About a year and a half ago I wrote a critique of Steve Pinker’s best-seller, The Better Angels of Our Nature, but I didn’t bother tidying it up. And then I forgot about it. I would like to thank Lar Tanner for jogging my memory, with a comment he made on Uncommon Descent yesterday.
Professor Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking Adult, 2011) has attracted much attention in the press. But after having perused Professor Pinker’s book, as well as his online lecture, A History of Violence (27 September 2011), as well as his responses to Frequently Asked Questions about The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I feel it is my duty to inform the public that Pinker’s brilliantly written, highly persuasive book on violence makes several false and misleading claims on historical events, and that the thesis it propounds is at odds with the views of experts in the field. The book’s central claims are that violence is declining over the course of time, and that its decline is driven by a set of ideas which find their best expression in secular humanism. However, leading experts on human atrocities, some of whom Professor Pinker (pictured above, courtesy of Rebecca Goldstein and Wikipedia) cites in his book, have publicly contradicted these claims. The book is also marred by a major omission: Pinker overlooks the vital role that the Abrahamic religions have played in the worldwide decline of violence against children over the past 3,000 years, saving hundreds of millions of lives in the process. This is a humanitarian advance which dwarfs all the others which Pinker writes about so eloquently in his book.
Let me begin by giving credit where credit is due. Professor Pinker’s 832-page magnum opus is a generally well-researched account of the history of human violence, the factors which contribute to it, and the most effective ways of preventing its recurrence in the future. Pinker has packaged his conclusions into a highly persuasive narrative, which will delight secular humanists. This book is destined to become a standard reference for skeptics looking for hard evidence that Christianity has done relatively little to help reduce violence, and that secular humanism deserves most of the credit for ridding the Western world of institutionalized forms of violence over the past 300 years. For the most part (barring a few significant exceptions), my quarrel is not with the facts which Pinker adduces in support of his case, but his misinterpretation of them, coupled with his lack of curiosity about the role of religion in inculcating beliefs which have deterred people from committing acts of violence.
The reason why I have had such a long-standing interest in atrocitology (the study of atrocities committed in the course of human history) is that it deals with three practical questions that concern me as a human being. First, are atrocities increasing, decreasing, constant or randomly fluctuating over the course of time? Second, are there any contributing factors which make these terrible acts more likely to occur, and if so, what are they? Third, how can we prevent these acts of violence from happening in the future? Professor Pinker’s answer to the first question is that violence is declining over time, if we look at the percentage of people killed in atrocities, and not the absolute numbers, which have grown mainly because the world’s population has grown. Second, Pinker contends that violence tends to arise under “regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions)”. Finally, Pinker suggests a way of preventing the recurrence of acts of mass violence in the future: we need “secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights.” He cites the work of Professor Rudolph Rummel, an expert on atrocities, who has demonstrated that “democracies are vastly less murderous than alternative forms of government.” Pinker credits “the Age of Reason and Enlightenment” for giving us a society founded on human rights, and not Christianity: “to say that Christianity has, overall, been a force for peace in history is factually inaccurate.”
Inconsistencies between Pinker’s view and those of his main sources of information
Unfortunately, Pinker’s thesis on the causes of human violence is a very fragile one, which he can only defend by a highly selective quotation of his principal sources on data relating to historical atrocities. What’s more, these sources do not even agree with one another.
Pinker is a fervent advocate of democracy, which, he says, is far less violent than other forms of government. Unfortunately, one of the key authorities cited by Professor Pinker in his book disagrees with him on this point. Pinker is a great admirer of the work of Matthew White, a self-taught history buff and indefatigable researcher who authored the recent best-seller, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities (W. W. Norton, 2011). In fact, Pinker even wrote a ringing foreword to White’s new book, praising him for compiling “the most comprehensive, disinterested and statistically nuanced estimates available” of deaths from atrocities down the ages. However, Matthew White doesn’t agree with Pinker’s thesis that democracies are less violent than other forms of government: in a recent interview with The New York Times (“Ranking History’s Atrocities by Counting the Corpses”, 8 November 2011, by Jennifer Schuessler, page 2), he declared that no one form of government is obviously more murderous than another.
Matthew White’s skeptical view: atrocities occur for no particular reason
White’s thesis is a simple one: bad people cause atrocities, and they do it because they are bad. Evil is inexplicable, and atrocities happen for no particular reason: people just do bad things from time to time. As White bluntly puts it in his response to the question, “Who is responsible for all these deaths?” on his FAQ page:
A: Beats the heck out of me. You know, I could probably score some good think-tank funding if I could only prove statistically that human cruelty is getting steadily worse, and it’s all someone’s fault. Unfortunately, it just looks like the numbers fluctuate randomly over time, and we fight wars and oppress the weak because that’s what we’re good at.
It is worth noting here that Matthew White’s explanation of the cause of atrocities flatly contradicts Professor Pinker’s. White says that “the numbers fluctuate randomly over time”; for him, there is no cause of violence outside evil agents. Pinker, on the other hand, contends that “regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions)” are responsible for violence. Whom are we supposed to believe?
