Has religion made the world less safe?

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder … Continued

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. The world of the New Testament is little better: kings carry out mass infanticide; thieves and activists are punished by being nailed to a cross.

Though most of the events narrated in the Bible almost certainly never happened, historians agree that they reflect the norms and practices of the era. We live in a world that is indisputably less violent than that of our ancestors. Savage practices such as human sacrifice, chattel slavery, blood sports, debtors’ prisons, frivolous executions, religious persecution, and punitive torture and mutilation have been eliminated from most of the world. Less obviously, homicide rates have plummeted over the centuries, and during the past sixty-five years that the rate of death from war has fallen to historically unprecedented lows.

Having documented these declines of violence, I am often asked what role religion has played in this historical progress. Overall it has not been a good one. Many humanitarian reforms, such as the elimination of cruel punishment, the dissemination of empathy-inducing novels, and the abolition of slavery, were met with fierce opposition in their time by church authorities. The conviction that one’s own values are sacred and those of everyone else heretical inflamed the combatants in the European Wars of Religion, the second-bloodiest period in modern Western history, and it continues to inflame partisans in the Middle East and parts of the Islamic world today.

Defenders of religion as a pacifying force often claim that the two genocidal ideologies of the 20th century, fascism and communism, were atheistic. But the first claim is mistaken and the second irrelevant. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia, and though Hitler had little use for Christianity, he was by no means an atheist, and professed that he was carrying out a divine plan. Historians have documented that many of the Nazi elite melded Nazism with German Christianity in a syncretic faith, drawing on its millennial visions and its long history of anti-Semitism.

As for godless communism, godless it certainly was. But the repudiation of one illiberal ideology does not automatically grant immunity from others. Marxism violently rejected the humanism and liberalism of the Enlightenment, which placed the flourishing of individuals as the ultimate goal of political systems.

At the same time, particular religious movements at particular times in history have worked against violence. In zones of anarchy, religious institutions have sometimes served as a civilizing force, and since many of them claim to hold the morality franchise in their communities, they can be staging grounds for reflection and moral action. The Quakers parlayed Enlightenment arguments against slavery and war into effective movements for abolition and pacifism, and in the 19th century other liberal Protestant denominations joined them. Protestant churches also helped to tame the wild frontier of the American South and West. African American churches supplied organizational infrastructure and rhetorical power to the civil rights movement (though Martin Luther King rejected mainstream Christian theology and drew his inspiration from Gandhi, secular Western philosophy, and renegade humanistic theologians). In the developing world, Desmond Tutu and other church leaders worked with politicians and nongovernmental organizations in the reconciliation movements that healed countries following apartheid and civil unrest.

So the subtitle of the late Christopher Hitchens’s atheist bestseller, How religion poisons everything, is an overstatement. Religion plays no single role in the history of violence because religion has not been a single force in the history of anything. The vast set of movements we call religions have little in common but their distinctness from the secular institutions that are recent appearances on the human stage. And the beliefs and practices of religions, despite their claims to divine provenance, are strongly influenced by human affairs, responding to its intellectual and social currents. When the currents move in enlightened directions, religions often adapt to them, most obviously in the discreet neglect of the bloodthirsty passages of the Old Testament. Many accommodations instigated by breakaway denominations, reform movements, ecumenical councils, and other liberalizing forces have allowed other religions to be swept along by the humanistic tide. It is when fundamentalist forces stand athwart those currents and impose tribal, authoritarian, and puritanical constraints that religion becomes a force for violence.

This essay has been adapted from The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011).

  • brightthings

    “Savage practices such as human sacrifice, chattel slavery, blood sports, debtors’ prisons, frivolous executions, religious persecution, and punitive torture and mutilation have been eliminated from most of the world.”

    No, these are still all done to animals on a massive scale in the US and elsewhere.

  • edbyronadams

    Religion has to be put into historical context. Christianity and Islam should be regarded as efforts to overcome the limitations and the death dealing capacities of tribal religions. Though they have not fulfilled their promise and they have come to loggerheads over their particular visions of universal truth, it would be hard to imagine a larger political rapproachment without the impulse provided by more universalist religions.

    BTW, Mr. Pinker, you facile forgiveness of Communism’s murderous history is intellectually dishonest. The ideology provided forgiveness for breaking many eggs.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    The world according to Mr. Pinker. This is nothing more than a rewriting of history.

  • SteveSchlicht

    Steven Pinker, you are a wonderful and concise writer who approaches these issues with just the right nuance that will hopefully bring some clarity to those who still feel the compulsion to promote religion as some sort of stalwart moral guidepost for the human family.

    The correct notice showing the difference between being atheist/atheism vs. nihilistic ideologies in history is well done here.

    Only those who are fully entrenched in cognitive dissonance still conflate “godless” atheism with the *additional* political ideologies like communism or Marxism (among a few others) when the former is simply a position taken regarding the non-existence of God(s)ess(es), and the latter are separate ideologies having no causal connection to atheism at all.

