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Does Pinker’s “Better Angels” Undermine Religious Morality?

Pinker at Strand book store in Manhattan last week

It is often argued that religion makes individuals and the world more just and moral, that it builds character and provides a foundation from which we understand right from wrong, good from evil; if it wasn’t for religion, apologists say, then the world would fall into a Hobbesian state of nature where violence prevails and moral codes fail. To reinforce this contention, they point out that Stalin, Hitler and Mao were atheists to force an illogical causal connection between what they did and what they believed.

One way to answer the question of if religion makes people and the world more moral and better off is to look at the history books. For that, I draw upon Steven Pinker’s latest, The Better Angels of Our Nature, an 800 page giant that examines the decline of violence from prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies to the present. Pinker opens his book with the following: “Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.” Whether you’re familiar with Better Angels or not, it’s worth reviewing its arguments to show why violence declined. Let’s run through three sections of Pinker’s book – The Pacification Process, The Civilizing Process, and The Humanitarian Revolution – to see how violence declined. Doing so will allow us to judge if history has anything to say about religion being a credible source of moral good at the individual and global level.

The Pacification Process describes the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to state-run societies. Comparing data from hunter-gatherer societies to modern states reveals two different worlds. For example, the percentage of deaths due to violent trauma (we know this from archaeological studies) in hunter-gatherer societies was on average about 15 percent, with the Crow Creek Native Americans of South Dakota (circa 1325 CE) topping off the list at just below 65 percent and the Nubia of Papua New Guinea (circa 12,000-10,000 BCE) at the bottom at just below 10 percent. By comparison, in 2005 the percentage was less than point one of one percentage; people just aren’t killing each other like they used too, in other words. Another metric to compare hunter-gatherer societies to state-run societies in terms of violence is war deaths per 100,000 people per year. In hunter-gatherer societies it was on average 524. In contrast, consider the two most violence state-run societies in the modern era: Germany in the 20th century, which was involved in two world wars, is at 135 and Russia, which was involved in two world wars and a major revolution, is at 130. The whole world in the 20th century was around 60 war deaths per 100,000 people per year. Taken together, then, Hobbes got it right when he said that the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

The Civilizing Process describes the decline of violence in Europe throughout the middle ages beginning around 1200 and ending in the modern era. One way to compare these two societies is to look at homicides per 100,000 people per year in England over the course of the last 800 years. Between 1200 and 1400, roughly 20 to 30 of every 100,000 English people were murdered. Compare this to the year 2000 where the number is less than one. This means, as Pinker says, “a contemporary Englishmen has a 50 fold less chance of being murdered than his compatriot in the middle ages.” The same story holds across Europe where murder rates declined in a nearly identical fashion. In Italy, for example, the murder rate dropped from about 90 homicides per 100,000 per year in 1300 to between one and two percent in 2000, and in the Netherlands it dropped from about 80 to also between one and two percent across the same time period. Indeed, as Pinker remarks, “from the 14th century on, the European homicide rate sank steadily.” The United States saw similar trends, though obviously not over the same period of time. Here’s one example. Homicides per 100,000 in per year in California fell from a bit over a hundred in 1850 to less than ten in 1910; it truly was the wild west.

The Humanitarian Process describes the rise in human rights, individualism, and liberal ideals throughout the last few centuries. There are several ways to examine this, one is the abolition of judicial torture. From just before 1700 to just after 1850 every major European country officially abolished every form of judicial torture including “breaking at the wheel, burning at the stake, sawing in half, impalement, and clawing.” In addition, England saw the abolition of the death penalty for non lethal crimes including, “poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren and being in the company of Gypsies.” By the turn of the 20th century, the death penalty was abolished outright for nearly every European country (sans Russia and Belarus). The United States saw similar trends. In the 17th and 18th century, it abolished capital punishment for crimes including, “theft, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, concealing birth, burglary, slave revolt, and counterfeiting.” However, capital punishment is still legal, though only about 50 people per year are executed. Describing the humanitarian process would be incomplete without mentioning the abolition of slavery, which sharply increased throughout the 19th century in many countries around the world. Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery when it did so in 1981. It is also worth considering that the number of countries with policies that discriminate against ethnic minorities fell from 44 in 1950 to under 20 in 2003; the number of peacekeepers rose from zero just after World War Two to somewhere in the tens of thousands; and over 90 countries in the world are now democratic, compared to less than 20 autocracies.

