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Modern scientific slaughter is more barbaric than violence by primitive peoples

We are becoming less violent as a species, argues Steven Pinker in his new book, yet that only serves to make the violence of enlightened peoples worse

By on Thursday, 3 November 2011

Another car journey; another Radio 4 programme: this time it was Thinking Aloud yesterday afternoon. Laurie Taylor was chairing a discussion between Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Anthony O’Hear, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham. The subject, whether human violence has declined in the world, was chosen because Pinker has recently published a book entitled, The Better Angels of our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and its Causes.

Professor Pinker is an internationally acclaimed intellectual heavyweight and enthusiast for the Enlightenment. His view is that as we have gradually evolved into more reasonable beings under its influence there has been a marked decrease in violence worldwide. In the radio discussion he cited examples such as the collapse of the Soviet Union without violence, the decline in corporal and capital punishment, a decrease in instances of child abuse and falling statistics of homicide in Europe.

For him, the kind of rational debate conducted between individuals and begun in the Enlightenment does eventually lead to its universal application. Even if it is too early to describe this as an evolutionary shift in human behaviour, rational discourse has affected the social behaviour of peoples since the 18th century for the better. He cited more examples in evidence of this: the abolition of slavery, the equality of women and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Professor O’Hear took a less optimistic line. Quoting Evelyn Waugh’s remark, “Quantitative judgements do not apply”, he observed that a numerical or statistical decline in violence is “not much of a consolation if I am one of the 100 million killed as a result of Communism” in China, Cambodia, the USSR and other places. For O’Hear Enlightenment thinking would have to include the Marxist-Communist ideology: the attempt to apply reason and science to human affairs “and to spread benevolence everywhere”.

Pinker demurred: he favoured Enlightenment humanism of the Scottish rather than the European variety, aimed at maximising the flourishing of “individual sentient beings”. He saw Marxism as about conflict, class struggle and not about benevolence at all. O’Hear became more pessimistic in his response: “This nature has demons” he declared. What if Pinker’s “Better Angels” were vanquished by these demons rather than the other way round? He quoted a line from Pascal: “Strength of reason/infirmity of reason.” Reason, he thought, could help us to be sceptical but it was putting too great a burden on it to ask it to sustain the values of humanitarianism and human rights all on its own.

Finally O’Hear said what I had been thinking throughout this debate, that he believed in “original sin.” Laurie Taylor intervened here to ask if he meant this phrase in a religious sense or just as “the intrinsic malevolence of human beings.” O’Hear agreed it was the latter. He added that he felt the great “scandal” in Pinker’s book was the omission of any mention of the New Testament: it was Christianity that had provided “the passion for compassion” that had made men more humane. Pinker brushed this to one side: “Christianity doesn’t figure.” He listed the Crusades, wars of religion and the persecution of homosexuals to bolster his point and said that the Old Testament God had delighted in genocide, rape and slavery.

I found this a much more interesting debate than the one in my last blog about women priests. Unlike that subject, it is of continuing relevance and the arguments go to the core of what it means to be human. As a believer in Original Sin – as a religious belief rather than as a pessimistic observation about human nature – I think the battle between our better angels (interesting that Pinker, an atheist, should have chosen this metaphor, taken from Lincoln) and our demons, both in individuals and in society, is continuous. It isn’t true that Enlightenment values are enabling us to evolve into more peaceable creatures.

Reading Pinker’s list of statistics in his book makes me agree with Evelyn Waugh: is the Mongol conquest of the 13th century, in which 40 million people died – its death toll in 20th century equivalence would be 278 million – worse than Chairman Mao’s 40 million deaths? Or is Timurlane’s death toll of 17 million (100 million in 20th century equivalence) in the 14th/15th century worse than the Second World War, in which a “mere” 55 million people died? Quantitative judgements do not apply. And somehow the scientific slaughter of the concentrations camps, or the ongoing clinical death toll in worldwide abortion strike me as more repugnant even than the bloodthirsty barbarism of Genghis Khan. They are worse because they are contemporary and closer to home – and because (according to Pinker) aren’t we all supposed to be more enlightened?

  • Anonymous

    Well, it is a simple matter then! As you say, God knows if a person means well (comparitive with other people) or not, regardless of religion.

  • Maryam

    It’s either simple or complex, depending on how you look at it. St. Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

    Church teaches with Christ that Baptism is needed for salvation. Yet this meaning is nuanced, there is more than one way to be baptized. One may be baptized by water (sacramentally), or by blood (martyrdom), or by the desire to be baptized even though it may not be able to be realized.

    There are two kinds of ignorance of Christ and the way to salvation: culpable and inculpable. Culpable ignorance is that which is not remedied due to any number of factors–laziness, hardness of heart, etc. Inculpable ignorance is when a person, although she or he may have the best intentions, just can’t overcome.

