|Landscape in Carina Nebula [Courtesy NASA]|
On the local and national levels, many in society decry the increasing violence seen on streets. Mass shootings, not to mention everyday robberies and burglaries, are lamented by neighborhood groups as well as politicians.
Religious fundamentalists generally blame modern science, especially evolution, for our increasingly violent culture. For instance, at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio), one display, warning of the consequences of a scientific worldview, features photos of a nuclear explosion, a collection of skulls from the holocaust, and what may be a photo of a woman undergoing an abortion. Another exhibit in the museum, named "Graffiti Alley," displays news clips about birth control, abortion, divorce, mass murder, stem cells and war. Jerry Bergman of Answers in Genesis, which operates the Creation Museum, specifically blames Darwin's theory of evolution for the Jewish holocaust [Bergman1999]:
Of the many factors that produced the Nazi holocaust and World War II, one of the most important was Darwin's notion that evolutionary progress occurs mainly as a result of the elimination of the weak in the struggle for survival. Although it is no easy task to assess the conflicting motives of Hitler and his supporters, Darwinism-inspired eugenics clearly played a critical role. Darwinism justified and encouraged the Nazi views on both race and war. If the Nazi party had fully embraced and consistently acted on the belief that all humans were descendants of Adam and Eve and equal before the creator God, as taught in both the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures, the holocaust would never have occurred.
On the other side of the spectrum, atheist scholars blame religion for modern violence. Christopher Hitchens writes that religion is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children" [Hitchens2007, pg. 56]. Hitchens and other atheist writers emphasize the many religious wars through history as evidence for these claims. In particular, they connect the intolerance of the Inquisition and similar persecutions by Protestants to the the September 11 attacks. For additional details, see Atheists.
So what are the facts here?
As of the present date, the most detailed and comprehensive analysis of this phenomenon is a 2011 book by noted Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker, entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He begins his book as follows [Pinker2011b, pg. xxi]:
This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not -- and I know that most people do not -- violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.
Pinker is hardly a devout religious believer -- his review of biblical violence, for instance, is openly irreverent. But from another point of view, Pinker's book is deeply inspiring: it is a stunning confirmation of the fundamental good in human nature, a chronicle of how the "better angels of our nature" are slowly overcoming the bad. His work also constitutes a striking refutation of those writers, both from the academic left and the religious right, who have decried our time as irredeemably fallen from the "good old days" (years, decades, centuries or millennia ago) when the human race was presumably more gentle and civilized.
Pinker's book is not an easy read. He meticulously documents his claims with extensive charts, graphs and footnotes. He invokes relatively sophisticated concepts such as "power-law distributions" with aplomb. He does not bat an eyelash while describing the revolting instruments of torture and execution used in medieval "Christian" Europe. He documents the violent practices of many native peoples. But he has a clear purpose in all of this: to demonstrate in no uncertain terms the fact that the human society is slowing become more averse to violence. He also attempts to understand this phenomenon, so that we can hasten its progress, although it is clear that none of us has all the answers.
With regards to warfare, a 2010 Canadian study confirms that since 2000, military conflict has killed 90 per cent fewer people each year than in the 1950s, and since the end of the Cold War 20 years ago there has been a 70 per cent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts [Reuters2010]. Similarly, a 2009 study by Ohio State University researcher John Mueller found that the number of ongoing wars (defined as conflicts resulting in at least 1000 deaths per year) declined from 26 in 1991 to 5 in 2007 [Mueller2009].
The decline in violent crime during the past two decades in the U.S. is particularly perplexing, and has puzzled criminologists, law enforcement officials, sociologists and demographers alike. A recent article in the Washington Post reviews numerous proposed explanations: improved policing, increased incarceration of violent criminals, demographic changes, economic changes, the decline of cocaine usage, gentrification of cities, the legalization of abortion, and even changes in gun ownership. But every one of these explanations has flaws, and the consensus of researchers is that none of these can explain more than a few percent of the decline [Fisher2013].
The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable -- homicide, rape, battering, child abuse -- have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states -- by far the most destructive of all conflicts -- are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate. ...Whatever the explanations, these declines are certainly a blessed development, one that we should be deeply grateful for. The conclusion of Pinker's book resonates with both hope and gratitude [Pinker2011b, pg. 658]:
Too much of our impression of the world comes from a misleading formula of journalistic narration. Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions, and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from "experts" with vested interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists. The talking heads on cable news filibuster about the event, desperately hoping to avoid dead air. Newspaper columnists instruct their readers on what emotions to feel.
There is a better way to understand the world. Commentators can brush up their history -- not by rummaging through Bartlett's for a quote from Clausewitz, but by recounting the events of the recent past that put the events of the present in an intelligible context. And they could consult the analyses of quantitative datasets on violence that are now just a few clicks away.
An evidence-based mindset on the state of the world would bring many benefits.
For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.
For additional discussion, see