Tag Archives: humanity

The Paradox That is Humanity


Fanatical brutality and altruism. Greed and self-sacrifice. Torture and love. Cruelty and remorse. Care and wickedness. These are the paradoxical traits that make us uniquely human. Many people give of themselves, love unconditionally, exhibit kindness, selflessness and compassion at every turn. And yet, describing the immolation, crucifixions and beheadings of fellow humans by humans as inhuman or “beastial” rather misses the point. While some animals maim and kill their own, and even feast on the spoils, humans have risen above all other species to a pinnacle of barbaric behavior that demands that we all continually reflect on our humanity, both good and evil. Sadly, this is not news: persecution of one group by another is encoded in our DNA.

From the Guardian:

It describes itself as “an inclusive school where gospel values underpin a caring and supporting ethos, manifest in care for each individual”. And I have no reason to doubt it. But one of the questions raised by the popularity of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is whether St Thomas More Catholic School is named after a monster or a saint. With Mantel, gone is the More of heroic humanism popularised by Robert Bolt’s fawning A Man for All Seasons. In its place she reminds us that More was persecutor-in-chief towards those who struggled to see the Bible translated into English and personally responsible for the burning of a number of men who dared question the ultimate authority of the Roman church.

This week’s Wolf Hall episode ended with the death of Middle Temple lawyer James Bainham at Smithfield on 30 April 1532. More tortured Bainham in the Tower of London for questioning the sanctity of Thomas Becket and for speaking out against the financial racket of the doctrine of purgatory that “picked men’s purses”. At first, under the pressure of torture, Bainham recanted his views. But within weeks of being released, Bainham re-asserted them. And so More had him burnt at the stake.

The recent immolation of Jordanian pilot Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh by Islamic State (Isis) brings home the horrendous reality of what this involves. I watched it on the internet. And I wish I hadn’t. I felt voyeuristic and complicit. And though I justified watching on the grounds that I was going to write about it, and thus (apparently) needed to see the truly horrific footage, I don’t think I was right to do so. As well as seeing things that I will never be able to un-see, I felt morally soiled – as if I had done exactly what Isis had wanted me to do. I mean, if no one ever watched this stuff,  they wouldn’t make it.

Afterwards, I wandered down to Smithfield market to get some air. I sat in a posh cafe and tried to picture what the place must have been like when Bainham was killed. Both then and now, death by burning was a staged event, deliberately public, a theatre of cruelty designed for political/religious instruction. In his book on burnings in 16th century England, the historian Eamon Duffy recounts a burning in Dartford in 1555: “‘Thither came … fruiterers wyth horse loades of cherries, and sold them’.” Can you imagine: passing round the cherries as you watch people burn? What sort of creatures are we?

Yes, religion is the common factor here. But if there is no God (as some say) and religion is a purely human phenomenon, then it is humanity that is also in the dock. For when we speak of these acts as “inhuman”, or of the “inhumanity” of Isis, we are surely kidding ourselves: history teaches that human beings are often exactly like this. We are often viciously cruel and without an ounce of pity and, yet, all too often in denial about our basic capacity for wickedness. One cannot be in denial after watching that video.

And yet the thing that it is almost impossible for us to get our heads around is that this capacity for wickedness can also co-exist with an extraordinary capacity for love and care and self-sacrifice. More, of course, is a perfect case in point. As well as being declared a saint, More was famously one of the early humanists, a friend of Erasmus. In his Utopia, he fantasised about a world where people lived together in harmony, with no private property to divide them. He championed female education and (believe it or not) religious toleration.

Robert Bolt may have only reflected one aspect of More’s character, but he did stand up for what he believed in, even to the point of death. And when More was declared a saint in 1935, it was partially a powerful and deliberate witness to German Christians to do the same. And who would have guessed that, within a few years, apparently civilized Europe would return again to the burning of human bodies, this time on an industrial scale. And this time, not in the name of God.

Read the entire article here.

Image: 12th century Byzantine manuscript illustration depicting Byzantine Greeks (Christian/Eastern Orthodox) punishing Cretan Saracens (Muslim) in the 9th century. Courtesy of Madrid Skylitzes / Wikipedia.


Frenemies: The Religious Beheading and The Secular Guillotine

Secular ideologues in the West believe they are on the moral high-ground. The separation of church (and mosque or synagogue) from state is, they believe, the path to a more just, equal and less-violent culture. They will cite example after example in contemporary and recent culture of terrible violence in the name of religious extremism and fundamentalism.

And, yet, step back for a minute from the horrendous stories and images of atrocities wrought by religious fanatics in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Think of the recent histories of fledgling nations in Africa; the ethnic cleansings across much of Central and Eastern Europe — several times over; the egomaniacal tribal terrorists of Central Asia, the brutality of neo-fascists and their socialist bedfellows in Latin America. Delve deeper into these tragic histories — some still unfolding before our very eyes — and you will see a much more complex view of humanity.  Our tribal rivalries know no bounds and our violence towards others is certainly not limited only to the catalyst of religion. Yes, we fight for our religion, but we also fight for territory, politics, resources, nationalism, revenge, poverty, ego.  Soon the coming fights will be about water and food — these will make our wars over belief systems seem rather petty.

Scholar and author Karen Armstrong explores the complexities of religious and secular violence in the broader context of human struggle in her new book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

From the Guardian:

As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century. The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants. Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion. Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logicalsolution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion.

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word dinsignifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.

Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

The myth of religious violence

Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare. Before 1700, it would have been impossible for people to say where, for example, “politics” ended and “religion” began. The Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion but they were also deeply political: Pope Urban II let the knights of Christendom loose on the Muslim world to extend the power of the church eastwards and create a papal monarchy that would control Christian Europe. The Spanish inquisition was a deeply flawed attempt to secure the internal order of Spain after a divisive civil war, at a time when the nation feared an imminent attack by the Ottoman empire. Similarly, the European wars of religion and the thirty years war were certainly exacerbated by the sectarian quarrels of Protestants and Catholics, but their violence reflected the birth pangs of the modern nation-state.

