Tag Archives: violence

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.

Responding to Changing Family Realities

September 2015 Feature Article

Conservative Christians perceive that there are threats to the institution of the family.

Most apparent are attempts internationally to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions. Cohabitation has become so common in some societies that they now account for nearly the same number as those who enter into marriage.

Medical technology has also made it possible to redefine parenthood. Single women now have the choice to have children without the need to know their child’s father through the use of donor sperms and artificial insemination. Marriages are more likely to end in divorce, and remarriages are not certain to hold for life.

In the Singaporean context, there is little likelihood that same-sex unions and single parenthood by choice will become mainstream. Surveys show that Singaporeans of all religious persuasions and those who are not religiously affiliated, do not approve of either same-sex unions or out of wedlock pregnancies. The government is conservative and is resistant to make changes related to family norms which may not be well accepted.

While the population, especially younger people are more open to cohabitation, housing is a scarce resource in Singapore and thus practicality will deter many from that option.

The concern of higher divorce rates is however disconcerting.

More recent cohorts who marry are dissolving their unions at a much faster rate. Based on figures released by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, among those who married in 2003, 16.1 per cent of them dissolved their marriage by the tenth year of marriage.

This is compared to the lower proportion of 8.7 per cent for the 1987 cohort. About 20 per cent of the 1998 cohort dissolved their marriage by the fifteenth year of marriage.

The forces that lead to such marriage instability cannot be attributable to mere changes in family values. Most couples are not frivolous about their marriage commitment. They believe that when they enter into marriage, it is meant for life.

However the stressors of modernity and accompanying aspirations can greatly affect what people believe is an acceptable relationship.  With both husband and wife busily engaged at work, the demands of raising children and caring for one’s own parents mean that strains in relationships are very likely.

Because people today want to have authenticity in their relationships, they are unlikely to stay married if the marriage is not fulfilling what it was intended to do. There seems to be greater tolerance for divorce than enduring in a loveless and contentious marriage.

Besides the increase in divorces, the overall profile of households in Singapore is changing. The nuclear family form consisting of a married heterosexual couple with children is declining as the dominant form of household here.

Instead, because of population ageing and norms of privacy, there are more households which comprise of single persons or married couples without children. Lower marriage and parenthood rates also mean that there will be more singles in the years to come and fewer younger family members to attend to the needs of those who are ageing.

With more divorced persons choosing to remarry, there will be more blended families where children can come from two marriages. In other cases, households will comprise a divorced parent who will have to singlehandedly care for his or her child. In general, these different household types have to contend with greater difficulties in accessing adequate care.

The Christian church has always thought highly about preserving and supporting families. In response to the challenges that modern life poses to families, many churches today involve themselves in the provision of a variety of services to assist families in need.

Christian faith does not make Christians unsusceptible to family trials but provides perspectives which allow for better coping. Diana Garland in her often used textbook, Family Ministry states that,  “Congregations nurture strong families by instilling values that promote strong family life, committing themselves to the challenges of loving unconditionally, celebrating joy together, making time together a priority, handling anger and conflicts in ways that strengthen rather than destroy relationships, practising repentance and forgiveness, and together serving the larger community and world.”

Besides the values imbued through the Christian tradition, churches provide practical guidance for family living through sermons and teaching and give a platform for different generations to coexist and interact. Many a church member can learn the struggles and blessings that are unique to different stages of the family life cycle just by interacting with others in the congregation.

What is it like to live as a family with an older parent co-residing in it? How do older spouses who have no children relate to each other? How can a divorced mother ensure that her children have a sense of normalcy despite their father leaving the marriage? It is easy to find suitable models within the church who thrive despite the struggles of family life.

If churches are to continue being relevant and offer strong support for families both in the Christian and broader community, they must also be attuned to the changes that are happening to the institution of family. They must accept that not all families are the same.

There is a common tendency among church-goers to advocate for how the family should be, both in form and function. Whether it is about gender roles, how married couples should relate to one another, optimum parenting styles or the role of grandparents, there are strongly held views which have the tendency of silencing other views and sometimes sidelining those whose families do not conform to expected norms.

The Scripture does prescribe what family should look like and how its members need to meet one another’s needs.

