Creeping Secular Humanism

James A. Haught

Few people notice, but a profound shift is discernible in history and current trends. Secular humanist values—rooted in improving people’s lives without supernaturalism—are gaining ground, decade after decade, century after century. They’re becoming the standard of civilization, overcoming past ugliness. Evidence confirms that wars are diminishing, democracy is spreading, dictatorships are fading, health is improving, human rights are spreading, personal brutality is lessening, illiteracy is retreating, longevity is increasing—the list goes on.

These hopeful changes may be overlooked amid torments in the daily news, of which there are plenty: Suicide terror attacks massacre defenseless people. Tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods inflict tragedy. Perhaps twenty million Americans are jobless, and fallout from the Great Recession hurts the world. Overpopulation causes pollution and global warming. Millions of young women in less-developed nations are subjugated or forced into prostitution. Inequality between rich and poor keeps worsening.

Nonetheless, human life is getting better. First, consider the ultimate madness, war. Bloodshed from conflicts has decreased amazingly over the centuries, according to three new books by major university scholars. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says that war deaths as a percentage of population are only one-thousandth as bad today as in gory past epochs. “It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence,” Pinker wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

He begins his seven-hundred-page book by recounting horrors once commonplace, such as massacres, rapes, sacrifices, and slavery. The Old Testament outlines 1.2 million violent deaths, he estimates. In the Middle Ages, torture and cruelty were rampant in the Inquisition and in punishments by kings. Reviewing Pinker’s book, Cambridge scholar David Runciman wrote: “It is hard not to be occasionally struck dumb by just how horrible people used to be. The image I can’t get out of my head is of a hollow brass cow used for roasting people alive. Its mouth was left open so that their screams would sound like the cow was mooing, adding to the amusement of onlookers.”

Pinker calculates that the ratio of people killed by warfare was 500 per 100,000 in ancient times. It dropped to 60 per 100,000 during the violent twentieth century, and now it’s a mere three-tenths of a person per 100,000. That’s more than a thousandfold decrease in war deaths per capita.

His war finding is corroborated by two other new books: Winning the War on War by American University Professor Joshua Goldstein and Human Security Report 2009–2010 by Andrew Mack of Simon Fraser University in Canada. Goldstein’s book declares: “Despite all the hand-wringing, fearmongering and bad-news headlines, peace is on the rise. Fewer wars are starting, more are ending, and those that remain are smaller and more localized than in past years. Incredibly, no national armies are still fighting one another; all of today’s wars are civil wars. . . . Today’s successes in building peace have grown out of decades of effort and sacrifice by people working through international organizations, humanitarian aid agencies and popular movements around the world. At the center of this drama is the United Nations and its 60-year experiment in peacekeeping—overwhelmingly supported by American public opinion.”

Mack says cultures have changed so that war no longer seems heroic or a source of national pride. “Wars of colonial conquest would be unthinkable today,” he writes and adds: “Two seismic political shifts, the demise of colonialism and the end of the Cold War, removed major sources of tension and conflict from the international system. The percentage of countries with democratic governments doubled between 1950 and 2008, from 29 percent to 58 percent. Since democracies almost never go to war against each other, there have been progressively fewer countries around the world likely to fight each other. . . . High-intensity wars, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by 78 percent since 1988.”

In Better Angels, Pinker goes beyond warfare to outline other trends away from brutality and bigotry and toward tolerance and nurture—the goals of secular humanism. He notes:

  • Murder in Europe has declined from nearly 100 people per 100,000 in medieval times to about one per 100,000 today.
  • Rape in the United States has fallen 80 percent since 1973. Lynchings, which once averaged 150 per year, have ceased.
  • The world had fewer than twenty democracies in 1946. Now there are almost one hundred. The number of totalitarian regimes has dropped from almost ninety in 1976 to about twenty-five now.

Pinker says the overall transition to a more humane world is “maybe the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.” The near-disappearance of slavery is a shining example. The end of South Africa’s apartheid is another.

Meanwhile, a new report, 2011 State of the Future, was released by the Millennium Project, a worldwide study group created by the United Nations, the Smithsonian Institution, and others. Looking back over the past quarter-century, it notes that average life expectancy around the planet climbed from sixty-four years in the mid-1980s to sixty-eight today—and that infant mortality worldwide fell from 70 deaths per 100,000 population to 40 today, dropping almost by half. The ratio of people living on less than $1.25 per day declined from 43 percent of humanity to just 23 percent now, another drop of nearly half. The number of wars dropped from thirty-seven in the mid-1980s to twenty-six today.

Plenty of distressing problems remain. The Millennium report summarizes: “The world is getting richer, healthier, better educated, more peaceful and better connected, and people are living longer, yet half the world is potentially unstable. Food prices are rising, water tables are falling, corruption and organized crime are increasing, environmental viability for our life support is diminishing, debt and economic insecurity are increasing, climate change continues, and the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen dangerously.”

The report adds that “90 percent of 950 natural disasters in 2010 were weather-related and fit climate change models. These disasters killed 295,000 people and cost approximately $130 billion.” Environmentalist Bill McKibben forecasts worse tragedy as global warming escalates.

Bottom line: Despite a multitude of afflictions, life for humans keeps improving. Gradually, humane values—rights spurred by the Enlightenment—are fixed ever tighter into civilization. (Is it mere coincidence that religion is fading dramatically in the West as human betterment increases?)

Reducing violence and improving human rights requires many struggles—mostly led by liberal reformers who defeat conservative resistance. Look back over the past century in America, and a pattern is obvious. Women gained the right to vote, couples won the right to practice birth control, Social Security and other New Deal “safety net” reforms bolstered families, black Americans gradually attained legal equality, Medicare and Medicaid brought health security to millions, homosexuality was decriminalized, and a stride toward universal health insurance for all Americans occurred.

The values of secular humanism, from curbing war to improving everyday life, slowly are dominating most of the world, although nearly everyone is too busy and distracted to notice.

James A. Haught

James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and is a senior editor of Free Inquiry.


Few people notice, but a profound shift is discernible in history and current trends. Secular humanist values—rooted in improving people’s lives without supernaturalism—are gaining ground, decade after decade, century after century. They’re becoming the standard of civilization, overcoming past ugliness. Evidence confirms that wars are diminishing, democracy is spreading, dictatorships are fading, health is improving, …

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