Professor Rudolph Rummel: his views on violence don’t tally with Pinker’s, either
To be fair, I should point out that Professor Rudolph Rummel, another leading expert on atrocities whom Pinker frequently cites in his book, has amassed a wealth of online statistical evidence (see also here) showing that “democracies are vastly less murderous than alternative forms of government.” But the fact that Pinker is willing to cite, in support of his key theses on the causes of violence, two experts with such wildly divergent interpretations of the data relating to violence down the ages, tends to undermine Pinker’s credibility on historical matters.
I should also point out that while Professor Pinker would have us believe that a genuinely liberal democracy must be a secular one, Professor Rudolph Rummel, who believes that the spread of democracy around the globe during the past 200 years marks the dawn of a new democratic age of peace, cordially detests secular governments, as he makes plain on his Democracy Q & A Webpage:
Q: Do you feel that countries with a secular government generally have a better way of life compared to countries ruled by religion?
A: Historically, secular governments have also been very repressive and murderous. All communist and fascist governments (Hitler, Mao, Stalin, etc) have been secular, and also murderous. The worst of all such governments have been atheistic and communist, and murdered overall around 110,000,000 people in the 20th Century.
Where did democracy come from?
Another big fact which Pinker fails to advert to is that modern democracy is a Calvinist invention, as writer John Snyder persuasively argues in his thought-provoking four-part essay, The Rise of Liberal Democracy (see here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4). As Snyder puts it in Part 2 of his essay:
Of every brand and denomination of Christianity-the Calvinist holds the lowest opinion of human nature. … He did not trust democracy unconstrained without certain proofs of regeneration. He neither trusted communities or princes to rule him. What he wanted was order based on morally objective standards. In other words, he knew that only law, and particularly God’s law was a sufficient curb on the natural lawlessness of men, both humble and great. So why is this important to the question of liberal democracy? Remember that our idea of government will follow logically from our idea of human nature. More to the point, our idea of proper human government will follow as an inexorable corollary to what is “natural” for man. Why? Because without a correct answer to this question we cannot address the problem of what government ought to be or how it should be properly constructed. Christians and particularly Calvinists are operating on an entirely unique conception of human nature, one that is simultaneously pessimistic and unique. Consequently the Calvinist developed a distinctive approach to the problem of civil government based on a conception of man otherwise unknown in the history of the world. Remember what I said earlier. The classical Greeks believed that man was naturally good. Chinese culture believes that man is naturally good. The Muslim believes that man is naturally good. So in the history of philosophy and psychology and even world religions, the idea that man, left to himself, will only get himself into more trouble, is really a rather narrowly held idea and an unpopular one at that. So what must be understood here is this: what Christians and particularly Calvinists assert is strikingly different from the wisdom embraced by the world. Christians and particularly Calvinists are saying that something is “naturally” and fundamentally wrong with man. And considering the failures of human history, of classical Rome and Greece, the failures of Asian culture and Islamic culture and all other cultures to create democracies independent of Christian influence-one is obliged to consider the wisdom and insight of the Calvinist model of human nature and therefore, government. So how do we make a government of men, when men are degenerate, and especially if we believe that every human faculty is degraded by sin? Well, that’s the problem! And the solution to that problem is the gigantic intellectual accomplishment of Protestant thinkers. It is the story of the Puritan Revolution and the America Revolution which grew out of it…
In Part 3 of his 4-part essay, Snyder goes on to explain that it was the system of checks and balances, invented by the Puritans as a way of thwarting corrupt governments, that ensured the viability of modern democracy:
The reformers held to a Biblical standard that was hard to imagine: that civil government should be ordered by the mind of law and not the arbitrary will of men. But how could such a notion be converted into an actual political system? The Puritans solved this problem by doing something unique in the history of the world; they formed compacts and agreed to set themselves under the lawful rule of elected men.  And over time, as their children’s expertise grew by experience, they constructed, in this continent a government that was intentionally set against itself. They conceived a government made of opposite and contrary forces that would make it nearly impossible for any one man or coterie of men to gain power enough to dispense with the rule of law. They developed and put into effect “checks and balances” and forever discarded the idea that good government was perfectible or efficient. They insisted that men should “consent” to government and have the power to create or execute new laws only when many contrary forces were willing to agree to do so. It is difficult to fully comprehend the genius of this insight. Many of us today still want government to have lots of power. We are, in this way, holding to the failed pagan idea of human perfectibility through the leadership of the better educated and more virtuous. We are trusting in the idea that if we can just give enough power to someone or some group of people, they will solve the big problems for us. Our fallen nature rebels against any suggestion that the problem with human government is, in fact, “us” – that we ourselves should never be given too much power. Hence we live in a political culture dominated by perfectionist ideologies that blame the trouble with mankind on racism, class struggle, economics, anything but sinful man himself. Despite civic lessons about checks and balances, few understand why this is a truly revolutionary idea – most of us still entertain the idea that democracy, in itself, is a good thing. Nevertheless, the system of checks and balances invented by our Calvinist forbears, (it was enunciated best by the French thinker Montesquieu)  expressly defies the notion that there is implicit wisdom in a plebiscite. It rightly restricts the will of people to do whatever they want. And this idea, which is an intentional and deliberate check on the power of democracy, is an infinitely more revolutionary idea than anything that silly dreamers like Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Marx, Robespierre or Mao ever dreamed up in their hyper-intellectual universes of nifty ideas. The Puritan Revolution, the revolution that gave rise to actual human freedom and liberal democracy, is arguably the only political solution in more than three millennia that can claim to have borne fruit. In short the Calvinists embarked on a terribly inefficient and troublesome political experiment. And that experiment became the most dynamic in history.
