09/07/2013 11:25 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

Syria: The Error of Religious Pacifism and the Science of Peace

As someone who works with refugees, I hate war. As someone who lives in America's happiest city, I treasure peace. Yet, for all that, I am distressed to see the groundswell of opposition to punishing the Syrian regime.

We blundered into Iraq buoyed by Neocon delusions that "shock and awe" would be followed by rose petals and hugs. Bitterly disillusioned by the gruesome realities of that war and its aftermath, not to mention Afghanistan, Libya, and the no-win dilemma in Egypt, many of us want nothing more to do with Middle East carnage.

A new wave of isolationism has gripped much of the GOP. Some of it, such as Sen. Inhofe's sudden conversion from war-mongering to peace-on-the-cheap, is no more than cynical anti-Obamaism.

Even worse is the revival of "principled" isolationism on the right. It's the "I don't give a damn about anyone who isn't one of us" principle.

But the right is not alone in its opposition. Much of the left, especially the religious left, is passionately opposed to bombing Syria. It's the first time left and right have been together since, let's see, oh, yes, the rise of the Third Reich. Then, the America First Committee joined strange bedfellows such as Sargent Shriver and Col. McCormack to let Hitler overrun Europe. If the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor, the Nazis might now be 80 years into their thousand-year reign.

There are sincere religious arguments for staying our hand. Theology Professor Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has conveniently gathered them into a list of ten. No. 1: pray and fast. She has some putatively practical suggestions as well: call for a ceasefire, help refugees, and hold Assad "personally accountable."

I sympathize. I recognize that taking a stand for peace fulfills our sense of moral virtue. Unfortunately, sincerity is no substitute for wisdom. People forget that the initial protests in Syria were peaceful. They were met with indiscriminate torture, humiliation, and slaughter. Infamously, a 13-year-old boy suspected of chalking an anti-regime slogan on a wall was castrated and tortured to death by regime forces.

The world responded with denunciations and impotent calls for a cease-fire. Instead, a full-blown civil war erupted. What reason is there to suppose that calls for a ceasefire today will be any more effective? As for prayer, Abraham Lincoln long ago observed that in war all sides pray to the same deity. God, however, has an unblemished record of nonintervention.

Should we follow His example? No. The rapidly growing science of human nature teaches us some key lessons. First, nonviolence can work. Indeed, several studies show that nonviolent resistance movements succeed much more often than violent ones.

However, nonviolence only works under certain conditions. One is that the nonviolent resisters must trust each other enough to hang together when the oppressors tried to divide them. That condition never existed in Syria. Another is that the oppressors have some sense of restraint. A system willing to inflict maximal violence on unarmed people can rarely be dislodged by nonviolent protest. Tanks in Tiananmen Square and Tibet, the Burmese army in Rangoon, and the Red Army in Prague all overwhelmed peaceful protest through brute force. The Assad regime has a dynastic tradition of mass slaughter to maintain its power.

But history is merely suggestive. The science of game theory, and real world experiments on its implications, show that to achieve a just and cooperative world, we must be willing to punish bad actors.

Despite its name, game theory is serious business. By reducing behaviors to their simplest possible parameters, and by introducing real incentives (usually cash payments or losses) investigators are able to see how various people behave under experimental conditions. Participants play simple games in which cooperation pays modestly, but cheaters can prosper handsomely at the expense of others -- unless retaliation or punishment is introduced. When that is possible, a stable, optimal strategy emerges: always play nice, unless someone cheats. Then, even if you are not the victim, punish the cheater -- but not too harshly. Excessive punishment leads to cycles of revenge.

With variations (including occasional forgiveness!), billions of computer simulations have backed up these insights. No one has done more to put these insights to work in the real world than evolutionary biologist and anthropologist David Sloan Wilson. His work with low-income, at-risk kids in the Binghamton, New York, school system has shown several important results. One is that people's behavior is malleable according to local conditions. In a neighborhood where violence, theft, and neglect are common young people tend to behave in antisocial ways.

But put those same young people in an environment that is safe, just, and rewarding of cooperative behavior, and they are transformed. A key point, however, is that antisocial behavior must be swiftly and proportionately punished. In any group where cooperators and cheaters coexist, the cheaters always prosper at the expense of the cooperators unless they are suppressed. (You can see Wilson's lecture on this topic here.)

Will sending a few dozen cruise missiles into Damascus bring peace to Syria? No. Will innocents be hurt or killed by our policy? Perhaps, but that is also true of our policies of allowing cars to exceed 25 mph, vaccinating children, and permitting the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables. In each, a greater good outweighs the tragic consequences.

Might things get worse before they get better? Quite possibly. But shrugging our shoulders or merely praying for peace while letting indiscriminate slaughter by a tyrannical government go unpunished will certainly embolden psychopaths everywhere. And that, eventually, will hit home.