Read the entire article here.

MondayMap: Human History

How does one condense four thousand years of human history into a single view? Well, John Sparks did just that with his histomap in 1931.

From Slate:

This “Histomap,” created by John B. Sparks, was first printed by Rand McNally in 1931. (The David Rumsey Map Collection hosts a fully zoomable version here.) (Update: Click on the image below to arrive at a bigger version.)

This giant, ambitious chart fit neatly with a trend in nonfiction book publishing of the 1920s and 1930s: the “outline,” in which large subjects (the history of the world! every school of philosophy! all of modern physics!) were distilled into a form comprehensible to the most uneducated layman.

The 5-foot-long Histomap was sold for $1 and folded into a green cover, which featured endorsements from historians and reviewers. The chart was advertised as “clear, vivid, and shorn of elaboration,” while at the same time capable of “holding you enthralled” by presenting:

the actual picture of the march of civilization, from the mud huts of the ancients thru the monarchistic glamour of the middle ages to the living panorama of life in present day America.

The chart emphasizes domination, using color to show how the power of various “peoples” (a quasi-racial understanding of the nature of human groups, quite popular at the time) evolved throughout history.

It’s unclear what the width of the colored streams is meant to indicate. In other words, if the Y axis of the chart clearly represents time, what does the X axis represent? Did Sparks see history as a zero-sum game, in which peoples and nations would vie for shares of finite resources? Given the timing of his enterprise—he made this chart between two world wars and at the beginning of a major depression—this might well have been his thinking.

Sparks followed up on the success of this Histomap by publishing at least two more: the Histomap of religion (which I’ve been unable to find online) and the Histomap of evolution.

Read the entire article a check out the zoomable histomap here.

Charting the Rise (and Fall) of Humanity

Rob Wile over at Business Insider has posted a selection of graphs that in his words “will restore your faith in humanity”. This should put many cynics on the defensive — after all, his charts clearly show that conflict is on the decline, and democracy is on the rise. But, look more closely and you’ll see that slavery is still with us, poverty and social injustice abounds, the wealthy are wealthier, conspicuous consumption is rising.

From Business Insider:

Lately, it feels like the news has been dominated by tragedies: natural disasters, evil people, and sometimes just carelessness.

But it would be a mistake to become cynical.

We’ve put together 31 charts that we think will help restore your faith in humanity.

2) Democracy’s in. Autocracy’s out.

3) Slavery is disappearing.

Read the entire article here.

Humanity Becoming “Nicer”

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, lends support to Steven Pinker’s recent arguments that our current era is less violent and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.

[div class=attrib]From Project Syndicate:[end-div]

With daily headlines focusing on war, terrorism, and the abuses of repressive governments, and religious leaders frequently bemoaning declining standards of public and private behavior, it is easy to get the impression that we are witnessing a moral collapse. But I think that we have grounds to be optimistic about the future.

Thirty years ago, I wrote a book called The Expanding Circle, in which I asserted that, historically, the circle of beings to whom we extend moral consideration has widened, first from the tribe to the nation, then to the race or ethnic group, then to all human beings, and, finally, to non-human animals. That, surely, is moral progress.

We might think that evolution leads to the selection of individuals who think only of their own interests, and those of their kin, because genes for such traits would be more likely to spread. But, as I argued then, the development of reason could take us in a different direction.

On the one hand, having a capacity to reason confers an obvious evolutionary advantage, because it makes it possible to solve problems and to plan to avoid dangers, thereby increasing the prospects of survival. Yet, on the other hand, reason is more than a neutral problem-solving tool. It is more like an escalator: once we get on it, we are liable to be taken to places that we never expected to reach. In particular, reason enables us to see that others, previously outside the bounds of our moral view, are like us in relevant respects. Excluding them from the sphere of beings to whom we owe moral consideration can then seem arbitrary, or just plain wrong.

Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature lends weighty support to this view.  Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, draws on recent research in history, psychology, cognitive science, economics, and sociology to argue that our era is less violent, less cruel, and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.

The decline in violence holds for families, neighborhoods, tribes, and states. In essence, humans living today are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than their predecessors in any previous century.

Many people will doubt this claim. Some hold a rosy view of the simpler, supposedly more placid lives of tribal hunter-gatherers relative to our own. But examination of skeletons found at archaeological sites suggests that as many as 15% of prehistoric humans met a violent death at the hands of another person. (For comparison, in the first half of the twentieth century, the two world wars caused a death rate in Europe of not much more than 3%.)

Even those tribal peoples extolled by anthropologists as especially “gentle” – for example, the Semai of Malaysia, the Kung of the Kalahari, and the Central Arctic Inuit – turn out to have murder rates that are, relative to population, comparable to Detroit, which has one of the highest murder rates in the United States. In Europe, your chance of being murdered is now less than one-tenth, and in some countries only one-fiftieth, of what it would have been had you lived 500 years ago.

Pinker accepts that reason is an important factor underlying the trends that he describes. In support of this claim, he refers to the “Flynn Effect” – the remarkable finding by the philosopher James Flynn that since IQ tests were first administered, scores have risen considerably. The average IQ is, by definition, 100; but, to achieve that result, raw test results have to be standardized. If the average teenager today took an IQ test in 1910, he or she would score 130, which would be better than 98% of those taking the test then.

It is not easy to attribute this rise to improved education, because the aspects of the tests on which scores have risen the most do not require a good vocabulary, or even mathematical ability, but instead assess powers of abstract reasoning.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]