Tag Archives: Barbarism

Civilisation and Barbarism

November 2015 Pulse

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker argues that “violence has been in decline for long stretches of time” and that “we may be living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence.”

Describing the 800-page tome as a “masterly achievement”, the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer declares that not only has Pinker convincingly demonstrated “that there has been a decline in violence”, he is also “persuasive about its causes”. The establishment media in the USA has also welcomed Better Angels, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

However, Pinker’s bold statements and his almost nonchalant narrative of progress have been subjected to sharp criticisms by social scientists and historians. Pinker’s assumptions about human nature and his philosophical commitments must also be subjected to rigorous theological evaluation.

Pinker argues that since 1945, the “great powers” that fought each other in the Second World War have not made war with each other. While this is basically correct, Pinker goes on to make the highly dubious claim that not only have the democracies avoided disputes with each other, they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board”.

Pinker appears to have ignored the numerous and devastating wars conducted by his own country since 1945: in North and South Korea (1950 – 1953), Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (1854 -1975), and more recently in Iraq (1990 till present) and Afghanistan (2001 till present). If we add to the list the numerous assassinations, sanctions, bombings and invasions conducted by the USA post-1945, the ludicrousness of Pinker’s assertion is magnified.

That Pinker’s discussion on violence in the book is skewed is clearly evidenced in his treatment of the Vietnam War. Ever the enemy of communism, Pinker lays the devastation and the carnage of Vietnam firmly on the shoulders of the communist regimes “that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents”.

But Pinker offers no critique of the violence and aggression of the invaders. Nor does he reflect on how one of the “great democracies” can so seriously violate the laws of war by waging a war on a distant land that claimed the lives of more than 800,000 civilians. Also absent from Pinker’s account is the unconscionable use of chemical warfare by the U.S. (1961-1970) and the three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, that suffered from the toxic effects of the chemicals as a result.

Some commentators have rightly discerned that Better Angels is a patriotic re-writing of history and the use of sources that would aid this re- writing. An evidence of this is Pinker’s use of statistics. For example, he prefers to rely on the report published by the Iraq Body Count (IBC) which suggests that 53,373 Iraqis died from violence between March 2003 and July 2006, instead of the more authoritative study by Johns Hopkins which reported a death toll that is eleven times higher at 601,000.

But his patriotism aside, Pinker’s revisionism is chiefly inspired by
two important ideologies that have shaped his entire intellectual outlook: liberal humanism and Darwinian evolutionism.

Pinker argues that it was the “coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment” that put an end to the influence of “violent institutions”. Among the many patron saints of the Enlightenment, Pinker names Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, Hume, and John Stuart Mill.

The broad brush with which Pinker paints obscures the fact that apart from some broadly shared assumptions, we cannot say that these disparate thinkers have engendered anything like a “coherent philosophy”.

And we most definitely cannot insist, as Pinker does, that these Enlightenment rationalists and their followers categorically rejected the use of violence for social transformation. Think of the Jacobins and their Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, who were responsible for innumerable beheadings and other acts of violence.

Pinker’s commitment to evolutionary theory has led him to entertain the possibility that “in recent history Homo Sapiens has literally evolved to become less violent in the biologist’s technical sense of a change in our genome.” Evolution has caused “the better angels of our nature” to emerge (an expression which Pinker borrowed from Abraham Lincoln).

These assumptions must be challenged from the standpoint of Christian anthropology, especially its doctrine of sin, which presents a more realistic assessment of the human condition. According to the Christian tradition, although fallen human beings continue to be bearers of the divine image, that image is distorted and defaced because of sin.

The idea of progress promoted by liberal humanism is a myth. Human beings will always be seriously flawed, and even the most civilised society is capable of barbarism.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

The Limits of Freedom

October 2015 Pulse

On a chilly January morning this year, two heavily-armed Islamic terrorists barged into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and fired 50 shots, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) in an attack that was a violent retaliation to the weekly’s denigrating cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Charlie Hebdo incident has sparked one of the most ferocious debates in recent memory on the most sacrosanct of all human rights in Western societies, namely, the freedom of speech – and its corollary, the freedom of the press.

In response to the horrific massacre, French President François Hollande reportedly said: “An act of exceptional barbarism has just been committed here in Paris against a newspaper – a newspaper, i.e. the expression of freedom – and against journalists who had always wanted to show that in France they could always work to uphold their ideas and to enjoy the very freedom the Republic protects.”

While it is inconceivable that anyone would endorse the unconscionable and murderous brutality of the terrorists, Hollande’s defence of an unbridled exercise of freedom must be subjected to interrogation and criticism.

At the heart of the debate on freedom, especially freedom of speech, is whether there are or should be limits. Are there certain things that cannot be said, or circumstances in which things cannot be said?

Without doubt, the clearest articulation of freedom of expression as a basic human right is found in Article 19 of the 1947 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In Western societies, freedom of expression and that of the press are deemed indispensable for the ‘three Ds’: Development, Democracy and Dialogue. Once freedom is constrained, these ‘three Ds’ – so important to progress and human flourishing – would also be greatly hampered.

However, to champion the freedom of expression is surely not to suggest that its exercise is unlimited. There is something incredibly naïve – even vulgar – about the insistence on the right to exercise unbridled freedom that has reverberated in the heated rhetoric surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The fundamental issue in the Charlie Hebdo incident concerning freedom of speech, then, is that a distortion has been inadvertently created because the importance of this basic right has been exaggerated.