    Much in the way theism, is not Judaism, Christianity or Islam (among others).

    Thanks for this wonderful expression in the open marketplace of ideas.

    Have a great, wonderful and safe New Year!

    Steve Schlicht
    Biloxi MS

  • SteveSchlicht

    Steven Pinker, you are a wonderful and concise writer who approaches these issues with just the right nuance that will hopefully bring some clarity to those who still feel the compulsion to promote religion as some sort of stalwart moral guidepost for the human family, in any context.

    The correct notice showing the difference between being atheist/atheism vs. nihilistic ideologies in history is well done here.

    Only those who are fully entrenched in cognitive dissonance still conflate “godless” atheism with the *additional* political ideologies like Communism or Marxism or even Capitalism (among a few others), when the former is simply a position taken regarding the non-existence of God(s)ess(es), and the latter are separate ideologies having no causal connection to atheism at all.

    Much in the way theism, is not Judaism, Christianity or Islam (among others).

    Thanks for this wonderful expression in the open marketplace of ideas.

    Have a great, wonderful and safe New Year!

    Steve Schlicht
    Biloxi MS

  • SteveSchlicht

    You might have a point if there was facile forgiveness of Communism in anything written in this article.

    As an aside, historical context of religion is provided as well, your facile forgiveness of the universalist religions, notwithstanding.

  • SteveSchlicht

    Human decency, empathy, care and compassion are not the result of religious lore, doctrine and dogma.

    These qualities exist outside the box of religion.

  • SteveSchlicht

    I apologize for the duplicate posts, trouble with logging in after an absence.

    :0)

  • SteveSchlicht

    The Truth Is Out There.

  • photojack53

    Yes edbyronadams, if religions are put into historical context, you’d have to examine the 10,000+ long “List of Deities” found on wikipedia AND the 5,000+ living religions that exist today by a thorough study of comparative religions, to find that ALL have failed their indoctrinated followers throughout their man-made existence. AND they have all NOT fulfilled their “promise” and come to loggerheads against EACH OTHER! If there is any 21st century vision of “universal truth”, it would be atheism as espoused beginning in the Enlightenment of the 18th century and refined ever since by modern scientific advancements.
    RELIGION FAILS, SCIENCE PREVAILS!

  • catatonicjones

    Once religion has died off, will the world be more safe?
    Probably not, political True Believers will also make the same mistakes.

    We don’t have a chance to survive ourselves unless we purge the True Believers from our attention.

  • catatonicjones

    Religion is a social disease. How curious it is that the religious of today have no knowledge of the myriad religious fools of the past. What Would Ra Do? Or Gilgamesh, for that matter.
    Future humanity will laugh at you the same way you laugh them – if we survive you.

  • RandFan

    Dr. Pinker: First of all, congratulations on another successful book. As with all of your previous books, I devoured your current offering soon after it showed up on my local bookstore shelf. As for the point you are making here, I thoroughly agree that religion, whether theistic or humanistic in nature, can hijack civil society when some of its more irrational ideas go “viral,” shall we say, and has led to many of the greatest tragedies the world has known. My contention with your book is that Leviathan seems to be the hero of your narrative. Why not The Enlightenment or capitalism? I think an unquestioned faith in democratic institutions can be just as pernicious if concepts like egalitarianism and “social justice” become sacrosanct. You also seem to be making the argument for the Security State which, history shows, can quickly mutate into the Police State before governmental institutions can quarantine the outbreak. However, all in all, a very good book.

  • ThomasBaum

    photojack53 wrote:

    “AND they have all NOT fulfilled their “promise” and come to loggerheads against EACH OTHER!”

    One of the things that Jesus said was, “I have not come to bring unity but division”.

    As far as “fulfilled their “promise”", Christianity is not about some “worldly kingdom” or for that matter “worldly peace”, it is about the “Kingdom to Come”, the new heavens and the new earth.

  • ccnl1

    Hmmm, tis strange that god has never revealed much in the way of the historic Jesus to Thomas, “Talker/Seer to/of god”, ” Moses of the NT”, Baum.

    Nor has he/she/it revealed much to him about the four gospel writers, M, M, L and J as in where they were born, what education did they have, who were their teachers, married, children, Jewish, Greek, Roman, etc.????? And yet we treat these four like they were some historical/theological Einstiens!!!! After analyzing their writings using modern historical methods, most contemporary historical Jesus exegetes have concluded that they were simply writers of embellished stories with significant mythical overtones.

    Maybe Thomas will ask god for some much needed information in during his next se’ance

  • ericcallenking

    Religion can be both positive and negative- when it is directed inwards, as part of an individuals attempt to reach the higher, it is positive, but when it is directed outwards, with members of a religion trying to dictate to others what they should do, that is when the problems start. Religion should be seen as a rickety ladder that people use to reach something higher, the great mystery that gives meaning to existence. Without some form of religious understanding we are surrounded by an utterly meaningless void. The understanding can be mystical or philosophical, whatever form it takes it gives meaning to and sheds light on our lives- so religion has to be seen as a net positive, at least personal religion. Even if religions contain a lot of superstition, the great uniting faiths did humanity a service in the pre scientific age by replacing the conflicting beliefs of many different tribes with one rallying story. By replacing many beliefs with one, religions like christianity and Buddism reduced the amount of superstition in the world substantially, paving the way for the modern world.

