Better Angels – Book Review
Book Review by: Bob Brinsmead
I like the photos of the old monasteries, but not the religious stuff with those images of that man always getting tortured on the cross. First, from the point of theology, I find that the doctrine of the blood atonement for sin is the antithesis of the Sermon on the Mount where unconditional love and forgiveness is explicitly said to rule out any payback justice. Also, 1 Corinthians 13 saying that “love keeps no score of wrongs.” Or are we supposed to behave somewhat better than God does?
The last time I was in Church ( a Catholic one) I witnessed the congregation recounting first the story of Christ’s suffering for them, and then the ritual of his body and blood while all the while this almost pornographic image of a man being tortured on a cross was like a silent elephant in the room.
As I sat there in the church witnessing all of this, the blasphemous thought crossed my mind (I once wrote an essay called Dare to Blaspheme and Dare to be Free) how Jesus, if he has a shred of genuine humanity about him, must be fair sick of having millions of people for thousands of years going over and over this story… it just goes on and on like some great religious OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), it seems to me that this God and this Christ must have some kind of addiction to be endlessly flattered ….as if recounting this gory story o’er and o’er without any cessation is going to make God happy and happy with us. Or as if there is no other way we can ever make the feeling of guilt for our sins go away. But an OT prophet declares that God has cast all our sins behind God’s back and has forgotten them! Didn’t Jesus remind us that as soon as a woman gives birth, she forgets the pain of the process for the joy of bringing new life into the world? Hmmm, are mothers better at this than this Christian God is supposed to be? Can you imagine a mother wanting her son to be constantly obsessed over the pain she went through giving birth to him?
Suppose you had fallen on hard times and were about to have your house sold over your head – and you were not relishing the prospect of sleeping under some bridge, etc. etc. So I stepped in and paid it all up on your behalf. You would be relieved, enormously happy and appreciative of what I had done for you. It would be normal and only human for you to express your gratitude to me. But if every time we met, you would go through the same process of reminding me of it and extending your gratitude…again and again and again .. I would begin to hate hearing it mentioned…the whole thing would imply that I had done something to put you in my debt – forever! Hey, this has unintentionally reminded me that years ago I did do something like this for a friend in need. And do you know what? This person never brings the matter up and never puts me through the damn ritual of being thanked again and again and again… I swear that if this person did this to me, we would not remain friends for long. I would want to avoid this person, and this person would want to avoid me, so instead of any mutual love and respect, we would end up hating each other… on account of nothing more than a human act of generosity.
When Churchill was told on one occasion how a certain person in the House of Lords really hated him, the great man replied, “It is strange that he should hate me like this because I have never done anything for him.” The moral of this story is that we tend to hate the persons who put us in their debt. The trick is to love people in such a way that it doesn’t put them in our debt. Only a masochist would want to put someone in his debt…forever.
This is part of what Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature is referring to in the decline of violence. People learned to think differently and their sensibilities changed and they could no longer tolerate such violence. What an amazing job Pinker does in tracing the never ending decline in violence over history.
He makes this interesting comment on the Christian belief in violence. “The most benighted form of institutionalized violence is human sacrifice, the torture and killing of an innocent person to slake a deity’s thirst for blood….the practice of human sacrifice died out among Jews, but it survived as an ideal in one of its breakaway sects, which believed that God accepted the torture-sacrifice of an innocent man in exchange for not visiting a worse fate on the rest of humanity. The sect is called Christianity”. That is how to restate these beliefs in terms of modern consciousness and sensibility and put them in their place. The honored and worshipped death of Christ is plain old barbaric human sacrifice.
And this belief in violence led to violence in life. Pinker notes John Calvin and this comment of Calvin’s, “God makes plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our heels all natural affections when his honour is at stake. The father should not spare his child, nor the husband his wife, nor the friend that friend who is dearer to him than life”.
Pinker does such a gripping job of tracing the horror of past human existence in graphic detail, and the emergence and development of the civilizing process. The humanizing process of how we changed our way of thinking about violence and began to empathize with other human persons; how we changed our perceptions about violence, our way of thinking, our sensibilities, and then how we treated others.
