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What Makes Religion a Force for Good or Evil?

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By Terrence McNally and Robert Wright, AlterNet

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

TM: And bloggingheads.tv?

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.

TM: Who will visitors find there?

RW: People on both the left and right. I discovered that unless there's some degree of disagreement, it's not interesting to people. And if you're not forcing fireworks, it can be illuminating to see both sides of an issue. We have a fairly ideologically diverse comment section, which is rare. The Web naturally creates "preaching to the choir" sites.

TM: And the choir replies, just as they do in church.

RW: It's call and response. Mobilizing the base can be good, but if you want to convince some uncommitted people that maybe your views have some merit, there's value in having an ideologically diverse community.

Right after the Iraq war, I made a point of featuring conservatives who had opposed the war, so folks could see that you could be a conservative without being a hawk.

TM: How long are these conversations?

RW: People do it for free, and I want them to enjoy it, so I don't impose a strict time limit. The whole thing is there unedited, but we also make it accessible, sorted by topics. You'll find five-, six-, seven-minute clips on the site.

TM: Why did you write The Evolution of God?

RW: I guess I had it vaguely in mind for a long time. Well before 9/11, I'd been interested in relations among the world's religions -- how they were going to modernize and try to stay compatible with the scientific world view and all that.

After 9/11, the question of how the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- were going to reconcile themselves with one another acquired a new urgency.

Asking whether Islam -- or any other faith -- is a religion of peace or of war, is just a dumb question. I don't want to offend anybody, but all religions have their good moments and bad moments. In the scriptures of all of them you see belligerent passages and you see tolerant passages. I wanted to look at what circumstances gave rise to those two kinds of scriptures.

What was going on on the ground when, in the book of Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites to annihilate all nearby people who don't worship him? And what's going on in other parts of the Hebrew bible, when the Israelites say to a neighbor, "You've got your God, we've got our God, can't we get along?"

You see the same kind of variation in all the Abrahamic scriptures. I wanted to know how you account for the difference, hoping that would tell us something about what circumstances bring out the best and worst in a religion today. That's the basic mission.

TM: Religion has to do with building constituencies, survival, expansion, so the political, economic and cultural circumstances of the moment mean a lot.

RW: To a large extent, the mood of a religion is a function of the material, political and economic facts on the ground. It's a little Marxist, not in the sense of anticipating the triumph of communism, but in the sense of seeing a material basis for a lot of what happens in the world of culture and ideas.

This is a more important issue than I think people realize. On the right in particular, you hear that religions have an eternal character; Islam is a religion of violence; there's no point in making concessions or addressing grievances. This is a consequence of viewing a religion as unchanging, with an intrinsic and essential character, impervious to changes in the material world.

In fact, I object when some of the so-called New Atheists talk as if religion is an intrinsically bad thing, because I believe they're giving aid and comfort to the right.

TM: How so?

RW: Chris Hitchens, who favored the invasion of Iraq and is to the right on some foreign-policy positions, talks as if religions have this eternal character. Sam Harris may not consider himself on the right, but he has written that there is no point in looking for the root causes of terrorism because it flows through religion, and so on.

I'm very much against this idea and very much for the idea that you can change the mood of a religion and relations among religions by addressing issues on the ground. Judging by the speech he gave in Cairo, President Obama clearly buys into this idea as well.

more...

http://www.alternet.org/rights/141225/what...r_good_or_evil/

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Nudist pastor to hold naked services

A naturist church minister has called on like-minded Christians to join him in celebrating religion in the nude.

230771.jpg

Pastor Robert Wright, 51, is to hold weekly fellowship meetings at a nudist resort near Brisbane, reports the Australian Daily Telegraph.

Mr Wright, who has been a naturist for more than 16 years, said: "I am not trying to get Christians to become nudists, I am catering for Christians who are nudists."

Mr Wright, who was ordained three years ago, is also to open a naked music festival at nearby Cabarita and lead services there.

Even security guards will be naked at the event, Raw Cabarita, which promises "an awesome three-day party where clothes aren't necessary".

But Mr Wright added: "Nude is not rude, and the festival will not be like a '69 Woodstock-type thing.

"There are more Christians in it than people realise. We are not into sex orgies, we are very well-adjusted people."

http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_1324405.html

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Nudist pastor to hold naked services

A naturist church minister has called on like-minded Christians to join him in celebrating religion in the nude.

230771.jpg

Pastor Robert Wright, 51, is to hold weekly fellowship meetings at a nudist resort near Brisbane, reports the Australian Daily Telegraph.

Mr Wright, who has been a naturist for more than 16 years, said: "I am not trying to get Christians to become nudists, I am catering for Christians who are nudists."

Mr Wright, who was ordained three years ago, is also to open a naked music festival at nearby Cabarita and lead services there.

Even security guards will be naked at the event, Raw Cabarita, which promises "an awesome three-day party where clothes aren't necessary".

But Mr Wright added: "Nude is not rude, and the festival will not be like a '69 Woodstock-type thing.

"There are more Christians in it than people realise. We are not into sex orgies, we are very well-adjusted people."

http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_1324405.html

should be interesting when they get to the staff of life discussion.


* ~ * Charles * ~ *
 

I carry a gun because a cop is too heavy.

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