Pinker describes two more processes – The Long Peace and The New Peace – which describe similar trends but in the 20th century. In brief, pick your metric having to do with violence and it’s a safe bet it has gone down in the last century. However, there are a few details regarding social issues in the United States worth mentioning. First, we saw a reduction in hate crimes and domestic violence; lynching dropped from 150 per year in 1880 to zero in 1960 and assaults by intimate partners from 1,000 (female victims) and about 200 (male victims) to about 400 and about 50 respectively. We also saw changes in sentiments towards minorities and females. The percentage of white people who “would move if a black family moved in next door” fell over the past six decades from 50 percent to nearly zero; the percentage of white people who believed that “black and white students should go to separate schools” fell similarly; and the approval rating of husband slapping steadily dropped throughout the second half of the 20th century. In addition, gay rights have risen dramatically, animal rights have increased and hate crimes have declined.

By now, the decline of violence should be clear (if you’re not sold, read Pinker’s book). What’s uncertain are its causes. This brings me back to religion and its claim that it provides a necessary moral foundation for the individual and the society. It’s my contention that considering the data Pinker assimilated there is little evidence to support this assertion. That is, religion is not responsible for the moral progress of the last few centuries and for humanity pulling itself out of its former Hobbesian state. As Pinker himself asserts, “the theory that religion is a force for peace, often heard among the religious right and its allies today, does not fit the facts of history.”

If not religion, then what? The more accurate picture is that humans are inclined towards violence and peace. Douglas Kenrick’s study, which Pinker cites, shows that most people (male & female) occasionally fantasize about killing another person, and a trip to the movies or a hockey game will probably demonstrate this sentiment. Paul Bloom’s study, on the other hand, illustrates that babies as young as six month have a moral sense of good and bad. Therefore, it’s much more fruitful to ask what are the historical circumstances that bring out what Abraham Lincoln called our “better angels.”

Pinker identifies four “better angels” – self-control, empathy, a moral sense and reason – and four historical circumstances or “pacifying forces” that favor them over our “inner demons.” The first is the “Leviathan,” or the state. As the Pacification Process and Humanitarian Process illustrated, state-run societies are much more peaceful than hunter-gatherer societies. There are a number of reasons for this. Most obvious is the fact that it is impossible to impose legalities during anarchy. It is only under a state-run society that laws regarding physical abuse or murder can be enforced. In addition, whereas hunter-gatherers were often forced to fight over food and territory, citizens of states tended to be more secure.

The second is “gentle commerce.” This describes process in which individuals realized that engaging in trade can result in a win-win. It’s Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations; a society benefits when its citizens are allowed to freely exchange in trade and form their own businesses. The McDonald’s theory, which explains that no two countries with McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other, highlights how gentle commerce benefits society on a global scale.

The third is the idea of the “expanding circle,” and it describes our growing tendency to be kind and emphatic towards strangers. Whereas hunter-gatherers and citizens of early states only cared for their kin, citizens in today’s world are much more helpful, forgiving, and caring to strangers. This helps explain why we often give money to people we’ve never met even when there is no return as is the case with charities or tipping (In the famous Ultimatum experiment in which people are given $20 and the choice to either take all of it, split it $18/$2, or split it $10/$10, most split it evenly). Indeed, institutions like the Red Cross and Unicef are predicated on the idea that humans are willing to give to others more in need. What expanded the circle? Pinker points to increased cosmopolitanism, which research shows encourages people to adopt the perspective of others.

The fourth is the “escalator of reason.” Pinker says it best: “As literacy and education and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally. That will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise about their parochial vantage points – that makes it harder to privilege one’s own interest over others. It replaces a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. It encourages people to recognize the utility of cycles of violence and to see it as a problem rather than a contest to be won.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the rise of published books and literacy rates preceded the Enlightenment, an era that was vital in the rise of human rights.

These are the four pacifying forces the favor our “better angels.” Reviewing them again puts into question the claim that religion is a necessary moral foundation and the world is better because of religion. If these two claims are true than it would be difficult to explain why the decline of violence and the rise of humanitarian rights occurred so many years after the inception of the Abrahamic religions. Religion was late to the game if it does bring out our better angels. While apologists were busy trying to prove the existence of God and justify scriptures that preach “genocide, rape, slavery and the execution of nonconformists,” the age of reason allowed Europeans to realize that understanding what was morally right and what contributed to human flourishing the most did not require religious texts.

