2019-12-30

Challenging Steven Pinker’s Better Angels View of Human Nature and the History of War

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by Neil Godfrey

So by this measure too, states are far less violent than traditional bands and tribes. Modern Western countries, even in their most war-torn centuries, suffered no more than around a quarter of the average death rate of nonstate societies, and less than a tenth of that for the most violent one.

Thus concludes Stephen Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2012). He supplies tables to illustrate his point (click on the images to read larger text):

Pinker concludes from the above statistics that concerning warfare there has been a historical “retreat from violence”. Over millennia our species has transitioned

from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago. With that change came a reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding that characterized life in a state of nature and a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of violent death. I call this imposition of peace the Pacification Process.

But there is a problem.

Still, there are many ways to look at the data—and quantifying the definition of a violent society. A study in Current Anthropology published online October 13 acknowledges the percentage of a population suffering violent war-related deaths—fatalities due to intentional conflict between differing communities—does decrease as a population grows. At the same time, though, the absolute numbers increase more than would be expected from just population growth. In fact, it appears, the data suggest, the overall battle-death toll in modern organized societies is exponentially higher than in hunter–gatherer societies surveyed during the past 200 years. 

Stetka, Bret. 2017. “Steven Pinker: This Is History’s Most Peaceful Time–New Study: ‘Not So Fast.’” Scientific American. November 9, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/steven-pinker-this-is-historys-most-peaceful-time-new-study-not-so-fast/.  (Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations.)

Here is some detail from that Current Anthropology study by Dean Falk and Charles Hildebot.

The objection raised by Stetka above is that Pinker overlooks the scaling factor when he interprets the raw statistics.

Psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that humans “started off nasty and . . . the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction” (Pinker 2011:xxii). Figure 1 [Figure 2-2 above], reproduced from Pinker, illustrates his main evidence for asserting that states are less violent than small-scale “hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history” (Pinker 2011:xxiv); however, because this figure depicts annual rates of war deaths suffered per 100,000 people, these ratios are blind to actual population sizes. (Falk and Hildebot)

By factoring in population sizes, F&H observe that the numbers of war deaths have increased exponentially as populations increase. Their studies were based on direct war or inter-group conflict deaths relative to population sizes of

  • 11 chimpanzee communities,
  • 24 human nonstates,
  • 19 and 22 countries that fought in World War I and World War II.

Clicking on the following F&H image will enlarge it to allow for clearer detail:

The chimpanzees make an interesting comparison. Chimpanzee communities engage in deadly violence against one another but the numbers of absolute deaths suffered are unrelated to the sizes of their communities.

A Cochran-Armitage trend test indicates that, as mean chimpanzee population sizes increase, the percentages of mean annual deaths from external aggressors that are observed, inferred, or suspected decrease . . . . A reduced major axis regression . . . shows that the absolute number of annual deaths suffered by a population is unrelated to its size . . . . 

Image by Jack Mobley

To come full circle, assertions that humans living in states have become less violent than those living in nonstates, with the assertions being based on blind ratios of annual war deaths relative to population sizes (e.g., war deaths per 100,000 people), are parallel to the untenable assertion that squirrel monkeys are smarter than humans because they have relatively large (blind) ratios of brain sizes divided by body sizes. (F&H)

Are state societies less war-mongering than nonstate societies?

[N]onstates should be viewed as neither more nor less fundamentally violent than the countries that fought in World War I and World War II, because severity of war deaths scales nearly identically with population sizes in all three groups.

The more severe the anticipated casualties in a war the less frequent war occurs.

. . . thus, in 97 interstate wars that occurred between 1820 and 1997, “a 10-fold increase in war severity [war casualties] decrease[d] the probability of war by a factor of 2.6” (Cederman 2003:136; fig. 3). Importantly, wars causing relatively few absolute numbers of deaths occurred frequently; those with moderate deaths occurred less often; and highly disastrous wars (e.g., World War I and World War II) occurred rarely (fig. 3). . . . .

F&H cite other studies that conclude the likelihood of a third “rare” world war is “a distinct possibility” (because decisions to wage war are found to “[depend largely] on innovations in military technology and logistics and alterations in contextual conditions”) . . .

