Tag Archives: Steven Pinker

Religion and the 100 Worst Atrocities in History

I recently had the chance to review Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2012). Including an introduction by Harvard’s Steven Pinker, it offers an impressive 669-page analysis of, according to the author, the “one hundred events with the largest man-made death tolls, regardless of who was involved or why they did it.” (p. XIV)

I found White’s book both engaging and interesting because I am considering the historic impact of religion on warfare for an essay I am currently working on. As a result, I am in process of surveying multiple works like this in an attempt to systematically count how many past wars have been inspired primarily by religious motivations, which will be one component of the essay. Indeed, religion has often been criticized as a primary source of conflict, with among the most notable recent examples coming from the neuroscientist Sam Harris, a prominent critic of the historic impact of religion on ancient and modern societies. Indeed, in his 2004 book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2004), Harris referred to religious faith as “the most prolific source of violence in our history.” (p. 27) Harris is certainly not alone in making such claims, as they have been repeated by many others, both historically and today.

Regardless of the prevalence of criticisms of religion and its role in historical human violence, White’s study of the one hundred worst atrocities in history would seem to provide a counter to such claims by Harris and others. This is because of the one hundred events White lists in his detailed study, he only lists eleven of them under the category of “Religious Conflict” (p. 544) and two more under the category of “Human Sacrifice,” (p. 548) for thirteen atrocities equaling only 13% of the total. I have included the “Human Sacrifice” category in this case with religious conflicts because, as White notes, “ritualized killing was performed in hopes of earning the favor of supernatural forces.”

His lists include the following: Continue reading

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Ranking Historic Atrocities: Pinker’s “Better Angels.”

I have been swamped recently, but regardless of how busy I get, I try to make time for reading of one type or another. In this case I have recently started to reexamine Steven Pinker’s much debated book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (Viking, 2011). For those unfamiliar with the book, Pinker argues that, in contrast to modern assumptions that the modern age (World War I, World War II, etc…) has been more violent than the past, violence has actually declined in the modern era in comparison to past centuries.

Various aspects of Pinker’s many arguments related to his thesis have been praised or criticized by scholars in a variety of fields and disciplines. I do not intend to add to either those praises or criticisms here. First, so much has already been written about Pinker’s book that I am very late to the party. I also do not have the time, at this busy point in the semester, to offer any substantive analysis.

But regardless of where one falls in their estimate of Pinker’s arguments, his book contains a lot of interesting information that can provide useful fodder for classroom discussions on the topic of historical violence in human societies, particularly (perhaps) in a world history survey course. One example is the chart (borrowed from Matthew White- who has since updated his figures and rankings) laid out on page 195, which ranks the 21 greatest causes of death (related to violence in one form or another) in human history.

Pinker notes: “’The twentieth-century was the bloodiest in history” is a cliché that has been used to indict a vast range of demons, including atheism, Darwin, government, science, capitalism, communism, the ideal of progress, and the male gender. But is it true?” (page 193)

Pinker then cites the above mentioned chart, which lists seven of the ten greatest death tolls in history as taking place Continue reading