Sunday, December 27, 2015

'We are living in an extraordinary age'

It's impossible not to be stirred by this conclusion after 578 pages of argument:

'[The chapters so far] have documented the historical decline of violence.  In them we have seen graph after graph that locates the first decade of the new millennium at the bottom of a slope representing the use of force over time. For all the violence that remains in the world, we are living in an extraordinary age. Perhaps it is a snapshot in a progression to an even greater peace. Perhaps it is a bottoming out to a new normal, with the easy reductions all plucked and additional ones harder and harder to reach.Perhaps it is a lucky confluence of good fortune that will soon unravel. But regardless of how the trends extrapolate into the future, something remarkable has brought us into the present.' (P 579)

His best explanation for all this is the spread of information.This is obvious in terms of boosting technological progress; he speculates it may foster 'moral progress' as well.  'Individuals or civilisations that are situated in a vast informational catchment area can compile a moral know-how that is more sustainable and expandable than even the most righteous prophet could devise in isolation' (p577).  (His emphasis)

He cites Martin Luther King as an example:

'King's historic speech to the March on Washington in 1963 was an ingenious recombination of the the intellectual components he had collected during his peripatetic pilgrimage: imagery and language from the Hebrew prophets, the valorisation of suffering from Christianity, the ideal of individual rights from the European Enlightenment, cadences and rhetorical tropes from the African American church, and a strategic plan from an Indian who had been steeped in Jain, Hindu, and British culture.'

This is so helpful. Not much to argue with here, once you forgive Pinker's usual belittling of Christianity (note that prophets provide imagery, not actual revolutionary teaching; King's African American church provides 'rhetorical tropes' rather than, say, an informed passion for justice to flow through the earth, and the life changing effect of Jesus Christ on Gandhi, well documented elsewhere, for example in the books of E Stanley Jones,  is papered over.  Elsewhere Pinker claims that Jesus' teaching was just a wimpy, sloppy 'moralistic affirmation of love'  that needed to be re-shaped into something actually useful by the good ol' pragmatic, can-do, all-American competence of King. Pinker's Jesus is a perennial underachiever.)

The Better and Worse Angels of Steven Pinker

I am really enjoying Steven Pinker's company.  Frighteningly clever, original, a smooth writer and often generous to the Christian church. What's not to admire? And when he does criticise the faith (my particular interest I suppose) sometimes he gives us a lot to think about. All good and I'm giving him as a Christmas present and recommending him to everyone I can.

But--well--just sometimes his humanist slip shows, which is a shame. For example:

'The Bible is one long celebration of violence' (p7). 'Catalogue' would be better than 'celebration'. You have to read it to the end. 'You have heard it was said ... but I say to you, love your enemies'. Jesus put a stop to it. Since he's the destination of the scriptures, the fulfilment of everything that was foreshadowed (and foreshortened before), that's a bit of a misreading.

Then,he  blames  the Church for the worst excesses of the Inquisition and witch burning, but claims that good old humanists reclaimed that bloody heritage.

'What made Europeans finally decide that it was all right to let their dissenting compatriorts risk eternal damnation [rather than torturing the heresy out of them] .... One gets a sesne that people started to place a higher value on human life ... The gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendancy of skeptiicism and reason' (pp 172-173).

Except these 'skeptical and reasoning' humanists he quotes were passionate Christians - Erasmus (commemorated in stone in the theology department of the very city I live in) and even John Milton (spin doctor to the Puritans and greatest Christian poet since King David). Nicking our saints and clsiming they were working for your side all along is cheating. Get your own saints.What was actually happening was that these were pioneering, prophetic figures in the Church.

The renewal of the church is behind much of the decline in violence through the centuries. Another example: he notes (proper atheist) Jeremy Bentham speaking out against animal cruelty (p178) but totally neglects his friend and contemporary, the passionate evangelical William Wilberforce, who in between abolishing slavery, practically singlehandedly invented the NGO and among other things founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whch actually did something about the problem, and also was (I think) the source of the anti-cruelty laws in Parliament that Pinker praises. It was pioneering, prophetic Christian figures who led the revolution. Which Steven Pinker fails to mention a little too often.

The source of the decline in violence - and perhaps a little case of prejudice.

'... A moral way of life often requires a decisive rejection of instinct, culture, religion, and standard practice. In their place is an ethics that is inspired by empathy and reason and stated in the language of rights. We force ourselves into the shoes (or paws) of other sentient beings and consider their interests ....

'This conclusion, of course, is the moral vision of the Enlightenment and the strands of humanism and liberalism that have grown out of it' (Pinker pp 572-573).