This is especially so because the onerous liability of weapons of mass destruction has failed to obviate further developments in war technology

The relative periods of peace between “rare major wars” is a sign of how extremely severe the next such war will be rather than a hopeful sign that we have become less violent somehow.

. . . not that larger populations are less prone to violence than smaller ones; rather, larger communities are less vulnerable to having large portions of their populations killed by (or entirely wiped out by) external enemies compared with smaller ones (i.e., there is safety in numbers). . . . 

. . . people living in small-scale societies are not inherently more violent that those living in “civilized” states. Our analyses demonstrate that war deaths scale similarly with population sizes across all levels of human society. 

Other scholars have uncovered the same results:

Based on our results, we conclude that trends in proportions of war group size or casualties in relationship to population are, in fact, described by deeper scaling laws driving group social organization subject to contingencies, such as logistical constraints, expedient needs, and technology. . . . 

Indeed, while the probability of being involved in conflict as a member of a war group or as a casualty of conflict in large and/or contemporary societies is lower than in small-scale societies, it might not be driven by any better or worse angels of our nature. This probability might merely be an emergent outcome of differential logistical constraints and group populations. This probability may also change rapidly based on group conflict needs, expedience, and contingency. The demographic investment of any society in its own conflict issues or the lethality of any conflict then is not a matter of proportions but of scale. (Oka et al.)

Prehistoric Warfare?

Continue reading “Challenging Steven Pinker’s Better Angels View of Human Nature and the History of War”


2018-10-17

Speaking of us little devils…

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by Neil Godfrey

After reading and posting a comment on Greta Christina’s 9 Questions Asked of Atheists… I have just caught up with Mano Singham’s The Morality of Atheists. And Mano’s post is about another post, How a Huguenot philosopher realised that atheists could be virtuous, by an assistant professor of philosophy, Michael Hickson. I’m a history lover so Hickson’s opener grabbed me:

For centuries in the West, the idea of a morally good atheist struck people as contradictory. Moral goodness was understood primarily in terms of possessing a good conscience, and good conscience was understood in terms of Christian theology. Being a good person meant hearing and intentionally following God’s voice (conscience). Since an atheist cannot knowingly recognise the voice of God, he is deaf to God’s moral commands, fundamentally and essentially lawless and immoral. But today, it is widely – if not completely – understood that an atheist can indeed be morally good. How did this assumption change? And who helped to change it?

One of the most important figures in this history is the Huguenot philosopher and historian, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). His Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet (1682), nominally dedicated towards taking down erroneous and popular opinions about comets, was a controversial bestseller, and a foundational work for the French Enlightenment. In it, Bayle launches a battery of arguments for the possibility of a virtuous atheist.

So if the same interests you and is new to you then you have the links above.

One more from Hickson’s article:

Moral action, which concerns outward behaviour and not inward belief, is motivated by passions, not theories. Pride, self-love, the desire for honour, the pursuit of a good reputation, the fear of punishment, and a thousand customs picked up in one’s family and country, are far more effective springs of action than any theoretical beliefs about a self-created being called God, or the First Cause argument. Bayle writes:

Thus we see that from the fact that a man has no religion it does not follow necessarily that he will be led to every sort of crime or to every sort of pleasure. It follows only that he will be led to the things to which his temperament and his turn of mind make him sensitive.

 


2016-08-17

So you’re not a bigot? Why, then, dehumanize the other?

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by Neil Godfrey

Stroop_Report_-_Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising_06bScene 1 — dehumanizing refugees

One October morning in 2001 while having coffee at a bustling university refectory I was intently focused on a major story in The Australian newspaper. Claims had been made by leading government figures, including the Prime Minister, that some desperate asylum seekers on a leaking boat had attempted to coerce a naval vessel into taking them to Australia by threatening to throw their children overboard if their request was denied. Some did actually carry out their threat. Children were tossed into the ocean in order to force our sailors to carry out the refugees’ demands.

I did not need to wait for the eventual official inquiry to know that the claims were false. I was a parent and I knew many other parents. I know how parents behave. They do not do what our Prime Minister was telling us that these particular parents did. I could not bring myself to believe that Muslims parents lacked the parental devotion to their children that we find throughout the human race, indeed among probably all mammal species.

But these asylum seekers were Muslim so many Australians did believe the official government sources.