Snyder’s is an interesting thesis, and one which Professor Pinker regrettably fails to follow up.
For those who are interested in the connection between Calvinism and democracy, I’d also recommend John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy by Dr. W. Stanford Reid (1913-1996), a former Emeritus Professor of history at McGill University and the University of Guelph in Canada. Dr. Reid summarizes his thesis as follows:
In his thinking, all society is subject to the sovereign God and therefore to his law, whether expressed in the Old Testament and set forth by the church or in the sense of justice and equity given to all men. To achieve this end, God establishes states ruled by magistrates who have the duty of enforcing the divine laws in order to maintain justice and equity. Calvin believed, however, that magistrates who are elected are more likely to rule justly than those who take control by inheritance or force. Furthermore, the tyrannical heredity ruler, as well as the one who illegally seized power, could be resisted even to the point of removal by the duly constituted magistrates of the realm. Here was a political philosophy which was to have a major impact on the western world over the next few centuries.
Regarding the contribution of Calvinists to the American Revolution, Dr. Mark Nickens, whose doctorate is in church history, makes the following perceptive comment in a very short article entitled, John Calvin’s Influence on Democracy:
Many Presbyterians came to the developing American colonies. By the 1750s the Presbyterians formed one of the largest church groups in the colonies. These colonial Presbyterians were mistrustful of leadership by one person, whether a form of church government which involved a bishop, or a form of government which included a king. And so the colonial Presbyterians were ripe for a change in government from the monarchy of England to the representative government of the new United States of America and helped make it happen. Thus John Calvin influenced the form of government which many countries enjoy today and which other countries are struggling to develop.
END of UPDATE. – VJT]
If religion played a vital role in the origin of modern democracy, then it stands to reason that it might well play an essential part in its preservation as well – in which case a totally secular democracy may prove to be a short-lived one. This is a point which Pinker might do well to ponder.
Which is more to blame for atrocities: the left or the right?
Professor Rummel goes on to explain that totalitarianism can be a far-left or far-right phenomenon: “Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was thus totalitarian, as was Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Hitler’s Germany, and U Ne Win’s Burma. Presently, North Korea is a prime example.” However, Rummel, unlike Pinker, blames the totalitarian far left much more than the far right for atrocities. In his own words:
Q: How did this study change you as person, if at all?
A: It made me far less tolerant of Marxists and the far left, which is responsible for most of the killing. Marxist governments alone have murdered about 110,000,000 people out of a total of about 170,000,000 for the whole world. It changed me from a mild pacifist to an interventionist — it made me come to accept humanitarian intervention, forcefully if need be, to prevent massive democide. The cost of such intervention in human lives is always much less than the day after day murder of people by a democidal government.
(Note: Professor Rummel revised his original estimates a few years ago. On his recently revised figures, Rummel would now have to say that Marxist governments had murdered about 150,000,000 out of 262,000,000 victims of democide in the 20th century, which is still a solid majority of the victims.)
Are Marxist totalitarian governments anti-religious?
I presume that Professor Pinker would (reluctantly) accept Rummel’s factual assertion that Marxist governments have tended to murder more people than other 20th century regimes. Strangely, however, Pinker is completely blind to the anti-religious bias of Marxist governments. Incredibly, he writes:
20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems.
This is an utterly absurd piece of nonsense, as Rummel points out in his Democratic Peace Q & A page:
Q: Did Stalin repress the Christian religion, or just those Christians he saw as a threat to the state?
A: Stalin systematically attempted to destroy religion. Public and private Churches were torn down, clergy executed, and believers forbidden to worship on pain of gulag or death. It was forbidden to teach a religion to one’s children. In 1932 Stalin launched an “antireligion five-year plan” so that at the end of the five years “not a single house of prayer will be needed any longer in any territory of the Soviet Union, and the very notion of God will be expunged . . . .” Those who tried to practice their religion in their own home secretly ran the risk of being caught and punished. And one’s children were ordered at school to tell teachers if their parents were doing anti-Soviet things, like exercising some religion.
The picture that emerges from Rummel’s scholarly work is that avowedly anti-religious totalitarian regimes of the far left – especially the Soviet Union and Communist China – were responsible for the majority of atrocities committed in the 20th century. Professor Pinker really needs to face the facts here. Of course, it does not necessarily follow from the fact that Marxism is a force for evil in the world that religion is a force for good, and Pinker also points out that “The European Wars of Religion had death rates that were double that of World War I and that were in the range of World War II in Europe.” (Here he is undoubtedly referring to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, which is said to have killed 1.4% of the world’s population, compared to 2.6% that was killed by World War II.) However, in his blog article, ‘This is a bogus statistic’ (December 15, 2011), amateur historian Humphrey Clarke takes aim at Pinker’s claim that the Thirty Years’ War was proportionally about as bloody as World War II: “According to the detailed treatment given in Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H Wilson death records from towns appear to show few directly related to military violence and 30 years of warfare reaped around 450,000 military casualties.” That’s about 0.1% of the world’s population in the seventeenth century, not 1.4%. Big difference.
