Steve Pinker answers questions and criticisms about his book

December 11, 2011 • 5:50 am

I’ve recommended Steve’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and, nearly two-thirds of the way through it, my initial enthusiasm has remained.  It’s an engrossing and enlightening read, and of course very well written.  All of us should read it, despite its daunting length.

The book has inspired a lot of discussion—and no small amount of criticism—and Steve has weighed in on some of the commentary.  Over at his website you’ll find “Frequently asked questions about The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

If you’ve read the book (or contemplate reading it, though I’d read it first), do have a look at his thoughtful responses.  Perhaps this exchange will interest readers the most:

Atheist regimes in the 20th century killed tens of millions of people. Doesn’t this show that we were better off in the past, when our political and moral systems were guided by a belief in God?

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 Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.

Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan.  Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism  happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia. See p. 677 for discussion and references.

Third, according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.

Fourth, many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from the Thirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe (p. 142).

When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between thesistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. On pp. 337–338 I present data from Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternatives forms of government.

Now you can argue that Pinker is splitting hairs to argue about proportions of populations rather than actual deaths, although I do think he’s right to do so.  Yes, each individual death is a tragedy, but proportions measure the chance that a given individual in a given society will meet a violent death, and he makes a compelling argument that that chance has declined over time.

But I’m always surprised that religious people equate religiously inspired genocides with those of Hitler, Mao, Stalin and the like.  While the latter may have killed some people because they were religious and hence offended the atheist aspect of state ideology, the vast majority of deaths were not due to atheist leaders’ animosity toward the faithful.  They were due to the leaders’ animosity toward those they perceived as hindering the realization of their totalitarian utopias. The deaths were due almost entirely to ideological animosity—or, in the case of Hitler, to the hatred by those of Christian heritage toward those of the Jewish faith.  And that hatred ultimately came from religious differences.

h/t: Chris

80 thoughts on “Steve Pinker answers questions and criticisms about his book

  1. While [Stalin, Mao] may have killed some people because they were religious and hence offended the atheist aspect of state ideology, the vast majority of deaths were … due to the leaders’ animosity toward those they perceived as hindering the realization of their totalitarian utopias.

    To reinforce that point, the Maoists repressed Tibetan Buddhism even though Tibetan Buddhism was pretty much atheistic.

    That shows that their concern was not theism v atheism, but instead was whether the people accepted communist ideology, coupled with intolerance towards any non-communist loyalties.

    1. IIRC, most of the deaths under communism weren’t deliberate but due to incompetence.

      1. Stalin adopted Lysenkoism and collectivism, and Soviet agriculture, always shakey, didn’t manage to feed a lot of people. The famines are what killed millions of people.

      2. Same thing with Mao. The famines of the late 1950’s killed 20 million. But they were due to incompetence not intentional.

      BTW Lysenkoism is a form of reality denial rather similar to creationism. It shows what can happen when your policies aren’t based on science but on ideology.

      1. raven,

        I don’t think you can tidy away the communist famines as incompetence rather than malice. For a start, incompetence that leads to the deaths of millions of people is culpable incompetence and hardly makes it any better than outright murder.

        Secondly, famine was very much wrapped up in its political usefulness; that is, the famines allowed Stalin and Mao to starve those who were politically resistant. Have a look at the history of the Ukrainian famine known as the Holodomor and it is quite clear that, even though there was agricultural incompetence at work, the Soviets intended to kill as many Ukrainians as they could. Death toll 2.5-7.5 million. The wide error margin itself tells you how little the Soviets gave a damn.

        1. “don’t think you can tidy away the communist famines as incompetence rather than malice.”

          Yeah I can. The point is that Stalin and Mao didn’t starve people because they were atheists. It was commie incompetence with maybe some malice thrown it.

          “For a start, incompetence that leads to the deaths of millions of people is culpable incompetence and hardly makes it any better than outright murder.”

          Sort of true but not really. The difference is in motive and intent. I missed the sentence where I said incompetence that leads to millions of dead people was no big deal. It still has nothing to do with atheism per se.