More recently I seem to recall reading about a directive from a government minister for reporters to be kept away from refugees so they unwelcome arrivals could not have their human faces displayed to the wider public.

Scene 2 — dehumanizing SDAs

Twenty years earlier Australians were again deeply divided over the news that parents belonging to a religious cult, the Seventh Day Adventists, had taken their infant child out to central Australia and murdered (many said sacrificed) her. At the time I belonged to a cousin cult, the Worldwide Church of God, and I knew several Seventh Day Adventist. Other members I knew well and I understood very well the strong effort the parents maintained to appear stoical when confronted by the media and again in the court hearing, because such a front how members are trained to act in public in the face of hostile pressure. We knew that the probability that the parents really murdered their own infant was small compared with the probability that much of the purported evidence for their guilt was fabricated in the minds of a public (and jury) ignorant of and hostile towards religious cults.

It took thirty-two years for the parents’ names (or in particular the mother’s name) to be exonerated and the cause of the baby’s death to be officially stated to be the result of a dingo attack. I know people today who still refuse to believe in the mother’s innocence, and I really don’t want to know them.

Scene 3 — humanizing Hitler

I have never seen the 2004 film The Downfall (Der Untergang) but I recall reading about the controversy it was causing. Many were criticizing it because it was thought to “humanize” Hitler. In principle I thought the idea admirable. We should see Hitler as a real human being, as one of us. How else could we ever really understand him, and understand how humans can create so much terror? Always viewing him as a monster, unlike the rest of us, as one whom we can theorize might justly have been murdered in his cradle, does not strike me as the best way to understand how people can create the events of the 1930s and 40s.

Scene 4 — dehumanizing Asians

I grew up being taught that Asians, and especially the Japanese, had a cruel streak in them that was alien to most of us white people. I don’t recall ever challenging that teaching because I knew it was the belief of a generation who experienced the Second World War and for whom the treatment of POWs by the Japanese was fresh in their memories. But as I grew older I came in contact with Asians in a very different context and could not bring myself to believe that their human nature was any different from mine. I was also learning about cultural and historical differences, and even learning that our white soldiers were capable of extreme cruelty themselves in the “right” circumstances.

Pausing to understand

A few days ago a new book I ordered arrived in the mail: Why would anyone believe in God? by Justin L. Barrett. In the Preface the author writes: Continue reading “So you’re not a bigot? Why, then, dehumanize the other?”


2016-02-10

Fear of All Knowing, Judgemental Gods Makes Us More Sociable?

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by Neil Godfrey

The following article or letter has just appeared in NatureMoralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. (Or try this link.) Warning, however: high profile journals such as Nature are known to experience the highest retraction rate among scientific publications. Presumably this is because they attract readers (i.e. payers) by publishing articles sure to be popular even though their claims have not been properly tested or have an inadequate peer review process for determining final editorial decisions.

Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups.

To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers.

We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship.

Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists.

Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.

 

 


2015-08-05

Various readings and random thoughts

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by Neil Godfrey

A few remarks on a small slice of what I’ve been reading lately…..

A most positive blog-post appeared on James McGrath’s Exploring Our Matrix a little while ago: Temper Your Criticism With Kindness. Perhaps this is a sign of a welcome rapprochement up ahead. 🙂 (But sadly not everyone in the field of biblical studies seems to have taken this advice to heart.)

I found myself welcoming the title of a blog post by Peter Leithart, All Theology is Public Theology, and was hopeful of finding arguments to engage the public more openly with the full gamut of the biblical studies field. Unfortunately, the post limited itself to engaging with the sheep well secured within in the fold.  Continue reading “Various readings and random thoughts”


2015-07-25

The Risks of Understanding and Explaining Evil

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by Neil Godfrey

Terrorism is evil. Murder is evil. Torture is evil. Hate crimes are evil. War is evil. Attempt to seriously understand why they happen, however, and one risks being accused of supporting evil.

On this blog I have attempted to share some insights of scholarly research into terrorism and the background to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have in consequence mistakenly been thought to be justifying terrorism, of being an apologist for Islam, of anti-semitism and of hatred towards Israel. All of those things are completely untrue but the accusations persist because some readers view my explanations as taking the evil-doer’s side.

