Rationality reduces violence – Steven Pinker

This is an edited transcript of a speech given Oct. 7, 2011, at FFRF’s 34th national convention in Hartford, Conn. Online audio is at ffrf.org/outreach/convention/. Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary psychologist, is an Honorary Director of FFRF and is married to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who accepted a Freethought Heroine award from FFRF the same evening.

I don’t have a right to be speaking to you tonight; I’m a parasite. I intended to be in the audience for the award to be given to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. But when I had the opportunity to do something that might entertain you and help the Foundation, I couldn’t say no.

Rebecca and I have been to all the secular, humanist and freethinker conventions and this one, by far, has the best music. Tom Lehrer, referring to the Spanish Civil War, sang “They won all the battles, but we had the best songs.” But the Freedom from Religion Foundation won all the battles and has the best songs.

I would like to explore the implications of my new book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, for the topic that concerns all of us here, namely, religion. It’s a little-appreciated fact that violence at scales large and small has been in decline for thousands of years. We may be living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence. The decline has not been smooth, to put it mildly. It hasn’t brought rates of violence down to zero. And it isn’t guaranteed to continue. But it is a phenomenon that can be documented on scales from millennia to years, from world wars and genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

The first historical decline of violence accompanied the first major transition in human history — from the small-scale anarchic bands and tribes in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history, to the first settled states with cities and governments. This resulted, according to estimates from forensic analysis of prehistoric skeletons and estimates of death rates in tribal warfare from recent hunter/gatherers, in about a five-fold decrease in the rate of violent death.

There was a subsequent decline in rates of homicide during the transition from medieval times to modernity, at least in Europe, where homicide statistics go back seven or eight centuries. A medieval Englishman had about a 35 times greater chance of being murdered than his modern descendants.

A third major transition was the Enlightenment-era humanitarian reforms: the abolition of what our Constitution calls cruel and unusual punishment. They weren’t all that unusual in those days, but they were plenty cruel, including breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, disemboweling, impalement and mutilation. These punishments were meted out for such crimes and misdemeanors as heresy, blasphemy, unconventional sexual practices, criticizing the royal garden and robbing a rabbit warren. During this humanitarian revolution, growing parts of the world saw the abolition of slavery, debt bondage, blood sports, the persecution of religious heresy and execution for frivolous reasons.

For example, in the 18th century, England had 222 capital crimes, including stealing cabbages and moral turpitude in children. By the 19th century, those had been whittled down to four. In the U.S., a majority of executions in colonial times and in the early years of the republic were for nonviolent crimes like concealing birth and counterfeiting. Even though the U.S. is an outlier compared to other western democracies and still has the death penalty, we execute people at a tiny fraction of the rate that our ancestors did.

A fourth transition is what historians call the “Long Peace.” It is a remarkable and seldom-appreciated fact that since 1945, developed states have stopped going to war with each other. We take it for granted that war is something that happens in poor parts of the world. But any student of European history knows that was not always true. It was the powerful, rich, most developed states of their times that were constantly at each other’s throats. That ended after World War II. Most dramatically, the two biggest superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, never fought a war directly with each other.

One might reply, “What’s so great about a Long Peace if they’re still fighting wars in poorer parts of the world?” Well, it has taken a while, but the idea that peace is better than war is spreading to the rest of the world. Since the end of the Cold War in 1990, there has been a plummeting of the number of wars and the rate of death in war all over the world. During the peak years of World War II, the worldwide rate of death was about 300 per 100,000 per year. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, it was about 20 to 25 per 100,000. In the 1960s through the 1980s, it averaged 4 per 100,000 per year. In the 1990s, it was 1.5.

In the 2000s, it’s been a half a person per 100,000 per year. So the dreams of the 1960s folk singers are starting to come true: the world is almost putting an end to war.

Finally, there are the various “rights revolutions” of the postwar period: civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and children’s rights, and now animal rights. This has resulted in reductions in lynchings, hate crimes, rape, spousal abuse, spousal homicide, child abuse, spanking, corporal punishment in schools, laws that criminalize homosexuality, hunting, callousness to laboratory animals and the eating of meat.

Religion’s role

What does any of this have to do with religion? One of the questions I am frequently asked is, “Hasn’t religion been responsible for a lot of the violence in human history?” And another is: “Hasn’t the decline of violence been pushed along by religion?”

The Better Angels of Our Nature is a book about numbers. It has a hundred graphs, and whenever I take up questions like “Was the 20th century the worst in history?” or “How bad was religion in human affairs?,” I try to find numbers collected by the people called “atrocitologists” or “necromatricians.” The terms come from one of them, Matthew White, author of the highly recommended Great Big Book of Horrible Things, which reviews the hundred worst things that people have done to each other that we know of.

