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The End of World Violence?

October 5, 2011

Sam Harris for the Book Beast:

Steve’s new book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Reviewing it for The New York Times Book Review, the philosopher Peter Singer called it “a supremely important book.”

I suspect that when most people hear the thesis of your book—that human violence has steadily declined—they are skeptical: wasn’t the 20th century the most violent in history?

Probably not. Data from previous centuries are far less complete, but the existing estimates of death tolls, when calculated as a proportion of the world’s population at the time, show at least nine atrocities before the 20th century (that we know of) that may have been worse than World War II. They arose from collapsing empires, horse tribe invasions, the slave trade, and the annihilation of native peoples, with wars of religion close behind. World War I doesn’t even make the top 10.

Also, a century comprises 100 years, not just 50, and the second half of the 20th century was host to a Long Peace among great powers and developed nations (the subject of one of the book’s chapters) and more recently, to a New Peace in the rest of the world (the subject of another chapter), with unusually low rates of warfare.

Need I remind you that the “atheist regimes” of the 20th century killed tens of millions of people?

This is a popular argument among theoconservatives and critics of the new atheism, but for many reasons it is historically inaccurate.

First, the premise that Nazism and communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. [More]

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