Steven Pinker (Wikipedia)
Steven Pinker (Wikipedia)

Why does this happen? Steven Pinker offers a cogent explanation in The Better Angel of Our Nature:

Baumeister notes that in the attempt to understand harm-doing, the viewpoint of the scientist or scholar overlaps with the viewpoint of the perpetrator.

Both take a detached, amoral stance toward the harmful act. Both are contextualizers, always attentive to the complexities of the situation and how they contributed to the causation of the harm. And both believe that the harm is ultimately explicable.

The viewpoint of the moralist, in contrast, is the viewpoint of the victim. The harm is treated with reverence and awe. It continues to evoke sadness and anger long after it was perpetrated. And for all the feeble ratiocination we mortals throw at it, it remains a cosmic mystery, a manifestation of the irreducible and inexplicable existence of evil in the universe. Many chroniclers of the Holocaust consider it immoral even to try to explain it.

Pinker, Steven (2011-10-06). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (pp. 495-496). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

The Myth of Pure Evil

Baumeister, with psychological spectacles still affixed, calls this the myth of pure evil. The mindset that we adopt when we don moral spectacles is the mindset of the victim. Evil is the intentional and gratuitous infliction of harm for its own sake, perpetrated by a villain who is malevolent to the bone, inflicted on a victim who is innocent and good. The reason that this is a myth (when seen through psychological spectacles) is that evil in fact is perpetrated by people who are mostly ordinary, and who respond to their circumstances, including provocations by the victim, in ways they feel are reasonable and just.

The myth of pure evil gives rise to an archetype that is common in religions, horror movies, children’s literature, nationalist mythologies, and sensationalist news coverage. Continue reading “The Risks of Understanding and Explaining Evil”


2013-04-17

Losing our sense of the tragic and the human bond

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by Neil Godfrey

What depresses me most about debates like the recent discussion over Western attitudes towards Muslims is the black and white view so many people have. “If you disagree with us you can only be wrong and not worth listening to.” “I can’t hear you because you are arguing against something I strongly believe and the way I view the world.”

Ideologically driven closed-mindedness can be found on both sides, of course. But bloody hell, what’s wrong with trying to maintain a sense of humanity and tragedy in the whole discussion? We are all human and talking about the fate of other humans, and there is a strong tragic streak running through the whole human condition on this stage.

Someone here recently said he found Muslims are no different from us in their everyday concerns. That such a statement was thought worth pointing out (and it is!) speaks volumes for how semi-barbaric much of the discussion has become.

There are anti-war activists who have sons and daughters on willing active service (volunteers) in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a good number of those I have reason to believe they are very close to their children despite ideological (or generation) differences.

There are Muslim parents who will mourn to their graves their loss of a son or daughter to a suicide-bombing recruiter and families of those who lost loved ones in 9/11 who have visited some of those Muslims.

It would be good to keep all those sorts of families in mind when engaging with supporters of one side or the other.

The world is not black and white. There is no iron curtain or tentacle-extending behemoth. Except in our fears. There is evil that needs to be faced. Sometimes that means having the courage to be sure we ourselves are not the proverbial evil we have projected onto others. Tragedy needs a catharsis, or it truly will become unbearable.


2010-11-08

Seeking the Sacred. But Why?

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by Neil Godfrey

17th century representation of the 'third eye'...
Image via Wikipedia

Listened to an interesting discussion with Stephanie Dowrick (“psychotherapist, interfaith minister, writer and commentator”) on national radio this morning — http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/stories/2010/3058168.htm — arguing for the need for us to value all life, others, etc. and that this can be achieved through a new self-awareness or identity that comes via a spiritual mindset or consciousness.

I agreed completely with the values she was expressing, but kept wondering: Why the need for “spirituality” in order to embrace them?

Is it not enough to see us all as vulnerable members of the one species? To see oneself as one with others simply on the basis that we all have the same basic needs and desires, were all born as helpless babies and someone cared for us enough to enable us to survive and be where we are now? Does not such a thought, or awareness, consciousness or whatever, humble us enough to see us all “as one”, so that when we lose our cool with a colleague, it does not take too much to calm us and forgive? And of those who are really bad, who do harm and relish in doing harm to others, we can at least maintain some sense (most times) of understanding the makeup and background of such a person, so that we do not have to lower ourselves to respond in kind.

