"Religion is not an adaptation," Robert Wright says in his Big Think interview. "That is, it's not here because it was conducive to the replication of the genes underlying it." But the author of "The Evolution of God" argues  that faith—and the moral reasoning that accompanies it—does have its roots in genetically based human traits such as the capacity for disgust and awe. And even the most seemingly changeless beliefs are in part a product of cultural evolution: witness the cleaning-up of Jesus's message.

Wright, a writer-journalist whose main subjects include game theory and evolutionary psychology, also argues that moral reasoning itself progresses over time, whether independent of religion or within it. Thus, while he believes certain religious beliefs must be discarded on the path to moral progress, he dissents from the "New Atheist" position that religion itself must be jettisoned. In fact, he foresees a realistic chance that religious strife will abate, not intensify, as the world becomes more interconnected.

Does this spell good news in the fight against Islamic terrorism? Don't bet on it. The "Nonzero" author is highly pessimistic about America's unevolved anti-terror strategy, and believes we'll need nothing short of an FDR-caliber speech about "fear itself" to set us on the right course.

(Image credit: Jacopo Werther)