    One example would be a profoundly retarded person who may not have any knowledge of Christ. But theyw will not be sent to hell for doing what they cannot do by God’s own providence!

  • Anonymous

    Your views are very modern though. As you must be well aware Catholics have only adapted their beliefs to fit with more enlightened thinking only relatively recently. The truth cannot be twisted and moulded to be what we want it to be.

  • ms Catholic state

    The Pope certainly lives by the example of Christ.  He has just enough to feed and clothe himself and carry out his duties to the Church….and he owns less than you.  And don’t forget the priests and sisters who live among the poor of the world caring for them and sharing in their lot.  They put secular charities to shame.

    What have you done for the poor lately…..a valid question since you seem obsessed with the Pope’s charity.  What about your own??!

  • ms Catholic state

    The Truth is eternal and cannot be adapted to the passing whims and fashions of the day.  That is nonsense.  And there is no such thing as ‘enlightenment’!  The only Light is Jesus Christ since He is the centre of ALL things.

  • ms Catholic state

    The Catholic Church has never interpreted the Holy Bible completely literally.  Some Protestants do….but not Catholics.  It is scientists that keep updating their position….in the light of new evidence….and their discoveries continue to support Divine Revelation and the Catholic moral position. 

    For instance….we now know that the moment of Creation was the Big Bang….when all matter and energy was created from nothing.  Science backs this up!!

  • BTyler

    Only an idiot believes the Old Testament is a science text book. That is certainly not the position of the Catholic Church. You need to brush up on your theology.

  • BTyler

    God-willing you are able to work as hard as the Pope when you are 84. 

  • BTyler

    You would benefit from a simple philosophy course. 

  • BTyler

    You obviously never visited East Germany.  

  • Anonymous

    then why does the Church keep altering its position?

  • Anonymous

    I never have, no. And your point is?
    Have you ever been to Rwanda?

  • ms Catholic state

    No need to visit Rwanda.  Mass slaughters happened in Europe in the last century…and may do so again this century…by its oh so ‘enlightened’ populations.  Pffff……..Original sin is still in action even among the post-Christian brigade.

  • Anonymous

    The Bible doesn’t say that. Those who wrote the Bible believed the earth was flat and was at the centre of the solar system (as we understand it today). Despite the oppression of scientific discoveries by the Church, the reality became accepted fact.

  • Anonymous

    It was the position of the Catholic Church until relatively recently that the Old testament was factual. Were they all idiots as you imply?

  • Anonymous

    I never mentioned the Pope’s charity. My only point was that his lifestyle goes against the teachings of Christ.

  • Anonymous

    Ok. Are there any neanderthals in heaven?

  • ms Catholic state

    Where in the Holy Bible does it say the world was flat?!  It doesn’t.  And once everyone may have believed the world was flat….but it didn’t make a difference as to whether they got to Heaven or not. 

    Science advanced within Christendom ONLY….because of the influence of the Church!!  Truth hurts I guess.

  • ms Catholic state

    Like what position has it changed?! 

  • ms Catholic state

    You did.  You made a false allegation against the Pope’s charity towards the poor. 

    And my point is….his lifestyle fits right in with Christ’s teachings.  The Pope is poorer than you…..materially speaking that is.

  • Anonymous

    Isaiah 11:12  12 And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH.
    Revelation 7:1 1 And after these things I saw four angels standing on FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.
    Job 38:13 13 That it might take hold of the ENDS OF THE EARTH, that the wicked might be shaken out of it?
    Jeremiah 16:19 19 O LORD, my strength, and my fortress, and my refuge in the day of affliction, the Gentiles shall come unto thee from the ENDS OF THE EARTH, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity, and things wherein there is no profit.
    Daniel 4:11 11 The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the ENDS OF ALL THE EARTH:
    Matthew 4:8 8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them

  • ms Catholic state

    The 4 ‘corners’ of the world…are North South East and West.  As you have shown…nowhere does the Holy Bible say the earth is flat. 

    LOL I knew it didn’t say the earth was flat.

  • ms Catholic state

    And of course the ‘ends’ of the earth refer to the horizon….and still does today!!

  • Anonymous

    The earth goes around the sun, humans evolved from apes, men are superior to women etc.

  • ms Catholic state

    The Church has never pronounced on any such things as they are not matters of faith and morals.  And we do not know if humans evolved from apes or not.  It is a matter of personal opinion as no conclusive proof exists.  As Catholics we are free to agree or disagree with evolution. 

    All people are equal in the eyes of God….but men are head ie leaders of the family. 

  • BTyler

    Or trolls?