What Pinker also fails to tell his readers is that the Thirty Years’ War was a statistical outlier: no other religious atrocity in Europe was responsible for anything like that proportion of deaths, and the only religious atrocity which surpassed it was the Taiping Rebellion in China, which killed 1.7% of the world’s population between 1850 and 1864.
Religion is no longer a major cause of atrocities and was never the main cause.
If we look at the main causes of violence in history, religion ranks well down on the list. This fact becomes evident if we look at the figures provided by Matthew White, an author on human atrocities whom Pinker frequently cites in his book. If readers scroll down to the bottom of this chart from The New York Times (6 November 2011), which is based on Matthew White’s book, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, they will find a list of the top ten atrocities, in terms of the percentage of the world’s population that was killed, excluding those atrocities that lasted for more than forty years (such as the slave trade). Here they are:
Genghis Khan (1206-1227)______________ 11.1%
An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) ____________5.9%
Xin Dynasty (9-24 A.D.)___________________5.9%
Timur (1370-1405)______________________ 4.7%
Fall of the Ming Dynasty (1635-1652)_______ 4.6%
Second World War (1939-1945)___________ 2.6%
Fall of the Yuan Dynasty (1340-70)_________ 2.1%
Taiping Rebellion (1850-64)_______________ 1.7%
Thirty Years’ War (1618-48)_______________ 1.4%
Mao Zedong (1949-76)___________________ 1.3%
If we add the percentages, we get 41.3%. If we add the percentages relating to religious wars, we get 1.7% + 1.4% = 3.1%. If we now divide 3.1% by 41.3%, we get about 7.5%, or less than a tenth. What does that tell us? Religion is not the main cause of war. Indeed, Matthew White says as much himself on his FAQ page:
Q: Is religion responsible for more more violent deaths than any other cause?
A: No, of course not — unless you define religion so broadly as to be meaningless. Just take the four deadliest events of the 20th Century — Two World Wars, Red China and the Soviet Union — no religious motivation there, unless you consider every belief system to be a religion.
Q: So, what you’re saying is that religion has never killed anyone.
A: Arrgh… You all-or-nothing people drive me crazy. There are many documented examples where members of one religion try to exterminate the members of another religion. Causation is always complex, but if the only difference between two warring groups is religion, then that certainly sounds like a religious conflict to me. Is it the number one cause of mass homicide in human history? No. Of the 22 worst episodes of mass killing, maybe four were primarily religious. Is that a lot? Well, it’s more than the number of wars fought over soccer, or sex (The Trojan and Sabine Wars don’t even make the list.), but less than the number fought over land, money, glory or prestige.
In my Index, I list 41 religious conflicts compared with 27 oppressions under “Communism”, 24 under Colonialism, 2 under “Railroads” and 2 under “Scapegoats”. Make of that what you will.
Professor Rummel agrees with White on this point. As he puts it on his Democratic Peace Q & A Web page:
Q: Is religious conflict the greatest source of wars?
A: Religion was a major cause of war in Europe and the Islamic Empire during the Middle Ages. But even then, wars were being fought elsewhere in the world for other reasons, such as in Asia. In recent centuries, religion has been simply one minor cause among others for some minor wars. Major causes of major wars have been conflict over territory, ethnic grievances, honor, greed, and power. There was no religious component to World Wars I and II, nor the Korean and Vietnam Wars. However, the current war on terror has a fundamentalist Islamic aspect to it, but it is not one religion pitted against another, but fundamentalist Islam against the freedom and values of democratic countries.
Is religion nearly as harmful as Communism?
One of the most astonishing claims that Professor Pinker tries to make in his book is that religion is nearly as dangerous to humanity as Communism. However, his argument provides a perfect example of how not to use statistics. He writes:
[A]ccording to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.
I would like to point out here that Matthew White’s figures on deaths due to Communism in the 20th century are significantly underestimated, and that reading Professor Rudolph Rummel’s work provides a useful corrective. For instance, according to White, Stalin killed 20 million people, whereas Rummel puts the figure at 43 million. White favors the figure of 20 million, because it’s the median of the various historical estimates that he’s found in the scholarly literature. Rummel has responded that the estimate of 20 million victims, which is favored by many authors, is based on a figure from Robert Conquest’s book The Great Terror from 1968, and that Conquest’s qualifier that his estimate is “almost certainly too low” is usually forgotten. According to Rummel, Conquest’s calculations excluded several categories of deaths under Stalin. the Holodomor famine that killed 5 million in 1932-1934; labor camp deaths before 1936 and after 1950; executions from 1939-1953; the vast number of deaths of people from captive nations who were deported to labor camps, from 1939-1953; the massive number of deaths of people from ethnic minorities, who were deported within the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944; and finally, people executed by the Soviet Red Army and secret police in Eastern Europe, after it was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944-1945.
All in all, Rummel puts the total number of people murdered by the Soviet Union from 1917-1987 at 61,911,000.
