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