DEAR BILLY GRAHAM: I’ve always been an optimistic person, believing we can solve our differences and create a better, more peaceful world. But frankly it’s been harder for me to think this way recently. Will we ever see true world peace? — G.H.
Ted Conversations had a section related to this a couple years ago suggesting it’s unattainable and naive to think otherwise. Some commentators disagreed. Writes Gerald,
Why is it naive? You gotta give reasons.
To anyone living 3000 years ago, it would’ve seemed naive to think Europe could some day hold 700 million people and be more at peace than it ever was before.
Statistically speaking, we do live in the least violent part of human history thus far even though it doesn’t sound like it when you watch the news.
Steven Pinker’s 2007 Ted Talk on that topic is here and offers a transcript. I’ll quote from it but Billy first.
DEAR G.H.: From time to time, the world may experience periods of peace, and we certainly should pray for these (and for our leaders). Othniel was one of ancient Israel’s wisest judges (or rulers), and the Bible says the nation had 40 years of peace as a result (see Judges 3:11).
Cherry picker. Pinker picks bits from the bible for his talk, too:
…we can look at the way of life of early civilizations such as the ones described in the Bible. And in this supposed source of our moral values, one can read descriptions of what was expected in warfare, such as the following from Numbers 31: “And they warred against the Midianites as the Lord commanded Moses, and they slew all the males. And Moses said unto them, ‘Have you saved all the women alive? Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him, but all the women children that have not know a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.'” In other words, kill the men; kill the children; if you see any virgins, then you can keep them alive so that you can rape them. You can find four or five passages in the Bible of this ilk. Also in the Bible, one sees that the death penalty was the accepted punishment for crimes such as homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, talking back to your parents — (Laughter) — and picking up sticks on the Sabbath.
Billy goes onto say that lasting peace isn’t possible until Christ returns “to establish his perfect rule of peace and justice over the whole Earth.” He then reminds us that Jesus predicted “greater periods of conflict and war” prior to this event. (Mark 13:7) and blames the human heart as being more of a problem than politics, economics or social unrest.
Where, after all, does greed come from? Or the lust for power? Or anger, or racial pride, or anything else that people use as an excuse for war? They come from within our own hearts and minds.
Which is why he thinks Christ is the answer and prayer will “help you bring his peace to those around you and to our world.”
Yes, because that’s worked so well for the past 1970ish years so far… Religious differences have also been touted as reasons for war, too. Which faction’s prayers should which version of a god be listening to?
John wrote Revelations thinking he’d witness the end times for himself in all its horrible glory and he wasn’t the only one over the years and authors. People today are still in the grips of this end of the world thinking, too. Remember Harold Camping? His doomsday never happened like he said it would and he died the death of an elderly man. Probably his family thinks he went to heaven, but there’s no way to know. At least he apologized for being wrong. Doesn’t help anyone who went bankrupt because of his daft beliefs but so it goes.
Watch Pinker’s talk, or read the transcript, or read his interview in New Scientist where he breaks it down again and explains part of why we get an inflated sense of violence:
the human mind loves to learn about violence. Blood sells. The media don’t report that yesterday in Buenos Aires several hundred people died peacefully in their sleep, but if five of them were blown up, that would be news. More generally, when conflicts peter out it never makes the headlines. Unless you systematically tabulate violent deaths as a proportion of all deaths or as a proportion of population size, you will be misled.
The interview was given when his book, The Better Angels of our Nature came out and I never got around to reading it. Perhaps I should rectify that.
I don’t imagine a global reduction in overall violence will translate to complete world peace, though. That’s unreasonable. People are going to disagree and some people will inevitably turn to violence to deal with those disagreements without exploring any other possibilities for a solution.
Then again, I learned a very interesting thing about baboons a while back. Read the section of this article called Left Behind. These males had been very aggressive and anti social to other troops and females within their own group but they all got tuberculosis from the literal garbage they were eating and all the males eventually died. This was in the 1980s. Female baboons stay with the group they were born into but the males move away so eventually new males found their way to this group. The females did something very interesting with them compared to how other baboon groups were treating new additions. Instead of ignoring the new guys for months, within a few weeks the females started grooming them and showing sexual interest. By the ’90s, it was discovered the males of the group would also chip in to groom the new guys, too, something unheard of for other baboon troops being studied. If a group of baboons can change the way they deal with each other, there’s little reason humans can’t as well. Last quote:
Test a person who has a lot of experience with people of different races, and the amygdala does not activate. Or, as in a wonderful experiment by Susan Fiske, of Princeton University, subtly bias the subject beforehand to think of people as individuals rather than as members of a group, and the amygdala does not budge. Humans may be hard-wired to get edgy around the Other, but our views on who falls into that category are decidedly malleable.