This is not to ignore the fact that good things happened on behalf of religion. The Quakers, to their credit, supported the abolition of slavery in the United States long before most, figures like Desmond Tutu have been instrumental in reducing global and nation conflicts and positive psychology research tells us that religion is a significant source of personal happiness. But it is to deny the claim that religion is a necessary moral foundation and the claim that the world would fall into moral anarchy without religion. People assume that a moral sense or code, an understanding of right and wrong, requires religion. Is this true? In reviewing data outlined in The Better Nature of Our Nature it is apparent that religion played at best a minimal role. It seems more plausible to explain the decline of violence through other historical circumstances and events, which I’ve outlined here.

Taken together, then, it’s probably most accurate to say that religion has been along for the ride but it certainly hasn’t been in the drivers seat. Waves of violence have come and gone – thankfully most of them have gone – and humanitarian rights are at an all times high at the hand of other historical forces. People who believe that religion provides a necessary moral foundation are merely paying “lip service [to the bible] as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.”

55 Comments Post a comment
  1. That first paragraph is erecting a fine straw man, Sam. *Who* are these people who “often argue” religion creates a moral and just people and a better world?

    As a religious person myself, specifically Christian, I can categorically state that it’s not true. If you were going to argue against religion, argue against religion and not vague references to what “people” often argue about it. In fact, the underpinning fact of the religion of Christianity is is the imperfectibility of the world and its citizens. Unlike Rousseau’s fatuous assertion about men being born free, it is Christianity’s that everyone, even and sometimes especially the religious, has fallen short of glory and *no matter what is done here on Earth*, will never regain that glory. One is simply to live sub specie aeternitatis even as we understand we can never create heaven on earth.

    Ironically, the zeal for imagining and then implementing an earthly utopia by any means necessary is the underpinning of Socialist regimes around the world. They fail precisely because there’s no such thing as a utopia. They fail precisely because they don’t understand the vagaries and ultimate wickedness of human nature. That Pinker attempts this rather childish bamboozling (honestly, 800 pages?!) attempt to show that violence has reduced considerably THEREFORE … means he, ironically of all people, doesn’t understand human nature either.

    There’s a brilliant decimation of Pinker’s Better Angels that I read a few weeks ago that I just *have to* find for you.

    October 28, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      1) There are plenty of people – including William Lane Craig – who believe that religion is the best foundation for an objective morality, hardly a straw man.

      2) Pinker does not claim to understand human nature. He spend half of the book pouring through historical data to illustrate the decline of violence and the other half figuring out why (I think it is wrong to call his efforts childish by the way). Aside from your straw man contention, I’m not sure what you’re arguing.

      October 28, 2011
    • Religion is a unate operator – each subscriber to The Holy Book has an individual response. Your ‘enlightened’ savior may be your neighbor’s version of heresy. There is not one true Scotsman anywhere because each Scotsman can define what it means to be a Scotsman. So… religion becomes shared practice and not shared belief. But no religious person wants to have this cake or eat this cake (not one I ever met…) – religious merit comes from something called ‘belief’ which differs from one observant agent to the next. The community of practice rolls on without accepting a shared cultural myth as a myth. Dan Dennett calls this a belief in belief. Each religious person looks to the person on either side of them in the pews to normalize behavior while the music plays on. In this strict secular sense – the sense no religious person accepts – religion as a ritual molds a population to a set of behaviors which are fit (get up in the morning and feed a poor person) or unfit (get up each morning and murder a poor person). Both impulses arise from people reading the same book. This is not about reading skills – it’s about the non-zero sum of modernity emerging from utilitarian good practice.

      November 2, 2011
  2. 1. Yes, but having something be a *foundation* is not the same as saying it *makes* one “more moral, just,” etc. So j’accuse! 😉

    2. Surely one means poring through historical data. What I’m arguing is that his conclusions are, if not outright wrong, then mistaken.

    October 28, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Which conclusions, he has several. His biggest – that we are living in the peaceable time in our species’ history – is nearly impossible to argue. The numbers prove it.

      I assume you’re concerned about other things he is concluding? Or the implications of his main conclusion?

      October 28, 2011
      • Perhaps … yes, you’re right. I’m uncomfortable with the repercussions of his conclusions, and also with whether they can be correctly deduced from the data and some of his premise statements.

        But it seems I’m rushing to judgement. I should read the book, but this kind of sniping is too much fun for a flawed human like me to resist! (And there you have it, one tiny piece of evidence against Pinker! 😉

        October 28, 2011
        • sammcnerney #

          In terms of the repercussions of his conclusions I’m actually partially with you on that. In fact, a lot of people are. I saw him speak at a bookstore here in NYC last week (his really short by the way, which I found funny considering how huge and dense his books are) and he told the crowd that though a lot of people are uncomfortable with his conclusions he was optimistic. Indeed, he dedicates the book to his children (or grandchildren… not sure) and says, “and the world they will inherit.”