  • BTyler

    ‘Believes’: present tense, i.e believes today. Not ‘believed’ (past tense). No implication.

    Dull.

  • BTyler

    I wondered if you had ever experienced a country where God had been replaced by man, where the divine had no place in society, where science provided all the answers.

    Without exception these have been/are places that people have tried to escape from. North Korea, anyone?And yes, I have been to Rwanda. What’s your point? 

  • Anonymous

    It is not a matter of personal opinion that humans evolved from apes! The evidence is overwhelming! If you disagree that there is such evidence then it demonstrates a self delusionment which is apparent in some of your other comments.

  • Anonymous

    Trolls are mythical creatures

  • Anonymous

    Whether people are chopping each other up, or blowing one another to pieces in the name of religion or twisted political ideologies, they are all acting against civilisation. I am not arguing in favour of either.

  • Anonymous

    So at what point in history did those who took the Old Testament as fact cease to be idiots? And could you explain your reasoning for this?

  • ms Catholic state

    Evolution is a matter of opinion…..as there is no conclusive proof of it.  No wonder the advancement of true science is coming to a halt…..when people mistake evolution for empirical science!!

  • Anonymous

    (Many) People genuinely don’t believe that abortion is murder.

    According to the Church I would assume that wrongdoing is about intent, rather than end effect. (This is the opposite of the Utilitarian point of view, which the Church has consistently rejected.)

    Therefore how can we accuse genuine people who don’t see abortion as murder, as morally culpable?

  • Maryam

    Could you please clarify what you mean when you say:

     “Catholics have only adapted their belief to fit with more enlightened thinking only relatively recently.”

    What beliefs? What enlightened thinking? How recently?

  • Anonymous

    One example would be that the Catholic Church revised their beliefs on human evolution (that humans evolved from apes) in the twentieth century.

  • Anonymous

    If, according to the Bible, the earth has four corners (the phrase ‘four corners of the earth’ comes from the Bible, obviously, and is used today as a metaphor) and has ends, and the whole of the earth can be viewed from a very high point, this shows clearly that those who wrote it believed that the earth was flat. Nowhere in the Bible does it say the earth is spherical, or contain any implications that it is.

  • karlf

    ” It isn’t true that Enlightenment values are enabling us to evolve into more peaceable creatures” – the abolition of slavery (the Old Testament advocates slavery)? Sexual equality? Racial equality? The decriminalisation of homosexuality?

  • karlf

    What did God tell us about his views on abortion?

  • ms Catholic state

    Nowhere in the Holy Bible does it say the earth is flat. That’s why Christians made such good explorers and sea-farers.  They knew the earth could be divided into North South East and West…..ie the 4 corners mentioned in the Holy Bible.  So…the Holy Bible had a positive influence upon the advancement of navigation.

  • ms Catholic state

    The Church has nothing to say on evolution….except that we can believe or not believe if we like.  And a good thing too….since Evolution is only a theory.

  • Anonymous

    Surely the corners would be north east, north west, south west and south east, while the sides would be north east, south and west?
    What was the Bible’s positive influence on navigation? Science created the methods by which we navigate, such as compasses, sextants, GPS etc. Religion has most often been a hindrance to the advancement of science – look at the muslim nations.
    The Vikings developed some great methods of navigation and of discovering new lands, while having no interest in the Bible.

    If you do not believe that humans evolved from other apes, how do you explain all the evidence that shows we did?

  • Anonymous

    @C_Monstra The Bible is a collection of books. In interpreting them, you have to take account of the literary form of each, and of literary forms within each book. By way of analogy: you don’t interpret a novel in the same way as a history book, but novels, like history books, can tell important truths. I’m not a Bible expert but the book of Genesis doesn’t look like a physics or archaeology textbook. At the same time, it has important truths to tell, e.g. about the origin of evil: e.g. it implies that creation was good (“And God saw that it was good”) and that God is not the originator of evil but that it stems from creatures – an important contrast to dualistic systems (e.g. Manichaeism), which held that there was a good god and an evil god, the latter responsible for creating matter.
     
    It tells us that creation is ordered, not chaotic (note the progressive nature of creation in stages) – and therefore intelligible, a prerequisite for scientific endeavour.

    It says that God made the great lights (i.e. the stars): in other words, they are not gods to be worshipped, as did other ancient peoples. Wonder without superstition is an important motive for doing the natural sciences. It’s not incompatible with honouring the creator.

  • Anonymous

    @Paulsays I have some reservations about that because it can be said that there are some things we ‘ought to know’ and one of these could be the fact that abortion is the taking of a human life. I chanced upon a passage in Aquinas, On Conscience in Disputed Question on Truth, Q17, Article 4, ad 3, where he says: ‘It should be said that an erroneous conscience erring about things which are intrinsically evil dictates what is contrary to the law of God but says that what it dictates is the law of God;; therefore one who transgresses this conscience is effectively a transgressor of the law of God, although in following this conscience and fulfilling it in deed he acts against the law of God and sins mortally, because in the very error there was sin since it came about through ignorance of that which he ought to know.

