toxic thought waste site

Theological whimsy, metaphysical larks, and other spiritually radioactive waste products.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The decrease in violence and the rise in secularism

A comment from a couple of entries ago got me wondering how well established the two statements in the title are. Is there strong evidence for a long term decrease in violence in the world? Is there evidence that despite noise to the contrary, the world is becoming relentlessly secular.

My original exposure to the decreasing violence claim comes from Steven Pinker. Now, I'm an admitted Pinker fanboy so I may not being skeptical enough, but I'm curious if anyone knows of any actual evidence against this thesis? This is actually something I've discussed with my dad for over 20 years and we had basically come to the same conclusion, but not in any scholarly way.

I've recently seen a number of articles on the somewhat surprising increase in secularism. I've also linked to other articles recently in the same vein.

So I'm curious, am I just a sucker for everything that comes my way on the internet or, contra the above, is there any reason to believe that the world is getting more violent and less secular?

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Anonymous casey said...

Hmm. This is an interesting topic.

I just googled "20th century war casualties," and came up with a few sites that estimate the number of war casualties as between 170 million and 210 million for the 20th century.

As another site points out (here), this doesn't mean much unless compared with other centuries, especially in terms of the ratio of number of war casualties to overall world population. A chart is presented at that site, linked to here.

Now, I can't vouch for those numbers, this is a web search done in just a few minutes...but, it does reinforce what I have always heard, at least anecdotally, that more people were killed in war in the 20th century, than in previous centuries.

This has been relevant for me in specific relation to the decline of Modernity (not necessarily secularism) in the 20th century, and the emergence of Postmodernity. While the Enlightenment and Modernity heralded a new age of human achievement, progress towards a secular and technological utopia, the World Wars, especially, as well as regional wars, and especially the Holocaust, has done much to shake people's "faith" in the Modern project.

Thus, in a Postmodern context, spirituality is making a huge comeback. Not necessarily Christianity, or whatever other organized religion, but in the 20th century you had the re-emergence of a number of "spiritual" movements, including neo-paganism (I do not use that term pejoratively, by the way), which includes Wicca, drudism; and also different forms of meditation, yoga, etc...

Further, while I might be tempted to say, yes violence on the rise, and attribute it to your belief in the spread of secularism (therefore making secularism responsible for the increase in violence, which would be convenient for me, and if I was on Christian talk radio I might say that all we ned is to get back to the Christian foundation our country is built upon in order to set this wrong right... but I digress), it seems to me that at least some of the violence we see now (as in the past few years), especially with radical Islam, is religiously motivated.

However, if you were to lend credibility to the link above at "freedomspace," and the guy's conclusions make sense, where he says that communism and fascism led to the dramatic increase in 20th century dead, then wouldn't communism and fascism, which are secular at their cores, at least put a black mark on the spread of secularism? (though, not all forms of communism are secular).

That is not to say that secularism relieves us of violence. In fact, I think that taking secularism, however that might be defined, to its logical conclusion, could lead to as much violence, or more. Secularism does not include the inherent constraint upon violence that Christianity (at least, Christianity as it should be) does.

Ok, this is too long, and I'm not sure I'm making sense anymore. So, I'm out.

Fri Jun 29, 08:07:00 AM  
Blogger Cat's Staff said...

I had someone come to the door proselytizing for something recently... She started in with 'Aren't you concerned with the amount of violence in the world?' ... I said "No. Over the last couple hundred years things have gotten a lot better for a lot more people"... she didn't know where to go with that, but then asked me if I had heard of the Sermon on the Mount... of course...

I've always had the idea that the amount of violence in the world is going down. And for that matter the increase in human rights. There will always be instances that screw the numbers up (WWII, etc), but those are isolated instances. Generally, there is less violence, more members of society are given equal rights... Within my grandmothers own lifetime we have gone from a situation where all women couldn't vote, to all women being able to vote. As rocky as the civil rights movements in the middle of century was for African Americans, there was a lot of progress made. These changes are happening all over the world.