Such exaggerations are not just the predilection of the French. It is given voice by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who in his Declaration of Independence wrote that “the freedom of speech is the greatest good in a free democratic society and prevails over the other constitutional rights”.

But freedom can never be the only or the greatest virtue, and its protection cannot mean that other equally important virtues without which society cannot hold – like truth, justice and respect – must be set aside.

Respecting the right of individuals to express their views does not mean that society should no longer be concerned for the truth, for what is right and wrong. Without a moral compass, the diversity of opinions and viewpoints expressed in freedom will become nothing but ‘noise’. And the very truth that the freedom of speech is supposed to help society arrive at will be obfuscated by such ‘noise’.

Similarly, the emphasis on the basic human right to free speech must be placed alongside the equally important imperative that we respect the beliefs of others. Respect for freedom of expression and respect for the religious beliefs and symbols of others are not in conflict but work together for the common good.

Thus, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states that
“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

Put differently, there are limits to the exercise of freedom. And it is only in recognising that boundaries are intrinsic elements to freedom, and that human relationships must also be shaped by other virtues, that society can truly flourish.

Charlie Hebdo has clearly transgressed those limits.

Perhaps our understanding of the meaning of freedom would deepen and mature when we appeal to not just the language of rights but also the language of responsibility. When this happens, freedom is not seen only as our basic right to do as we please or say what we want.

When the language of responsibility is commandeered, our understanding of freedom becomes other-oriented instead of self-centred: we are freed from our own self- absorption, and we begin to learn to love, respect and serve our neighbour with our freedom.

This basic Christian understanding of freedom – as freedom from sin and freedom for service – will surely add depth to the sometimes superficial secular accounts of liberty inspired by an atomised individualism.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Entertaining Satan

December 2014 Pulse

In May this year, about 50 members of the Satanic Temple dressed in black ropes held a black mass at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to the BBC report, dated 19 May 2014, the satanists wanted to conduct the ceremony on the Harvard campus itself, but was forced to relocate because a Harvard campus group pulled its support.

A statement issued by the Archdiocese of Boston warns of the ‘danger of being naïve about or underestimating the power of Satan’. ‘This activity’, it continues, referring to satanism, ‘separates people from God and the human community, it is contrary to charity and goodness, and it places participants dangerously close to the destructive works of evil’.

Contrary to popular belief, satanism and the occult is alive and well in the modern world. Many factors have contributed to the revival of satanism and occultism in the West including secularism, the rise of a new militant atheism, a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, distrust in institutionalised religion and a renewed interest in neo-paganism and esotericism.

There are basically two types of satanism. Perhaps the most famous version is LaVeyan satanism, named after the colourful founder of the first Church of Satan in California in 1966, Anton Szandor LaVey (real name: Howard Stanton Levey). LaVey is also the author of many books on satanism and the occult including the infamous The Satanic Bible (1969), which has sold millions of copies.

According to scholars of the occult like Carl Raschite and Jeffrey Russell, LaVeyan satanism is an anarchist cult that promotes hedonism, amoralism, atheism, and a rejection of everything Christian. Interestingly, LaVeyan satanists do not believe that God and Satan are real metaphysical beings. Satan, for them is but a Jungian archetype, a collective unconscious that devotees share that shape their understanding of reality and life.

For LaVey and members of the Church of Satan he founded, satanism has to do ultimately with the promotion of the self. At the founding of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey declared: ‘The flesh prevaileth and a great Church shall be builded, consecrated in his name. No longer shall man’s salvation be dependent on his self-denial’.

LaVeyan satanism is therefore very different from spiritual satanism (also known as theistic or traditional satanism and Luciferism), which dates to ancient times and whose followers not only believe in the existence of Satan, but regard him as the true creator of the world. Spiritual satanists claim they have met and talked to Satan.

Spiritual satanists regard Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, as a false entity. They claim that Jesus Christ is a fictitious figure Christians concocted from pagan legends to deceive the masses. Thus, one of its documents states: ‘The Nazarene is a fictitious entity, whose identity was stolen from some 18+ crucified Pagan Gods, such as Odin, who hung from a tree and is nothing more than a tool to keep humanity under the control of a chosen few’.

Modern satanism promotes itself through various expressions of popular culture including music (especially but not exclusively heavy metal), films, video games, pornography and books. Young people are introduced to satanism in its various forms mainly through the Internet, and many find its anti-authoritarianism, sexual license and anti-aestheticism attractive.

Satanism in whatever stripe is destructive and enslaving.

Various heinous crimes have been committed in the name of Satan by self-styled satanists. Of special notoriety are the Manson murders of 1969 in America for which Charles Manson and his followers were responsible. Another well-known case is the murders committed by the Matamoros drug-smuggling cult led by Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo in 1989. Both Manson and Constanzo were occultists and satanists, and the murders they and their followers committed were ritualistic killings.

The Lutheran theologian Ted Peters, in his book entitled Sin calls modern satanism and occultism ‘radical evil’ because they represent the ultimate blasphemy, a blatant and systematic attack on God. Modern satanism may also be described as the new barbarism because it creates a destructive subculture that seeks not only to undermine but also to dismantle the fundamental mores and values of society.

Needless to say, Christians should have no truck whatsoever with satanism and occultism.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.