An End to Institutionalized Superstitious Killings & A Bumper Sticker

An End to Institutionalized Superstitious Killings & A Bumper Sticker

Very few peoples and cultures today participate in some form of ritual killing of other people or hold any beliefs that human sacrifices are necessary to appease a deity and ensure good fortunes for the future. Very few people have to worry about being killed for possessing magical powers or for having somehow been in contact with an evil mystical being. However, throughout much of human history, these were legitimate concerns and fears for many human beings.
 
 
In his book The Better Angel of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “in most of the world, institutionalized superstitious killing, whether in human sacrifice, blood libel, or witch persecution has succumbed to two pressures. One is intellectual: the realization that some events, even those with profound personal significance, must be attributed to impersonal physical forces and raw chance rather than the designs of other conscious beings.”
 
 
This is a major step for humans and the societies we build and live within. At least within WEIRD countries, we have moved to a place where the institutionalized killing of a human being can only be carried out if there is empirical evidence to demonstrate that the human being committed a crime. This trend is constantly being advanced, as we now require stronger evidence, such as clear DNA evidence, in order to convict an individual. We are increasingly uncomfortable with state police forces using deadly force when apprehending dangerous criminals. Further, we accept institutionalized killings in fewer circumstances. Even murder isn’t always a guarantee that some form of state endorsed violence or killing will be used as a valid punishment. 
 
 
Pinker continues, “a great principal of moral advancement, on par with love thy neighbor and all men are created equal is the one on the bumper sticker: shit happens.” Humans today recognize that physical forces are beyond the control of an individual. We also don’t accept (in legal settings at least) that terrible natural phenomena like floods and landslides, are not retributive acts of a deity angry at people for their sins. We can accept that good things may happen to bad people, and that bad things may happen to good people without another human or advanced deity interfering through some form of mysticism or divine punishment/reward.
 
 
The bumper sticker view of life has combined with a greater increase in the value of human life and happiness in recent human history. We don’t punish people with violence for crimes that humans could not possibly have committed, and we resort to less violence when punishing humans for crimes that we have strong evidence that they did commit. We resort to incarceration, fines, and community service for most forms of punishment today, not scarring, whipping, or burning at the stake. Even in the rare instances where we do still support institutionalized killings, we do so in the most peaceful and nonviolent manner possible (at least in countries where lethal injection is the method used for capital punishment). These are just two high level explanations that Pinker offers for a global decline in violence in his book. We are less mystical and less likely to support institutionalized violence. 
Violence and Convenient Mysticism

Violence and Convenient Mysticism

Mysticism in the United States doesn’t really feel like it lends itself to violence. When we think of mystics, we probably think of someone close to a shaman, or maybe a modern mystic whose aesthetic is very homeopathic. Mystics don’t seem like they would be the most violent people today, but in the past, mysticism was a convenient motivating factor for violence.
 
 
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker describes the way that mysticism lends itself to violence by writing, “the brain has evolved to ferret out hidden powers in nature, including those that no one can see. Once you start rummaging around in the realm of the unverifiable there is considerable room for creativity, and accusations of sorcery are often blended with self-serving motives.”
 
 
There are two important factors to recognize in this quote from Pinker, and both are often overlooked and misunderstood. First, our brains look for causal links between events. They are very good and very natural at thinking causally and pinpointing causation, however, as Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, the brain can often fall into cognitive fallacies and misattribute causation. Mystical thinking is a result of misplaced causal reasoning. It is important that we recognize that our brains can see causation that doesn’t truly exist and lead us to wrong conclusions.
 
 
The second important factor that we often manage to overlook is our own self-interest. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in The Elephant in the Brain, our self-interest plays a much larger role in much of our decision-making and behavior than we like to admit. When combined with mysticism, self-interest can be dangerous.
 
 
If you have an enemy who boasts that they are special and offers mystical explanations for their special powers, then it suddenly becomes convenient to justify violence against your enemy. You don’t need actual proof of any wrong doing, you don’t need actual proof of their danger to society, you just need to convince others that their mystical powers could be dangerous, and you now have a convenient excuse for disposing of those who you dislike. You can promote your own self-interest without regard to reality if you can harness the power of mystical thinking.
 
 
Pinker explains that the world is becoming a more peaceful place in part because mystical thinking is moving to smaller and smaller corners of the world. Legal systems don’t recognize mystical explanations and justifications for behaviors and crimes. Empirical facts and verifiable evidence has superseded mysticism in our evaluations and judgments of crime and the use of violence. By moving beyond mysticism we have created systems, structures, and institutions that foster more peace and less violence among groups of people.