Thursday, April 30, 2009

Religion and Globalization

Robert Wright has a provocative article on religion and globalization. I've been a long time fan of Wright through his books A Moral Animal and Non-Zero. This is a long article, but very much worth your time to read it. Creative, brilliant, and mind-blowing. Typical Robert Wright.

Some background on Wright. He is an evolutionist and atheist, however he is empathetic to claims about the existence of God; while he doesn't personally believe, he can understand, through history, the possibility of divine guidance. He posits, via the evolutionary model, that the trajectory of earth's history goes from simplicity to complexity through non-zero sum relationships - basically two entities, human or non-, working together in mutually beneficial relationships.

Back to the article. Using the socio-historic contexts of the earliest phases of the Christian movement as a template, Wright seeks to understand how the Abrhamic traditions can peacefully co-exist in an age of globalization. Money quote:
In any event, whether or not history has a purpose, its moral direction is hard to deny. Since the Stone Age, the scope of social organization has expanded, from hunter-gatherer society through city-state through empire and beyond. And often this expansion has entailed the extension of mutual understanding across bounds of ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Indeed, it turns out that formative periods in both Islam and Judaism evince the same dynamic as early Christianity: an imperial, multiethnic milieu winds up fostering a tolerance of other ethnicities and faiths.

Now, as we approach the global level of social organization—and see the social order threatened by strife among these Abrahamic religions—another burst of moral progress is needed. Success is hardly guaranteed, but at least the early history of Christianity and indeed of all Abrahamic faiths gives cause for hope. However bleak a globalizing world may look at times, the story could still have a happy ending, an ending that brings out the best in religion as religion brings out the best in people.

Using biblical scholarship and textual criticism, however suspect in my opinion, Wright shows that the early phases of the Christian movement, seen through the marketing and management skills of Paul, were predicated, via enlightened self-interest, on brotherly love and ethnic toleration. The early histories of post-exile Judaism and Islam both highlight a similar pattern. As such, there is a time-tested moral principle that can guide the Abrahamic religions through the growing pains of globalization. Saith Wright:

For all three Abrahamic faiths, then, tolerance and even amity across ethnic and national bounds have a way of emerging as a product of utility; when you can do well by doing good, doing good can acquire a scriptural foundation. This flexibility is heartening for those who believe that, in a highly globalized and interdependent world, the vast majority of people in all three Abrahamic faiths have more to gain through peaceful coexistence and cooperation than through intolerance and violence. If ancient Abrahamics could pen laudable scriptures that were in their enlightened self-interest, then maybe modern Abrahamics can choose to emphasize those same scriptures when it’s in their interest.
But if, as a matter of fact, the prudent pursuit of self-interest has over time led humanity closer to a moral truth—namely, that people of all ethnicities and faiths deserve respect—that lends at least some heft to the argument that there is a larger purpose in human affairs.

The scriptures do strengthen this argument—not by
asserting it but by corroborating it. In all three Abrahamic religions, amity and tolerance cross national or ethnic bounds when people feel they can gain more through peaceful interaction than through conflict. And the fact is that history has relentlessly expanded the range across which these dynamics hold.
Wright then draws out and inter-relates his non-zero sum theory:
To put the point more technically: history expands the range of non-zero-sum relationships—relationships in which two parties can both win if they collaborate, or lose if they don’t. Technological evolution (wheels, roads, cuneiform, alphabets, trains, microchips) has placed more and more people in non-zero-sum relationship with more and more other people at greater and greater distances—and often across ethnic, national, and religious bounds.
Globalization is the culmination of this trend, and it features so many non-zero-sum filaments that we lose sight of them. ... “[T]he Muslim world” and “the West” are playing a non-zero-sum game; their fortunes are positively correlated. 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.
He concludes, using this trajectory, with a possible positive eschatology. While I question his biblical hermeneutic, I do find this a dialogue-provoking and entertainable argument.

What do you think?

1 comment:

Brandon W. said...

WRT our conversation the other night, you already know what I think...agree or disagree with him, Wright is usually brilliant always worth reading. I don't really agree w/ his hermeneutic either, but I like the last it an eschatology an atheist can believe in ;-)