          1. Communist malice was very much real and extends even further back than Stalin to Lenin. If you have any doubts about this you ought to read Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag.” The work camps were clearly deliberate, industrialized slavery and the outcome was frequently death. This wasn’t due to incompetence, it was a feature of the system.

      1. The earliest forms of Buddhism were a revolt against the Hindu Vedas. It was rudimentary atheism. But yet Buddhism was not completely devoid of supernaturalism. As the religion migrated north to Tibet, it became more mystical.
        The stirrings of secular thought in ancient India and Ionian Greece were nevertheless impressive. We take much of our modern empiricist outlook for granted. But the path to it had to overcome numerous cognitive pitfalls.

  2. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but I find it to be a wonderful, positive, uplifting tome.

    Sad to say, I wonder how many xtian, evangelical, fundamentalists will read the book? About the same number who have ever read their bible from cover to cover?

  3. Relative to the 30 Years War, the percentage of the population of Central Europe that was killed in one way or another exceeds that of either world war of the 20th Century. This despite the fact that the weaponry available to the armies at that time was almost infinitely less lethal than what was available in the 20th Century. One can only be thankful that 20th Century weaponry was not available to Gustavus Adolphus, Count Tilly, and Albrecht von Wallenstein or the entire population of Central Europe might have been wiped out.

  4. We’ll continue to follow the trend Pinker shows and stop fighting one another just in time to be wiped out by Global Warming.

    Sad, really…

  5. Pinker has a quip in chapter one that is a reductio ad absurdum (unintended, though) of measuring gravity in terms of the proportion of total world population killed. He notes (semi-humorously) that when Cain killed Abel he killed 25% of the world’s people. So: huge crime! But if the fraction really matters so much, then it would be equivalent if someone today killed 25% of humanity–1.75 billion people. But it’s (surely) not equivalent–so something’s amiss with the significance he attaches to proportion.

    1. Jean, yes, it does sound a bit incongruous; but if you take Pinker’s measure of a violent society as one in which an individual suffers a greater chance of encountering violence, than the Cain/Abel society really is more violent than Nazi Germany. I think he does have a point, though you have to accept that way of looking at “violence.”

    2. Comparing 4 people with 7 billion is stretching it. Comparing ½ billion with 7 billion does make a bit more sense.
      Or am I missing your point?

    3. The Bible doesn’t say what the world population is at the time of Abel’s death, but it’s clearly greater than four, possibly much greater. Adam and Eve have other children, and after the murder, Cain worries about being killed himself in chance encounters with people who have heard of his crime. He goes to live among the people of Nod, where he takes a wife and founds a city. So clearly there’s a larger society out there beyond his immediate nuclear family.

      1. The story of the three little pigs also says nothing about porcine population at that time. Is there reason to pile further speculation upon obvious legend?

        1. Well, right, of course it’s all fiction to start with. I’m just pointing out that even in its own terms the 25% figure doesn’t make sense, which makes me wonder why Pinker brought it up.

    4. I think “philosophically naive” might be a good label for this argument. Killing 1.75 billion is impossible for one person to do (literally, killing one person a second it would take one person more than a lifetime) whereas killing one person or even 25 could easily be accomplished by one person within a week.

      So 25% of 4 people cannot be compared to 25% of 6 billion simply because of logistics. You really need an army to kill millions of people. It doesn’t make sense to compare this to the homicide rate within a particular society which will be a much better proxy for how violent a society is (internally, obviously).

      Looking at it this way, a state that kills 2,000,000 out of 100,000,000 people is more violent than a state that kills 1,000,000 out of 100,000,000 and a society with a homicide rate of 2% is more violent than a society with a homicide rate of 1%. So comparing comparable cases gives us completely reasonable results that accord with intuition.

  6. i am so sick of people missing the point about communist dictators. mao, stalin, castro, kim; not atheists. why? they attmpted, and imany ways succeeded in replacing worship of jesus with worship of themselves. they are classic studies in cults of personality. “dear leader”? preserving the dead body for public display? whats the diffrence between that and “thelord is my shepard” and saints’ tombs in churchs? Nothing!

