Last spring, in his commencement speech at Harvard University, Fareed Zakaria told Harvard’s graduating class that we live in an age of progress. Here is a short excerpt from his optimistic address:
The world we live in is, first of all, at peace — profoundly at peace. The richest countries of the world are not in geopolitical competition with one another, fighting wars, proxy wars, or even engaging in arms races or “cold wars.” This is a historical rarity. You would have to go back hundreds of years to find a similar period of great power peace. I know that you watch a bomb going off in Afghanistan or hear of a terror plot in this country and think we live in dangerous times. But here is the data. The number of people who have died as a result of war, civil war, and, yes, terrorism, is down 50 percent this decade from the 1990s. It is down 75 percent from the preceding five decades, the decades of the Cold War, and it is, of course, down 99 percent from the decade before that, which is World War II. Steven Pinker says that we are living in the most peaceful times in human history, and he must be right because he is a Harvard professor.
How does this quote strike you? When Zakaria says that the world we live in is profoundly at peace, does that seem right to you? Do you say, “Yes, Mr. Zakaria, I too feel the same way?” Or, do you say, “I’m not sure if we’re living on the same planet.”
Before I go on, I want to introduce you to the literature I’ll be referring to in my message this morning. When Fareed Zakaria mentioned Harvard professor Steven Pinker, he was making reference to Pinker’s newest book, a 700 page behemoth entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Zakaria was actually understating Pinker’s thesis. Pinker not only writes about there being less war; he says that there is less violence of all kinds.
To be honest with you, I did little more than skim Pinker’s doorstop of a book. I did however pick up a book called The End of War by John Horgan. At a much more civilized two hundred pages in length, Horgan offers a meditation on human nature and about the assumptions and excuses that people make in claiming that war is natural or inevitable. And, less you think that I’m some kind of slacker, skimming the long book and reading the short one, let me also add a third piece of literature that informs this sermon. In 2003 William T. Vollmann published a massive, 3,000 page, seven-volume treatise on violence entitled Rising Up and Rising Down. One of my reading goals for this year is to read it in its entirety. Vollmann doesn’t consider the end of war or violence, but his book is a study of the ways that human beings attempt to justify violence. His book stands as an enormous reminder that our human history is a long history of violence.
That’s the literature I’ll be speaking about this morning. But let me return to that provocative quote with which I began the sermon. How many of you would describe the world as profoundly at peace? Are we living in the same world? Look around our nation, look around our world, turn on the news, and what do we see. We see news of the terrorist bombing in Boston and a grisly murder in London. In less than a year we have witnessed mass shootings at a movie theater in Colorado, a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin, an elementary school in Connecticut, and a Mother’s Day parade in Louisiana. According to one website that tracks such things, in the less than six months since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School there have been at least 4,364 (and counting) gun related deaths in the United States, a rate of more than 25 shooting fatalities per day. (Those figures are probably low.) And, we might also note that in places in the world like Syria and Afghanistan, violence is a brutal part of everyday life.
In 2003, right after the US invasion of Iraq, John Horgan went to speak at an Episcopalian Church about whether there was a genetic basis for violence. John Horgan was a senior writer for Scientific American for more than a decade and is a specialist in science journalism, in helping the public to better understand scientific ideas. He writes, “When I asked the sixty or so audience members if they thought humanity would ever abolish war, only a dozen – hesitantly – raised their hands. This was no anomaly. Ever since that evening, I’ve obsessively asked people whether they think war will ever end, once and for all. I’ve carried out polls whenever I have a captive audience. Over 80 percent of those I’ve queried – liberal, conservative, male, female, affluent, poor, educated, uneducated – say that war will never end.”
Young people, Horgan says, are especially pessimistic. When he teaches a course on “War and Human Nature” at his University he sends out his students to poll their peers and 90 percent say that they believe war will never end on Earth. Horgan notes that even many of the optimistic answers he receives are actually pessimistic in nature. War will end on earth only when all people are converted to the same religion. War will end on earth after the nuclear apocalypse when there are no humans left. War will end on earth when humankind joins together in the common cause of defending the planet from alien invaders. In his course, Horgan goes one step further and has his student pollsters ask a follow-up question. Why? Why will war never be abolished? Here is where it gets interesting. As it turns out, none of the justifications offered for war being necessary or inevitable have any kind of scientific validity. As a good scientist Horgan is led to conclude that there is no scientific basis for saying that war must exist.
