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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?

  • theroadmaster

    Since the dawn of time,the human capacity for unbelievable cruelty( as well as great kindness) has not diminished, while in stark contrast human ingenuity has continued to shine in so many fields of endeavor, as in technology, the arts, philosophy, science and space-travel.  It seems that Humankind cannot full conquer or suppress the base,animalistic instincts which often threaten to overwhelm the more “enlightened” side for want of a better word.  The twentieth century was a salutary reminder of that reality.  Christianity speaks to us of the spiritual inheritance that we have received from Our Creator who sent His only begotten Son onto this Earth to redeem us.   This is a sure sign that we are not mere creatures left our own devices, but that through God’s grace are capable of becoming Christ-like as we become more appreciative of our spiritual selves.

  • Anonymous

    “interesting that Pinker, an atheist, should have chosen this metaphor”

    Secular humanism has always been been an exact copy of Christian ethics, except that God is replaced by the human mind.

  • ms Catholic state

    One reason why people today are less likely to engage in war at the drop of a hat (if indeed this is true….and we have yet to see what the future brings) is that our lifestyles are much more comfortable and we have more to lose by engaging in wars.  Also today….there are many more career opportunities for young men other than joining the army.  In the past….the army was a prime employer of younger sons who wouldn’t inherit the family farm.

    Another consideration….is that Christianity brought Christ’s way of life to the world ie civilisation.  Earlier slaughters as in China and Asia, 20th century slaughters and todays mass slaughter of the unborn took place where Christianity had not impinged….or where Christianity has lost all influence among the secularised political elite.

  • Anonymous

    Your entirely right, ms Catholic state, the reason for a more peaceful Europe is economic growth. Growth tends to lead to less wars and creates the pre-conditions for democracy which also leads to less wars.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately one other thing that goes along with wealth is lower birthrates and cultural ennui. Pacifism might be a sign of enlightenment and advanced moral reckoning — but it might also be a sign of passivity and nihilism.

    I’ve been reading “How Civilizations Die” by David Goldman, who was in charge of high-level research at Bank of America, and has written beautifully on music, mathematics, and theology. You can read the first chapter here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/65088710/HowCivilizationsDie-FreeChapterScribd

    Quote: “One powerful attraction of the Hobbesian revolution in political think-ing was the power it promised to intellectuals. If politics reduces the indi-vidual to his material concerns, then it is possible to manipulate theindividual through the alternation of his material circumstances. A clever elite could fix all the problems of the world. Immanuel Kant boasted in1793 that he could write a constitution for a race of devils, “if only they berational.” Europe ignored him and proceeded to destroy itself in the Napo-leonic Wars and the two World Wars of the past century. Today, as in Kant’stime, the great frustration in world affairs is the refusal of some players toact rationally. Something was gained, but much more was lost, in theseventeenth-century Hobbesian revolution in political thought. To viewhuman beings as creatures concerned solely with power, wealth, and secu-rity is an impoverished anthropology. The missing tools—the ones Machi-avelli and Hobbes removed from the toolbox—are exactly the ones we needto understand and cope with the dangers inherent in the wholesale collapseof cultures that faces us today.”

    Pinker names Hobbes in his piece here: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html

    That tool is what Goldman calls “theopolitics.” He’s really a great writer whom I can’t recommend highly enough.

  • Oconnordamien

    Who killed every living being on the planet, except the very few on a remarkably large boat?

  • Anonymous

    The same one who created them in the first place, as I am sure you know. Instead of criticizing your creator, it would be more fitting for you to thank him for deigning to create you in the first place.

  • Anonymous

    No. God is replaced by reasoned, realistic thinking.

  • ms Catholic state

    Yes…..wealth does bring lower birthrates and as you say cultural ennui.  And the ironic thing is….that development and a growing economy depends to a large extent on a growing population.  So the secular ‘enlightened’ mentality kills the goose that lays the golden egg.  It imagines that wealth creation is a given……and some kind of Right!  completely misunderstanding how wealth and propserity is generated and dependant on a growing young population.

    As someone said…..our post-secular enlightenment culture lacks the testosterone to reproduce or defend itself.

  • ms Catholic state

    All reason comes from God.  Wishful thinking is the lot of humans….when we are divorced from God.

  • ms Catholic state

    I mean our post-Christian enlightenment culture lacks the testosterone…..

  • Anonymous

    The Bible is completely lacking in reasoned, scientific thought. For instance, why didn’t god ever give us instructions on how to avoid infectious diseases?

