Sam Harris interviews Steven Pinker: The Twilight of Violence
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Twilight of Violence
An Interview with Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, the author of several magnificent books about the human mind, and one of the most influential scientists on earth. He is also my friend, an occasional mentor, and an advisor to my nonprofit foundation, Project Reason.
Steve’s new book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Reviewing it for the New York Times Book Review, the philosopher Peter Singer called it “a supremely important book.” I have no doubt that it is, and I very much look forward to reading it. In the meantime, Steve was kind enough to help produce a written interview for this blog.***
I suspect that when most people hear the thesis of your book—that human violence has steadily declined—they are skeptical: Wasn’t the 20th century the most violent in history?
Probably not. Data from previous centuries are far less complete, but the existing estimates of death tolls, when calculated as a proportion of the world’s population at the time, show at least nine atrocities before the 20th century (that we know of) which may have been worse than World War II. They arose from collapsing empires, horse tribe invasions, the slave trade, and the annihilation of native peoples, with wars of religion close behind. World War I doesn’t even make the top ten.
Also, a century comprises a hundred years, not just fifty, and the second half of the 20th century was host to a Long Peace among great powers and developed nations (the subject of one of the book’s chapters) and more recently, to a New Peace in the rest of the world (the subject of another chapter), with unusually low rates of warfare.
Need I remind you that the “atheist regimes” of the 20th century killed tens of millions of people?
This is a popular argument among theoconservatives and critics of the new atheism, but for many reasons it is historically inaccurate.
First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.
Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.
Third, according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.
Fourth, many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from the Thirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe.
When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between theistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. I present data from the political scientist Rudolph Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternative forms of government.
Your claim that violence has declined depends on comparing rates of violence relative to population size. Is that really a fair measure? Should we give ourselves credit for being less violent just because there has been population growth?
You can think about it in a number of ways, but they all lead to the conclusion that it is the proportion, rather than the absolute number, of deaths that is relevant.(... continue reading at Sam Harris' blog)