

This might not seem like much. As noted, it is the established policy of the U.S. government and the Iraqi government under the status of forces agreement. Some recent comments by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, however, implied that U.S. troops might remain in Iraq for a decade. I’m glad that the president cleared up the confusion.

2. President Obama wisely connected U.S. policy in the 21st century to its founding principles from the earliest days to remind his audience – or perhaps to teach them for the very first time – that the United States was not now, nor ever has been, at war with Islam, or with any other religion. George Washington affirmed the importance of religious equality in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. President Obama quoted John Adams, who saw no reason why the United States could not enjoy good relations with Morocco, the first country to recognize the United States. When signing the Treaty of Tripoli, Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”

But the president also drew on the Founders to convey a broader message. They believed that the new nation should advance human rights and the cause of liberty by its example, not by military force. Some of our recent leaders seem to have forgotten that, and a few pundits have actually scorned the suggestion. The president wisely cast his lot with the earlier generation, quoting Thomas Jefferson who said “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

It is a good quote. I use it in my book, too.