After the Black Friday debacle, here’s a little tonic to rebuild your faith in human nature.

Despite the gloomy mood, the historical backdrop is stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries. War is declining, and humanity is becoming less violent, less racist and less sexist — and this moral progress has accelerated in recent decades. To put it bluntly, we humans seem to be getting nicer.

So argues Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, and backs it up by appealing to The Better Angels of our Nature, the new book by Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard.

Despite what 9/11, Iraq, and Darfur seem to be telling us, Pinker claims that: “We may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” He appeals to the following stats:

  • Despite two world wars, only 3% of humans died from man-made catastrophes in the 20th century. Contrast this with 13% of Native-American skeletons evidencing death by violent trauma, and with the Thirty Year War of the 17th century which reduced Germany’s population by a third.
  • Homicide rates are far lower than previous centuries. For example, Britain’s murder rate has fallen by 90% since the 14th century.
  • One academic study found that modern children’s television programs have 4.8 violent scenes per hour, compared with nursery rhymes with 52.2.
  • Most nations now go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the mass killing of civilians in war.
  • Genocide produces worldwide outrage whereas, Kiristoff says, “European-Americans saw nothing offensive about exterminating Native Americans. One of my heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, later a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was unapologetic: ‘I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely in the case of the tenth.’”
  • Pinker makes the case that this extraordinary moral progress can also be seen in “issues such as civil rights, the role of women, equality for gays, beating of children, and treatment of animals.”

Kirstof concludes:

Granted, the world still faces brutality and cruelty. That’s what I write about the rest of the year! But let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge remarkable progress and give thanks for the human capacity for compassion and moral growth

So, do we join Pinker and Kristof in giving ourselves a congratulatory pat on the back? Well, if even some of the stats are correct, we should rejoice. Any reduction of violence and suffering in the world is most welcome and should be celebrated by all Christians.

Praise God
However, instead of praising ourselves, we should turn the praise heavenwards. Any moral improvement in the world is the result of God’s mercy. If the statistics show an increase in peace, then we trace that not to the human heart but to the heart of God. If violence has decreased it’s because God’s “common grace” has increased. He has mercifully restrained evil by increased education, strong and just governments, technology, media pressure, and, above all, by the wider preaching of the Gospel.

Is it mere coincidence that the statistical decline in violence has coincided with the surge of worldwide missionary activity in the last 150 years? Such preaching not only results in far more Christians in the world, and the corresponding decrease of sin, but also serves to restrain evil even among those hearers who do not believe in Christ.

So, yes, let’s celebrate more reluctant and careful waging of war, more equal treatment of men and women, and less prejudice towards minorities and people with disabilities. But let’s trace the origin of any moral good not to sinful man, but to a loving and longsuffering God.

“Civilized” slaughter
Secondly, the picture is not quite as rosy as Kristoff and Pinker suggest. While in some areas there does appear to be some moral improvement, the slaughter of humanity still continues, albeit in the more sanitized and “civilized” battlefields of operating theaters, where 42 million unborn babies are murdered every year. That includes 3,300 a day in the USA alone, where 50 million babies have been killed since 1972.

Of course Pinker and Kristof would actually point to the availability of abortion as moral progress, as they also do with the increased acceptance of homosexuality. However, all this shows is that moral progress is being measured with a very faulty moral compass. The Apostle Paul explained to his multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-moral society that unless God had left a small group of believers in that society, they would have been like Sodom and Gommorah (Rom 9:29). In other words, a homosexualized society is only prevented from being reduced to ashes by the continuing presence of Christians.

Pride comes before a fall
Lastly, I’m always very concerned when people start speaking proudly of “new world orders,” of humanity having “turned the corner,” of our “moral growth,” or of our “remarkable progress.” The Bible does warn, and history goes to show, that pride comes before a fall. Eerily similar statements were made by politicians, journalists and academics before both world wars.  More recently, the “peace dividend” everyone spoke optimistically of at the end of the Cold War has also evaporated in Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

So let’s accept the blessings of peace with grateful hearts. Let’s trace every life spared and all moral growth to the goodness of God, not man. And let’s beware of placing too much confidence in humanity’s progress; that’s very thin ice. Far safer to believe the Bible’s graphic and rather gruesome description of the human heart (Romans 3:9-20).  And believing that unchanging truth, rather than ephemeral statistics, let’s keep speaking and publishing and broadcasting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and look to God to change the world, one regenerated heart at a time.

  • Peter

    Nice application of Romans 1:22…

  • SomeGuy

    I do not know why Kristof is using his column to promote Pinker’s new book. There must be some sort of quid-pro-quo the public does not know about. I doubt Kristof is being altruistic. I wonder why the NYT allowed Kristof to run what is essentially an advertisement for a new book as a column.

    I do know, however, that Pinker is someone who simply makes stuff up. When he writes books, he does not use any scientific method or prove what he is saying. Like Richard Dawkins, Pinker has a background in science, but this is thrown out the window when he writes books.

    • Stephen Dawe

      I wonder about the lessening of violence measured by a lessening of violent deaths. After all, violence is most often used to an end, and if the end can be gained without killing (but with the threat of it) have we become less violent? The lessening of civilian casualties in war is a good example. Major western militaries need the support of a populace that will not react well to large scale deaths, which are hard to hide. Does this mean they are less violent, or that they will hide it better and make the open violence more limited, while ramping up the intimidation.

      This is the basis behind terrorism. Terrorists don’t kill that many people, but they work to make it so that each person is afraid that they will be next, and thus are intimidated… But that’s still violence.

      Pinker seems to have a simplistic way of measuring violence, and the result is that he imagines we are getting better. Sin is not so easily quelled.

      • David Murray

        Good points Stephen. Novel but helpful way of looking at it.