    1. While I think you’re right I doubt that this argument will faze any of the religious people who equate communism with atheism. Why? Because they see every world view as variations of their own and think that everyone believes in and worships God: if they don’t believe in and worship the right one, then they have to believe in and worship a wrong one, a false God. Atheists therefore must think THEY are God, and they worship themselves.

      So I’m afraid that pointing out that communists dictators encouraged worship of the communist state or the communist dictator in place of religious worship will just be taken as confirmation that the root problem was indeed atheism, not totalitarian communism.

  7. Western Christians didn’t seem to care about persecution in tsarist Russia when the orthodox church incited, aided & abetted pogroms against Jews, and made life difficult for other religious minorities. Yet when a new regime in Russia targeted orthodox Christians, suddenly Western Christians discovered the immorality of persecution.

    1. Mark Twain wrote a piece called “Reflections on Religion” in 1906 that makes anything by the gnu atheists look tame. On the story of the Russian pogroms, he slated the blame to the Christian leadership of the country, but he was also honest enough to note:

      “I am told that soldiers entered the apartments of the Lapidus brothers, which were crowded with people who had fled from the streets for safety, and ordered the Christians to separate themselves from the Jews. A Christian student named Dikar protested and was killed on the spot. Then all of the Jews were shot.”

      I’m not trying to defend the Russian church, which was a co-instigator in the pogroms, but there will always be Christians who do care and, as in this case, are care enough to take a stand against sectarian violence even at the cost of their own lives.

      One of the recurring themes of sectarian or racial violence is that those in control of the violence are more afraid of “moderates” than of their intended victims, and they go out of their way to kill people of their own identity who object to the violence. It was true in Ireland; it was true in Rwanda; it was true in Russia.

  8. Seems to me violence should include incarceration and starvation. Say Bengal, the Congo and the U.S today. Liberal democracies don’t come off all that great either.

    1. Bengal? Really?

      Well the two Bengals I know of (West Bengal, India) and Bangladesh don’t seem to have very high levels of incarceration. They have their problems, but incarceration and starvation are not on that list.

      1. Circe,

        I think Chuckie K was referring to the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed at least a million, perhaps as many as 3 million, and Churchill’s government did absolutely nothing about it. Admittedly they were in the midst of a world war, but retaining hearts and minds requires making some effort.

  9. Really liked his “first” reason, as it is a good answer for those who want to tar atheism by invoking Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.

    For those who try to tar atheism by invoking Hitler, I’m always just baffled. It doesn’t even make sense. It would be like saying that the problem with Napoleon was that he was a pacifist. WTF?!

    1. For those who try to tar atheism by invoking Hitler, I’m always just baffled. It doesn’t even make sense.

      Well from their point of view, in theist “logic”, it does make a sort of sense: Hitler was bad, atheists are bad, therefore Hitler was an atheist. Christians are good, Hitler was bad, therefore Hitler can’t have been Christian. Of course the evidence says the opposite, but since when has evidence mattered to the religious?

  10. We are making our way thru Pinker’s book and learning a lot. Where we have strong questions in with the notion that ideologies and word based cultural (especially intellectual cultural stuff) causes anything.

    Even if culture was causal rather than trivial, post hoc and epiphenomenal, intellectual and philosophical stuff would seem ways down the list on meaning or causing anything.

    For example, it appears that real fears of starvation and food shortage were more causal of WWII than any ideologies/word stuff.

  11. I guess I’ll have to pick this book up with all of the positive press it’s getting.

    Now, I grow rather tired of being told that atheism is bad because Stalin and Hitler were atheists. It’s silly, because even if they were atheists (and Hitler probably wasn’t) the people following them who actually did the intentional killing were often NOT. The SS wore belt buckles that said “God with us” on them. The majority of Germans were Lutherans or Catholics. And Hitler’s antisemitism was not terribly dissimilar than that Luther fellow, and I doubt it would be possible to call him an atheist with a straight face.

