After Macedonia annexed Ancient Greece, Alexander the Great launched a conquest machine that dominated much of the known world. Soon afterward, the Roman Empire spread via military force as far as the British Isles. After Islam developed, holy warriors spread the faith across much of Asia and North Africa. Then the Mongols pillaged a huge swath of territory.
War became more religious when Christian Crusaders attacked Muslims in the Holy Land — and scores of Catholic-Protestant wars erupted in the Counter-Reformation.
Wars of invasion also formed historical patterns. Napoleon waged armed conquest as far as Moscow, killing untold numbers for no real gain. Hitler did likewise, with the same result.
But now, strangely — wonderfully — warfare, especially wars between countries, has almost vanished from the world. Nations rarely attack each other (with the Russia/Ukraine and the Armenia/Azerbaijan conflicts anomalies) even if pockets of civil war remain on this planet.
The end of warfare is a long-sought goal of secular humanism, the progressive struggle to improve life for all people without resort to supernatural religion. What changed in civilization? Why was war once common (and horrible), but now comparatively infrequent? What brought about this magnificent improvement?
In his landmark book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Professor Steven Pinker shows how violence of all sorts dropped incredibly — from a global war death rate of 300 per year per 100,000 during World War II to less than one in the 21st century. Human values are finally modifying. Pinker, the honorary president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has followed up that documentation with his notable book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.
I wonder: Does the rapid erasure of war have any connection to the rapid erasure of religion? Does the relentless advance of human logic factor into these profound changes? Numerous people around the world have lost belief in magical gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, prophecies and the like. Are such people less inclined to plunge into murderous war?
Correlation isn’t causation. When two trends happen together, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one caused the other. All we can say is that two gigantic phenomena are occurring: War is dying and religion is dying. Hallelujah on both counts.
This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared at Daylight Atheism on March 22, 2021.