White recounts a friend of his musing aloud, “ ‘I wonder what percentage of the world’s suffering has been caused by religion?’ ” He answered, “Ten percent.” White had calculated the death tolls from various causes such as greed, exploitation, decadent emperors and megalomaniac conquerors, and estimated that about 47 million deaths over the course of history can be attributed to religion. Now, of course, defenders of religion can say, “We’re responsible for no more than 10% of the world’s mass murders!” But given the pretensions of religion to be a force for peace, to have caused 10% needs a little bit of explaining.

Religious “multicides,” as White calls them, are easy to find. If we consider the events narrated in the bible to be not literally true but as recording common practices of the time, then we find one genocide after another, many of them commanded by Yahweh, who generally commands the Israelites to massacre every last man, woman and child, though he sometimes allows them to spare the attractive young women so they could rape them and take them as wives.

The New Testament, for its part, is a valorization of the practice of human sacrifice. This custom was exercised with relish by all of the early states and civilizations, some of which placated their gods by massacring people by the hundreds of thousands, generally after a long period of torture. The theory of causation was that the world is full of nasty surprises, like wars, pestilence and famine. What kind of a god would create a world like that? It must be a bloodthirsty god. Maybe if we satisfy him by killing people proactively, we’ll save ourselves from being his next victim.

Human sacrifice did die out in most civilizations. Judaism was founded in large part on the rejection of human sacrifice: goats and cattle took the place of children. But human sacrifice did survive in one of the breakaway sects of Judaism. The basis of Christianity is that the most wonderful event in human history, the “Good News,” was an instance of human sacrifice: God allowed an innocent man to be tortured to death in exchange for not visiting a worse fate on the rest of humanity.

Incidentally, when someone today complains about violent entertainment, such as video games or Hollywood splatter flicks, they should look at the lives of the martyred saints, described with pornographic relish in the early hagiographies. They are by far the most revolting, prurient form of violent entertainment I have ever seen. The early saints were depicted as having been subjected to hideous torture and mutilation, much of it sexualized.

From the Crusades on

The Crusades killed an estimated 1 million people, mostly Jews and Muslims. The world’s population at the time was one-sixth of what it was in the middle of the 20th century. That works out on a prorated per capita rate to about 6 million deaths, a number which has a chilling resonance.

The European Wars of religion, such as the 80 Years’ War, the English Civil War, the 30 Years’ War, and the French Huguenot War, were among the bloodiest events in history. The 30 Years’ War in Germany had a death toll that, adjusted for the world’s population, was greater than the death rate in Word War I and approaches that of World War II in Europe.

Then there was the annihilation of native peoples, especially Native Americans, who were often given the choice to convert or die. Sometimes the choice was recited to them in Latin. Oddly enough, they did not see the light. When the Pequot Indians in New England were exterminated, the Protestant minister Increase Mather offered a prayer thanking God for sending 600 heathen souls to hell. This did not hurt his career: He went on to become the president of Harvard University.

Many faculty at Harvard are affiliated with a residential house; I’m affiliated with one named after him. I asked the master of Mather House if it was named after Cotton or Increase. She said, “Oh, Increase, for sure — I know that because our motto is ‘Increase Mather’s spirit.’ ”

Many of the humanitarian reforms of the Enlightenment were vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church. One of the most important, liberating books in human history was Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764). Beccaria laid out a meticulous case against torture as a form of criminal punishment, which laid the rationale for the criminal justice system we have today, with its graded series of punishments calibrated to the severity of the crime, rather than using torture, multilation, and execution for even the most frivolous offense. Beccaria reasoned that if you mete out a severe punishment for a minor crime, anyone who commits a minor crime will figure, “Well, I may as well commit a major crime. I’m going to get punished the same anyway.” Beccaria argued that instead of prescribing horrific punishments and applying them unpredictably, a criminal justice system should set up deterrents designed to reduce the aggregate amount of violence. And to do so, it’s better to have small, reliable punishments than horrific, unpredictable ones. His treatise was placed on the papal index of forbidden books.

Superstition and ideology

Why did religion so often lead to violence, instead of preventing it? There are a number of reasons.

One is the perpetuation of superstition. If you believe that there is a cruel god whose thirst for blood must be regularly slaked; if you believe Jews killed Jesus; if you believe that children are possessed by the devil, which must be beaten out of them; if you believe that God created a hierarchy of races; if you believe that soulless animals were put on Earth for humans to exploit; if you believe homosexuality is a sin — then you have plenty of moral reasons why violence is not only permissible but mandatory. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Another dangerous feature of many religions is a utopian ideology (a feature shared with certain nonreligious ideologies that have licensed vast amounts of violence, such as Nazism and communism).

