Religion as Game Theory

No matter what topic I write about on this blog, most of my comments sections evolve into a heated debate about the relative merits of Islam. This is partly because tensions between certain Muslim nations and the United States are at an all time high and have an impact on world politics. It is also because one of my readers has devoted a good portion of his time to tracking every perceived slip made by a Muslim anywhere in the world. He documents these slips regularly in the comments section of this blog.

So it was with great interest that I stumbled upon an article in Time magazine by Robert Wright. Wright, as it turns out, is the primary mover and shaker behind a favorite web site of mine,, where two people, usually authors, record a webcam teleconference between themselves and we get to watch them debate. This Time article was an excerpt from Wright’s latest book The Evolution of God. It’s always a thrill when you read an article that fits neatly into your world view and this one did just that.

Wright uses a concept from game theory, the zero-sum game, to explain the changing “moods” of God throughout scripture, both Judeo-Christian and Muslim. Essentially, his thesis is that when religious interpreters had a zero-sum approach, i.e. one man’s gain is another man’s loss, the result was an intolerant religion and an intolerant God. On the flipside, when a non-zero-sum approach prevailed, religious tolerance was the result.

The ancient Israelites got straightforward guidance from Scripture on how to handle people who didn’t worship Israel’s god, Yahweh. “You shall annihilate them — the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites — just as the Lord your God has commanded.”

The point of this exercise, explained the Book of Deuteronomy, was to make sure the “abhorrent” religions of nearby peoples didn’t rub off on Israelites.

Yet sometimes the Israelites were happy to live in peace with neighbors who worshipped alien gods. In the Book of Judges, an Israelite military leader proposes a live-and-let-live arrangement with the Ammonites: “Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess? And should we not be the ones to possess everything that our god Yahweh has conquered for our benefit?”

The Bible isn’t the only Scripture with such vacillations between belligerence and tolerance. Muslims, who like Christians and Jews worship the God who revealed himself to Abraham, are counseled in one part of the Koran to “kill the polytheists wherever you find them.” But another part prescribes a different stance toward unbelievers, “To you be your religion; to me my religion.”

In the case of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Wright traces the vacillation between tolerance and intolerance back to Solomon:

Solomon believed Israel could benefit — economically and otherwise — by staying on good terms with nearby nations. As game theorists say, he saw relations with other nations as non-zero-sum; the fortunes of Israel and other nations were positively correlated, so outcomes could be win-win or lose-lose. His warmth toward those religions was a way of making the win-win outcome more likely.

Again and again in the Bible, this perception of non-zero-sumness underlies religious tolerance. This doesn’t mean religious tolerance is always consciously calculated. The human mind does lots of subterranean work to pave the way for social success. But whether the calculation is conscious or not, people are more open to the religious beliefs of other people if they sense a non-zero-sum dynamic.

Wright goes on to discuss those who followed Solomon and how polytheism was increasingly viewed as a threat. As monotheism took hold, so did religious intolerance. As paranoia increased, so did intolerance:

In 586 B.C.E., Israelite élites were exiled to Babylon after conquest by the neo-Babylonian Empire. In passages from Isaiah that are thought to have been written during the exile, Yahweh says unequivocally, “Besides me there is no god.” Does this extreme intolerance of other gods — the denial of their very existence — flow from a zero-sum view of Israel’s environs?

It would seem so. The author of these monotheistic passages (known by scholars as second Isaiah, to distinguish him from the author of earlier chapters in Isaiah) sees an Israel long tormented by “oppressors” who are due for a comeuppance. The punishment that Isaiah envisions for these enemies seems to include subjugation and, as a bonus, the news that their gods don’t exist. Isaiah’s God promises the Israelites that, come the apocalypse, people from Egypt and elsewhere will “come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying, ‘God is with you alone, and there is no other; there is no God besides him.'” So there.