          BTW, if you have 45 minutes to kill. Go to this website ( and watch him speak about his book. It’s everything you need to know without slogging through the 800 pages.

          October 28, 2011
          • I’ll take a look-see.

            For the record, I like many of Pinker’s books (yet strangely, I’ve not been able to actually finish any one of them!) from The Blank Slate to How The Mind Works. I also like his sister’s book, The Sexual Paradox. Required reading for any bachelor.

            October 28, 2011
            • sammcnerney #

              Yeah – I own all his stuff but couldn’t honestly say I’ve read every word of every one. How does he manage to write a 500 page book every three years? Amazing

              October 29, 2011
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  3. Dan #

    What does he have to say about structural violence? We live in a world in which some 30,000 children a day die because we (you, me, the kinds of people who are likely to come across this blog) won’t give them what they need to live. In the absence of a convincing account of why their deaths don’t count, I don’t think this carries much weight. If this were just an account of why Europeans have largely given up face-to-face against each other, then fair enough but from what I’ve seen, there’s a much bigger claim here. And is it really true that 10% of 1000 is more than 8% of 2000? In some senses it is but I have my doubts about how far that goes. To be honest, the whole thing smacks of the kind of self-justifying bollocks you always get from bourgeois liberals.

    October 28, 2011
    • Dan #

      Sorry – that should say “face-to-face violence”

      October 28, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Dan, I’m not sure what you are saying. Pinker certainly does not deny that violence and atrocities happen everyday. Indeed, there are thousands of children who die from starvation every day. Keep in mind that he is assessing the decline of violence and rise in humanitarian rights over the course of human history.

      October 29, 2011
  4. Dan #

    On the religious aspect, I’m not sure. At least some of the factors which Pinker gives for a decline in violence have, historically, been associated with religion: the power of the state, empathy for strangers and education are all intimately connected with religion. Trade is perhaps less so (though still there – the creation of new markets and the creation of converts have happened together). And the enlightenment was, after all, the outcome of centuries of Christianity. This doesn’t mean of course that religion provides the only possible foundation for morals (a crazy claim which hardly deserves 800 pages) but it does mean that saying religion is beside the point is difficult.

    October 28, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Religion has been associated with the power of the state, empathy for strangers and education. But that is certainly not to say that it can be credited for the decline in violence; that is an illogical conclusion.

      The Enlightenment was a cultural movement that sought to replace superstitions and ungrounded beliefs with rational thought and knowledge of the world. What it was the outcome of is difficult to say. It was certainly the outcome of much more than “centuries of Christianity.”

      October 29, 2011
  5. #

    Well, I’ve watched some of the video and he doesn’t seem to address structural violence. The graph at is fairly telling. If terrible Maoist policies get described as genocide, why don’t terrible capitalist policies? ‘Communization’ is genocide but IMF structural reforms aren’t? C’mon. I can see no reason for doing this other than the fact that it tells a different, and far worse, story about ourselves. If, 500 years ago, I was the ruler of a state and I wanted my neighbour’s resources I fought a war, killed him and took what I wanted. Now, I use institutional means to do the same. But if my neighbour still gets killed, does it really amount to anything if I’ve done it without violence? In this situation, non-violence seems to be little more than another meaningless cultural fetish for liberals to worship. And – from the section I watched – he doesn’t make any justification for building an argument solely on percentages; it would be nice to see all those graphs re-drawn with absolute numbers.

    October 28, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Are you saying that todays world is just as bad as the world 500 years ago?

      October 29, 2011
  6. Dr. Pinker is at odds with Country Joe McDonald and the pre Pinker question of “who am I” which religion tried to answer as did new age hippiedom or Jesus Freakisum. It is a key question that was suppose to begin our inner exploration. With this old question, the same religion can be different in different enviroments. American Catholics will not be able to visit the tissue samples of John Paul II as Mexican Catholics will. The newly created relics will help answer for those who believe in holy body parts questions about who in a religious/cultural context they are.

    Dr. Pinker and evoluntary psychology have changed the question to, “What am I.” When religion tries to answer that, it becomes more silly yet. We are the manifestation of billions of years of moluclues coming together and we find our place by how we got here. As I understand Sam Harris, we don’t have fate which is based on answering “who am I” but choices about were we find ourselves, or “what am I.”

    November 2, 2011
  7. In using numbers in history, you have to use percentages as population numbers change.

