I’ve recommended Steve’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and, nearly two-thirds of the way through it, my initial enthusiasm has remained. It’s an engrossing and enlightening read, and of course very well written. All of us should read it, despite its daunting length.
The book has inspired a lot of discussion—and no small amount of criticism—and Steve has weighed in on some of the commentary. Over at his website you’ll find “Frequently asked questions about The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.”
If you’ve read the book (or contemplate reading it, though I’d read it first), do have a look at his thoughtful responses. Perhaps this exchange will interest readers the most:
Atheist regimes in the 20th century killed tens of millions of people. Doesn’t this show that we were better off in the past, when our political and moral systems were guided by a belief in God?
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. See p. 677 for discussion and references.
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 (p. 142).
When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between thesistic 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. On pp. 337–338 I present data from Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternatives forms of government.
Now you can argue that Pinker is splitting hairs to argue about proportions of populations rather than actual deaths, although I do think he’s right to do so. Yes, each individual death is a tragedy, but proportions measure the chance that a given individual in a given society will meet a violent death, and he makes a compelling argument that that chance has declined over time.
But I’m always surprised that religious people equate religiously inspired genocides with those of Hitler, Mao, Stalin and the like. While the latter may have killed some people because they were religious and hence offended the atheist aspect of state ideology, the vast majority of deaths were not due to atheist leaders’ animosity toward the faithful. They were due to the leaders’ animosity toward those they perceived as hindering the realization of their totalitarian utopias. The deaths were due almost entirely to ideological animosity—or, in the case of Hitler, to the hatred by those of Christian heritage toward those of the Jewish faith. And that hatred ultimately came from religious differences.