In Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, the old testament of the Bible is condensed to a few of its nastier bits. While it’s just a small part of the narrative (and it’s not done to denigrate religion) it does illustrate the brutality of the time. In fact that’s the point. Pinker uses the stories of the old testament to illustrate the violence, contempt of individuals and general savagery of existence in the 3,000 years or so that predated the common era. We are walked through a history of violence that leaves little doubt that man’s better angels have emerged slowly, but nonetheless dramatically over the centuries. Even Pinker admits that the assertion that violence has declined over time is counterintuitive, but lays out the data and clearly illustrates the elements of this moral progress that leaves the reader convinced of his premise.
Steven Pinker has authored an excellent book that stitches together the historical forces and movements that have urged humanity forward toward less violence and greater individual possibilities. What stands out for me in this book is the role of religion in modern society in light of this seemingly inevitable trend toward greater reverence for human dignity and peaceful coexistence. You won’t be surprised to hear that contrary to the marketing image of religions today, greater emphasis on human dignity is not the result of pious adherence to doctrine, but flourished as the result of reason and a distancing from religious orthodoxy. In many ways religion, as a force that stubbornly preserves outdated moral notions, retards the process of human advancement.
From the aggregation of hunter-gatherers into larger agrarian groups, and on to organized governed societies, humans have advanced moral thought to better adapt to the circumstances of their existence. What many religions have done is to codify the morality of the day, often in a book and cultural traditions. But while the written word makes disseminating the moral code easier, it also makes it much more difficult to adapt the code based on new experiences and growing knowledge. The text, forever trapped in the time of its writing, acts as an anchor slowing the progress of human morality. Long after the thinkers of the day had shed the light of reason on the destructive practices of torturing heretics, slavery and monarchies, religion was the primary force that kept these institutions alive. Even today irrational religious resistance slows progress towards homosexual rights and protecting our environment. Religion does not just stifle our progress toward a less violent society; it stifles progress in every aspect of our moral lives.