In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker is critical of Christianity for it’s acceptance and use of torture. Modern day Christianity may not encourage torture of the living, but it still holds on to the threat of eternal torture to pressure people into behaving in certain ways. And while the bible has been reimagined and reinterpreted, it still contains many points of serious violence. The heart of Christianity, Pinker argues, Jesus dying on the cross, is emblematic of the eternal torture that awaits those who do not live up to the Christian god’s expectations. Pinker writes, “by sanctifying cruelty early, early Christianity set a precedent for more than a millennium of systematic torture in Christian Europe.”
For Pinker, there is a direct link between the Crucifixion of Jesus and subsequent periods of atrocities committed by the Christian Church. Pinker lists examples of people who were burned at the stake, had bodies and limbs destroyed, and faced agonizing deaths because they challenged church doctrine. Like Jesus, who was violently killed though he didn’t himself commit a violent crime, many non-violent church dissenters faced violent ends.
In his book, Pinker focuses on Christianity’s use of violence to show how much human societies have changed with regard to violence. A religion that today views itself as peaceful was once quite ready to use violence to punish people and to signal to others that they needed to obey church authority. Violence was inflicted upon people openly and publicly.
Violence today cannot be inflicted so publicly or openly, not even by totalitarian rulers. Religious institutions do not go about murdering or torturing non-believers and dissenters in public. And if people find out that violence took place behind closed doors, there is likely to be public outrage about the use of violence to shape people’s behaviors. Even within religious schools the use of corporal punishment is no longer acceptable in large parts of the world.
In human history violence was seen as proper and necessary to keep people in line and punish those who stepped out of line. Today, violence is declining. Even for our most awful criminals we are less likely to seek the death penalty in many parts of the world. And when we do allow the state to end an individual’s life, we do so as peacefully and non-violently as possible, through lethal injection. Jesus was killed in public in a painful and agonizingly slow manner for a petty crime. A punishment we would never accept today as we have moved away from violence and toward more peaceful societies.