White also underestimates deaths caused by Mao Zedong by a factor of two. White is willing to allow that Mao Zedong was responsible for about 40 million deaths in Communist China, whereas Rummel opts for the much higher figure of 77,000,000. Rummel himself once excluded the Great Leap Forward (which killed 38,000,000 people) from his democide calculations, arguing that it was a gigantic but unintentional blunder on Mao’s part, and hence not government-sponsored murder. He later changed his mind, after reading Wild Swans: Two Daughters of China by Jung Chang, and Mao: the Unknown Story, which she co-wrote with her husband, historian Jon Halliday.
The upshot of all this is that if you add Rummel’s figures for the total number of people killed by Communist regimes in the 20th century in major atrocities, you get about 144,000,000 people (62,000,000 from the Soviet Union plus 77,000,000 from China plus 2,000,000 from Cambodia and nearly as many from North Korea, plus 1,000,000 killed by Tito.)
Why is this important? Because it’s three times the figure quoted by Matthew White in his Great Big Book of Horrible Things for the number of people killed as a result of the 13 religious atrocities which he includes in the 100 worst mass killings in history. White claims that religious mass killing has resulted in 47 million deaths over the last 2,000 years, which is a pretty horrific figure, but as we’ve seen, Communism killed 144 million people in just 70 years, during a time period when religion killed very few. The obvious conclusion is that while religion was a significant cause of violence in the past, it certainly isn’t one now.
A factual critique of Pinker’s online answers to FAQ’s about his book
On his FAQ page, Frequently Asked Questions about The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Professor Pinker makes a number of claims about Christianity which are false or misleading. Let’s have a look at them.
Pinker’s Claim: “Jesus deserves credit for stigmatizing revenge, one of the main motives for violence over the course of human history.”
True or False? True as far as it goes. But Pinker really should know that hundreds of years before Jesus, the book of Leviticus had declared: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). In denouncing revenge, Jesus was not saying anything new. “Love your enemies”, on the other hand, was a new teaching.
Pinker’s Claim: But things started going downhill in 312 when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the historical facts are not consistent with the claim that Christianity since then has been a force for nonviolence.
True or False? False. Christianity didn’t become the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312 under Constantine the Great, but in 391, under Theodosius I. What Constantine did was to issue an Edict of Toleration in 313 (not 312). The Christian Church’s consistent prohibition of abortion, infanticide, suicide, gladiator sports and dueling over the last 2,000 years, make it a force for non-violence on a much larger scale than Pinker’s much-vaunted secular humanists. They may have saved millions of lives; but the Church saved hundreds of millions. I’ll say more about this in a future post.
Pinker’s Claim: The Crusaders perpetrated a century of genocides that murdered a million people, equivalent as a proportion of the world’s population at the time to the Nazi holocaust.
True or False? The figure of one million is accepted by the historian and atrocitologist Rudolph Rummel (see here), but this represents 0.22% of the world’s population at that time (about 450,000,000). The total number of people killed by the Nazis is estimated by historian Rudolph Rummel at 21,000,000, or about 0.84% of the population of humanity in World War II (which was approximately 2,500 million) – in other words, nearly four times bloodier then the Crusades. But even this comparison overlooks the fact that the Crusades lasted for two centuries (from 1095 to 1291), while the Nazi holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews and also involved the slaughter of 15 million other innocent human beings, lasted for about four years. To compare the violence of life under the Nazis with life under the Crusades, you need to compare the annual chance of being killed by both parties, for people living at the time. The period in which the Crusaders killed their victims was 50 times longer than the Nazi holocaust, which means that the proportion of humanity killed by the Nazis was nearly four times higher. That makes the annual risk of killed by the Nazis about 200 times higher than the risk under the Crusaders. This in no way excuses religious violence; but to place it in the same league as 20th century warfare is simply ridiculous.
Pinker’s Claim: Shortly afterwards, the Cathars of southern France were exterminated in another Crusader genocide because they had embraced the Albigensian heresy.
True or False? False. Amateur historian Humphrey Clarke, who is one of three contributors to the science, religion and history blog Quodlibeta, argues in a blog post titled, Pinker tackles the Albigensian Crusade (November 8, 2011) that Pinker got his facts badly wrong. In a footnote, he observes:
Actually the Albigensian crusade hardly touched the Cathars. As Languedoc was restored to southern French rule after 1218 the Cathars resumed the public practice of their faith and were as strong as before. The crusade – always something of a cynical land grab – was a failure that petered out after its leader Simon De Montfort was killed at Toulouse in 1218. The reason the Cathars got their come-uppance was because the French monarchy acquired the Languedoc region of southern France through an advantageous marriage and the inquisitors were allowed to operate there.
I should point out in passing that two of Pinker’s favorite experts disagree as to how many people the Albigensian Crusade killed. According to Matthew White, about one million people were killed over about forty years (1208-1249), making this Crusade five times bloodier, in annual terms, than all the other Crusades. Rummel, on the other hand, calculates 200,000 “democides,” or killings of defenseless innocent people. Humphrey Clarke continues:
…Pinker claims that the infamous Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) took the lives of 200,000 people, though in a footnote he approvingly cites White’s figure for the suppression of the Cathars – one million deaths.