    The Enlightenment sneeked the cracks created in the context of the Refromation and counter Reformation religious/political factions fighting, percentage wise, one of the longest bloodiest wars in history that only ended recently with the settlement in Northern Ireland. I speculate the worse wars have been between variations of the same revelation, modern Islam various forms fighting in Iraq, Iran, and the Levant.

    Chairman Mao, given the preceeding hundred year history of Christian missionaries, forced conversions, and Christian military (USA, Britian, France, Germany, Russia), the question is not that Mao was so bad, but after the Christians and Japanesse Buddhism he was so good. The same can be said for Stalin who looked good after the Czar, now saint Nicholas II. Buy and selling serfs, while a step above slavery, is not much. The Romanov’s while romantized because communist got them, well we should thank Lenin for getting rid of the sacred kings of Russia.

    November 2, 2011
  8. Rich #

    Gotta love that line “To reinforce this contention, they point out that Stalin, Hitler and Mao were atheists to force an illogical causal connection between what they did and what they believed.”
    WTF – the belief that there is a causal connection between what we believe and our actions is illogical? Goodbye to philosophy, political theory and ethics. Indeed Surely the author’s own argument relies precisely on a causal connection between beliefs and actions. The author seems to think that he can dismiss any criticism of his postion if he screams “illogical “loud enough. I think that deserves “The Most Obviously Retarded Line of 2011”. Thank you that was so stupid it made my day.

    November 2, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Rich, I think you are missing my point. It is illogical to say that Stalin, Hitler and Mao did what they did *because* they were atheists. As Richard Dawkins says, it’s not unlike saying Stalin and Hitler did what they did because they had mustaches (see the interview where he makes this point here

      But I do appreciate your thoughtful comment.

      November 2, 2011
      • Rich #

        Dear Sam,
        I miss nothing! Indeed you seem to demonstrate that you are a bit out of your depth here. The issue is one of relevant comparisons. Yes, Hitler and Stalin both had mustashes as did a great many males of their day. However their political philosophy stemed not from the fact that they both had mustashes but from the general collapse of the metaphysyical framework of European thought. In the case of Communism and Nazism the issue was how to underscore the basic grounds of moral evaluation with the collapse of Christianity. These grounds, you buffon, were not underscored by the claim that either leader had a mustash but by an appeal to certain ideologies that appealed to non-theistic metaphysical foundations.
        To spell it out for you- as you obviously need it to be spelled out for you – there is a sense where one’s basic metaphysical beliefs are relevant to the evalution of political postion where as one particular personal grooming is not.
        BTW come on, on these issues Dawkins is a complete clown.

        November 3, 2011
  9. The perspective and historical review is important and in some ways undeniable, even questions of structural and I would add “institutionally absorbed” violence notwithstanding. However, the perspective at the same time must be held in a certain way in abeyance. We can not look on violence that is taking place and say, “well, that’s true, but overall violence has gone down”. Such a “broad perspective” has some inherent problems that should be pretty obvious.

    As for giving accounts for why there has been some change, a major factor that doesn’t appear to be showing up very prominently is a rather simple phenomenon: that of basic historical review. Simply being historical at all, having archives, memory, etc., enters a cultural history into consciousness within a given culture and allows for review. This leads to an ongoing factor of adjustment and change, which is rather inevitable. It may well be that it is in this regard that religion has such a dicey or shifty relation, in that it tends to reinstantiate the same single or singular archive and mythological stories over and over rather than entering more of the ongoing, collecting data into understanding. This in itself may not be enough, of course, and great movements of violence, like Nazism, emerged on the basis of a certain “coming to one’s senses” on the basis of historical accretion, albeit in an obviously violent direction. Nonviolence (in the broadest sense) as a general category then plays a role in all this, and is the faculty or lens through which the accreted data can be worked and lead to new strategies and accomplishment.

    Likewise, a most general category, which one might term “works”, playing on Arendt’s category of “work” in The Human Condition, would pertain to any accretion of object and institutions that stand on their own. This all pertain to historical accomplishment and accretion, however these take place. The crucial feature is simply that anything accretes and stands over time at all. This is enough to account for progress and a certain positive change.

    These most general categories and factors are hard to reckon with. Again, the perspective, which Pinker mitigates strongly by admitting that things are not at “zero”, is both important and may lead to complacency.

