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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.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Pinker does not sound plausible when he speaks about reporting bias giving the wrong impression.

    Religion is a nebulous term. Certainly Christianity and Islam have much violence to their credit, whether or not in the name of justice. It has been a tenet of democracy that democracy is best served when the meeting ground is secular, and religion is kept at a distance. That historical separation reflects in part the perceived potential danger posed by religion in a democracy.

    What I saw of Christianity or religion within the PCUSA makes me cautious towards it. While everyone praised love and peace and justice by name, they practiced hatred, especially the clergy. It was visible in their eyes, facial expressions, words and actions. That church, at least, is frightening. Through ecumenical relations I saw the same hatred in the United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Episcopalian and Unitarian denominations. I suspect that it is found beyond their boundaries as well.

    Churches seem to be magnets for the far right and the far left, even while there are many in the pews who are neither. Maybe it is the apocalyptic vision they sustain. Maybe it is the pulpit they provide.

    Ultimately I agree with your assessment in the last paragraph and do not at all mean to argue with it. But I do understand well the fear of religion, and prefer secular democracy to religion in government. I do believe it offers the best chance for peace and justice that we have.

    November 30, 2011
    • I have often been struck by how miserable your experience of PCUSA seems to have been. It’s really unfortunate.

      My experience is very different—I have experienced mostly good people trying to grow in faith, hope, and love. I have seen powerful examples of love and compassion for neighbours, even enemies, and a deep commitment to peace. Of course, there are always the odd zealots, but not really of the political kind. I guess this is what I had in mind in thinking of religion’s contribution to peace—ordinary people doing their best follow the teachings of Jesus.

      Like you, I have no interest in religion in government. On a political level, secular democracy is both good and necessary (even if I think that many of the assumptions that undergird and sustain democracy are profoundly religious in character and origin).

      December 1, 2011
      • Ken #

        Yes, your experience is, no doubt, quite different. I accept that as true. In addition, the PCUSA has people just like the ones you describe too – but not many that I have known.

        Still, I have never been part of such an ugly organization in my life as in the PCUSA. Nothing in business, or academia, or other volunteer organizations has ever been anything like it. When I read theology, I get the impression that it is not unique.

        Organized abuse and hatred is mostly what I saw.

        One of your most popular posts has to do with God loving women. Just before I left, I defended a woman pastor who was terribly abused by a senior pastor, the Presbytery and a congregation, all of whom thought of themselves as loving and kind and progressive and innocent, and, of course, pious. She was one of the few I knew in the PCUSA that felt true compassion for others. They destroyed her.

        December 1, 2011
      • How very sad.

        December 1, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston. #

    Yes, it is a wholly errant appraisal of the Christian ethos. So much so that I for one have no interest in the work. Not that I am offended; I am not. Rather it is a matter of credibility. If Mr. Pinker can be so misrepresentive, prejudiced against and dismissive of a crucial and seemingly inbred human impulse towards religion, I hardly think the rest of his opinion isn’t worthy of consideration.

    The more puzzling aspect of him and others within this so called science of evolutionary behavior, is their attempt to equate morality as an evolutionary developement. If it is regarded as being essential to morality, “the integrity of the other” for no other reason than the reality of the “others” existence. How is this even compatible with a theory of self preservation and advantage much less an outcome evolutionary developement?

    December 2, 2011
  3. Paul Johnston. #

    …. should read, of evolutionary developement

    December 2, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston. #

    double oops….should read “is worthy of consideration”. Good thing I’m trying to put my trust in God’s word, before mine. 🙂

    December 2, 2011
  5. Ken #


    Re: How is this even compatible with a theory of self preservation and advantage much less an outcome of evolutionary developement?

    While not defending Pinker, and not even having read his book, I can offer an explanation of how it would be possible for humans to evolve to become more peaceful.

    Darwin did not actually argue that evolution works only by self preservation. It is possible for acts that jeopardize the life or well-being of one individual yet preserve the life of others in the species and that results in more offspring for the specie. That is a Darwinian explanation of the origin of philanthropy and could work as well to explain how the human species might become more peaceful.

    December 2, 2011
  6. Paul Johnston. #

    If I understand you correctly, Ken, your explanation though expressed by a collective still distills down to individual/communal self interest. That to me still speaks of amorality rather than morality, or at the very least pragmatic self/group interest. As I would understand morality both my neighbour and I deserve peace simply as a consequence of our being and not because of the relative advantages we may incur.

    December 2, 2011
    • Ken #

      Yes, amoral it is. Darwin did not equivocate on this. He said the process that made us, sustains us and changes us still, is indifferent to love and hate.

      When a Christian says he or she believes in evolution, it is generally not the evolution described by Darwin, the major biological scientific paradigm of our day. It is, instead, a progressive evolution guided by God.

      As for me, I think it is possible to understand who we are and where we are and how we got here just as Darwin did, even with the amorality that is part of it, and still express our faith as Christianity. It is, no doubt, an uncommon expression of faith. It involves seeing ourselves as connected with everything in the universe and seeing the universe as the living expression of God, the holy community, the body of Christ. When one sees, or feels, this connectedness and expression, one is able to love it and see its holiness, even in its amorality.

      In case I am a fool, please keep me in your prayers. Let them be like a rope that keeps me from falling to my death.

      December 2, 2011

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