The inquisition’s activities were more restrained than their reputation suggests though they conducted an unprecedented level of investigation and interrogation. Bernard of Caux, inquisitor of Toulouse appears to have sentenced 207 offenders between 12th of May and 22nd of July 1246 (the height of the inquisition’s activity)– burning none, sentencing 23 to imprisonment and ordering the rest to wear crosses. Later in the century some 8 to 9 percent of those sentenced were burned to death…
The Albigensian Crusade must rank as one of the nastiest of medieval wars, resulting in massacres, atrocities, guerrilla warfare and the breakdown of social order…
… Coming up with any sort of figure for death tolls appear futile. 1,000,000 deaths is clearly ridiculous, 200,000 – a 20% death rate for the region seems too high. 100,000 might be closer to the truth but given the paucity of evidence any estimate is going to be pure speculative ‘finger waving’.
Pinker’s Claim: The Inquisition, according to Rummel, killed 350,000 people.
True or False? The citation of Rummel is correct, but Rummel’s claim is simply false. Rummel is wrong here; he’s a political scientist, and not a specialist on the history of the Catholic Church. 10,000 would be a more accurate figure for the total number of people killed by the medieval, Spanish, Portuguese and Roman Inquisitions put together, and even that may be rather high. Rummel does not tell us how he arrived at his figure of 350,000, but he suggests that 125,000 people may have died of torture and privation in prison under the Inquisition. However, it turns out that his sole authority for this dubious figure is a book by Edmond Paris, entitled Genocide in Satellite Croatia, 1941-1945: A Record of Racial and Religious Persecutions and Massacres. Some source! In fact, the Spanish Inquisition tortured people far less often than other courts of its day: about 2% of the people brought before it were tortured, according to historian Thomas Madden, in his highly informative article, The Truth about the Spanish Inquisition. Moreover, the Inquisition’s prisons were widely considered to be the best in Europe. Indeed, there were even instances of criminals in Spain purposely blaspheming, in order to be transferred to the Inquisition’s prisons.
Rummel also cites a figure of 31,912 for the number of victims of the Spanish Inquisition from 1480 to 1808, based on the biased history of Juan Antonio Llorente, but Llorente’s figures are wildly inaccurate, as historians of the Inquisition acknowledge:
“Llorente, the ex-Secretary of the Holy Office who wrote a bitterly antagonistic account of it at the beginning of the 19th century, based on manuscript material which is no longer extant, states that all told, from its foundation down to 1808, the total number of heretics burned in person in Spain alone totalled 31,912… These figures are so enormous as to seem highly suspicious.” (Cecil Roth, The Spanish Inquisition,1937, page 123.)
“[Llorente] came up with the incredible figures of 31,912 relaxations [burnings – VJT] in person, 17,659 relaxations in effigy, and 291,450 penitents, a grand total of 341,021 victims. All the historical evidence has shown this greatly exaggerated figure to be without any foundation.” (Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, 1965, page 280-1.)
“Llorente put the total at nearly 32,000 [burned in person], but his method of calculation is fantastic and ridiculous.” (A.S. Turberville, The Spanish Inquisition, 1932, page 112.)
The Spanish Inquisition was at its bloodiest from 1480 to 1530. The Spanish Marxist historian Henry Kamen writes in his work, The Spanish Inquisition (Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 60, 203), that, “Taking into account all the tribunals of Spain up to about 1530, it is unlikely that more than two thousand people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition….for most of its existence that Inquisition was far from being a juggernaut of death either in intention or in capability.” By Kamen’s estimate, “it would seem that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fewer than three people a year were executed in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru, certainly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice in Spain or anywhere else in Europe” (1998, p. 203). The Wikipedia article on the Spanish Inquisition cites the estimates of several historians, and argues for a figure of between 3,000 and 5,000 victims altogether.
Protestant author James Patrick Holding has a useful article about the Spanish Inquisition here.
There were other Inquisitions in additions to the Spanish Inquisition – the medieval, Portuguese and Roman Inquisitions – but these were far less bloody than the Spanish Inquisition. Thus an overall figure of 10,000 for the total number of victims of all the Inquisitions put together would appear to be a prudent one. Thus Rummel’s figure of 350,000 victims is inflated by a factor of at least 35.
Pinker’s Claim: Martin Luther’s rant against the Jews is barely distinguishable from the writings of Hitler.
True or False? More or less true. Luther did say some pretty vile things about the Jews (see here, and for a summary see here). However, historian Paul Halsall points out that the Nazis, unlike Luther, hated the Jews simply because of their race:
While there is little doubt that Christian anti-Semitism laid the social and cultural basis for modern anti-Semitism, modern anti-Semitism does differ in being based on pseudo-scientific notions of race. The Nazis imprisoned and killed Jews who had converted to Christianity: Luther would have welcomed their conversions.
Pinker’s Claim: The European Wars of Religion had death rates that were double that of World War I and that were in the range of World War II in Europe.
True or False? False. In his blog article, ‘This is a bogus statistic’ (December 15, 2011), amateur historian Humphrey Clarke takes aim at Pinker’s claim that the Thirty Years’ War was proportionally about as bloody as World War II:
Whether the Thirty Years War was more destructive than World War I and II is an interesting question; Germany and large parts of Central Europe undoubtedly suffered a demographic collapse in the 17th century (15-20% in the German States). However the overwhelming majority of deaths during the 30 Years’ War were caused by disease – specifically typhus, dysentery and bubonic plague. This situation was partially caused and exacerbated by the movement of the various armies through the German countryside – resulting in food shortages and the outbreak of epidemics. According to the detailed treatment given in Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H Wilson death records from towns appear to show few directly related to military violence and 30 years of warfare reaped around 450,000 military casualties.
