Harvard psychologist's assessment of the world today might shock you

Posted August 11

Despite the hand-wringing that has unfolded in some circles over the current state of our culture — and increased fears over the Islamic State's ongoing rash of terror — a prominent psychologist says the world might not be so awful after all.

Or, at the least, he believes that it isn't necessarily worsening, as some assume.

Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist who teaches at Harvard University, recently told the Berggruen Institute, a think tank that focuses on politics and governance, that violence is actually on the decline, globally speaking.

He argued that the world appears to be moving in a more peaceful direction on a variety of fronts, with health and goodness taking more prominent cultural roles.

"A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness, is what I believe we are seeing currently," Pinker said, according to a transcript published by The Huffington Post.

He previously discussed these issues in his 2011 book titled, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," as well.

As for his theory about the overarching decrease in international violence, Pinker pointed to changing values, globalization and amendments in the tactics and tone of international organizations to try to explain this purported shift.

"Countries are more enmeshed, so their welfare is directly impacted by the welfare of another state," Pinker said. "The incentives for conquest and invasion have been outnumbered by the incentives to make business — what that means is that a person alive is worth more to me than a dead one, or buying a good is easier than stealing one."

He repeatedly said that humanism has become a theme across the globe, citing efforts to help foster good health for women and kids. And with each country having its own language and land, many of the wars that were once fought over nationalism or religion, among other factors, are also not unfolding as rampantly.

The United Nations, the African Union and the European Union now rule overwhelmingly by "soft power," Pinker added, explaining that there's now an increased sense that conquering other countries isn't necessarily the way to go.

"When I say global though, it does not mean that it has taken over the entire planet," he said. "Since we are tribal creatures, there is always a temptation to backslide."

With this caveat, Pinker said there are also some important elements worth considering, including the notion that international violence is only one part of the equation, as "ordinary crime" and "institutional crime" must also be assessed.

"All discussion about violence must keep ordinary crime in mind," Pinker said. "Here, there has also been a crass decline — the rate of crimes committed has dropped significantly ever since the Middle Ages, saw a spark again around the 1960s, but since 1990 has been dropping and dropping."

Pinker told NPR last month that certain forms of violence have "gone up over the last five years" due to the Syrian civil war and a "small increase" in the homicide rate in the U.S. over the past three years. But, again, he said that these latter figures are still lower than in past decades.

As for institutional violence, which the psychologist described as corporal — or physical — punishment, capital punishment and the criminalization of homosexuality, among other related social occurrences, Pinker said that "this has declined significantly" in the West.

Despite these changes, Pinker is unsure of whether the trend could be reversed at some point, noting that societal changes could certainly breed a trend away from the humanism that he believes is unfolding of late.

He also noted that there have been some setbacks with groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram, but that the progress society made between the 1970s-1990s away from violence "has not been wiped out."

"The civil wars we see are mainly in an area that spans from western Sub-Saharan Africa to Pakistan," he said, calling for confidence that continued progress is possible. "Of course, the standards we have set are reversible — diseases can come back, religion can, and has already, led back to war."

You can read the rest of Pinker's comments here.

While the psychologist is proclaiming society is making a more positive trend toward humanism, there have been many warnings of late from faith leaders who see the situation quite differently.

Speaking specifically about the U.S., Christian apologist and preacher Ravi Zacharias recently warned that American culture is "at the cliff’s precipitous edge and the fall could be long and deadly."

"We have a deep crisis of the soul that is killing us morally and we have no recourse," Zacharias wrote. "We have no recourse because the only cure has been disparaged and mocked by the elite and the powerful."

Others have shared similar sentiments as well, painting a stark contrast to some of Pinker's comments about where we currently stand. For many people of faith, certain cultural changes pose concerns, specifically when it comes to the claim that faith is losing its footing in the broader culture.

It shouldn't be too surprising, though, that religious leaders might not line up with Pinker, as the psychologist has publicly discussed his atheism.

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