The Bible declares that marriage is between a male and female (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-5); sanctions sexual relationships and reproduction only in the confines of marriage (Hebrews 13:4) and stresses the obligations that parents and children as well as husbands and wives have to each other (Ephesians 6:1-4, Ephesians 5:22-33).

However the Bible does not shy away from depicting biblical characters and how far they conduct themselves from the biblical ideals of family. The fact that Jesus Christ is born in a family line full of complications is testament that God uses a variety of family types and conditions to achieve his redemptive purposes.

Churches then need to be places where people know that their family circumstances will not be unkindly judged. Concerns about being held under scrutiny, lead many members and leaders to be ashamed about sharing the realities of their family life where there might be much deep-seated conflict, violence, sexual misconduct and other characteristics deemed as “unbecoming of saints”.

Instead of shunning family arrangements which mainstream culture devalues, Christian theology provides a rich resource where family types can enjoy recognition. For instance, while singlehood may sometimes be deemed in popular culture as depicting one’s lack of ability to attain marriage, Scripture provides value to the role of singles.

Similarly the Bible extols older persons in the family and society, something which our youth-oriented society is just now beginning to grapple with. Where individuals do not have strong family ties to support them, the church provides a platform for them to find kin-like relationships.

The Christian tradition allows us to reconceptualise the concept of family beyond the structures of blood-ties and marriage. Individuals can have kin-like ties with its corresponding privileges and obligations as brothers and sisters because we share God as our Father.

Our response as Christians to the continued changes in the family institution should not be to merely decry or politicize such changes. While it is important to make a stand for biblical principles that undergird strong and stable family units, we should prioritise on what we are best at doing – offering Christian love to support and strengthen families.


Dr Mathew Mathews is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore. He has researched on a number of family-related issues. He actively serves at Alive Community Church. These are his personal views.

Religion and Violence

June 2015 Pulse

The beheadings of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the British aid worker David Haines by the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 have not only shocked and outraged the world, but they have also revived the debate about religious violence.

Both President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were determined to stress the distinction between the IS and Islam as a religion. In an address in Parliament, Cameron categorically asserted that the “IS is not Islamic” and that “they are not Muslims; they are monsters”.

In the past 15 years, numerous books have been written on the contentious issue of religion and violence. For example, in When Religion Becomes Evil, published just one year after the horrific events of 9/11 (Sept 11, 2001), Charles Kimball argues that “it is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil, perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”

Apart from the fact that Kimball does not identify these rival institutions or provide evidence for his claim (perhaps he thought it too trite to require evidence), scholars have also criticised him for naively bracketing religion away from political ideologies. Such separation is artificial and contrived. As Jonathan Smith has rightly put it, “religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study … Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy”.

Be that as it may, are there religions that promote violence by their doctrines or attitude towards unbelievers? Many would argue that all religious traditions have at their centre the commitment to peace and non-violence. Konrad Raiser writes that from the religious perspective, violence “is a manifestation of evil and all religions are struggling with the question where this evil comes from and how it can be overcome”.

From the Christian theological perspective, however, because of human sin it is difficult to think of any form of organised human activity or institution that could not be corrupted or perverted.

Take democracy for example. A broad and popular way of describing democracy is a ‘government by the people for the people’. Many people would no doubt maintain that democracy is a good form of government, with its commitment to human dignity and freedom.

Yet democracy not only can go terribly wrong, it can also be dangerous. Adolf Hitler was democratically elected. And even though democracy is said to prevent oppressive governments, in Germany and South Africa it produced, for a period, extremely racist societies.

For many Muslims, jihad (a term that is often brandished unexplained by the media) refers fundamentally to striving for moral goodness and justice for society. And although this concept has four meanings, one of which is associated with just war, it does not in principle encourage acquiescence to violence.

However, since the 1970s under the influence of the Egyptian Umar Abd ar-Rahman and the Palestinian Abdallah Azzam, the ideologist for the Hamas movement, this concept has been radicalised by extremist groups, including those associated with Wahhabism. Al Qaeda and IS have commandeered the radical meaning of jihad in promoting their violent campaigns against the West and fellow Muslims who do not embrace their political convictions.

That Islam itself does not promote violence is evidenced by the fact that the Quran does not describe Allah as the ‘lord of war’ but rather as compassionate and merciful, and as the loving one and the forgiver.