    In his commentary, the translator Ralph McInerney says: “Thomas’s most haunting teaching on the matter of conscience is that, while a conscience always binds, it does not always excuse. So much for the exculpating trump of the appeal to conscience.”    Something to think about.

  • Parasum

    That objection is like blaming Hansel and Gretel for not giving the name of the forest they get lost in.The stories you mention are – in effect – folk-lore or fairy-stories, with elements of beast-fable .

    The garden is not a garden, like Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, Versailles,  or the garden of the Assyrian king Ashur-bani-pal, which are all historical; it’s a folk-tale garden – it belongs to the fairy-tale sort of world in which animals and humans speak as equals. This kind of reality is one in which there is unity between men and beasts; one in which Sigurd of the Volsungs, having just slain Fafnir the dragon, can understand the speech of the birds who are discussing the intentions of Regin brother of Fafnir to murder Sigurd. Finn MaCool burns his finger while preparing the wise salmon Fintan for his master to eat; on sucking his finger to ease the pain, Finn learns the languages of all beasts, which his master had hoped to have. Achilles’ horse Xanthus talks with him, and prophecies the death of Achilles. Stories of this sort are very numerous – they come from many different cultures, and it should not be a surprise that the OT has a couple of such stories: it has a talking serpent, Balaam’s talking jenny, the debating trees in the parable of Jotham in Judges 9. Trees also clap their hands, & stars shout for joy – no surprises there, since the Hittite kings in their treaties called upon the divine mountains & divine rivers as witnesses.  

    This way of thinking was very common in the Ancient Near East from a very early date: the goddess Inana fights with Mount Ebih; the god Ninurta explains to his weapon the sharur, who is alarmed by the stength of their enemy the Azag-bird, why they have to fight the Azag; there are Sumerian hymns to temples, and sacrifices to gods who – from our POV – are inanimate objects: such as the bed of the goddess Ishtar. There is a whole genre of debate-poems, in which the participants urge their competing claims to greater usefulness: Cattle argues with Grain, for example. In a very different story, the serpent comes weeping before the just god Shamash to complain of how the eagle has eaten the serpent’s young.

    The author of Gen.3 shows great artistic and skill by having the woman and the serpent debate as they do. The unity then existing between man and beast is not broken – not yet; the reader knows it has been; and, in the story, is about to be.   The woman does not.  The serpent “personifies”, by the combination in it of animal form with human sppech and intelligence, the motif of  crossing boundaries – IOW,of “trans-gression”, which one model for sin.  The Flood is a crossing of boundaries as a form of Divine Judgement: the “waters above the heavens” are mixed with those on earth. The sins of Noah and Ham in Gen.9 are crossings of boundaries.  The Tower story in Gen.11 is another. The Sodom story in Gen. 19 is another – and is interesting as a reversal of the story in Gen.6.1-4: in that passage, the “sons of God” “go into” the “daughters of men”, whereas in Gen.19 the men of Sodom want to  “go into”  the *malakhim* (= messengers/”angels”). In both stories, boundaries are endangered that have been established since creation, which is story of boundary-setting. Boundaries are very important in the ANE & the Bible. The reader of Gen.3 can see what the people in Gen.3 cannot: that they are in danger of crossing a boundary which they have been warned not to cross – & that too is a folk-tale motif. Pandora is warned not to open the box – but her curiosity gets the better of her.  

    I hope this show why the authors of Genesis, even as story-tellers, deserve respect and admiration, not scorn and ridicule.  To say that the Bible includes folk-tales and fables is not an objection to it.  Stories such as those are not history in their content, and malke no claim to be: they are tales in their mode, but not in their content. God can act as readily through a tale, as through a recital of historical fact. Each has its type of truth – historical truth is only one kind of truth.   Why are tales in the Bible ? Perhaps because, to quote C. S. Lewis (who should know) “Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said”.

    http://wedgwoodcircle.com/news/articles/sometimes-fairy-stories-may-say-best-whats-to-be-said/

  • Deesis

    What “primitive” peoples did was often driven by unthoughtful necessity. Whereas “modern” forms of violence its origininates in duplicity. We invoke human rights yet butcher our unborn on a whim. We talk of human rights yet allow people to starve. We feel superior to our ancestors because we can switch lights on and off..we obliterate whole cities in the same casual manner. We live as if we alone matter, stuff the past stauff the future as long as we can feel and do and numb ourselves from the terror of our own approaching death.