  • ms Catholic state

    Infectious diseases are part of a Fallen world ie this is not Paradise.  Haven’t you read this in the Holy Bible.  And Christian scientists have discovered ways to counteract and control many infectious diseases.  Also to avoid STD’s…..just follow Christian morality!!!!

  • Anonymous

    We know from fossil, DNA and genetics records that the garden of eden is a myth. Viruses have evolved along with all life on earth.
    Think of all those millions of poor children over time that could have been saved from such terrible suffering if only God have given us just a little understanding of the nature of viruses? It wasn’t until relatively recently that people managed to work it out for themselves.

  • ms Catholic state

    Nobody has proof the Garden of Eden is mythical….though it might be rhetorical language….or it might not be.  DNA evidence points to the existence of our first and only parents Adam and Eve. 

    Viruses are part of a fallen world….and part of our lot as fallen people.  Don’t worry about the little children…..they are with God now.  Worry about yourself.

  • Anonymous

    What about the muslim children, hindu and pagan children? Are they with God? What about all those prehistoric children that existed over tens of thousands of years before the Bible was written – are they with God too?

  • ms Catholic state

    Only God knows where they are…..but remember Christ said…..’the Kingdom of God is for such as these’….reffering to the children!!  Go read the Catechism yourself. 

  • Anonymous

    Maybe God should tell us then, as according to the Catechism, as you must well know, it doesn’t look too good for those long lost innocent children and their parents alike.

    On the subject of following Christian morality, why does the pope live a life of luxury in palaces, surrounded by priceless treasures, when most of the world’s population suffers in poverty. We both know that Jesus would definately not have approved.

  • ms Catholic state

    Why doesn’t it look so good for those children.  Do explain.

    And you live a life of luxury too….so until you give it all up to attend the poor….I can’t take you seriously.  It sounds like hypocrisy actually.

  • Anonymous

     I see I’ve got you stumped on that one!
    My lifestyle is no where near as luxurious as the Pope’s – who’s is? Relatively very few.

  • ms Catholic state

    You have a very luxurious lifestyle compared to most people in the Thrid Wordl.  And until you give it all up to concentrate on helping the poor….you are not fit to criticise the Pope.  In fact….the Pope is probably poorer than you.  I am not sure he has any worldly goods of value that he can completely call his own!!  He probably gives everything away.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I do have a luxurious life compared to most people in the third world, but not to most people in the UK.
    The Pope lives a luxurious life compared to most royalty, tyrants and despots, so of course I am fit to criticise him, as I would imagine you are too. More than that, I believe that in being Christian it is actually a duty to criticise the Pope, as for one thing only, his lifestyle and the hoarded treasures of the Vatican are so far away removed from the teachings of Jesus Christ. This we know as a fact, and it’s no good to stick your head in the sand and pretend it’s not so.

  • James H

    Very good – if wince-inducing! :)

  • James H

    So, someone who effectively lives in a museum should sell it all off and give it to the poor – yeah, that would really help! By your logic, the Queen should flog it all off and go and live in Tower Hamlets.

    He doesn’t actually own it, you prune. Save your disapproval for people with genuine riches – like Abramovich, Gates, Soros, Sugar, Rowling…

  • James H

    “We know from fossil, DNA and genetics records that the garden of eden is a myth.”

    PUOSU – evidence, please, or be an idiot.

  • James H

     This was answered over a thousand years ago. ‘The bible shows us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.’ – Augustine of Hippo.

    You really need to do some actual thought, some actual reading. Get out of that basement once in a while.

  • James H

    “Christianity doesn’t figure.”
    So, where are the non-Christian cultures that have clothed the poor, fed the hungry, disposed of slavery, championed reason over culture, believed in Laws of Nature? Where else were women and children assumed to be fundamentally equal to men? Erm, nowhere but in Christian societies! What’s up with that?

    How did this man become a famous philosopher? Only in a ‘culture’ where Katie Price and Paris Hilton are celebrities…

  • Anonymous

     What has the Queen got to do with the Catholic Church?
    You don’t think the Vatican has genuine riches? It runs into billions – the proceeds from selling off one painting could save thousands of lives. But this is a question of morality and living by the example of Christ – prune!
    This is not about my logic, but the teachings of Jesus

  • James H

    And so we get science without morals! Ooh, goody, I’d love to start exterminating the weak and inconvenient.

  • Anonymous

    The Bible contains no factual information that a middle eastern man of the times could not have known

  • Anonymous

    If you take the trouble to find out, you will discover that the evidence of the process of evolution is overwhelming. Where is the evidence for the garden of Eden, for Adam and Eve, and any evidence for talking snakes? I don’t think so

  • Anonymous

    Humans have lived communally for tens of thousands of years, all around the world, with all sorts of religions and none

  • ms Catholic state

    The Holly Bible contains the truth about God, life, human being, the universe etc etc.  It will never be proven wrong.  It is eternal truth as it is the inspired word of God.