This is Stephen Pinker's main thesis -- humanism and rationalism has civilised the world, overriding several things including what he calls 'religion'. It's a grand and impressive argument.

I think, though, that he misses the truly original figure who defined this whole movement: Jesus Christ. Christ scrapped all the Jewish laws, food laws, customs and regulations, junking the lot to replace them with 'love God' and 'love your neighbour' -- the second being the very thing that Stephen Pinker attributes to humanism. Christ abolished the death penalty, and practiced and preached non-violence. It was said of him 'of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end' and Stephen Pinker's wonderful book documents the increase of peace through the centuries, much as predicted.

Pinker is also, uncharacteristically, rubbish on the subject of Christ himself.  'There's no direct evidence for anything Jesus said or did' (p15),  when every other document of antiquity that has come down to us is either a later copy of the original, or less well attested than the NT documents (or both). He doesn't answer the startling question of if Christ didn't say that stuff, what moral genius, operating in the narrow window between ad 30 and the first NT manuscripts a generation later, came up  with it all, and then managed to persuade the primitive Christian community, including people who'd met Jesus, to hang it all on the figure of Cbrist.

Then he gets a bit ridiculous, I'm afraid:  ' ... Jesus was by no means unique. A number of pagan myths told of a saviour who was sired by a god, born of a virgin at the winter solstice,  surrounded by twelve zodiacal disciples, sacrificed as a scapegoat at the spring equinox, sent into the underworld, resurrected amid much rejoicing, and symbolically eaten by his followers to gain salvation and immortality.' (p15)  Quite apart from everything else that's wrong with that sentence, I find my world crowded with followers of these other pagan myths, bumping against the two billion notional followers of Christ in the world. They also, like Christ, conquered the Roman Empire, and inspired law, art, literature, music, science and architecture for two thousand years. I mean it's appalling trying to get planning permission for a church when all these followers of Mithras are building their temples everywhere in the country, and followers of Orpheus in the Underworld are crowding out the market for faith schools, not to mention running all the hospices, recruiting street pastors, and helping the homeless off the streets.

Stop being prejudiced. Who said 'blessed are the peacemakers': Oh, that was Christ, not in an off-moment, not in an unplanned bit of mispeaking, but at the heart of his message and life. How can Stephen Pinker, so brilliant, so good to read, making me see the world differently after reading him, how can he miss this?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Who terrorists are - Pinker

'... What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy ... Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer ... Fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool. '

(Atran S, 2010, Pathways to and from violent extremism, Senate Armed Services Committee statement, Masrch 2010, quoted in Pinker p431)

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Pascal on people - 'the glory and scum of the universe'

What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sewer of uncertainty and error, the glory and scum of the universe. 
--Blaise Pascal

Quoted in the frontispiece to Steven Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Steven Pinker - the Better Angels of our Nature

Having got my eyesight back after two years of drug-induced cataracts and with migraine headaches most days, I am enjoying some heavy-duty reading again. Steven Pinker's book is getting me very excited.

His thesis is that violence in the human species is continuing a dramatic fall, stretching over millenia, dating indeed from the agricultural revolution. Because this is so counter-cultural, he needs the book's 900 pages to prove it and hypothesise about it.  Bill Gates' cover blurb ('one of the most important books I've read -- not just this year, but ever') is for once more than the polite puffing of friends.

The book is so counter-cultural because those  of us who read the news in the 60s, 70s and 80s saw a world going to pot; Pinker shows this was just a counter-cultural eddy against a much longer flow, and the fall in crime in the1990s and beyond is merely a resumption of that old norm. Totally fascinating.

So much to think about! (This is me speculating, not Steven Pinker)
1. So history has a direction after all and 'human progress' means something? The twentieth century rather left that 19th-century view bleeding in the street.
2.  Here is evidence-for me--though certainly not for the convinced non-Christian Steven Pinker--that Christ is King and 'of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.' It is not the case that the world was going bad until Jesus came and fixed it. But it can surely be argued that here we have the 'left hand of God' and the 'right hand of God' working together. God guides human history generally into a more fruitful and less violent place; and at the epicentre, acclerating this trend and filling it out with revelation, is the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the peace-making activity of his people. I don't think Prof Pinker would enjoy this conclusion (I would like to write another blog about his so-called humanism and measured disapproval of the Christian faith) but I find it a bit stunning-- a large body of unsuspected social-science evidence that beautifully complements natural theology, not completely unlike the body of physical evidence that leads physicists to conclude the Universe began in a moment of creation at the Big Bang.

You gotta read the book.