    As was mentioned earlier many of the deaths during Mao and Stalin’s leadership years were the result of devotion to communist ideology, either through poor decisions (Great Leap Forward, Five Year Plans) or to eliminate threats to the communist cause. It seems strikingly religious to me.

    This also asks us to ignore the fact that Christians in Europe had previously been running around merrily slaughtering each other, sometimes over whether or not someone believed the host actually turned into Jesus’s flesh or not. If the popes would’ve had nukes, I don’t think the Middle East would’ve survived The Crusades.

    1. PeteJohn:

      “The SS wore belt buckles that said “God with us” on them”

      No. It was the Wehrmacht soldiers who had Gott mit uns on their their belt buckles, the Waffen SS had Meine Ehre heißt Treue [‘My honour is loyalty’]

    2. Your last point, about nuclear weapons, touches on one of the real factors in the number of fatalities in a war- the technology for killing available.

      When the Crusades were occurring, in order to kill an enemy soldier you had to stab him with a sword (getting quite close) or shoot him with an arrow. In order to kill a bunch of prisoners, you needed to set up the nooses for hanging them, or the stakes for burning them, or the blocks for chopping their heads off, ect. All of those things require a relatively high amount of energy per death from the person doing the killing.

      By comparison, the Nazis had tanks, airplanes, artillery guns and rockets, and machine guns, all of which require a very low amount of energy from the person doing the killing- usually just pulling a trigger or pushing a button. For executing prisoners, they could simply push a huge group into a room and open a valve to flood the room with poison gas.

      So the argument that fewer people were killed in previous centuries instantly falls flat- the only reason it’s true is that in previous centuries you had to work harder to kill large numbers of people at one time. Had the warmongers of previous centuries had access to 20th Century methods of destruction, they certainly would have used them.

          1. At last!
            My parents have finally been proven provident in their “investment”.
            My Math Degree has finally “paid off”! 😉

            See kiddies; this is what can come from 4 years of very confusing “study”, lectures at ungodly hours (11am? What’s all that about?), attending protests about “something” (Whadda we want? When da we want it? “Thingty!”), entirely failing to “get off” with several partners-of-choice, and attending the bar. (Not a degree in Law, but a degree proof).

  12. Well said Jerry. Historically speaking, all conflicts and conquests have been for political (including population expansion) and religious power. Nowhere has atheism sponsored human conflict that I can think of.

  13. Of course, Stalin and Mao just happened to be atheists who caused hardships for other reasons involving totalitarianism and political/economic ideology. But if they want to blame atheism for Stalin and Mao’s failures we could just as easily blame the xians for all the Western wars including WWI and WWII.

    Xians started both world wars and fought on both sides. It’s all the xians fault. Same thing with the US civil war.

    In fact most of the wars in the history of Western civilization from the fall of Rome (invaded by Arian Germanic xians) on to Iraq and Libya are the fault of…xians.

    1. In fact, if you read some of the new histories of WWII, which was solely between Germany and Russia, you may have empathy for both monsters who were frantically trying to feed their rapidly industrializing and growing city populations while country folks were holding back much needed food for their countrymen, eg, the kulaks.

      If Stalin hadn’t mass murdered to industrialized Russia, a lot of folks would be speaking German.

      Also, murdering other ethnic groups was standard operating procedure in Europe at the dissolution of the Austro-Hunarian and Turkish empires post WWI.

      4 out of 5 germane soldiers died in Russia. Starvation was the main cause of death in WWII.

      England did a lot to defeat Hitler. America, almost nothing.

      1. Sleeprunning, this is just an act, right?
        A deadpan parody of channelling Radio Gori on your bridgework, right? Because, surely, no one can get history this wrong without wanting to.
        Not the monstrous absurdity of justifying Stalin’s wholesale extermination of the kulak.
        Not the monstrous absurdity of equating Soviet forced industrialisation with resistance to Hitler’s aggression.
        Et cetera.