    November 3, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I appreciate your comment Tom. One thought:

      You pose a good question but Pinker would say that one problem with your “basic historic review” idea is that when people assess history they tend to only assess the immediate past. This is called historical myopia: the closer an era is to our vantage point in the present, the more details we can make out. This is why many people believe that the 20th century was the most violent in human history, when the 19th century claims the Napoleonic wars (4 million), Taiping Rebellion (20 million), American Civil War (650,000), Shaka Zulu (1-2 million), War of the Triple Alliance (60% of Paraguay), and the African slave-raiding wars (???), and the Imperial wars in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific (???). Indeed, if you ask anyone to write down as many wars as they can most people will start with wars closest to the present and work backwards through time.

      The point is that if people are in fact historical then they should have looked at the 19th century with disgust and made adjustments accordingly. Instead, they fought two world wars, committed genocides, and engaged in numerous interstate conflicts.

      Perhaps I am missing your point though. Look forward to anything else you might have to say.

      November 3, 2011
      • Of course you are partly right. I think there is no simple answer to this situation. If one looks at Marx, just for example, you have a proposal that is on the one hand borne of a deep understanding — or at least presupposition — or historical progression yet, at the same time, a stunning lack of any reckoning with the problem of violence as such. The historical tally is involved while at the same time basically limps where the substantive-thematic issue of nonviolence is concerned.

        This is all in the realm of a few basic things: tendency, for one thing. The myopic tendency is there, but on the other hand, there still is historical accretion. And there is the accretion and development of technology. There is and have been violence and wars: so wars + technology gives you a lot of violence right there, for example. Yet history gives a surmising in various ways of violences of the past and along with technology there is the development and perfection of laws. These are very big things, like Pinker’s topic.

        And you can add the Iraq sanctions to your list (1.5 million).

        The question is: how to manage this strange and complex historical situation? Pinker’s approach is, at least in part, to observe some trends and draw some general conclusions, to make the claim that in some areas at least there has been a lessening. This basically has to be attributed to some degree of historical accretion of effects, mitigated by your “myopia” and some broader general tendencies of which that is a part. Any story you want to tell about such myopia and ignorance, failure to learn from history,etc., is fine as far as I’m concerned.

        The issue is whether pacification can occur by simple “accretion and archiving” alone. To some extent, there is a general cause of nonviolence, or let me say “Nonviolence” with a capital “N”, to include both specific nonviolence as extra-diplomatic contest as an alternative mode of struggle but also “originary nonviolence”, as I call it, as a much broader category the basic category of suffering violence as “wrongs and trauma”, upon which, for example, the just war is launched. It is important to clarify this general category, I think, as arguments for specific alternatives to war, and for just war, tend to get lost on this major category in important ways.

        In any case, there is a kind of “cause and responsibility” of Nonviolence. Pinker’s basic posture in this regard is: “historical but not radicalized”, in that he takes up the most pertinent issue of violence as an “accepted bad” and tells the story of “general trends”, and is able to make a point that, while it may be mitigated by various citings of violence and inclusions of less than obvious violences (structural or “emergent primacy” as I call it violences like the sanctions on Iraq), there may well be some important trends of pacification. Rejoinders that wish to reaffirm that there have been great violences may then be either reactive or radicalized..

        The reactive form then make claims about ignored historical conditions, which is all fine. The question is, what is the radicalized kind of stance here? Radicalized Nonviolence takes an envolutionary turn with regards to the historical emergence of Nonviolence and pacification, plain and simple. It takes up a responsibility to the problem of violence, one that eluded, say, Marx,and, for all of that, in certain ways, the whole history of Western philosophy, for one thing and is given to the effortful or willful forwarding and remembrance/introduction (such as I am doing now) of the cause or issue of Nonviolence as such. It is just rather humble step, in some ways, beyond Pinker’s approach, but is less reactive than the reactive responses, although it welcomes their points as well. It is a bit Gandhian, one might say, in that it realizes a radical turn in the adoption and taking responsibility for the substantive turn of taking up the specific topic-among-topics of Nonviolence as such. It is envoutionary in that it takes the very business of historical emergence as a problem and situates itself between revolution and evolution (which I designate simply as envolutionary, which appears to me to be a best term for this stance-gesture), understanding the violence-potential of revolution as such, casting itself nevertheless in the position of taking a kind of turn and stepping foot in radicalization but in a very specific, thematic-substantive way pertaining to Nonviolence as such, while at the same time stepping out of the historical-progression perspective. It is able, nevertheless, tor reflection on historical emergence, in that it has, or I have,at least, the view that nonviolence and pacification is an actual historical condition, even the forgetting of it and the ignoring of the problems of great wars notwithstanding. This means that the idea of a “war to end all wars” was an indicator of a definite historical trajectory, one that obviously was both mistaken and yet bespoke a fundamental desire in a kind of very broad way in “humanity as such”, in some very big or grand terms. The envolutionary position in this regard has a double structure of insertion (en) and at the same time arising out of, which I suppose might have an “ex-” structure, or in any case a definitely hermeneutical structure, in that the developing emergence of the vaunted cause of Nonviolence as such is emergent within a world that already does have this as a trajectory, but it may be variously helped along, or it may be emergent that it must be and one is beholden to a cause of doing so, which I am addressing in inserting this comment in my own small wall in this comment/interaction. It seems a bit busy or something to get into so involved a working through the business of just this “very comment” and so forth, but it is inherent in the structures of the topic and what is accomplished in the book in question, reflection on the topic, and so forth: in fact, the cause of Nonviolence is in a certain way always at work and is always being decided right in the moment in which alternatives are variously developed or shut down, reckoned with, thought about or not, categorically clarified or not, etc. Thus one is or is not variously attaining essentially to an envolutionary Nonviolence thoughtaction.