Fri Jun 29, 10:00:00 AM  
Anonymous casey said...

Cat's Staff -

I have to say, just because there has been "progress" in the past "couple hundred years," does not mean that violence in the world has dropped. Women getting the right to vote, and civil rights, are not the same as saying that violence has decreased.

Also, to say that things like WW2 are "isolated incidents" seems a bit reductionistic. I mean, the entirety of the 20th century was like a continual war (WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, wars in the Middle East), and those are just the big ones. Also, it is difficult to seriously dismiss the instances of genocide in the 20th century, such as the Holocaust, or Mao, Stalin, Tojo, Pol Pot... For all the progress me might make socially, and in the West, that is a hell of a lot of people dead - all by violent means, all at the hands of our fellow humans, all within societies that had deliberately suppressed the free practice of religion.

I'd also mention that movements such as women's sufferage, and especially the civil rights movement, are not necessarily secular movements. Organized religion, and especially Western Christian values, contributed to both of these achievements of the 20th century.

I propose we need a definition of "secular" for this discussion.

I'll end this one by saying this, and it I am not trying to be combative, I am making an observation from personal experience - It seems to me that when I hear "atheists," or secular/progressive people talk about the march forward of secularism to a new, better, utopian society (less violence, civil rights, whatever...), it does not sound all of that different from Christian eschatology. The difference is what we respectively put our faith in. Me, in Christ, who I believe will literally return and set the evil in the world to rights. You, who believe in the power of secularism/the human spirit (?), and its ability to take us to a higher, more rational, society. In either case it is faith - don't you think? It just depends on what you put your faith in.

Fri Jun 29, 01:40:00 PM  
Blogger evtujo said...

Actually despite my slightly tongue in cheek comment about the relentless march of secularism I really don't have any strong inclinations about the causation/correlation of secularism and violence. And as you mention we'd need a good defn of secularism before this discussion went any farther. I guess we are at a stand off with the violence thing. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Steven Pinker as I said and I seriously doubt he'd quote from these books if he hadn't done his research on the violence issue. That's just my opinion. But since neither of us have read the books we are left with a google off which probably won't get us too far. I'd be interested in seeing if anyone actually has substantive rebuttals of these books. I just haven't come across any. I will make a couple of comments on the violence arguments though. War is obviously not the only form of violence. So it is quite possible that the % of people who died from war has increased but the % of people who suffered violence went down. I seriously doubt these people would have written these various books w/out having considered such a basic idea.

Also I think the total number of people who die from war/violence is pretty much irrelevant to the conversation. It's hard to imagine how anything other than the *rate* of violent death/suffering is relevant.

With respect to secularism. I think the poll numbers of who is practicing what are probably misleading. The question is more how much of a role does religion play in how much of our life. From what I remember of the secularism argument it might be the case that there are more people claiming to believe in god, but these same people are spending their entertainment dollars in more secular ways educating their children in more secular schools, tolerating religions different from their own etc.

So I guess in summary as a first pass I'm much more interested in determining the certitude of the "violence is decreasing" and "secularism is increasing" claims before I go off speculating what is causing what (if there is a relationship). Of the two my guess is that the violence claim is almost certainly true and the secularism is likely true. But that is just my opinion based off a couple of articles.

But if anyone can show me anything that Steven Pinker has ever been wrong about, I'll be impressed. :)

Fri Jun 29, 09:34:00 PM  
Blogger evtujo said...

catsowner: For some reason no one ever comes around my house anymore and tries to convert me. They must have marked my house or something. At one point I actually had a multiple choice quiz that I kept in the closet near the door in case anyone came up ready to evangelize. They would then have to answer 10 questions about bible trivia before I'd continue the dialog. Sadly they no longer come... ;)

Fri Jun 29, 09:37:00 PM  
Blogger Cat's Staff said...


