I have been re-reading Steven Pinker’s provocative book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). Briefly (and his argument is quite dense – 830 pages!) Pinker argues that mass violence and killing have steadily declined through the centuries, and that even the appalling wars of the twentieth century were far less destructive – in relation to global population – than were conflicts of ancient and medieval times. Interpersonal violence has also declined astonishingly, as measured for instance by homicide rates through the centuries.
The world can become less bloodthirsty and, says Pinker, it has. Strikingly, in trying to describe these changes, Pinker stresses values, and places in the foreground concepts of human worth and dignity. Among the factors that he cites for this great global transformation, he notes changes that have promoted the dignity of the individual, the sense of the worth of the person, as promoted through literacy, mobility, democracy and cosmopolitanism. Pinker also cites the growing role of women, of “feminization.” A far-reaching “rights revolution” has promoted an expansive sense of universal human rights, demanding concerted action against violators. He also describes “the escalator of reason,” the growing application of rational judgment to the prospect of conflict.
All the trends that Pinker describes are encouraging, indeed world-changing. Conceivably, their impact and their global span is vastly accelerated by new technologies, above all by social media. But I introduce a caveat. Pinker explains those developments in terms that are not just secular, but rigidly anti-religious, and in ways that deny history. For Pinker, secularization is inevitable, and highly desirable, a necessary component of global peace.
In making and defining the trends that he cites, though, religious leaders and their ideas are in fact critically important, though he rarely acknowledges this. This extends from the Jewish-rooted humanitarianism of Raphael Lemkin, one of the founding fathers of modern concepts of human rights – among other things, he coined the word “genocide” – to the extolling of human worth by Popes like John Paul II in the struggle against Communism.
Both these examples are familiar enough. Less so is the prophetic work of Pope Benedict XV in the First World War, a theme I have been addressing in my recent work on the religious aspects of that struggle. At a time when Christian leaders throughout the West were presenting that struggle in terms of holy war and apocalyptic struggle, Benedict preached peace. In 1916, he lamented “the suicide of civilized Europe.”
Benedict also set out clear agendas how this peace could be achieved and preserved, advocating what at the time seemed like an unthinkable social revolution. He called for a peace without victors or losers. Rival states would cease fighting and restore all the territories they had conquered, leaving disputed claims to arbitration. European nations would disarm, using the money saved for social reconstruction. Benedict even favored ending military conscription, which in the European context of the time would have constituted a social revolution. In the long term, he wanted national loyalties to fade before the coming of a European union, a concept developed by successor Popes in the 1920s and beyond. At the time his ideas sounded utopian and visionary, at least as practical goals – today, the aspirations seem obvious. That is the revolution we are living through, and which was launched by people like him and Lemkin.
Many other examples come to mind, from across the spectrum of faiths.
Where Pinker goes most astray is that, in listing those values of humanitarianism, cosmopolitanism, and civilization, he fails to realize that they are highly religious in their origins, and in their historical development. They represent the working out of Judaeo-Christian ideals in politics and society. If we are to look at the world’s conflicts and see the solution in terms of pure secularization, of “growing out” of older religious concepts and loyalties, we will be brutally disappointed.
Worse, ignoring these religious underpinnings prevents us seeing the authentic dangers in some of these global trends. That threat is especially acute when one of Pinker’s global megatrends is the rise of the Leviathan state. He views this as a positive current, in the sense that the state insists on a monopoly of violence, and suppresses disorder. That is all true. But as we must realize, that Leviathan state is itself lethally dangerous, and a massive potential source of violence and repression, unless it is restrained and constrained by a sense of the human worth of the people it rules. And that, again, is where religious values can and must come into play.
Perhaps instead of a confrontation between faiths, we should think of the future in terms of a non-violent conflict between religious and secular values, a cultural and intellectual struggle.
And that would, indeed, be a clash of civilizations.