        November 3, 2011
      • Why does this have to be the ONLY reliable source? Oh well, gj!

        October 17, 2013
      • So excited I found this article as it made things much quicker!

        November 18, 2013
  10. Thanks for a very useful summary of Pinker’s book. Having read ‘The Blank Slate’ and having heard some online presentations by Pinker of these ideas, I pretty well knew what to expect, but now I feel better informed without having to wade through 800 pages! How typical of the modern age.
    It’a pity about some of the weird and wonderful comments here though. – they all seem to have stopped off here in the course of their own strange cerebral odysseys to add their own layers of obfuscation to something they haven’t even bothered to read [and I’m talking about your critique/summary, never mind Pinker’s book!]

    November 3, 2011
    • sammcnerney #


      If you are still interested, here is a great video of Pinker lecturing on the book ( it’s only about 40 minutes and he covers all the basic points and goes into some detail.

      Cerebal odysseys indeed! Fantastic description.

      November 3, 2011
  11. Religion is a man-made institution created by an imperfect man/ woman, more have died in the name of religion that i care to count…as it raises every day…
    Matt 5:37 – Eure Rede aber sei: Ja, ja; nein, nein. Was darüber ist, das ist vom Übel.

    November 3, 2011
  12. david #

    Probably all religions of the past promoted humbleness in the face of nature, we would pray or make offerings to spirits or god(s) for good crops, merciful weather.

    Today our delusion that we can control and boss nature around through science, technology and corporatism means we think we don’t need the divine anymore. Strangely enough the greatest act of violence against the planet and it’s inhabitants, ulitimately including every human, is playing out as a result.

    We have tried to create our own god vast corporate and political institutions, it turns out only psychopaths not saints make it to the top
    of these institutions, and they fail us miserably, Pinker makes me wonder if modern academia is any different, he is part of this modern super-violence in my view.

    November 17, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Um, how would you say Pinker is “part of this modern super-violence.”

      Also, do you really think psychopaths make it to the top? Those who have made it to the top could surely be accused of being greedy or immoral, but I doubt they would be clinically diagnosed as being psychopathic. You might be conflating people who are greedy and immoral with psychopaths. These are two very different things.

      November 17, 2011
      • Hey Hi Sam,


        It is well accepted that Wall Street banksters, etc., who make it to the top of corporate and political institutions are sociopathic or psychopathic = the absence of common Human empathy, n’est-ce pas?

        For example, Goldmen-Socks [stet] Blankfein and coal mogul Blankenship are clearly sociopathic. Indeed, Thom Hartmann and many others, including psychologists, expound on this matter on national radio regularly.

        Furthermore, Sam, the aforementioned Wall Streeter is NOT the exception, but the rule; just as felonious PO-LICE batterers and murderers do not constitute “a few rotten apples” or “mere rogue PO-LICE.” They are cohorts in an institution of systemic criminality and structural corruption. (The Blue code of silence is clear evidence.)

        On the other hand, do you not agree, Sam, that the Catholic dogma of eternal torture in hell has NORMALIZED such behavior as torture, violence, and felonious PO-LICE assault and battery on citizen and non-citizen victims?


        And is it not the case, Sam, that such heinous violence among the PO-LICE is actually increasing, but not decreasing, as I assume Pinker might claim?