By citing WWII(and I should have included all those other wars) as an 'isolated' incident, I wasn't suggesting that there is less war. The claim is that there is less violence. The amount of violence in society in general has gone down. By calling wars like WWII 'isolated instances' of violence I am comparing that to the way violence was the norm between communities. For most of human civilization, communities fought with one another, now it is worth much more to cooperate with one another. There are still 'hot spots' of violence (in the Middle East and Africa), and if all religion were to disappear today, there would still be conflicts over things like scarce resources.

I am not sure if the increase if human rights correlates to the decrease in violence or the increase in secular values, I was just suggesting that it's something to consider. And certainly religion could contribute to 'movements such as women's sufferage, and especially the civil rights movement' but Christian values did more to repress women's rights and civil rights in general.

I think your last paragraph sums up the difference. You put your faith in Christ returning to make things better. I think(rather then have faith) that if we want things better we need to go out and do it ourselves. I have faith that there will be conflict that we will have to deal with, but I don't put faith in a higher power coming down and settling things for us...because (among other things) it's never happened before.

Sat Jun 30, 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Cat's Staff said...


A quiz! That's a great idea... I'll have to work on that. I think having it in essay format would have interesting results...

Christian version. Please answer the following questions in about 1000 words.

1. Describe how the death of Jesus on the cross corresponds to the forgiveness of sins? Does this apply to everyone (infants, people living in pre-columbian Americas, etc.)

2. How old is the Earth? Provide references other than the Bible.

3. Is your denomination "post-tribulation premillennial", "pre-tribulation premillennial", "postmillennial", "amillennial", or other. Why?

...any others?

Sat Jun 30, 12:32:00 PM  
Blogger evtujo said...

My quiz was more geared to just basic knowledge of the bible and the history of the people mentioned there. The implication was that you better know at least as much about the bible as me if you are going to start telling me about it.

My questions were like:

- how many books are in the bible?
- what year did the babylonians take the jews into exile
- how many people saw jesus afer he rose from the dead
- etc...

Sat Jun 30, 08:13:00 PM  
Anonymous casey said...

I don't know. I mean, if there is more war and genocide, resulting in a much larger percentage of the world's population dying by violent means than previous centuries, I have a very difficult time understanding how one could make the claim that violence in general is down. I would think that for the 200 million people dead because of war or genocide, they might not see it the same as you.

Of course there are other measures...but you have not done much to refute claims relating to war and genocide.

Also, if you think that organized religion did more to suppress human rights than to liberate them, I think you should go back to the history books. Of course, there were portions of the Christian church in the South that supported slavery and provided biblical support for it. However, I think you will find at least as many, if not more, fighting against slavery, for civil right, for women's rights, based specifically on Christian principles.

I should also mention that I don't merely "put my faith in Christ to make things better." I should have clarified. I believe that Christ will indeed do so, but in the interim, it is the responsibility of humanity, specifically the church, to work for human rights and social change until he comes. There is a lot to human responsibility in my scheme of things.

As for your statement that "it has never happened before," I'll be honest and say that I am also not a little tired of the arrogance with which some on your side approach this debate. Same with your quiz. Why in the world should I have to prove my intellectual level in discussion with you, when, it is obvious, especially from your questions, but also in your tone, that no answer I could give would rise to your standard. It seems to me that if a person believes in something greater than themselves, it is more an occasion to ridicule them than to dialog with them. Your questions are more an occasion for your amusement than they are a bridge for intelligent debate. Seriously, do you even know the meaning of the millennial terms that you are talking about? Do you know the differences between them? The biblical texts and church history that has given rise to each of those positions? Or, are you just amused with this obscure debate in Christian theology?

evtujo - I think yours are a bit better, but, It's Monday, and I'm tired.

Mon Jul 02, 08:01:00 AM  
Blogger Cat's Staff said...

Of course the quiz is silly... The idea of making the questions obtuse and requiring a 1000 word essay was just to discourage people from wasting my time. And yes, I do know the differences and intricacies between all those positions....and yes, it is amusing.

Mon Jul 02, 10:15:00 AM  

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