        For example’s sake, just one more point: what on Earth gave you the absurd impression that “murdering other ethnic groups was standard operating procedure in Europe at the dissolution of the Austro-Hun[g]arian empire”?

        1. Read Bloodlands

          and and the

          also The Taste of War

          The kulaks and other farmers were withholding food from the growing cities, rightly or wrongly.. If Russia had not hyper-industrialized in very few years Hitler would have won, as Germany did in WWI.

          Starting with Armenian concentration camps, after the breakdown of order after WWI, the institutional structures for managing the rapidly growing inter-ethinc cities and strife had been destroyed in WWI. Remember that’s the reason WWI started, inter-ethnic murder in Serbia and the Balkans, duh.

          There is also a wonderful series of lectures –History 5 at Berkeley, laying this out. These are not our ideas or scholarship.

          The German army consumed most of the calories in Germany. There was not enough farmland and transportation was horrible. Most people were killed by their fellow countrymen — mainly thru starvation and bullets to the head. But bullets are expensive.

          Apparently most herded their neighbors into fields and left them with no food, shelter or water.

          What would any leader do with these impossible challenges. Threatened starvation quickly destroys civilization.

          However, it appears you like moralizing ideology and insults rather than cites or facts. Predictable.

          1. Suit yourself. If you want to believe that, you may believe anything.

            To be specific:
            1. I asked about your allegation regarding ethnocides as “standard operating procedure” at the “dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire”. Facts, please?
            2. The Armenian genocide took place while the Ottoman empire was still in full strength, not after its dissolution. And certainly not at the end of WWI. Check your facts.
            3. “What would any leader do with these impossible challenges. Threatened starvation quickly destroys civilization.”
            Are you talking about Stalin, by any chance? Do you have the slightest idea about the causes of famines in post-revolutionary Russia and Ukraine?

            Oh, and about “that’s the reason WWI started, inter-ethnic murder in Serbia and the Balkans, duh.” Referring to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914? Sarajevo wasn’t, and is not, in Serbia, describing the assassination of the Archduke as “inter-ethnic murder” is staggeringly misleading, and while Sarajevo ignited the sequence of diplomatic measures and military counter-measures leading to the declaration of war, it was not, in any deeper sense, “the reason WWI started”.

            Disentangling timelines and geography would help.

            1. Try this.

              – Comment less read more
              – Read Bloodlands, eg,

              “The origins of the Nazi and the Soviet regimes, and of their encounter in the bloodlands, lie in the First World War of 1914-1918. The war broke the old land empires of Europe, while inspiring dreams of new ones. It replaced the dynastic principle of rule by emperors with the fragile idea of popular sovereignty. It showed that millions of men would obey orders to fight and die, for causes abstract and distant, in the name of homelands that were already ceasing to be or only coming into being. New states were created from virtually nothing, and large groups of civilians were moved or eliminated by the application of simple techniques. More than a million Armenians were killed by Ottoman authorities. Germans and Jews were deported by the Russian Empire. Bulgarians, Greeks, and Turks were exchanged among national states after the war. Just as important, the war shattered an integrated global economy. No adult European alive in 1914 would ever see the restoration of comparable free trade; most European adults alive in 1914 would not enjoy comparable levels of prosperity during the rest of their lives. The essence of the First World War was the armed conflict between, on the one side, the German Empire, the Habsburg monarchy, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria (“the Central Powers”) and, on the other side, France, the Russian Empire, Great Britain, Italy, Serbia, and the United States (“the Entente Powers”). The victory of the Entente Powers in 1918 brought an end to three European land empires: the Habsburg, German, and Ottoman. By the terms of the postwar settlements of Versailles, St. Germain, Sèvres, and Trianon, multinational domains were replaced by national states, and monarchies by democratic republics. The European great powers that were not destroyed by the war, Britain and especially France, were substantially weakened. Among the victors, the illusion after 1918 was that life might somehow return to its course before the war. Among the revolutionaries who hoped to lead the defeated, the dream was that the bloodshed could legitimate further radical transformations, which could impart meaning to the war and undo its damage.”

