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8/19/10

Steven Pinker on Moral Progress


Critics have scoffed at atheism evangelist Richard Dawkins for his belief that humankind has made moral progress over the centuries. Dawkins, of course, uses his contention to argue that religion is not needed to control moral behavior. (For Naysayers to Dawkins, see my 11 June 2009 post.)

Roger Scruton allows that while institutions are no longer medieval and, indeed, have progressed, human beings have not. Their institutions hold them in check. Just read the news to find daily examples, either among individuals or with countries, of cruelty and violence. He cautions us against looking on the bright side, saying it can be a dangerous tendency. More. In short, Scruton would have a lively "discussion" with Dawkins and Pinker.

Critics of Dawkins and Pinker could cite Auschwitz, Buchenwald, the Armenian Massacre, Stalin's Ukraine Famine,Darfur, East Timor, Idi Amin and Uganda, and on and on. I would add the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA, of Uganda, which has no agenda--certainly not religion--and serves only its own barbaric appetites, such as kidnapping school girls, raping them, and turning them into prostitutes. One girl refused a commander, and he ordered other children to bash her head in. The girl's sister was forced to participate. Atrocities such as this leave me shuddering, and I know that for some children life is a vale of tears. They are not part of any statistics for moral progress.

For all that, statistics seem to bear out Dawkins' argument, though I would add, not support his atheism. (Atheism, like theism, comes about by a leap of faith, not through numbers.) Steven Pinker has entered the fray, and argues that human violence has indeed declined and, of course, Pinker has no need of religion to explain it.

I quote: "social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler. In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth."

What causes people to think our times are so horrific? Well, the Associated Press, Cognitive Illusion, and rising expectations, among other factors. More

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