It could be argued, in fact it should be argued that much of this mortality would not have happened were it not for the conflict – other areas of Europe suffered population declines in this period but not as precipitous as Germany’s – so there is a direct responsibility there and disease related deaths should be added to the tally. However if that is the case then you have to compare like with like. Close troop quarters and massive troop movements helped facilitate an influenza pandemic at the end of World War I – perhaps the greatest medical holocaust ever. Add these to the 15,000,000 slaughtered in World War and it becomes proportionally the deadliest conflict in world history…
450,000 military deaths is about about 0.1% of the world’s population in the seventeenth century, not 1.4%. Also, the deaths were spread over a period of 30 years, while the Nazi atrocities took place over four.
Pinker’s Claim:Christian conquistadors massacred and enslaved native Americans in vast numbers, and perhaps twenty million were killed in all (not counting unintentional epidemics) by the European settlement of the Americas.
True or False? Way too high, if he’s talking about intentional killings. Pinker gets this figure from White, who acknowledges that his figure is “a guess” which is near the median of four previous estimates. White also discusses the difficulty of distinguishing deaths from disease from violent deaths:
Since no one disputes the fact that most of the native deaths were caused by alien diseases to which they had never developed immunity, the simple question of categorization is vital.
Traditionally we add death by disease and famine into the total cost of wars and massacres (Anne Frank, after all, died of typhus, not Zyklon-B, but she’s still a victim of the Holocaust) so I don’t see any problem with doing the same with the American genocides, provided that the deaths occurred after their society had already been disrupted by direct European hostility. If a tribe was enslaved or driven off its lands, the associated increase in deaths by disease would definitely count toward the atrocity (The chain of events which reduced the Indian population of California from 85,000 in 1852 to 18,000 in 1890 certainly counts regardless of the exact agent of death, because by this time, the Indians were being hunted down from one end of California to another.); however, if a tribe was merely sneezed on by the wrong person at first contact, it should not count…
Think of it this way: if the Europeans had arrived with the most benign intentions and behaved like perfect guests, or for that matter, if Aztec sailors had been the ones to discover Europe instead of vice versa, then the Indians would still have been exposed to unfamiliar diseases and the population would still have been scythed by massive epidemics, but we’d just lump it into the same category as the Black Death, i.e. bad luck. (Curiously, the Black Death was brought to Europe by the Mongols. Should we blame them for it? And while we’re tossing blame around willy-nilly, aren’t the Native Americans responsible for introducing tobacco to the world — and for the 90 million deaths which followed?)
Pinker’s Claim: The three founders of Protestantism, Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII, had thousands of heretics were burned at the stake, as they and their followers took Jesus literally when he said, “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”
True or False? False on several counts. First, Pinker misquotes Scripture. In John 15:6, the phrase “men gather them,” although found in the King James Version of the Bible, is actually a mistranslation. Here is what Barnes’ Notes on the Bible (1834) says in its commentary on John 15:6:
Men gather them – The word “men” is not in the original, and should not have been in the translation. The Greek is “they gather them,” a form of expression denoting simply they are gathered, without specifying by whom it is done. From Matthew 13:40-42, it seems that it will be done by the angels. The expression means, as the withered and useless branches of trees are gathered for fuel, so shall it be with all hypocrites and false professors of religion.
Here’s how the New International Version (1984) translates the passage:
If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
Jesus is here referring to the Last Judgment, and not to the Inquisition.
For more on the meaning of this passage, the reader may like to check out this article: Exegetical Commentary on John 15.
The Church Fathers didn’t see this verse of Scripture as an endorsement of burning heretics either. Have a look at St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on John 15:6, and St. Augustine’s commentary on the same verse. It was not until 1184 that Pope Lucius III cited John 15:6 in support of the punishment of heretics, and even then, he was not referring to death by burning. It was only in the 13th century that we see bishops and theologians, for the first time, citing this verse to justify the burning of heretics, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Wesley and Matthew Henry interpreted the verse spiritually.
Luther didn’t have any heretics burned at the stake, and actually declared that “The burning of heretics is contrary to the will of the Spirit” – a proposition which was condemned as an error by Pope Leo X in his encyclical Exsurge Domine (proposition 33). However, in later life, Luther became intolerant, and called for the death of the Anabaptists, whom he regarded as not only heretics but also a threat to the social order. Thousands of Anabaptists in Europe were slaughtered by Catholics and Protestants alike.
The only person whom Calvin could be accused of having put to death was Servetus, although the death sentence was actually pronounced by the Geneva city council, which sentenced him to be burned. Calvin actually requested that Servetus be beheaded instead of being burned, but his request was rejected. (See “Verdict and Sentence for Michael Servetus” (1533) in A Reformation Reader, eds. Denis R. Janz; 268–270.)