              Snyder, Timothy (2010-10-12). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (pp. 2-3). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

              1. The way you are quoting from ‘Bloodlands’ gives little indication that you, or Sleeprunning, have actually read it. Not in the sense of comprehending and digesting it. Certainly, to judge from your comment, not in the sense of being able to integrate the reading in a specific historical context.
                But that is perhaps asking too much, seeing that you throw a lengthy chunk from Snyder’s introduction at me without answering the specific points raised in 1. and 3. (if you ever get around to really reading Snyder’s book, you’ll see that quoting his aperçu in that context is, for your argument, rather self-defeating), and without even realising that Snyder also brings up the Armenian genocide in the sense of my correction of Sleeprunning’s gross factual error pointed out in 2.
                I dare not, like you, recommend that you read more. Or less. But whatever you do, try to grasp what you read, it’s worth it.

      2. SR quote:

        “England did a lot to defeat Hitler. America, almost nothing”

        No! How can you get something as basic as that so wrong?

        1] Replace “England” with “Great Britain”
        2] The speed with which the U.S.A. & Canada retooled to go from the production of doodads to an industrial war machine spewing out ‘planes, ships, tanks, guns & ammo was one of the wonders of the last century. Astonishing. Without this & the men to use the machines there would have been no D-Day & no victory in the West. We would now all be Soviets or Nazis [or never born].

        1. 4 out of 5 German soldiers died in Russia. The US didn’t even want to send aid to Russia. Britain barely could. The Russian equipment was the only equipment superior to the Germans.

          The Russian civilian death was in the tens of millions.

          US self-serving ideology about the German war if not only dishonest but deeply disrespectful for the people who saved Europe and perhaps us.

          The Japanese War was different.

          Wave the flag all you want, but lives are facts.

          1. I’m from the UK of Irish descent ~ so what flag am I waving? The US wasn’t engaged in total war because it didn’t need to. Great Britain was on more of a war footing than the U.S. with our military personnel doing multiple tours for six years rather than rotating home after a year.

            The Eastern front was absolute total war with no quarter. In one two-day battle (for example) the Russians lost more aircraft in the air than the RAF did in the whole 3-month Battle of Britain.

            So I know what you’re talking about. However “England did a lot to defeat Hitler. America, almost nothing” is RONG for the reasons already given.

            1. Any silly flag will do. There are no facts to support your claims.

              American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed, leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives. It is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler’s crimes has taken just as long.

              Snyder, Timothy (2010-10-12). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin . Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

              1. You are on a different hobby horse to me & you use words to mean different things to what I do. We are at cross purposes. I wasn’t comparing nation-by-nation % loss of life & you are. I’m talking about industrial might ~ The Americans were essential to a victory in the West. The North American contribution to the European theatre [inc. the longest campaign ~ The Battle of the Atlantic] made it possible to have a D-Day. End of.

              2. “American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed… they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler’s crimes has taken just as long.”

                What is that supposed to mean? Are you deliberately ignoring the amount of eye-witness evidence accumulated thoughout the war, and reaching the Allies in greater quantity and depth than they could digest? Any idea when preparations for the Nuremberg Tribunal started, and why?

              3. Am I right in thinking that your one and only source for this is bloodlands? You quote it extensively, but cite no other source and show no indication of having read anything else on the subject.

              4. Are you kidding?

                First, I haven’t put forth any statements that would need citations.

                Second, are you saying we should just believe
                everything we read without question? Not only is analyzing sources not dishonest, it is absolutely essential to figuring out how valid the supposed facts really are. If the source is unreliable, or contradicted by multiple other, more reliable sources, then the supposed facts cannot be trusted.

              5. lolwut? I have no idea what you are talking about anymore. What does conspiracies, cats, or aliens have anything to do with anything?

                There are good sources of information, and there are bad sources of information. Even good sources can be wrong, misunderstood, or misrepresented.

                Are you seriously arguing that validating sources is equivalent to a conspiracy theory? If so I know exactly how much weight to put on your statements.

