Blogging Better Angels: Changing of the Norms

In my previous post, I discussed how the invention of government led to a major reduction in the level of violence in human civilization, as compared to the constant battles of tribal societies. But while democracy, laws and police forces can account for most of the decline, they can't account for all of it. To get to the extraordinarily low levels of violence seen in most developed nations today, we need to invoke other cultural forces that tilt the balance toward peace. In Better Angels, … [Read more...]

Blogging Better Angels: Hobbes Was Right

The most famous human being of prehistoric times is probably Otzi the Iceman, a Neolithic human whose mummified body was discovered frozen in a glacier in the Alps in 1991. What's less well known about Otzi is that he met his death violently: an arrowhead was lodged in his back, and he was carrying an arrow and a flint knife which had traces of three people's blood, none of them his own. Anthropologists speculate that he was part of a raiding party that attacked a rival tribe and was killed … [Read more...]

Blogging Better Angels: The Bad Old Days

Back in May, I reviewed Steven Pinker's hugely ambitious new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the decline of violence through history. I couldn't do justice to all the ideas in this book with a single post, so I promised to return to it and write about Pinker's argument in more detail. It's taken me a while, but I'm getting back to that promise now. I plan to write several posts exploring some of the major ideas put forth in the book, which I intend to eventually collect into an essay … [Read more...]

Book Review: Nonbeliever Nation

Summary: A solid, informative history of the rise of the American secular movement. Books like Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History or Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers show how brave nonbelievers have always existed, even in theocratic societies that were implacably hostile to their views. In most cases, persecution prevented those isolated sparks from joining together into a brighter light. But what happens when they do join together? In the past two decades, observers of American politics … [Read more...]

Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature

I've just finished reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, an extraordinary book that I think deserves wider attention. I want to write a full review, but this book is far too vast (696 pages!) and too broad in scope to do it justice in a single post, so I plan to split my review up into several installments over the coming weeks. This post is just to serve as a brief overview of the book and a few of its more startling data points. The book's thesis is that humanity is … [Read more...]

Book Review: Letters From an Atheist Nation

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.) Summary: A surprising, welcome reminder that atheism has a long and storied history in the U.S. Letters from an Atheist Nation, edited by Thomas Lawson, is a compilation of reader letters printed by the Blue Grass Blade, a pro-atheist, pro-freethought newspaper published in, of all places, Kentucky in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its editor, Charles Chilton Moore, was a … [Read more...]

Book Review: Unorthodox

(Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with my policy for such reviews.) Summary: A memoir of escape from the overbearing, oppressive life of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, but the appalling details are somewhat clouded by doubts raised about the narrative's veracity. Like many other books that I've reviewed, Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox is an autobiography that tells the story of escape from a suffocating religious community. In her case, it's a story of escape from Satmar … [Read more...]

Book Review: An Unquenchable Thirst

Summary: The Roman Catholic equivalent of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Infidel". A luminous, extraordinary account of one woman who devoted her life to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, saw the organization from the inside out, and decided to walk away after twenty years of service as a faithful and obedient nun. The "deconversion memoir" is seemingly fast becoming the most common genre of atheist book. In just the last few years, I've read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, William Lobdell's Losing … [Read more...]

Some Tardy Book Reviews

I've had a busy last few months, and I confess I've fallen behind on my book reviews. (If you're not familiar with these posts from the old site, I sometimes get free advance copies of books from authors and publicists to read and review. I don't accept any payment or other compensation for this, other than the book itself. See my review policy for more detailed explanation.) I've got three books that have been awaiting review, and since I'm behind, I'm going to combine them into one post. Up … [Read more...]