The Path to Peace
Steven Pinker has a new book out called The Better Angels of Our Nature and is currently doing the rounds to promote it. I heard part of an interview with Mr. Pinker on CBC’s The Current yesterday, and today read an article on the book from The New York Times. I’ve not yet read Pinker’s (apparently massive!) book, but as I understand it the basic thesis is that, contrary to what one might expect to hear from an evolutionary psychologist committed to the a view of the world that sees natural selection as the driving force behind human history, we are becoming more peaceful as a species.
Of course, one instantly leaps to the seemingly innumerable counter-examples. What of the bloody twentieth century? What of Auschwitz and Rwanda and the Balkans? What of Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot? What of the iron-fisted dictators that have only just begun to be toppled in the Arab Spring? What of the rape and murder and child abuse and gang violence that dominates the nightly news? We don’t seem to be getting any more peaceful. Violence certainly seems to be alive and well!
Pinker’s response—at least in the interview—is that a lot of this has to do with something of a reporting bias. “If it bleeds, it leads”—this familiar maxim frequently serves as an apt summary of how the media tends to report on world affairs. It’s not very exciting or newsworthy when people live in harmony with one another or go about their business in respectful and ordinary ways. Nobody wants to see that. Violence sells newspapers and advertising slots. Peace is boring, so we don’t hear about it. The reason we think we live in violent times is because violence dominates the airwaves.
It’s a plausible enough explanation. I have no doubt that Pinker has an arsenal of statistics and data to back up his claim that, in very broad terms, the planet is growing more peaceful (there will always be pockets of exceptions, of course). For most people in most parts of the world and most of the time, 2011 is a better time to be alive than, say 611 or 1211. Well done, humanity.
What I found particularly interesting in the interview, though, was when the discussion turned to religion. Predictably, “religion” (as always, an un-nuanced, monolithic category) was cast in the role of the villain. Or, at best, it was described as a human institution that has grudgingly allowed itself to be dragged along by humanizing forces at work in our genes and in our world. “Religion” belongs to our primitive past, and is inherently violent, repressive, and controlling. Thankfully, this does not represent all religious expressions today, but, again, we have “humanizing forces” to thank for this.
In other words, religion is reactive rather than proactive. At its core, religion is violent and intolerant. To whatever extent “religion” advocates compassion and mercy, to whatever extent it works for justice and equality, to whatever extent it promotes love and harmony it is aligning itself with outside forces and impulses and downplaying its own essentially violent DNA. Religion can only follow, never guide or direct.
It’s an extremely simplistic portrayal of the role religion plays in human development, of course. It depends upon the often-unstated assumption that the truest representation of a religion’s core is to be found in (a selectively accessed portrayal of) its original expressions. Subsequent developments, modifications, clarifications, etc are seen to be deviations, on this assumption—betrayals of the true nature of a religious belief. Rather than allowing for religious beliefs and practices to morph and grow and exert influence on human development—for good and for ill—along the way, this view of the world seems to think that religions are entombed in the historical period that birthed them. We don’t think this way about any other human institution, but when it comes to religion, this often seems to be the case.
Of course, the other thing to be said is that the view that religion retards rather than promotes peace just doesn’t square with the historical facts. Jesus had a few things to say about peace after all—“love your enemies,” “pray for those who persecute you,” “turn the other cheek,” “love your neighbour as yourself” (even the neighbour that you would be inclined to hate and mistreat, i.e., the Samaritan), and all that jazz—and however inconsistently his followers have followed his instructions, one ought at least to acknowledge that these words (and others) might have played a bit of a role in making the world a better place.
It’s very rarely useful (or accurate) to trade in polarities. Religion is not a universal inhibitor of human progress or the advancement of peace, nor is “natural” human development the sole explanation of why we are becoming more peaceful. Conversely, religion is certainly not the source of all the good that is done in the world, nor are our genes working meticulously behind the scenes to usher in world peace. Things simply can’t be divided up that neatly, convenient though that might be.
The world is a complex place, and we are complex creatures who are guided and shaped by myriad factors, many of which we are unaware, and some of which we consciously embrace. It seems reasonable to say that as human beings we have a both an impulse towards violence and a deep longing for peace. Both of these tendencies have a genetic basis and can be cultivated and developed by a wide array of influences, including, but certainly not limited to “religion.” If we insist on calibrating and cataloging the causal factors that have led us to where we are today, we ought at least to take care to apportion the credit and blame as fairly as we can.