      3. A lot of that mass murdering was completely unrelated to trying to modernize Russia.

        Stalin placed ideology above all else. He rejected Mendelian genetics as too capitalist and instead bought into Lysenko’s bottle of snake oil, which resulted in a major disaster for Russia’s food production ability.

        He was also paranoid about the possibility of the military trying to overthrow him and thus used loyalty to him as the only factor in promoting officers in the Soviet army, leading to it being stuffed with completely incompetent sycophants leading soldiers who were barely equipped and barely trained. Much of the Soviet military strategy during the war involved simply attempting to overwhelm the Germans with numbers, something that WW1 had shown was a recipe for a bloodbath given that the other side had machine guns.

        1. Personalities are likely trivial to these kind of mega events. In addition, we fetishize great man theories — they are easy for our brains to understand.

          Food shortages and starvation drove WWII it look like. Nations, leaders and cultures struggled to just stay alive and not starve.

          Tragic, yes. Inhuman? No. Starvation has been a horror of human existence forever. Let’s hope it never is again.

          1. Um, no dude, quite a bit of Russia’s problems under Stalin’s rule and immediately afterword were directly because of, not in spite of, Stalin’s policies of governing the country.

            When you have a controlled economy and the guy in control doesn’t have the slightest idea how to manage an economy, any resulting problems can be absolutely said to be his fault. Especially when most of that damage was caused by outright malice rather than simple carelessness.

            1. Thanks to Rich and Co. for some support.

              This is simple. Your population is growing rapidly and urbanizing. Masses of peo-le are moving off of the farms and coming to your cities — mainly to find food.

              Transportation and the economy are in shambles. A world war has just ended destroying pretty much all infrastructure and governance and social institutions. The only institution left is, effectively, the Army.

              Your Army has been defeated. Because of boundary disputes neighbors are taking your territory or you are defensively threatening to do the same.

              Mainly, people are starving. Remember the Russians revolution started with housewife bread riots. Or that’s probably news to you.

              If you are starving and competing for food. Using force is necessary, no one will give you their food so they starve.

              So what do the morally superior commentators here do?

              Its sounds like mainly they deny the terrible realities and paper them over with moralizing ans simplistic ideologies. They also do no reading and study of anything that might challenge their views and ideas. Predictable.

          2. Stalin adopted policies that insured famine would be the result and kept pursuing them long after it had become clear that they were nothing but disasters for his country. Trying to say that there have been other famines before doesn’t excuse anything he did.

    2. In relation to Pinker’s point number 2, and your point, Richard Evan’s in his third volume of his history, points out in another context that the large majority (approx. 90%) of Germans were either Protestants or Catholics. (Sorry, I’ll have to look for the citation tomorrow.) The point here is that whether or not Nazism was atheist (which it wasn’t), the vast majority of Germans weren’t. Unless, you believe in the Svengali theory of German accountability, you have to accept that Christian Germans committed caused most of the deaths attributed to Nazis.

  14. Yep, great response. Copied, pasted and saved.

    I’ve always thrown something along roughly similar lines at the standard atheist = Nazi/Marxist apologetics.

    It doesn’t really matter whether Hitler, Stalin and their ilk were atheists, agnostics or devout. Their political ideologies were as fundamentalist, unrealistic and dogmatic as any apocalyptic faith we can imagine today; their governance was totalitarian, dictatorial and as brutally repressive of dissent as much as any Inquisition or witch-hunt we can recall. The enemy of National Socialism or Stalinist Communism wasn’t God or the church (except perhaps as an organising tool), it was deviation from the Path, denial of the Truth and disrespect of the Leader, who all-too-commonly portrayed himself as the Saviour of the people, come to lead them to glory and dominion.

    Regardless of the presence or lack of spiritual content, the 20th century monsters commonly called “atheist” shared the ideological traits and repressive behaviour of every theocracy and god-anointed kingdom that preceded them. If those who sought to tar atheists with the brush of Nazism looked just a little deeper into their accusations, they’d see their own history (possibly their present) staring back at them (perhaps that’s why they barely scratch the surface).