One might ask, “Who could be against utopia? Granted, a utopia may not be practical for all kinds of practical reasons, but shouldn’t our reach exceed our grasp? Wouldn’t 10% of a perfect world be better than what we have now?” The answer is no, for two reasons.

First, if you have a belief system that holds out the prospect of infinite good, then you can commit arbitrary amounts of violence in pursuit of this infinitely good world, and you’re always ahead of the game. The benefits exceed the costs; the ends justify the means. Second, if you’re convinced that you have the formula for obtaining infinite good forever, and there are people who learn about your plan and oppose it, then how evil are they? They are the obstacle to an infinitely good world. Which means that they are arbitrarily evil, and deserving of arbitrarily severe punishment.

That’s why demonizing, utopian ideologies led to many of the largest death tolls in history. A common meme circulating among opponents of the New Atheism and defenders of religion as a source of morality is that atheistic regimes of the 20th century killed far more people than religion. Well, that’s probably true. Perhaps 70 to 80 million people were killed by communist regimes, and only 40 million by religion. But is coming in only at second place (or third, or fourth) in history’s list of great atrocities really something to be proud of? In any case, the “atheist regime” meme is propagandistic and highly misleading. For one thing, Nazism wasn’t an atheistic movement. Hitler wasn’t an atheist, and many Nazi leaders were devout Christians.

Indeed one prominent movement, documented in Stiegman-Gall’s The Holy Reich, fused Nazism and Christianity. More importantly, neither Nazism nor communism defined their ideologies as a rejection of God; they were defined in terms of race and class conflict. It’s only a religious mindset that divides political systems into those that believe in the Judeo-Christian God and those that don’t. It is no more sensible than dividing belief systems into those that are Zoroastrian and those that aren’t, or those who believe in astrology and those who don’t.

There’s a clear divide between toxic and benevolent belief systems. The toxic ones posit a utopia, together with demons that stand in the way. Some of these demonizing ideologies are religious, some are not. The more benevolent ones, which grew out of the Enlightenment but had roots in ancient Greece, one can call classical liberalism, enlightenment humanism or secular humanism.

Charting the trends

It was an appreciation of Enlightenment humanism that gave me something of a coherent narrative for the historical trends that I document. It seems spooky that so many historical trends seem to be pushing in the same direction. Why, at the same time as states stopped waging war with each other, did they also decriminalize homosexuality and stop spanking their children? You can imagine a history in which some trends went in one direction and others went in the opposite direction. Why does there seem to be an arrow pointing away from violence in the course of human history? Some people even see it as a vindication of the idea of divine purpose — though that raises the question of why the divine agent allowed so many people to be tortured and slaughtered in the first place. If you’re a divine planner, why not build peace in from the start?

It is fitting that I am the warmup act for Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, because it was she that shaped the line of thinking that allowed me to make sense of all the history I review. Rebecca is an analytic philosopher, a scholar of modern Western philosophy — of Spinoza in particular, but also a fan of David Hume and of Bertrand Russell. And she showed me that there is a coherent moral system that comes out of a commitment to rationality and objectivity.

It begins by making sense of the word “ought.” What ought we to do? How ought we to arrange our affairs? There’s something in nature of logic that is going to push you in the moral direction. As soon as you’re part of a community of rational agents interacting with one another, you can no long-er say that my needs, my goals, my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, at least not if you want anyone to take you seriously.

That means that is impossible to justify a rationale for exploitative violence: for rape, for colonial conquest, for torture as a form of entertainment, for war insensitive to its human costs. These rationales start to evaporate as a society organizes itself along rational lines. And that is our best interpretation of the great arrow in the sky that seems to be pointing peaceward.

I’m not a philosopher; I got most of my philosophy from Rebecca. I’m a social scientist, so I look for cause and effect in the empirical world. My professional question is not whether there is a rational pathway that leads away from violence, but how our not-always-so-rational species has been able to find it. The best answers I came up with are that certain material and cultural changes have allowed humans to better approximate the rational ideal over the course of history.

Enlightenment projects such as universal literacy, freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of movement with its cosmopolitan mixing of people, and universal education, have haltingly, lurchingly, slowly, with lots of local reversals and exceptions, managed to get people to reason their way out of superstition and ignorance and to see the follies of the tribalism and deference to authority and puritanism that are part of human nature.

Over time, as these rational facilities were honed in the crucible of debate and free speech, more and more of the world realized that nonviolence was really a more rational way to organize our affairs.

Steven Pinker, published extensively in the fields of linguistics and experimental psychology, taught at MIT for 21 years and now is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard. He is a 2004 Emperor Has No Clothes award recipient. Along with The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011, available for $40 from ffrf.org/shop), his books include The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007). 

Freedom From Religion Foundation