And proactively, does not such an awareness — an awareness that is based entirely on the genetic facts that we all share — direct us to seek to alleviate, help, improve the lot (where we can) of our fellows? Some join Meals on Wheels, some Amnesty International, some Rotary, some the World Socialist Forum, some teaching and volunteer work, some risk their lives with activist subversion, and some just like to give their small change to beggars.

We do all of these things for different reasons, but I personally find it enough to know that we are all here for a short time, with the same genes, the same feelings, pains, hopes, loves, frustrations, needs.

I don’t see the least need to envision anything “spiritual” to bring all this together at all.

But if some find that image works, then I guess that’s good for them. I can understand that my “this is all there is” view has had a bad press and some may have been conditioned to find the very idea leaves them cold. But to me, the awareness that “this is all there is” makes all this more precious than ever.


2010-06-26

If we are “merely” a bunch of chemicals . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

One still reads enlightened (or benighted) twenty-first century scholars asserting that there can be no purpose in life, no standard for morality, if we are “merely nothing more” than a set of chemicals and our minds the product of “nothing more than electro-chemical reactions”.

By couching the argument in the rhetoric of “merely” or “nothing more”, I am reminded of Douglas Adams’ famous quip:

If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.

That our level of consciousness, aesthetics, ethics, and all that goes to make us the species we are, have evolved as the products of chemistry and physics is not something to be dismissed as a “merely” or a “nothing more”. It is a staggering, mind-blowing thing to grasp. What makes it so damn hard to get my mind around is my inability to comprehend the vastness of the time involved.

None of our abilities, apart perhaps from our language faculty, is a sudden or unique leap that stands in total isolation from everything else. Consciousness is not unique. We can see gradients of consciousness across various species. Social and personal rules of conduct, with punishments for breaches, are observed in many other species that live in social groups. There even seems to be some sort of aesthetic sense at work among bower birds who plant blue objects in a nest to impress a mate, and will notice if human vandalizes their efforts by relocating a blue peg in their nest, and will immediately restore the original layout.

I loved watching the magpies in my backyard in Australia. If a male found a particularly interesting grub or beetle, its female partner would only have to sing out and the male would bring it over for her to eat instead. A kookaburra agonized us all at the office one day by perching on our office window ledge and holding a struggling lizard in its beak. Why wouldn’t it eat the thing quickly and put it out of its misery? We waited some minutes till finally its partner flew up to stand beside him. We realized he had been waiting for her when he then gave her the lizard to eat.  Our agonies over the distress of the lizard turned to “Ohhs!” on seeing this act of affection or love in another species. An ill mouse that could not make it up the ladder to its bed of tissues was soon covered in those tissues to keep it warm — its partner had dragged the tissues down and covered its ill mate with them.

Are all such animals “merely bunches of chemicals”? If in one sense they are, it only magnifies the grandeur and mystery of it all. We can either attribute all this to an imaginary being wrapped up in a mystery itself, or we can attribute it to the laws and evidence we see in operation around us. To my mind, the latter attribution is cause for the greater sense of awe and wonder. Being able to explain it all eventually will not rob us of any of this feeling. Continue reading “If we are “merely” a bunch of chemicals . . .”


2010-05-06

Free Will and the Value of Self-Deception

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by Neil Godfrey

The paper of the day: “The Value of Believing in Free Will.” A scientific study that shows why many scientists and philosophers are reluctant to tell people they don’t have free will.

This is from the commonsenseatheism site, which many readers of this blog will already have seen, but for the others, it’s interesting reading. I think I can relate to its conclusions.

For those who don’t want to read the whole thing or want to test the water, some extracts:

The belief that one determines one’s own outcomes is strong and pervasive. In a massive survey of people in 36 countries, more than 70% agreed with the statement that their fate is in their own hands (International Social Survey Programme, 1998).

Yet the view from the scientific community is that behavior is caused by genes underlying personality dispositions, brain mechanisms, or features of the environment (e.g., Bargh, in press; Crick, 1994; Pinker, 2002). There is reason to think that scientists’ sentiment is spreading to nonscientists. For example, the news magazine The Economist recently ran the headline, ‘‘Free to Choose? Modern Neuroscience Is Eroding the Idea of Free Will’’ (‘‘Free to Choose?’’ 2006). What would happen if people came to believe that their behavior is the inexorable product of a causal chain set into motion without their own volition? Would people carry on, selves and behavior unperturbed, or, as Sartre suggested, might the adoption of a deterministic worldview serve as an excuse for untoward behaviors?