  • ms Catholic state

    Evolution may or may not be the method employed by the Creator for the creation of different species upon earth.  However Evolution remains only a theory…..and has nothing what-so-ever to say about the physical non living material world.  It is very limited.

  • ms Catholic state

    No atheistic society has ever endured.  Without God…..life is inexplicable. 

  • ms Catholic state

    The Vatican is often in the red.  All its treasures are to the glory of Christ….and are not owned by any one person.  Jesus Christ had expensive oils poured over His feet when He was on earth…..and only Judas objected!!

  • Anonymous

    It has already been proven wrong – many times: The world was created in seven days? The garden of Eden? Noah’s ark housed all the world’s land living animal ancestors? all the world was of one language? “God holds the earth up with pillars” ? etc. – there is so much that can be proven wrong. This is because it was written by men with a very limited, middle eastern knowledge of the world, and this is so clearly demonstrated.

  • Anonymous

    Which God? – or doesn’t it matter?

  • Anonymous

    What nonsense! Why would anyone who has read the new testament think that Jesus would want gold, palaces and treasure?!!!!

  • ms Catholic state

    How would you know.  I’m sure Jesus is pleased at the gifts we Catholics have produced to His glory.  The finest in the world actually.  Christianity inspires the best!!

  • ms Catholic state

    Nobody has ever proven the Holy Bible wrong….nor ever will.  All writing pales in comparison to the greatness of the Holy Bible.  Obviously you don’t understand metaphor.  Must be something to do with an impoverished secular education.

  • ms Catholic state

    Only one God….the Triune One!

  • Anonymous

    Which are the facts and which are the metaphors?

  • James H

    You really need to update your 15th-Cent. propaganda, sunshine.

    The proceeds of one painting could save thousands of lives? Do you know what the budget of the various Catholic relief organisations is? The Catholic Church already looks after a massive number of the poor and sick on this planet, their record is unequalled by any other non-governmental body.

    The Pope already lives by the example of Christ – he owns little to nothing of his own, he’s celibate, he preaches to rich, poor, black and white alike, he speaks out for the oppressed and the unborn, and he preaches forgiveness and solidarity.

    So the church should get rid of its treasures? Sell ‘em off at auction, to disappear into the private collections of mobsters and dictators? Hey, that’s a nice idea. While we’re at it, we really don’t need St Peter’s, so we? We should sell it off, and they can build something really useful on the site – like a concert venue.. or a gentlemen’s club… or a mosque. After all that, the poor would still be with us, all that art would be gone (not that you care), and artists would still want to create beauty to fill their churches with – which is the only place the poor can get to see it for free.

  • James H

    Yes, and the societies with no religion were so-o-o nice to live in…

  • ms Catholic state

    Do you even know what a metaphor is?!!   The Catechism will tell you all you need to know.

  • Maryam

    C_Monsta,
    Salvation is not a simple matter. God and God alone knows who will be saved in the end. The Church has never arrogated to herself the right to say that a Muslim boy in Afghanistan or a starving Hindu girl is headed to eternal fire because he or she doesn’t know who Christ is,  although they may see a church or the image of a crucifix. But only God knows who has deliberately rejected Him. Only God knows the secrets of the heart of man.

  • Emma

    You need to understand how to read the Bible. Understand that the creation story is a summary of God’s awesome creation and how He did it.

    Read this to understand what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the Big Bang and Evolution:

    http://www.catholic.com/tracts/adam-eve-and-evolution

  • Anonymous

    Not so long ago the Church took the Bible as the very word of God, but over the years, as scientific discoveries have made more and more of the Bible’s claims untenable, the Church has had to keep updating its position:”When a claim of science is falsified it’s put into the trash can. When a claim of religion is falsified it becomes a metaphor” – in a nutshell!

  • Anonymous

    Don’t be so silly and emotive. The church could set up a self funding museum to display all the treasures and art works. In this way the they could really all be seen by the public. Any artists of quality can produce work to be installed in churches and public buildings – why would they want it any other way?

    So, you think the Pope lives by the example of Christ? was Jesus waited on hand and foot by servants? Did Jesus wear the most expensive clothes and eat the finest foods? Did he live in a palace, surrounded by priceless treasures?
    I feel I’m repeating myself here. This is about Christian morality, not practicalities.