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.



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  • A critique:

    Steven Pinker’s Stinker on the Origins of War
    Did Steven Pinker knowingly mislead his audience at TED?

    Pinker is correct, the State can reduce violence, often using the same methods a prison uses to pacify an inmate population.

    His problem is equating a single metric, lower murder rates, with a utopian society. By his definition, a maximum security isolation ward is the most glorious of human societies. And I commend you, Mr. Jenkins, for astutely realizing this.

    However, we are going to have the State and its violence and pacification. We’re, in the words of anthropologist Marvin Harris singlemost descriptive word of agricultural civilization (State Society,) trapped.

    Marvin Harris (1977) Kings and Cannibals: Origins of Culture. Random House.

  • RustbeltRick

    Western Europe, which is largely secular and largely peaceful, does indeed have a Judeo-Christian heritage. Japan, though, has figured out the secular-peaceful formula without that heritage. I don’t find Jenkins’s critique to be sufficient to explain how other cultures have figured this out, and how our church-saturated nation has not.

  • JoFro

    I’m sorry but that is nonsense!
    Japan did not figure that out by itself – it had to be atom bombed twice and then have the Allies rule over it and literally pacify it – they ensured the Japanese military would never again be able to influence society the way they were able to and changed the nation’s Constitution.
    Japan did not suddenly become a peaceful nation and had the Americans not done what they did, it would be a lot like North Korea today!

  • JoFro

    He also claims that more people died in wars compared to more modern times and this of course is proof that the world is becoming more peaceful – but this is most likely due to better medical care.
    If you had your hand or leg chopped off in a war back in the Middle Ages, there is a good chance you’d die due to bleeding on the battle field or dying later due to the wound being infected.
    Today’s more modern wars, a chopped hand or leg wound, while terribly painful, would very unlikely lead to the death of the combatant because field medics and better understanding of infected wounds would ensure the person’s survival!

  • RustbeltRick

    You seem to be confusing early to mid-20th century Japanese foreign policy with 21st century Japanese domestic policy. I’m not sure how you managed that, but congratulations for making incredible leaps.

  • Good observation on the fallacy of Pinker’s metric. Plus, I’m not so sure that living under the threat of nuclear annihilation in 30 minutes if somebody pushes the button is exactly the epitome of “reduction in violence,” even if nobody has yet been killed by thermonuclear weapons.

    Your thought brings to mind Mark Nathan Cohen’s text Health and the Rise of Civilization (Yale University Press, 1989) in which he writes, as follows (p. 131):

    The earliest visible populations of prehistory nonetheless do surprisingly well if we compare them to the actual record of human history rather than to our romantic images of civilized progress. Civilization has not been as successful in guaranteeing human well-being as we like to believe, at least for most of our history. Apparently, improvements in technology and organization have not entirely offset the demands of increasing population; too many of the patterns and activities of civilized lifestyles have generated costs as well as benefits.

    There is no evidence either from ethnographic accounts or archaeological excavations to suggest that rates of accidental trauma or interpersonal violence declined substantially with the adoption of more civilized forms of political organization. In fact, some evidence from archaeological sites and from historical sources suggests the opposite.

  • JoFro

    Are you saying 21st c Japanese domestic and foreign policies did not come about or was not influenced by what the country went through, both domestically and how it related with other countries, back in the 20th c?
    In the 20th c, was Japan largely secular and peaceful? I’m arguing that the West, largely America, very much are responsible for turning it so. To claim Japan figured this out by itself makes no sense!
    Even Japan’s industrialisation back in the 19th c came from being influenced by the West with the Mieji Restoration – Japan’s been influenced by the West and its culture for some time now!