Henry VIII is commonly said to have had 72,000 people put to death in his reign, but this number referred not to heretics but to “great thieves, petty thieves, and rogues,” and the Wikipedia biography of Henry VIII regards it as an “inflated figure.” The number of people executed for heresy under Henry VII was just 81, according to an article titled, Tudor Heretics, by historian John Simkin. Simkin lists the number of people executed for heresy under the Tudor monarchs: 24 under Henry VII; 81 under Henry VIII; 2 under Edward VI; 280 under Mary; and 4 under Elizabeth I.
I might add that Henry VIII never saw himself as a Protestant, but as a Catholic who rejected Papal supremacy. Pinker is showing his historical ignorance when he describes Henry VIII as a “founder” of Protestantism. What’s more, Zwingli was just as much a “founder” of Protestantism as Luther and Calvin were. It is curious that Pinker omits to mention him, for he was actually the least tolerant of all the “founders” of Protestantism: as early as 1526, he decreed that Anabaptists should be drowned. (See here, here and here.)
Pinker’s Claim: Following the biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Christians killed 60,000-100,000 accused witches in the European witchhunts.
True or False? True as far as the numbers are concerned. However, it omits to mention that for the first 900 years of Christianity, the Church taught that there were no longer any witches. According to Jenny Gibbons’ article, Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt that the great witchcraft persecutions did not take place in the Middle Ages but in the early modern period (15th to 18th centuries). Gibbons writes that “the lethal crazes of the Great Hunt were actually the child of the ‘Age of Reason.'”
For those readers who are chronologically minded, here’s a brief excerpt from an article over at religioustolerance.org, titled, The Burning Times: The time line: the Dark Ages to now:
Prior to the 9th century CE: There was a widespread popular belief that evil Witches existed. They were seen as evil persons, primarily women, who devoted their lives to harming and killing others through black magic and evil sorcery. The Catholic church at the time officially taught that such Witches did not exist. It was a heresy to say that they were real. “For example, the 5th century Synod of St. Patrick ruled that ‘A Christian who believes that there is a vampire in the world, that is to say, a witch, is to be anathematized; whoever lays that reputation upon a living being shall not be received into the Church until he revokes with his own voice the crime that he has committed.’ A capitulary from Saxony (775-790 CE) blamed these stereotypes on pagan belief systems: ‘If anyone, deceived by the Devil, believes after the manner of the Pagans that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and if on this account he burns [the alleged witch]… he shall be punished by capital sentence.”
906 CE: Regino of Prum, the Abbot of Treves, wote the Canon Episcopi. It reinforced the church’s teaching that Witches did not exist….
circa 1140: Gratian, an Italian monk, incorporated the Canon Episcopi into canon law.
According to the article, it was not until the 1330s that “[t]he popular concept of Witches as evil sorcerers is expanded to include belief that they swore allegiance to Satan, had sexual relations with the Devil, kidnapped and ate children.” And it was only in 1450 that “the first major witch hunts began in many western European countries.” Finally, we come to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries:
Circa 1550 to 1650 CE: Trials and executions reached a peak during these ten decades, which are often referred to as the “burning times.”
Pinker evidently needs to do some more reading on the history of witchcraft.
Pinker’s Claim::World War I, as I recall, was a war fought mostly by Christians against Christians. As for World War II and its associated horrors, see my answer to the previous question.
True or False? Utterly irrelevant to the question of whether religion is a force for violence. Matthew White has this to say on the matter:
Q: Is religion responsible for more violent deaths than any other cause?
A: No, of course not — unless you define religion so broadly as to be meaningless. Just take the four deadliest events of the 20th Century — Two World Wars, Red China and the Soviet Union — no religious motivation there, unless you consider every belief system to be a religion.
Pinker also displays his ignorance of the abolitionist movement when he writes:
Certain Christian denominations, such as the Quakers, did indeed mobilize the abolitionist movement, but they came late to the party. Christianity had no problem with slavery for more than 1500 years, and agitation against the institution only took off with the writings of John Locke and other philosophers of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, who found plenty of good secular reasons why slavery was abominable. The American abolitionists fought against a slaveholding South that was, of course, thoroughly Christian, including many ministers who defended slavery because it was approved in the Bible.
Evidently Pinker has not read Professor Rodney Stark’s informative essay, The Truth about the Catholic Church and Slavery. Stark also shows how the Catholic Church ended slavery in Europe during the Middle Ages. Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion who has spent decades studying the growth of cults, has uncovered a wealth of archival material detailing the Popes’ opposition to slavery from the 15th century down to the present. The new material also shows how the Popes tried to put a stop to slavery in the New World, and how the kings of Spain and Portugal ruthlessly suppressed the publication of papal bulls prohibiting slavery. The problem wasn’t that the leadership was silent. It was that almost nobody listened to the popes – even Catholics ignored what they had to say.
Pinker would also do well to read this article in Wikipedia, which describes how Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and certain prominent Anglicans brought about the abolition of slavery in the British Empire – an accomplishment which eventually led to the worldwide abolition of slavery, as Britain pressured other countries to follow suit. Finally, an article by Dr. Peter Hammond titled, The Scourge of Slavery, discusses the historical background of slavery and the Christian movement which led to the abolition of slavery.
In my next part, I’ll critique Pinker’s methodology and the assumptions underlying his book.