Steven Pinker on Violence in the Bible

[For the next few weeks this site will include items from my new blog, Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. About once a week I will also post an entry that deals specifically with theism and atheism. Here’s my latest entry on the Bible blog.]

Steven Pinker, a distinguished professor of psychology, has written a critically acclaimed book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker claims that despite modern media’s emphasis on war and mayhem, over the long run violence has actually decreased. He begins by discussing violence in ancient days, and on p. 10 he talks about the Bible:

“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.”

All of this is easy to prove. But then Pinker claims, more controversially, that in the Bible “Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.” “Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.”

Pinker mentions “atrocitologist” Matthew White who estimates that mass killings which “are specifically enumerated in the Bible” amount to roughly 1.2 million deaths, not counting those who died when God drowned every person on Earth except Noah and his family. White says that would add another 20 million!

How do you react to Pinker’s charges? Is he overdrawing this gory picture? Is the Bible’s picture of God inconsistent? Is there a contradiction between passages that show God as terrifying and aggressive and those that depict deity as loving and merciful? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner

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1 thought on “Steven Pinker on Violence in the Bible

  1. I think that as Steven Pinker is an atheist who doesn’t believe the Bible is true then he shouldn’t be using the Bible to prove his point.

    I was always taught that the Old Testament was a collection of stories about what happened in those times. Obviously as Christian’s we believe that there are things we can learn from these stories, such as God’s nature. However, it doesn’t mean that everything that happens in these stories was condoned by God. Many of the examples could have been to show behaviour that is not acceptable and therefore the consequences of that behaviour. I think Pinker’s book shows a lack of understanding of the Old Testament accounts. On many occasions in the Old Testament the punishment for sin and disobeying God was death. This highlights the change when Jesus dies on the cross and the punishment for our sins is no longer our own death. (This is rather a simplistic explanation but there isn’t the time or the space here to explain in more depth.

    Although I haven’t read Pinker’s book, from this and the review in ‘The Psychologist’ (published by the BPS) it seems that Pinker is measuring the level of violence by the number of victims rather than by the number of people who commit violent acts. I don’t have accurate figures on either but from local and national media it would seem the latter is increasing and may show a different trend?

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