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.

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