Are modern wars really worse, and what does it mean if they’re not?

Are modern wars really worse, and what does it mean if they’re not? August 14, 2009

Below is a very interesting short lecture by a scholar who argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, war and violence are in dramatic decline in modern times. He contends that the historical evidence is overwhelmingly against the axiomatic notion that modern wars are worse in quality or frequency than those of premodern times.

From the website:

Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.

This thesis is especially interesting from a religious standpoint, given how it is customarily charged that modern secularism and contemporary "disenchantment" have resulted in hitherto unknown levels of carnage and extremism. (I happen to broadly share this basic premise, even if I do not idealize the past.)

Don't know enough to judge the significance or reliability of the statistics he lays out, but I do think that there's a kernel of truth to his ancillary contention that the widespread, conscious awareness of the shared humanity of the Other–with its concomitant discomfort with dehumanization, even if this has too often been drowned out by other, more atavistic impulses–is a very modern development. It may well have always been present for more spiritual and/or reflective of believers in various philosophical works and religious scriptures –Terence declared in the 2nd century BCE, "Humo sum: Humani nihil a me alienum puto;" Jesus Christ's message of love needs little introduction; the Talmud teaches the value of all human life; the humanistic implications of the account of Adam and Eve within the Abrahamic traditions are obvious; and I certainly find humanism to be a constant and very moving refrain in the Quran–but I think secular critics of organized religion are fair in point out that a full-blown ethic of humanism that unreservedly transcends race, creed, gender, and class  only emerged recently in human history, and after the advent of secularism.

Things didn't necessarily need to play out that way–i.e.,  I don't feel that the good to be found among modern values is inherently in conflict with traditional religious faith–but that's how it turned out, and I don't think that this psychosociological fact can be overlooked when assessing traditional teachings about other religions.

I don' t think one can reasonably expect premodern religious texts  to be unaffected by until-recently-ironclad constraints of human psychology and social thought. It seems to me that this dynamic in the historical evolution of human consciousness on certain issues even merits inclusion in the Asbāb al-nuzūl upon which Quranic exegesis itself depends, as few things differ as vastly from the conditions that prevailed in 7th century Arabia–or any other part of the world at that time–as the humanistic premises that inform mature thinking about the Other today. 

Simply put, it used to be a lot harder, cognitively speaking, for most people to be consistently universalistic in outlook towards other human beings; values that are almost universally professed (if all too rarely practiced)  today seemed utterly counterintuitive and downright subversive for most of human history. 

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