The five reasons we hurt ourselves (and others)

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity
Five habits of the heart cause untold destruction and self-destruction.

Stephen Pinker’s wonderfully stimulating book The better angels of our nature calls them our ‘inner demons’:

‘A small number of quirks in our cognitive and emotional makeup give rise to a substantial proportion of avoidable human misery.’ 1. Humanists see them as products of evolution; Christians, as aspects of fallenness.

Below I have compared these Five Deadly Quirks with the Beatitudes, as taught by Christ. It’s interesting how directly Jesus addresses them; how prevalent they are; and how vital to fight them.

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Why violence has fallen

Stephen’s Pinker’s wonderful book The Better Angels of our Nature describes the fall in violence over thousands of years. You have to read the book if you don’t believe me, but I find it convincing.

Amazon

For example: we have a much less chance of being caught in a vendetta or blood feud than if we were all hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago. Crucifixion, cannibalism, the rack and the whip, these days, are deployed only in the world’s darkest holes, not in its finest civilisations. These days–in Europe–we worry about battery hens or foxhunting or whether a cow died well; in the past we worried about slave trading or state executions.

We still have evil and violence in the world but, per capita, per life, there is much less of it.

Wars, of course, are more problematic but even here the facts are surprising. No war has killed more than World War II, true, but World War I only ranks fifth or sixth in the list, out-cataclysmed by three Chinese wars and the Mongol conquests. If you adjust for world population at the time, neither of the 2oth century’s showpieces make the top ten.

So, violence has declined.

Why?

Pinker has five general reasons:

  1. ‘Leviathan’: by this he means, following Thomas Hobbes, government and the power of the state. If they punish the person who robs me, I don’t have to. And if they police the streets, it’s possible fewer people will want to rob me in the first place. Anarchy is bad for us. Government, though it brings its own problems, is preferred.
  2. ‘Gentle commerce’: the more we trade, the less we fight.
  3. Feminization: It does tend to be the chaps who do the violence; as women gain more influence, violence declines.1
  4. ‘The expanding circle’. The more we mix, and appreciate each other, and put ourselves in each other’s shoes, the less likely we are to fight. Maybe education works, too. Sounds soppy, but, hey.
  5. ‘The escalator of reason.’ This is about applying logic to problems rather than pride or prejudice.

I find this powerful stuff. Take your favourite dysfunctional country, and apply this lot, and things will get better. That is what is happening around the world, and why we now have–for example–the EU rather than the 100 years’ war.

But he missed the chilli out of the curry

I  find these arguments necessary and enlightening, but not sufficient. On my reading Steven Pinker is a wonderful scholar but he keeps dodging Jesus. Like many who boast the title ‘humanist’, he is happy talking about the Old Testament, about crusades, inquisitions, and witch-burning, but he refuses to look Christ–the not-retaliating, against the death penalty, blessed-are-the-peacemakers Christ–in the face. He underplays the role of radical Christians in (for example)  fighting slavery, inventing the whole idea of the NGO and being decisive in civil society, also known as being salt and light.

(This might not be his fault. If he is a behavioural psychologist he is destined to be shaped by his environment and anyone who spends as much time as he does with social scientists is bound to lose his grip in certain areas.)

It matters, though, even in a book so brilliant as his. Take drug addiction in the UK. ‘Leviathan’ gets druggies their own apartments, on methodone rather than heroin, with a care worker, using clean needles and with good free healthcare. It’s harm reduction and it’s loads better than nothing.

But I could dig up stories about hundreds of former addicts who are off drugs entirely, and embedded securely in loving networks of family, community and work. And they would attribute the change to Christ. Government ministers have visited centres in the UK and seen this and asked, ‘couldn’t you do it without the religious stuff?’. The answer, of course, is ‘feel free’. But when it comes to rescuing druggies, fishing the inebriated out of ditches, running day care for the elderly, the humanists honestly seem a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps his curry is lacking a dash of chilli.

 

The world is getting less violent (and why it matters)

‘Of the increase of his government and peace, there will be no end’. And so it proves….

Having got my eyesight back after two years of drug-induced cataracts, I am enjoying some heavy-duty reading again. Steven Pinker’s book is getting me very excited. His thesis is that violence in the human species is continuing a dramatic fall, stretching over millenia, dating indeed from the agricultural revolution. Because this is so counter-cultural, he needs the book’s 900 pages to prove it and hypothesise about it.  Bill Gates’ cover blurb (‘one of the most important books I’ve read — not just this year, but ever’) is for once more than the polite puffing of friends.

The book is so counter-cultural because those  of us who read the news in the 60s, 70s and 80s saw a world going to pot1; Pinker shows this was just a counter-cultural eddy against a much longer flow, and the fall in crime in the 1990s and beyond is merely a resumption of that old norm. Totally fascinating.

So much to think about! (This is me speculating, not Steven Pinker)

1. So history has a direction after all and ‘human progress’ means something? The twentieth century rather left that 19th-century view bleeding in the street.

2.  Here is evidence-for me–though certainly not for the convinced non-Christian Steven Pinker–that Christ is King and ‘of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.’ It is not the case that the world was going bad until Jesus came and fixed it. But it can surely be argued that here we have the ‘left hand of God’ and the ‘right hand of God’ working together. God guides human history generally into a more fruitful and less violent place; and at the epicentre, accelerating this trend and filling it out with revelation, is the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the peace-making activity of his people. I don’t think Prof Pinker would enjoy this conclusion (I would like to write another blog about his so-called humanism and measured disapproval of the Christian faith) but I find it a bit stunning– a large body of unsuspected social-science evidence that beautifully complements natural theology, not completely unlike the body of physical evidence that leads physicists to conclude the Universe began in a moment of creation at the Big Bang.

You gotta read the book.