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When Faith Turns Deadly

Larry Beinhart, author of <i>Wag the Dog</i>, discusses religion, politics and hucksters in his new novel.

Larry Beinhart's thrillers are not only pointedly political, but also, as they say on Law and Order , ripped from the day's headlines. In The Librarian , he tackled dirty tricks in national political campaigns; in American Hero -- which became the movie Wag the Dog , with Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman -- Beinhart looked at the ease with which the media can be manipulated to sow fear of national-security threats to an often-insular public.

In his new novel, Salvation Boulevard , Beinhart drills into the nexus between religious fundamentalism, politics and the deadly ways the two often mix. AlterNet recently asked Beinhart to shed some light on a touchy subject.

Joshua Holland: All your books have a political component -- and of course you write nonfiction as well. Tell me about the larger themes you were trying to tease out in this book?

Larry Beinhart: The pitch meeting summary is: The corpse is an atheist professor, the accused an Islamic foreign student, the defense attorney is a Jewish lawyer, the investigator is a born-again Christian -- The Mystery is God. God is the great mystery. Does God exist or not? If not, why do so many believe? And why do people believe so fervently they will kill and die for their belief in a particular version of God? One that is, to an outsider, indistinguishable from several others.

If God does exist, why doesn't he tell a straight story, once and for all? (Yes, I know that each believer in each version believes he has, but not so that he could convince a jury consisting of believers in a variety of the others.) If God is a delusion, and a delusion is, by definition dysfunctional, how come I have so many delusional friends who are wealthier, more successful and apparently happier than I am?

In order to answer those questions successfully, we need to answer, or at least encounter, a bunch of the other long-term puzzles of philosophy. Questions like: What is truth? How do we determine truth? Can religion be studied by science? What is science?

And if morality doesn't come from God, where does it come from? To answer that, we have to figure out what morality is.

Now, I find such questions to be lots of fun. Many people find them stressful or tedious. My solution to that is to put only the tips of the icebergs in the book and put the full bergs (there's a Jewish joke in there somewhere) in a series of upcoming articles on AlterNet and on my blog,

While the novel itself is full of drama, intrigue, some kinky sex, a slug from a 9mm, a touch of torture here and there (hey, it was written in the Age of Bush), schemes and double-crosses.

Religion is the major cause, or at least the major excuse for, mass violence in the 21st century. Late in the 20th, we saw the reemergence of the theocratic state. In the hard sense, as the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the soft sense, as the domination of America by the Republican Party, a party which exists in a state of codependency with the religious right.

There is also a structural issue that relates to economics. People have theological attitudes about economic theory. Marxism (may it rest in peace) was long criticized as being like a religion, a faith that instructed its followers to leave reason and reality behind and that did so successfully. The same may be said, accurately, of the neo-free-marketeers.

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