In the 1980s a group of twenty of the world’s leading scientists in fields like genetics and neuroscience met under the auspices of the United Nations and issued a statement that war lacks a biological or genetic basis. Their statement began with five declarations:
1) It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors.
2) It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature.
3) It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior.
4) It is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a “violent brain.”
5) It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by “instinct” or any single motivation.
Lacking a compelling scientific basis for war’s necessity – history proves that not even resource scarcity leads necessarily to war – Horgan is left to conclude that human capacity for the exercise of free will means that war is by no means inevitable.
If John Horgan’s short book “The End of War” operates mostly in the realm of reason, rhetoric, and argument, Steven Pinker’s long book brings the evidence. Making use of chart after chart, graph after graph, Pinker shows us a world that has become less war-stricken by magnitudes over the past century.
Steven Pinker refers to the period in which we are living as “The New Peace.” He writes, “It may always be something, but there can be fewer of those things, and the things that happen don’t have to be as bad. The numbers tell us that not only war, but also genocide and terrorism have declined over the past two decades – not to zero, but by a lot… Millions of people are alive today because of the civil wars and genocides that did not take place but that would have taken place if the world had remained as it was in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The conditions that favored this happy outcome – democracy, prosperity, decent government, peacekeeping, open economies, and the decline of antihuman ideologies – are not, of course, guaranteed to last forever. But nor are they likely to vanish overnight.”
I’m not sure I can do justice to this with just a quote, or just describing Pinker’s analysis, but in graph after graph he depicts fatalities from war, from genocide, and from terrorism, and in every single graph it shows that the closer we get to the present, the less of this sort of violence there is. This is even true if we include terrorism. Between 1980 and 2001 the four years with the least amount of terrorism were 1998, 1999, 2000, and, yes, 2001. Over the past decade, terrorism has continued to decline.
But that’s not all the good news. Steven Pinker also describes the historical era in which we are living as the era of the “Rights Revolution.” We are living in the era of civil rights, an era in which our society has decided to address lynching and hate crimes. We are living in the era of women’s rights, an era in which our society has decided to address rape and domestic violence. We are living in the era of children’s rights, in which our society has decided to address infanticide, child abuse, and bullying. We are living in the era of gay rights with a decline of gay-bashing and the increasing worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality. And, we are even living in the era of animal rights, in which we as a society have decided to address cruelty to animals in many forms.
These are all extremely modern phenomena. The notion that one partner should not be allowed to beat the other, that a parent should not be allowed to beat a child, that rape is not boys being boys, that bullying is not a normal aspect of childhood, and that violence directed against vulnerable minorities should be taken seriously by law enforcement – these awakenings are actually sadly recent within our society.
If I can introduce a moment of levity here, I might mention one example of how this sensitivity towards violence has permeated our culture. Some years ago, but after I had graduated from elementary school, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education introduced a new standard that declared,
Dodgeball is not an appropriate activity for K-12 school physical association programs. Some kids may like it – the most skilled, the most confident. But many do not! Certainly not the student gets hit hard in the stomach, head, or groin. And it is not appropriate to teach our children that you win by hurting others.
Some of us may decry this, pronouncing this to be political correctness run amok. But, on the other hand, we might also ask questions about authority (school teachers) making compulsory an activity in which children are made the targets of projectiles hurled by their peers.
This example about dodgeball may seem trifling, but it is a part of a larger point that Steven Pinker makes. The pronounced decline in violence the world has seen over centuries and decades has actually been the result of greater awareness of suffering, diminished tolerance for violence, and greater reverence for human life. We’re more sensitive, but that is not a bad thing. Pinker writes, “The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality in ages past, and our notion of universal human rights would have been thought almost incoherent.”
The good news about peace is that war is less, genocide is less, terrorism is less, and, according to Pinker, violence on the whole is less. The bad news is that it has not been completely eradicated. And, finally, the news that is both good and bad is that the decline of violence has not left us joyful and contented, but rather increasingly restless, less tolerant and less accepting of the violence that continues to exist within our midst. I invite you to embrace this restlessness as a spiritual gift, a characteristic of the evolution of human society and human progress.