  • ericcallenking

    Religion can be both positive and negative- when it is directed inwards, as part of an individuals attempt to reach the higher, it is positive, but when it is directed outwards, with members of a religion trying to dictate to others what they should do, that is when the problems start. Religion should be seen as a rickety ladder that people use to reach something higher, the great mystery that gives meaning to existence. Without some form of religious understanding we are surrounded by an utterly meaningless void. The understanding can be mystical or philosophical, whatever form it takes it gives meaning to and sheds light on our lives- so religion has to be seen as a net positive, at least personal religion. Even if religions contain a lot of superstition, the great uniting faiths did humanity a service in the pre scientific age by replacing the conflicting beliefs of many different tribes with one rallying story. By replacing many beliefs with one, religions like christianity and Buddism reduced the amount of superstition in the world substantially, paving the way for the modern world.

  • syzito

    People today are not less violent than they were 2000 yrs ago;look at the crime report for any city,state or country.People are just more afaird of being caught because of advanced technology in surveillance

  • Rongoklunk

    We no longer burn people at the stake. We no longer put thieves in the stocks and allow the public to thrash them for days on end. We no longer lash prisoners and sailors as was common 200 years ago.
    Corporal punishment – caning and thrashing schoolboys no longer happens in most advanced societies, and these societies have also banned capital punishment. Boxers wear gloves rather than bare fists, because bare fists are too brutal. It’s against the law to beat wives these days, and despite the Bible encouraging us to beat our childen by not sparing the rod, we don’t beat them at all, and it is against the law. We don’t throw christians to the lions anymore either.
    In days of old violence was everywhere all the time. It is certainly dying out. Doesn’t mean there is no violence in todays world. But it doesn’t compare to the daily violence of yesteryear, where it was the first punishment that occured to anybody – whatever the crime.

  • twinbeech

    I think Dr. Pinker misses an important point here. Unlike the past, religious nutcases now have the ability go bring civilization to its knees with just a few well placed suitcase bombs. During WW-2 for example, there were not enough airplanes, pilots and bombs to destroy civilization. Now there are enough to destroy it a hundred times over, and plenty of fanatics waiting in the wings to carry out the mission.

  • twinbeech

    I submit you may be missing a larger point. Sure, some societies are not as violent (although its hard to believe that by looking at the Arab Spring, Nigeria and Syria) but it only takes one person now with a well placed nuclear device to do unfathomable damage. If all but 10 of the 7 billion inhabitants of our planet were pacifists and the remaining ten could get their hands on a nuclear device, the outcome would be no different than if we were all violent. Whether its 10,000 Germans killing 6 million Jews over 10 years or 2 Muslims obliterating two major infidel cities in a flash, millions are still dead.

  • twinbeech

    I submit you may be missing a larger point. Sure, some societies are not as violent (although its hard to believe that by looking at the Arab Spring, Nigeria and Syria) but it only takes one person now with a well placed nuclear device to do unfathomable damage. If all but 10 of the 7 billion inhabitants of our planet were pacifists and the remaining ten could get their hands on a nuclear device, the outcome would be no different than if we were all violent. Whether its 10,000 Germans killing 6 million Jews over 10 years or 2 Muslims obliterating two major infidel cities in a flash, millions are still dead.

  • twinbeech

    “the great mystery that gives meaning to existence. Without some form of religious understanding we are surrounded by an utterly meaningless void.”

    This is the hardest thing for “believes” to understand. There is no “meaning of life.” The only meaning is the meaning we choose to give it. No gods required.

    …”the great uniting faiths did humanity a service in the pre scientific age by replacing the conflicting beliefs of many different tribes with one rallying story. By replacing many beliefs with one, religions like Christianity and Buddhism reduced the amount of superstition in the world substantially, paving the way for the modern world.

    Replacing many beliefs with one? A cursory search of the internet reveals there are literally thousands of different belief systems. The only thing they have in common is that most of them think all the others are doomed to eternal agony.

    And Christianity “reduced the amount of superstition”? So the belief that we came from Adam and Eve (a ridiculous notion laid to rest by Darwin over a hundred and fifty years ago) that virgins actually get pregnant, that dead people come back alive…all that reduces the amount of superstition? Give me a break. Religion is the stepchild of ignorance. There is a reason that over 97% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, some of our brightest, totally reject the idea of a personal god.

    What we should be interested in is what is true, not what we fervently hope and wish is true. Truth comes to us through evidence. Religion comes to us through revelation, the idea that god revealed his truth to a few of us, but not to all of us.

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