Steven Pinker delivered the British Humanist Association’s (BHA’s) annual Voltaire Lecture last night to a packed Congress Hall in central London. His lecture, presenting the argument of his latest bestselling book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was titled The Decline of Violence. The lecture was chaired by BHA President Jim Al-Khalili.
The lecture advanced an optimistic message of how, despite the common perception that we are living in violent times, violence has actually been decreasing throughout the course of recorded human history. This decrease in violence has taken place both within and between societies.
Mentioning Hobbes and Rousseau, who both speculated on what life was like before the establishment of government and social order, when human beings were living in a primitive ‘state of nature’, Steven argued that both had been ‘talking through their hats’, because they had not had the opportunity to observe human beings in this state. In contrast to these thinkers, Steven presented an impressive body of empirical evidence to back up his conclusions.
Steven showed that the decrease in violence from ancient times to the present day can be attributed to a range of factors, not least that as more people become accustomed to rational thinking, and reject irrational prejudices, the justifications for violence against our fellow human beings are undermined, and violence itself declines. This vindicates Voltaire’s famous maxim that ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’. Steven argued that this demonstrates how the growth of Enlightenment values, including Humanism, have helped to make societies behave in a more humane and rational way.
Steven Pinker ended his lecture with a call for all of us to stand up for the things that had made out world a less violent place: enlightenment values, reason, science – and Humanism.
About the British Humanist Association
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.
About the Voltaire Lecture
The Voltaire Lectures Fund was established by the legacy of Theodore Besterman, biographer of Voltaire, for lectures on “any aspect of scientific or philosophical thought or human activity as affected by or with particular reference to humanism.” The British Humanist Association now oversees the fund. Previous Voltaire lecturers have included: Herman Bondi, Bernard Crick, Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew, Michael Foot, Robert Hinde, Ludovic Kennedy, Simon Blackburn, Robin Ince, Kenan Malik, Ray Tallis and Dick Taverne.
About Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Until 2003, he taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of seven books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, and most recently, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.