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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.

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 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, and 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, which consisted of me interviewing people. At this point, it's essentially archival.

TM: And

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.

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