That’s the opener. The conclusion . . . . Continue reading “Free Will and the Value of Self-Deception”


2010-04-27

Why it would be a good thing to humanize Hitler

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by Neil Godfrey

Adolf Hitler as a baby
Adolf Hitler as a baby

I have begun to ready my second Chris Hedges book, this one, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, and have even more deeply mixed feelings about it than I had for American Fascists. It was not what I expected. I had expected a more philosophical treatise about atheism per se, but it’s nothing like that. I agreed with just about every criticism he makes of Sam Harris, and with a number of his criticisms of Chris Hitchens. I was particularly pleased to see Hedges refer to Robert Pape’s research (Dying to Win) debunking the myth linking suicide terrorism with a particular race or religion. (Suicide bombers have included Christians, Buddhists, socialists as well as Muslims – and the reasons for it are despair in the face of tyranny/evil, not religion. See also Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism.) Hedges casts his rhetorical net far too wide, however, in his interpretations of the writings of Daniel Dennett as some form of intolerant “new atheism”, and is certainly tendentiously selective in his treatment of the Enlightenment.

But I do find myself in strong sympathy with one of his themes in particular, on condition that I can change one key word. Hedges speaks of “sin”. I would substitute “evil”.

We have nothing to fear from those who do or do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. (p.13) [let’s say, “who do not believe in evil”].

Evil seems a more universal reality, sin strikes me as a particular cultural and religious concept that itself has been responsible for much evil. I fully agree with Hedges that the human species is not advancing morally. What is advancing, with however many reversals, are some aspects of our social evolution through which we have learned to modify and control some of our more destructive natures.

But evil can only come of seeing evil in others and not in ourselves. Waging a war on “evil” (equating it with terrorism) is only perpetuating the bloody evil at the root of “terrorism” in the first place.

Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect, is worth a read to remind us, according to its subtitle, “how good people turn evil”. He shows how normal healthy everyday people can so quickly turn into the very image of psychopathic and sadistic monsters in their treatment of others.

I fear that thinking in terms of “sin” only opens the door of religious faith for certain people to think they can be completely absolved from sin, meaning they are free from the same propensity for evil that we all share. Born again Christians have been known to launch wars of aggression. And as per the Nuremberg principles, “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

It’s been a mistake (understandable, of course, but still a mistake) since the Second World War for media and leaders to regularly sign up to any opportunity to demonize Hitler and the Nazis. (And any other monsters you might prefer to think of.) There was outrage with the film Downfall a few years ago because it showed the human side of Hitler. He was shown as a man with normal human compassion, sensitivities, loves, feelings, like the rest of us.

This is a mistake because it enables us to deny the facts of our common humanity. Hitler really was one of us. We are all the same basic nature. Sure, some of us wish others had some curative lobotomies or brain-cell laser treatment to make annoying and malicious people “more like us”, or just more “normal”. Yet of course all such variations of propensities and predispositions is part of the collective human experience. It’s hard to recognize the range of our real natures when ensconced in modern state-controlled environments, with the benefits of enlightened education and relative prosperity. We are a bit like our pet dogs that seem to have been part and parcel of our evolution. Domesticated, they know how to behave. They are nonetheless by nature wolf-pack animals, and we know what our pet topsies can become when they escape outdoors to join a pack of their own kind.

What fascinated and disturbed me when I saw the film of Eichmann’s trial was the undeniable fact that I was watching a man who was like me and my colleagues. The banality of evil, etc. What is the difference between those who snuff out thousands of civilians with an atomic bomb (to save the lives of their soldiers) and the Nazi officer who shoots half a dozen villagers (to save the lives of his soldiers)? I suggest it is only personal circumstances and conditioning experiences. Is this also enough to explain those who oppose the evil of both?

Recognizing the dark side of  our common humanity — this is the horror that hits home when we understand Hitler. Demonizing him is a denial of our real natures.