Happily, after the exile, life got more non-zero-sum. The Babylonians who had conquered Israel were in turn conquered by the Persians, who returned the exiles to their homeland. Israel was no longer in a bad neighborhood. Nearby nations were now fellow members of the Persian Empire and so no longer threats. And, predictably, books of the Bible typically dated as postexilic, such as Ruth and Jonah, strike a warm tone toward peoples — Moabites and Assyrians — that in pre-exilic times had been vilified.

This zig-zag between the win-win and win-lose attitude was not limited to Judaism.

Muhammad’s preaching career started in Mecca around 613 C.E., and he seems to have had hopes of drawing Jews and Christians into a common faith. In the Koran — which Muslims consider the word of God as spoken by Muhammad — the Prophet’s followers are told to say to fellow Abrahamics, “Our God and your God is one.”

This hope of playing a win-win game shows up in overtures to Jews in particular, made mainly after Muhammad moved to the city of Medina and became its political and religious leader. Muhammad decided his followers should have an annual 24-hour fast, as Jews did on Yom Kippur. He even called it Yom Kippur — at least he used the term some Arabian Jews were using for Yom Kippur. The Jewish ban on eating pork was mirrored in a Muslim ban. Muhammad also told his followers to pray facing Jerusalem. He said God, in his “prescience,” chose “the children of Israel … above all peoples.”

As for Christians: having denounced polytheists who believed Allah had daughters, Muhammad couldn’t now embrace the idea that Jesus was God’s son. But he came close. He said Jesus was “the Messiah … the Messenger of God, and His Word … a Spirit from Him.” God, according to the Koran, gave Jesus the Gospel and “put into the hearts of those who followed him kindness and compassion.”

However, Muhammad sensed rejection from Jews and Christians alike and this altered his view of any possible win-win relationship:

In his new, zero-sum mode, Muhammad changed the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. According to Islamic tradition, he expelled three tribes of Jews from Medina — and killed the adult males in the third tribe, which was suspected of collaborating with Meccans in a battle against Medina.

After Muhammad’s death the concept of Jihad emerged (intolerance) but later was softened to encompass a greater jihad or a “struggle within oneself toward goodness” as Wright puts it. Again a move from intolerance to tolerance. Wright’s excerpt concludes by re-iterating the win-win that can be found in both Judaism and Islam:

Isaiah (first Isaiah, not the Isaiah of the exile) envisioned a day when God “shall arbitrate for many peoples” and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And in a Koranic verse dated by scholars to the final years of Muhammad’s life, God tells humankind that he has “made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.”

This happy ending is hardly assured. It can take time for people, having seen that they are playing a non-zero-sum game, to adjust their attitudes accordingly. And this adaptation may never happen if barriers of mistrust persist.

But at least we can quit talking as if this adaptation were impossible — as if intolerance and violence were inevitable offshoots of monotheism. At least we can quit asking whether Islam — or Judaism or any other religion — is a religion of peace. The answer is no. And yes. It says so in the Bible, and in the Koran.

Wright, who in his discussion of The Evolution of  God, says he has an affinity for Buddhism, confirms in this Time excerpt exactly what I have believed about organized religion. Religion is informed by politics as much as it is informed by the “word of God”. A religion’s tendency toward peace or terrorism is  a by product of its interpreters and those interpreters were shaped by the times in which they lived.

Islam, Christianity and Judaism encompass the greatest expressions of love and the most savage expressions of evil. Such must be the case as religion is the expression of God skewed through the imperfect lens of human beings.


If you would like to hear Wright discuss his book and you have an hour to invest, I strongly recommend that you visit His discussion ends with a section called “Quantum physics and king-sized video games as paths to God” in which he argues that atheism is more or less an ignorant refusal to wrestle with the wonder that is our world and the possibility that even if we say this life is a “simulation”, then what do we label the author of the simulation, the “hacker” so to speak? Wouldn’t that be God? Political Blogger Alliance