    As an aside I agree that the mention of proportions of massacred people is worth mentioning. It’s not difficult at all to imagine the Vatican using napalm, carpet-bombing and Zyklon-B on heretics had they had access to them during the Inquisition (ditto the Israelites during their Old Testament massacres and genocides). It was an accident of history – a peculiar confluence of local and world politics and technological progress that allowed Stalin, Hitler et al to rise to power and wreak the havoc that they did. They certainly weren’t the first leaders in history to demonise and attempt to exterminate every last one of their enemy using every means available to them, and it’s a fatuous, ahistorical lie to suggest they were special, extra-evil cases, purely by virtue of their (alleged) non-belief.

  15. Interesting to see his replies to many of the criticisms, but Pinker still misses the point on the timescales of the “top 100 atrocities”.

    The only sensible measure is the probability of a randomly chosen individual dying violently. This means that you have to standardise by both the size of the population *and* by the number of generations (with a minimum of one). This was pointed out by 2 or 3 of us on an earlier thread.

    1. …And by the gross nature of of the weaponry, and by the population who can be coerced into dying. et cetera.
      The equation is very much multi-dimensional, and (apart from the mathematical geometric nature of the calculations), I think the Steven gets it about correct.

      1. The point is that the denominator should be the number of distinct individuals alive over the period of the atrocity, not the number alive at one specific time point like the start of it. This makes very little difference between 1 year and 5 years, but a big difference between 20 years and 100 years.

  16. Nothing atheist about old Adolf!

    See for multiple religious statements by AH, including this gem:

    “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith.”

  17. Atheism is an odd category which lumps people together according to a claim which they DON’T accept.

    If I am to be lumped with Stalin even though this claim which we both don’t believe is the only thing we have in common then the following should also work.

    The Nazis, the crusaders and the Taliban are all non-communists and are all thoroughly bad, therefore the USA is equally bad since it is also non-communist.

    Clearly makes no sense but the logic is the same.

  18. One helpful way to halt the comparison between the casualties caused by religious versus non-religious tyrants and their regimes is to simply push for a definition of religion that doesn’t require theism as a necessary component.

    The argument goes something like this:
    ‘What makes something religious is its strict adherence to some set of sacred ideals which are seen to be beyond questioning. Whether they’re the ideals of Marxism or Muhammad is incidental. When dogma serves as a point of reference in a belief, it is a religious rather than secular belief.

    I somewhat clumsily suggest that Humanism can also be considered a religion, compared to atheism which certainly cannot, in a recent blog post:

  19. Overall very nice, but I was sorry to see Pinker repeating the smear that totalitarianism was due to the ideas of Marx. That idea is no better than old Cold War propaganda.

  20. When this book was first released, I was very intrigued by the premise. It’d be hard for me not to, given the fact that I live in northern Mexico, which of late has been rapidly spiraling into previously unheard levels of violence.

    Perhaps the apparent severity of the violence in my country is just an illusion, I thought. Maybe I just read too many news reports (or maybe it’s just those silly bullet holes that were left behind from a drive by shooting in my parents’ once quiet, middle class neighborhood).

    But as I pondered about the implications of what Pinker was proposing, something didn’t seem right. Having just read two books about the Congo, there were at least two lingering thoughts in my mind: “Rwandan Genocide” and “Congo Wars”. Both incredibly brutal (by any standard), and very recent.

    I thought that Pinker would’ve come up with some very sophisticated insights about these events, but as I learned from reading this well documented rebuttal (, he apparently did not.

    Granted, I haven’t read the book yet and it is thus quite possible that I’m criticizing something which he did properly address in it, but from reading the article that I linked above, I get the distinct impression that Pinker wrote his book from a very ethnocentric perspective. It also seems to me that his grasp of history is very poor (despite his strong credentials in Psychology) and that this book could well have been titled “Why violence has declined (in the United States)”.

Leave a Reply