And if any one doubts that progress is the core defining element of life and human history, then read this book. There has never been a better time to be alive than now. And tomorrow will be even better.
The quote you gave from Calvin is no different from any religious terrorist! Why should we be surprised at the history of Christian violence when the very heart of the religion is violence – the Fall story, the doctrine of hell, the blood sacrifice and visions of the end according to Revelation.
Yes, Calvin hit the nail on the head in saying, “We must crush all natural affections when His honour is at stake”. Pinker is arguing that the Enlightenment changed this, from concern to honor an invisible Deity to concern for the wellbeing of other people. Pinker raises so many issues, page after page. What a story of the Humanitarian Revolution and all the things that stirred this. The great British freedom thinkers- Hobbes, Locke, Smith, and others- had a critical role in introducing new ways of thinking about people and their rights. And what influenced them? Pinker admits “the mysterious process in which violence has declined in every sphere of life”. But he does a great job in detailing so many measurable things about this humanizing revolution.
One quote summarizing this widespread change that began only a few centuries ago, “People started to place a higher value on human life. Part of this newfound appreciation was an emotional change; a habit of identifying with the pains and pleasures of others”. Empathy became more widespread in public consciousness. People moved away from the Calvinistic approach.
In one section Pinker asks the big question, Whence the Humanitarian Revolution? What caused this revolution? He offers a variety of explanations to this mystery. He starts with James Paynes’ suggestion that it is so mysterious that one is sometimes tempted to think a higher power is at work. Of course that is one explanation to why the ordinary- cruelty, violence, sadism- suddenly became unthinkable over the span of a century (especially the 1700s, 1800s). In some places he appears to acknowledge this in a glancing way.
He goes into correlations and what may have caused what. Commerce and affluence have a role but this appears to have responded to changing sensibilities, not the other way around (the humanizing influence of commerce, as in other research). He often refers to sensibilities changing and in this we see the maturing of human consciousness. And he gives due to the power of ideas to change people’s perspectives and lives for the better. Reading was a major influence as people could put themselves in other’s perspective and this helped develop empathy. Urbanism also plays a role as people closer together can offer ideas and refine them in a back and forth of the marketplace of ideas. This is all such fascinating stuff as we all take part in this process and it affects us all.
He neglects some other possible explanations and critics of his work have pointed this out. I find myself a bit uncomfortable with his emphasis on the role of the state and that emphasis may stem from his personal ideology. I would go more with bottom up order playing a larger role and he sort of admits this in his comments on democracy as being citizen supported for its legitimacy and effectiveness.
But I think he misses something significant and this is just my own personal perspective for what its worth. I think the most fundamental explanation has to do with human consciousness, and again he touches on this also. It has to do with the basic makeup of the human self or person. I I have mentioned before Armstrong, Nolan, and Scwhartz’s suggestion of a basic dualism in people- an animal oriented core brain and a true or authentic self related to consciousness. This helps to explain evil and good in humanity.
Human consciousness is mysteriously related to Ultimate Unconditional Love, an incomprehensibly accepting, generous, forgiving, loving supreme Consciousness. Each human person is mysteriously part of this ultimate reality. This makes each human person a magnificent being of love and light as the NDErs have often pointed out. The outcome is that this unconditional love, that is the defining core of human consciousness, will find expression in life, in how it relates to and treats others. This is where empathy springs from. Human consciousness will manifest itself irresistibly over history.
And yes, my explanation would not find a place in an empirical scientific approach.
So while Pinker gets to lots of obvious material causal relationships, he does not include the profound fundamental undergirding thing- human or humane consciousness that as Eccles said, was a supernatural, spiritual creation. This is essential to the nature of human consciousness and why that consciousness eventually finds its way to love, unconditional love. This must express itself in life, in making life better. This is the true nature of every human person.
And I would even argue that this is good science. But that’s just me.
Pinker’s book is really a great presentation of the human story of progress from barbarism to humanism.