Better Angels, A thought

I am reading the so far quite good The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. In it Steven Pinker sets out to demonstrate that the naysayers who often propose the “things are getting worse and worse” thesis are wrong on many levels, especially in the area of violence. I am only 25% through so may come across something that sinks his point, but I have generally already been convinced of this. I recently read Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides, which matches closely S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History in presenting the insane violence practiced on both sides during the westward migration of the white man into American Indian territory. It was bad. Really bad. And I also know from episodes in church history that a church accepted that the natural consequence for someone whose views on baptism differed from theirs was to drown the person!  In addition to that, I am writing this on a fairly nice computer that is connected to the internet where I have access to lots and lots of information and tomorrow when I go to work, guess what I won’t be doing? Digging in dirt all day to maintain some barely subsistence existence like I’m sure many of my ancestors had to do. Life is pretty good.

            One of the questions Pinker seeks to answer is, WHY? Economically the world was hemmed in by Malthusian math until about the 19th Century and we aren’t quite sure what changed economically that growth became consistent and expected to the point that we are so rich. A similar thing occurred with violence as Pinker well documents in his book.

            So far, he has proposed at least two possible reasons. First, let me say, that he is hostile to Christianity and makes that clear from the get go and, sadly, anyone that is hostile to Christianity can readily find MANY things that Christians  have done that are quite reprehensible to support the idea that Christianity ain’t so great. Like, did you hear when a city council voted to DROWN someone to death because that person proposed a different take on the meaning and practice of baptism! Holy smokes![1] All this to say, he will not conclude that Christianity is the reason for the change. So, first he proposes as one cause the growth of “leviathan,” the centralized state. As governments coalesced, they became more efficient at stopping and punishing crime. Pinkerton makes a good case for this being at least part of the reason for the dramatic reduction in crime.

            Second, he proposes this: “The growth of writing and literacy strikes me as the best candidate for an exogenous change that helped set off the Humanitarian Revolution” (pg. 270). Pinkerton adds to this that the growth of the novel helped inform, reform and humanize people. A great example of this is the influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in gaining support of the abolitionist movement in the United States. That book sold 2 million copies in the first five years of its publication. “The full-strength causal hypothesis may be more than a fantasy of English teachers. The ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th Century” (pg. 176).

            I want to take a look at this idea of increasing literacy. The literacy rate of the United Kingdom was 53% in 1650, about the earliest that data is available according to here. It didn’t start expanding significantly beyond that until the last half of the 19th Century, to 76% by 1870. The U.S. had a literacy rate of 80% that year, the first year U.S. data was available. You can review the chart yourself to see how literacy has grown but the most notable thing is that it did start to expand at around the same time violence began to decrease.

            It is estimated that the best selling novel of all time is Don Quixote, with around 500 million copies sold. I tried reading that book, I thought it was boring. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are next in line for western reading with around 200 million copies sold.

            There is a lot that goes on in the world that I don’t know about. This is very true and it’s even more true in the area of cause and effect. Pinker makes no dogmatic claims, just his literacy and novels hypothesis seem to fit the data well. One thing he overlooks is another pretty popular book, the Bible. The Bible has sold 5 billion copies! Yes, it has been around for a long time including most of the violent era of history BUT it wasn’t available in people’s native language until beginning in the 16th Century, literacy rates didn’t begin increasing until the 19th Century. Prior to that people did not all have direct access to God’s word and may have heard it in a language they didn’t understand.

            The point. The Bible makes many claims of grandeur about itself.

The law of the Lord is perfect
reviving the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple (Ps. 19:7).

            Every word of God proves true;
He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him (Prov. 30:5)

            How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to Your word (Ps. 119:9)

            I have stored up Your words in my heart,
that I might not sin against You (Ps. 119:11).

            Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth (Jn. 17:17).

Yes, God’s word has a pretty high opinion of itself. And it is true that those folks who drowned the fella whose baptism view differed from them and they surely did it feeling they were carrying out God’s will. That could seem to undermine the whole point I am trying to make but above it says, God’s word is stored up in a man’s heart that he might not sin against Him. In the end it comes down to the individual human’s choice as to whether he will follow God’s word or not and there is a tendency to muddle what things say to fit one’s own biases. It also seems that each generation has its own particular struggles with various issues. It is not the Bible that brings in the kingdom of glory and peace and harmony, it is its Writer, the Lord Jesus Christ. And, yet, still, a case seems to be makeable that in the meantime (while we wait for our King) that as His word has spread and been honored it has done a tremendous amount in civilizing those places it has touched.

[1] If youre interested, Christianity never makes the claim that Christians are so great. I mean, there might be a Christian or two that think they are something wonderful, but the system itself sets forth One Who is great: Jesus Christ the Righteous. To the extent our behavior matches His it can be said we are something to be proud of. Other than that we are just folks like all the other folks and apart from Him we are in trouble.


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