Etymologically, islam, which refers to the surrender or submission that human beings must show to Allah, is derived from salam, which means peace – hence the Muslim greeting, “Peace be with you” (Salàm Ualaikum). In fact, in Surah 41:33-35 we read the injunction: “Requisite evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend.”

Although religious beliefs in themselves are not causes of violence, it is important to note that religion – like ethnicity and language – is a significant marker of identity. And as a marker of identity, religion can be subtly used to fan the flames of social and political conflicts. When religious sentiments are combined with political ideologies in a certain way, even a peaceful religion can be conscripted in the exercise of violence.


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 January 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Secularism and Social Peace

June 2015 Pulse

It seems that it is quite impossible to read the papers or watch the news on television without encountering stories of unconscionable atrocities committed in the name of religion, whether by ISIS in the Middle East or by Boko Haram in Nigeria. These instantiations of religious violence seem to lend credence to the view, advanced by a good number of prominent atheist writers, that religion is the cause of much of the violence we see in our world.

Sam Harris, for instance, has insisted relentlessly that ‘most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith’. Harris feels compelled to arrive at the extremely vexed conclusion that ‘religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut’. This chorus of voices blaming religion for violence is of course directed by Richard Dawkins, who in The God Delusion declares quite categorically that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people’.

The proponents of this theory – that religion causes violence – often point to the Thirty Years War as perhaps the example par excellence of the kind of chaos and carnage that religiously motivated violence can unleash. The senseless war that caused millions of deaths and the outbreak of diseases and plagues was brought to an end by the Treaties of Westphalia (1648), which these theorists see not only as the genesis of modern state but also as a triumph of secularism.

This is an astonishingly simplistic reading of both the complex confluence of factors and ambitions that fuelled the Thirty Years War and the accomplishments of Westphalia. It is, however, repeatedly used as the undisputable example of the serious disruption to social peace that religion can cause. It promotes the unexamined secularist mantra that asserts that religion produces violence because it is divisive. Which leads to the corollary that in a religiously diverse world, secularism is the only guarantor of social peace.

Such rhetoric often directs attention away from the violence and atrocities for which secular and atheist regimes and governments are responsible in recent memory.

For example, according to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the Mao Zedong regime is responsible for the deaths of seventy million. In his classic, The Rise and Fall of Communism, Archie Brown estimated that Mao’s mass mobilisation programme called The Great Leap Forward alone had caused thirty million deaths.

In Stalin’s Russia, millions of people were either killed or starved to death as the result of the industrialisation programme of their new autocrat. The historian J. M. Roberts reports starkly that seven years after the programme for the ‘collectivization’ of land and the development of heavy industries began in 1928, ‘5 million families disappeared from European Russia’.

To this list, we must add Pol Pot, the secretary general of the Cambodian communist party in 1963 and leader of the ‘Khmer Rouge’ faction. According to Roberts, Pol Pot ‘presided over the killing of as many as 2 million (out of 7 million) of his countrymen and countrywomen in the name of radical Maoist and fanatically xenophobic (anti-Vietnamese) ideology’.

The list could easily be expanded to include Hitler, Fidel Castro, Lenin, Nicolae Ceausescu and Kim Jong-il. In fact, the deaths caused by Christian emperors and rulers in the five hundred period of the history of the Church which encompasses the Crusades and the Inquisition amounted to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Hitler, Stalin and Mao in just a few decades.

What makes the crimes of Mao and Stalin more horrific than the deaths caused by the Thirty Years War, argues Dinesh D’Souza, is that the atrocities of these atheist regimes were committed in peacetime and against their own countrymen and countrywomen.

Now, of course statistics alone cannot settle the matter. It would be quite ludicrous to argue that religion is superior to secularism because the statistics show that it has been responsible for lesser deaths. In supplying this data, I merely wish to show that secularism also has a history of violence.

These historical facts dispel the smoke screen generated by the rhetoric of religious violence. They expose as false the myth that secularism is more tolerant and peaceful and that it alone is the reasonable arbiter and guarantor of social peace.

As Hunter Baker has perceptively put it: ‘Secularism tells a story about its differences with religion that are not necessarily true. For instance, one frequently hears about Christian failures such as the Inquisition, but we are led to believe that secularism represents cooler heads, rationality and common ground. What often goes unacknowledged is that secularism has itself often been associated with the coercive, the unjust, the violent, and the undemocratic’.


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.