Think

Civilisation and barbarism

Jun 2015    

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker argues that “violence has been in decline for long stretches of time” and that “we may be living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence.”

 

Describing the 800-page tome as a “masterly achievement”, the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer declares that not only has Pinker convincingly demonstrated “that there has been a decline in violence”, he is also “persuasive about its causes”. The establishment media in the USA has also welcomed Better Angels, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

 

However, Pinker’s bold statements and his almost nonchalant narrative of progress have been subjected to sharp criticisms by social scientists and historians. Pinker’s assumptions about human nature and his philosophical commitments must also be subjected to rigorous theological evaluation.

 

Pinker argues that since 1945, the “great powers” that fought each other in the Second World War have not made war with each other. While this is basically correct, Pinker goes on to make the highly dubious claim that not only have the democracies avoided disputes with each other, they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board”.

 

Pinker appears to have ignored the numerous and devastating wars conducted by his own country since 1945: in North and South Korea (1950 – 1953), Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (1854 -1975), and more recently in Iraq (1990 till present) and Afghanistan (2001 till present). If we add to the list the numerous assassinations, sanctions, bombings and invasions conducted by the USA post-1945, the ludicrousness of Pinker’s assertion is magnified.

 

That Pinker’s discussion on violence in the book is skewed is clearly evidenced in his treatment of the Vietnam War. Ever the enemy of communism, Pinker lays the devastation and the carnage of Vietnam firmly on the shoulders of the communist regimes “that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents”.

 

But Pinker offers no critique of the violence and aggression of the invaders. Nor does he reflect on how one of the “great democracies” can so seriously violate the laws of war by waging a war on a distant land that claimed the lives of more than 800,000 civilians. Also absent from Pinker’s account is the unconscionable use of chemical warfare by the U.S. (1961-1970) and the three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, that suffered from the toxic effects of the chemicals as a result.

 

Some commentators have rightly discerned that Better Angels is a patriotic re-writing of history and the use of sources that would aid this rewriting. An evidence of this is Pinker’s use of statistics. For example, he prefers to rely on the report published by the Iraq Body Count (IBC) which suggests that 53,373 Iraqis died from violence between March 2003 and July 2006, instead of the more authoritative study by Johns Hopkins which reported a death toll that is eleven times higher at 601,000.

 

But his patriotism aside, Pinker’s revisionism is chiefly inspired by two important ideologies that have shaped his entire intellectual outlook: liberal humanism and Darwinian evolutionism.

 

Pinker argues that it was the “coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment” that put an end to the influence of “violent institutions”. Among the many patron saints of the Enlightenment, Pinker names Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, Hume, and John Stuart Mill.

 

The broad brush with which Pinker paints obscures the fact that apart from some broadly shared assumptions, we cannot say that these disparate thinkers have engendered anything like a “coherent philosophy”.

 

And we most definitely cannot insist, as Pinker does, that these Enlightenment rationalists and their followers categorically rejected the use of violence for social transformation. Think of the Jacobins and their Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, who were responsible for innumerable beheadings and other acts of violence.

 

Pinker’s commitment to evolutionary theory has led him to entertain the possibility that “in recent history Homo Sapiens has literally evolved to become less violent in the biologist’s technical sense of a change in our genome.” Evolution has caused “the better angels of our nature” to emerge (an expression which Pinker borrowed from Abraham Lincoln).

 

These assumptions must be challenged from the standpoint of Christian anthropology, especially its doctrine of sin, which presents a more realistic assessment of the human condition. According to the Christian tradition, although fallen human beings continue to be bearers of the divine image, that image is distorted and defaced because of sin.

 

The idea of progress promoted by liberal humanism is a myth. Human beings will always be seriously flawed, and even the most civilised society is capable of barbarism.

Picture by Rangizzz/Bigstock.com

“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg/).

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