One word, I suspect, in Chris Hedges’ book prompted me to write this now. He spoke of the Weimarization of the United States. The alienation and disillusionment of the public in relation to the political processes. Coincidence, of course, but I recently linked to an interview by Chris Hedges with Noam Chomsky who spoke of the same thing. A warning.


2010-01-14

The Nonsense of the Freedom Argument When Accounting for Evil

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s become a trite argument for religionists to justify evil in the world by saying we want our freedoms. God also wants us to be free to choose, so we are told, and that’s why he allows evil. To prevent evil he would have to take away our free will.

I think that’s bollocks.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A.afarensis.jpg

Evil has nothing to do with being free or having free will. It is all about being human on a planet not entirely benign for its many life-forms.

Being human is not always bad. Most people anywhere I think are basically caring and hospitable and kind to others. There are arseholes too, of course, but they are mercifully the few. I don’t believe either type of human is the way they are because they “choose” to be like that. Or I should rather say I doubt that they are. Sure we may think a lot before deciding to give to a particular charity or beggar or before deciding to actively commit to a social justice cause. But isn’t that just a matter of us being us?

What worries about free-will (it also kind of reassures me) is that set of experiments that have demonstrated that people really make up their (false) reasons for making a particular decision. I wish I could think of sources and specifics right now.

It might be worrying to think that we will be shown to not have the freedom of will we like to think, and that our responses are as basic or hidden as they are for any other social animal. But at the same time there’s a hope and a reassurance in there. It’s nice to know we really “are what we are”, and we are all of the same kind. More room for understanding and compassion.

Not that I “choose” to have more understanding and compassion, mind you. It’s just that that’s me. As I keep having to remind my partner, I really am just a nice guy after all. Like most of us.


2009-05-12

Why oppose godless (human) morality?

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by Neil Godfrey

This post relates to an earlier one on Keller here.

There is plenty wrong with human nature but there is also plenty of good. I have been lucky enough to have travelled a little bit to places where different religions are practiced and where the majority of people appear to profess no religion, and one thing stands out in my experience: the extent to which people are friendly, kind, gentle, bears no obvious correlation with religion or lack of it.

Timothy Keller (The Reason for God) admits that all people have morals.

Conservative writers and speakers are constantly complaining that the young people of our culture are relativistic and amoral. As a pastor in Manhattan I have been neck deep in sophisticated twentysomethings for almost two decades, and I have not found this to be the case. The secular, young adults I have known have a very finely hones sense of right and wrong. There are many things happening in the world that evoke their moral outrage. (pp.143-44)

People still have strong moral convictions . . . . (p.145)

[W]e all have a pervasive, powerful, and unavoidable belief not only in moral values but also in moral obligation. . . . All human beings have moral feelings. We call it a conscience. When considering doing something that we feel would be wrong, we tend to refrain. (p.146)

From the above I would have concluded that our moral sense is something inborn, part of our nature, just like language.

And there are anthropological studies that have concluded exactly that. Acts such as rape, murder, pushing in to get to the front of a queue, are no-no’s the world over. Donald Brown’s compilation of human universals confirms Keller’s observations. Continue reading “Why oppose godless (human) morality?”


2008-05-05

The price of a humane society

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

One bright light has shone out of the hideously incomprehensible crime of Josef Fritzl in Austria. His lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, is quoted as saying that he was “not defending a monster but a human being, even if that is hard to take for some people.”

Mayer is also reported to have said he has received threatening letters and I don’t doubt that he has.

It’s the likes of Josef Fritzl that put our humanity, our civil society, to the test. If we try to distance outselves so completely from such a person by thinking of him as something other than a fellow human, whose acts are in some literal sense “inhuman”, then we are still living in a dark age of knifing sacrificial victims to our ignorant and murderous impulses.

It’s the fact that Josef Fritzl IS a human, that he IS one of us, that needs to sober us, not tailspin us into denial. It’s his humanity that makes him a mirror, or a teacher of what we are capable of, given his particular neuronal wirings. That sounds on the surface like a trivialization of his acts. But what it says to me is just how fragile we all are, and how important is the nature of our society.

This may all sound puerile academic abstraction out of touch with reality. But anyone who has personally been pushed to the very edge of extreme limits and survived to come back again to normalcy will know it’s very much in touch with exactly what we really are and can become.