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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).