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Has religion made the world less safe?

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. The world of the New Testament is little better: kings carry out mass infanticide; thieves and activists are punished by being nailed to a cross.

Though most of the events narrated in the Bible almost certainly never happened, historians agree that they reflect the norms and practices of the era. We live in a world that is indisputably less violent than that of our ancestors. Savage practices such as human sacrifice, chattel slavery, blood sports, debtors’ prisons, frivolous executions, religious persecution, and punitive torture and mutilation have been eliminated from most of the world. Less obviously, homicide rates have plummeted over the centuries, and during the past sixty-five years that the rate of death from war has fallen to historically unprecedented lows.

Having documented these declines of violence, I am often asked what role religion has played in this historical progress. Overall it has not been a good one. Many humanitarian reforms, such as the elimination of cruel punishment, the dissemination of empathy-inducing novels, and the abolition of slavery, were met with fierce opposition in their time by church authorities. The conviction that one’s own values are sacred and those of everyone else heretical inflamed the combatants in the European Wars of Religion, the second-bloodiest period in modern Western history, and it continues to inflame partisans in the Middle East and parts of the Islamic world today.
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This essay has been adapted from The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011).



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