The March 19, 2007 edition of The New Republic includes a fascinating article by Steven Pinker, a professor at Harvard, about the largely unnoticed decline in violence and cruelty worldwide since the 16th Century:
"In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most under appreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.
"In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.
"Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution--all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light."
Pinker proceeds to offer a variety of possible explanations for this decline in cruelty and violence, but it seems to me that he misses one contributing force--the decoupling of religious authority from political authority that began in the Reformation. In my view, one of the leading causes of the decline in violence and cruelty, and the end of such abhorrent practices as slavery, was the strong and prophetic voice of religious leaders. But the possibility of such a prophetical voice could only arise when religious institutions developed some degree of independence from the State, since before the Reformation, the Church was an Ally to the State. And such an independence in Western Europe only began after the Reformation. And the personal piety that arose from the Reformation may well have been a strong motivating factor in those who chose to be a prophetic voice.
As Pinker notes, the "leading edge [of the decline in violence and cruelty] has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century." Of course, England and Holland were both cradles of the Reformation, and it was in the early seventeenth century that the Reformation was first beginning to cause some degree of independence from political authority.
The importance of the prophetic voice in ending such violent acts as unjust wars, slavery and other forms of oppression cannot be underestimated. As the recent movie "Amazing Grace" illustrates well, it was the force of religious conviction that caused the end of the Slave trade in the English Empire. The leader in the British Parliament advocating a career against the Slave Trade was William Wilberforce , who was compelled by his strong Christian faith. In the United States, many of the leading Abolitionists were similarly compelled by religious conviction. And it was the voice of the African-American religious leaders that lead the fight for civil rights in this country. This prophetic voice continues to this day. As Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times noted in a column (subscription required) last December
Moreover, for all the slaughters in the name of religion over the centuries, there is another side of the ledger. Every time I travel in the poorest parts of Africa, I see missionary hospitals that are the only source of assistance to desperate people. God may not help amputees sprout new limbs, but churches do galvanize their members to support soup kitchens, homeless shelters and clinics that otherwise would not exist. Religious constituencies have pushed for more action on AIDS, malaria, sex trafficking and Darfur's genocide, and believers often give large proportions of their incomes to charities that are a lifeline to the neediest.