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Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature


The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall: Compelling, Accessible, Convincing, BUT… Problematic.

Before I get into the problems, I want to be clear that I stand behind my four-star rating. The Better Angels presents and defends a simple premise: violence has decreased to an historical low. This Truth runs contrary to the popular notion (and mine, until recently) that the world has recently gotten much more violent (genocides, crime, nuclear wars, terrorism, etc.) It seems that the evidence runs contrary to popular perception as well. Pinker’s “sanity checks,” history, and statistics reveal a pretty clear trend: the world is quite a bit safer than it ever has been. For every new type of violence we suffer from, there are others we’ve done away with (the “iron maiden,” chattel slavery). The average human is much less likely to die a violent death than ever before. And our sensibilities have changed. Genocide has always existed. The fact that we recognize it as a special kind of awful reveals our increased sensitivity to violence (there were times in history when the complete destruction of another people was accepted as a valid option in war).

Pinker successfully argues his main point, and peppers the pages with all sorts of entertaining moments along the way. He shows prudent restraint in making predictions about whether this trend will continue, but does explore the factors that contribute to the presence and decline of violence (the “demons” and “better angels” of our nature).

This book is staggeringly thorough, but there are some problems. I’ll list them briefly (won’t make a ton of sense if you haven’t read it, but for what it’s worth). In my opinion, these are huge problems (stupendous, unfortunate, and in some cases, almost comically biased). That I rated the book four-stars in spite of these problems should convey how highly I value it’s strengths.

Problem #1: Pinker ignores the groundwork Christianity laid for the development of the scientific method and the appreciation of reason. Reason did not spring forth ex nihilo. Pinker’s clear implication is that religion is a net-negative on the progress towards peace, but that reason is the champion. Even if religion is nonsense (which it isn’t, but even if), that’s a bit like saying, “Art is lovely and betters the world, but it’s the artists who’ve caused so much harm.” Which leads me to…

Problem #2: A Terrible Double-Standard. Whenever in history any kind of religious thought catalyzed violence, Pinker pins responsibility on religion. Whenever religious people very obviously decreased violence, Pinker explains that they were responding only to cultural trends, not their religion. Similarly, Pinker readily cites instances in Scripture when God commanded violence to a certain people at a certain time. But the obvious, clear, explicit teachings about peace (“love your enemies”; “turn the other cheek”; it is for God to avenge, so we need not; God has forgiven us so much, we ought to forgive one another; etc.) had nothing to do with human behavior. It’s a pitiable blindness and damages this work.

Problem #3: Pinker greatly underestimates the vast contribution theology makes to the pacification process. He ignores, for example, how a theology of eternity completely solves the Prisoner’s/ Pascifist’s Dilemma (both in theory and in practice!). The fact that it can also inspire suicide bombers is irrelevant. Pinker has no problem granting that reason must be guided by our end-goals. Why not religion too? His presentation of religion is either childish or intentionally obtuse.

Another example: The belief in an objective, esoterically ‘other’ Creator has inspired an vastly expanded circle of sympathy long before reason was able (again, we must read the explicit teaching of Scripture, not just select and generalize specific behavior of religious people). And on that note, the circle of sympathy reason acquires stops very far short of beings we cannot perceive with our five senses: the real angels, for example, and God Himself. What about what he wants? What about violence done to him, affront to his sensibilities? Once again, while reason is a powerful light to shine upon the world, it cannot shine beyond it. That requires the light of revelation. The “reasons which reason doesn’t know,” Pascal would say.

Problem #4: Pinker made light of the most compelling thing about his book– the inexplicable harmony of so various and seemingly unrelated factors cooperating to remove violence from the world. His response of gratitude seems appropriate to me, and I share it (as a sinner, trapped in my own tragic Pascifist’s Dillemma, but now saved by grace). He admits that others in his field see here Providence. But for Pinker, salvation does not require a Savior. Pinker, you’re colleagues are right! The arrow was painted by Someone. You cannot see Him with your eyes, but anyone who seeks, finds!
View all my reviews

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for these insights. I am reading the book at the moment and frustrated by Pinker’s outrageous bias against spiritual beliefs. And I say that not as a Christian but as an agnostic. How can such an intelligent writer overlook the profound rejection of violence made by both Jesus and the Buddah, thousands of years before the rest of the world began to catch on? Surely, the fact that organised religions widely betrayed those teachings is not an argument in favour of atheism, but against (among other things) the insecurity of those who “believe” without understanding.

    October 15, 2012
  2. Chris Travis #

    Great to hear from you, Dave. I really appreciate your thoughts– the Buddah is another very fine example of explicit teaching that obviously contributed to the decline of violence. The oversight is frustrating, because I think Pinker’s thesis is pretty solid (and exhilirating– who doesn’t want it to be true?). I’d love to hear more of your thoughts as you get further along.

    October 15, 2012

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