        July 28, 2012
  13. Jim #

    Imagine there’s no heaven
    It’s easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people living for today

    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people living life in peace

    You, you may say
    I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
    I hope some day you’ll join us
    And the world will be as one

    Imagine no possessions
    I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger
    A brotherhood of man
    Imagine all the people sharing all the world

    You, you may say
    I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
    I hope some day you’ll join us
    And the world will live as one

    June 12, 2012
  14. Reblogged this on Anja Murez and commented:
    An excellent post on Why We Reason about Steven Pinker’s latest book “The Better Angels of our Nature” on the decline of violence through history and religious morality. If you like it, you can vote for it here

    June 14, 2012
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    I’ve been in a weekly book group for six years and after one year of my salesmanship and heartfelt convincing they agreed to read Pinker’s exploration of the decline of violence. I’ve debated the contents for the past three years in person and online with liberals and conservatives. They have knee-jerk criticisms that they tend to maintain no matter how much data one puts forward. Of course, Pinker writes about a lot more than the data in his book. He has many theories and analyses that one can challenge. Many academically oriented people in my group did. My point is try and make sure lots more people are exposed to the overall fact that violence has declined. Then, we can listen to Pinker and others who may help us understand or formulate our own theories as to why this happened and what might be done to continue and even improve the trend.

    I’ve included a few dozen nice color charts related to the text here:

    More can be found through an image search for “steven pinker better angels charts”.

    Through my many discussions on “Better Angels”, I’ve developed and revised multiple times an overview statement for the book along with attaching or copying many charts that Pinker put together. Here is my latest version:


    Much of the information below comes from Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. This remarkable text evaluates and combines the work of dozens of historians to show that, contrary to popular opinion on the left and right, the planet has become far more peaceful than in any other time in history. Terrible things like warfare, rape, murder, legal and illegal slavery, bullying, lynchings, racism, sexism and animal abuse are all in radical decline. This process started when societies began to organize away from hunter-gatherer communities between 7,000-10,000 years ago into structured civilizations, but shifted to an accelerated level of reform during the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment and afterward. By absolute numbers and percentage of population, the trend is downward in violent behavior.

    Whether intentionally or not, the media often makes the global situation look like everything is getting worse or at least not significantly improving. That’s just not the case when it comes to acts of violence. There still is plenty of harm being done by humans to one another, but thankfully it’s far less prevalent overall than in 1965 or 1805 or 1585. Through a very large range of historical narratives, archaeology and statistics, the human condition generally reveals itself as more barbarous the further backward one looks. On a recent note, the U.S. crime rate now is half of what it was in the early 1990s. This includes places known to be more dangerous like Baltimore, Washington D.C, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Between 1973 and 2008, rape decreased by 80% and murder became 40% less common. According to the FBI, from 2001-2010, the crime rates went down in categories of violent crime (20%), forcible rape (13.8%), robbery (19.7%), aggravated assault (20.8%) and motor vehicle theft (44.5%).

    When using percentage of population as a guide to study the scale of war related deaths, the worst atrocities of the 20th century don’t top the historical list. Just 4 horrific events of the 1900s make it into the top 20. Only 1 makes the top 10, as WWII ranks 9th. Archaeological evidence from almost 40 pre-state societies of eras as far back as 14,000 years ago and up to those active today show an average of a 15% violent death rate because of trauma evidence in the skeletal remains. The Middle Ages hovered under 10% and gradually lessened. The 20th century, even with all of its devastation and human suffering, had a rate of a much smaller 3%. The 21st century is astronomically low in comparison, 0.03%. That’s 500 times less than typical pre-state levels of brutality. Contrast modern levels of carnage to that of the American Wild West, where the percentages ranged up to 30% or higher in each town. England, for another example, now has a murder rate that is 35 times less than in the Middle Ages.

    The Wikipedia page about this book summarizes the proposed causes for the decline in violence:

    Pinker identifies five “historical forces” that have favored “our peaceable motives” and “have driven the multiple declines in violence.” They are:

    The Leviathan – The rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” which “can defuse the [individual] temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and circumvent…self-serving biases.”

    Commerce – The rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” so that “other people become more valuable alive than dead” and “are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization”;

    Feminization – Increasing respect for “the interests and values of women.”

    Cosmopolitanism – the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which“can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them”;

    The Escalator of Reason – an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’s, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”

    From –

    For an interesting video presentation/summary of the contents of this book, see this link:

    A great web site that can be used as a reference to double-check this data is, where typically a half dozen or more historians contribute their estimate on the death toll for each significant historical event. As far as I have been able to study, Pinker many (if not most) times chose one of the conservative numbers in the ranges.

    July 30, 2015
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