The quest for a nonviolent religion

Sep 27, 2018 by

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The good news is human beings are a lot less violent today than at any other time in human history. The bad news is religion has been — and continues to be — a major contributor to violence.

Those are a couple of the points that I gleaned from reading Steven Pinker’s important and optimistic book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and he has amassed a mountain of statistics and charts demonstrating something that may seem counter-intuitive: human beings have become progressively less violent throughout history: from hunting-gathering societies, to agrarian-based city-states, to empires, to democracies.

Even in the past 50 years there has been an overall dramatic decline in war-related deaths, crime and violence toward women and animals. Obviously the progress is not a straight line; it contains many dips and fluctuations. It is also possible that catastrophic chaos may yet lie ahead. But the discernible trend is toward less violence in a wide range of categories, and people alive today have less of a chance of dying a violent death than at any other time in human history.

What accounts for this remarkable progress? Pinker credits several factors, the first being the rise of centralized governments: “A state that uses a monopoly of force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence-reducer that we have encountered.” Other key factors include the spread of commerce, feminization (women having more power), an expanding circle of sympathy (aided by literacy, novels and cosmopolitanism) and the rise of reason (aided by education).

What’s missing from this list is the influence of religion. According to Pinker, religion hasn’t helped much at all — on the contrary, it’s the primary culprit causing violence. After an unflinching analysis of the violent history of the world’s religions, he concludes that religion has caused far more harm than it has prevented. Of course, violence has other causes as well: codes of honor and vengeance, ignorance and fanatical ideologies. Pinker believes that any system that presumes a holier-than-thou morality is a problem. “The world has far too much morality,” he says. “If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.” That’s probably true.

And yet, Pinker’s analysis of religion is one-sided. He under-appreciates the many religious texts (of many religions) that urge the doing of justice and acts of compassion, and the effect those teachings have had. He makes passing reference to people such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but fails to give them their due influence in reducing violence while striving for more justice. Most troubling to me, he dismisses the very positive — even essential — role religious-based communities have had. A variety of studies suggest that many religious communities successfully nurture altruistic behavior, and that without a spiritual basis, the ideals upon which a society stands are weakened. Pinker thinks the way forward for humanity is through reason alone — a stance that I find shallow and naive.

Nevertheless, Pinker makes a very valid point. According to various polls, religious people in the United States (in particular white evangelicals, but other groups as well) are more favorable toward war and the use of torture than are nonreligious people in this country. That is a startling statistic that reveals how religion is easily hijacked by fear-based tribal impulses. As researcher Jonathan Haidt would say, religion binds us together, but it also blinds us. The violent attitudes of many religious people (Christian or otherwise) has devastated the credibility of all religion in the eyes of a growing number of people (the “nones” in our society).

For a particular religion to have credibility today and into the future, and for it to contribute to this great human movement toward more equality and reduced violence, it will need to be committed to nonviolence as a primary and guiding value. A trajectory toward nonviolence should be a fundamental moral principle for evaluating the validity of any religion. The more a religion promotes nonviolence and human well-being, the more valid that religion potentially is.

Some religions — such as my own — have a commitment to pacifism. As much as nonviolence is Pinker’s moral polestar, he does not regard pacifism as the best option for reducing violence. “Only preachers and pop singers profess that violence will someday vanish off the face of the earth. A measured degree of violence, even if only held in reserve, will always be necessary in the form of police forces and armies to deter predation or to incapacitate those who cannot be deterred.” I agree. But here is another constructive role a religious community can play that Pinker overlooks: the minority witness that lives out an ideal, perhaps influencing and pulling society closer to the ideal, even if society as a whole can never entirely reach it.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois. He blogs at, where this post first appeared.

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