…a group of students at Harvard was asked to write down ten books they had read in school. Another group was asked to write down the Ten Commandments. Later they took part of an experiment in which half of them had an opportunity to cheat on a test of mental arithmetic. Most of the ‘book recall’ students who were able to bump up their scores did so; none of the Ten Commandment ones did. This included many who could remember few of the commandments and no doubt some who were not religious.
Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: the hidden forces that shape our decisions, HarperCollins, London, 2008, pp. 207–8
For one thing, religion tends to be at least as popular in prison as outside. In England and Wales, twice as many inmates and three times as many sex offenders declare religious faith as claim none, and believers represent almost all flavours of religion including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs.
Gavin Berman, Prison Population Statistics, House of Commons Library, 24 May 2012, p. 10. More details from statistics compiled on 30 September 2006 and released by the Home Office under the Freedom of Information Act on 22 November 2006. [See: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/about-us/freedom-of-information]
Perhaps immorality by religious people, and even religious institutions, should not surprise us given the long history of unethical behaviour and criminal conduct within many of the great religious establishments. An obvious example is the Roman Catholic Church which has been embroiled in endless financial scandals, sometimes implicating senior clerics and the Vatican itself. Some of the conspiracies have been likened to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, including the collapse of a bank whose chairman, Robert Calvi, was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in 1982. See The Economist, ‘Vatican Scandals, Muck in the Tiber’, 6 July 2013. [http://www.economist.com/news/international/21580486-pope-francis-grapples-his-bankthe-first-many-problems-muck-tiber.]
…as many sceptics and atheists gleefully point out, religion has promoted, enforced or endorsed some of the greatest immoralities in history, including many which we now regard as serious crimes. There was formal ecclesiastical support for slavery, apartheid, racial segregation, torture, profound religious discrimination and sectarianism
Christianity was universal in the Christian Empire well beyond the Middle Ages and there was ecclesiastical endorsement for the eighteenth-century slave trade, sometimes quoting Biblical texts such as Ephesians 6:5 or I Timothy 6 exhorting slaves to be obedient.
More recently in Ireland it emerged that priests routinely beat, bullied and sexually abused thousands of children over decades, a disgrace that was covered up by church, police and state authorities at every level, leading to a long-running scandal that brought down a Prime Minister and exposed astonishing depravity and hypocrisy in devout institutions in one of the most religiously fervent nations in Europe.
Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Dublin, 20 May 2009. [http://www.childabusecommission.ie/publications/index.html]
These could be written off as reasons for more religious purity, not less; but frequently believers are at war with each other, as with the slaying of abortion doctors in America, one of whom was shot dead while serving as an usher in his local church.
Dr George Tiller was shot in a church in Kansas in 2009. Two other obstetricians, two receptionists and a police officer near a clinic were murdered in four other separate incidents between 1994 and 1998. Many US abortion specialists live in fear, and some have guards.
Religion has mixed perniciously with nationalism and fed another powerful human impulse: tribalism. Its malignant influence can sometimes be disguised because it dissolves into other ugly proclivities, and apologists can claim that Nazis and other anti-Semites despised the Jews as a race and not a religion, that Hindus and Sikhs in India or that Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have nationalist or economic motives for their internecine wars, not sectarian ones.
Incidentally, internecine means deadly or murderous, from the Latin internecāre: to kill extensively. Because inter sounds a bit like intra, and because community conflicts are frequently bitter, it has come to be used – wrongly, according to purists – to mean civil war.
The psychologist Steven Pinker has shown persuasively that the proportion of humanity killed in homicide or battle has consistently declined over the centuries;1 and when we do go to war our reverence for life is now so great that individual deaths of soldiers tend to make the news. Nowadays, although we point nuclear weapons at each other, even enemy casualties can cause us moral pangs – witness the precipitous abandonment of the first Gulf War in 1991 after public distaste for the carnage on the ‘highway of death’ as Iraqi combatants withdrew.2 Or recall the convulsive reactions in the US, and later on a smaller scale in the UK, when coalition soldiers were found to have abused Iraqi prisoners; never in history has so much moral outrage been expended by the victors over claims about misbehaviour by their own troops.3
1 Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity, Allen Lane, 2011.
2 In August 1990 Iraqi forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait, and in January and February 1991 under UN auspices a US-led global coalition ejected them after a month-long air campaign and a brief outflanking ground war. The world’s relief at the speed of the victory turned to horror as pictures were shown of the Jahra highway from Kuwait to Basra where a retreating convoy was under attacked from US aircraft. Some 2,000 vehicles were destroyed, many laden with goods plundered from Kuwait, and many thousands of bodies were visible in video and photographs. The road was dubbed the ‘Mile of Death’. Within hours President George Bush ended the campaign. He cited the fact that Kuwait had been liberated according to a UN resolution, and the need to retain consensus among allies, but the ceasefire took many by surprise since it allowed Saddam Hussein to rescue a large amount of military equipment and suffer no direct penalties. The decision has often been blamed for the subsequent brutal suppression of Kurds and Shiites, and for the survival of Saddam Hussein which led to the second Gulf War in 2003 with its disastrously costly aftermath. What is clear is that the public, seeing a slaughter of the enemy, quickly lost its appetite for war.
3 This is not to say it is a minor problem. Army brutality has existed since armies did. Only the level of concern about it is recent. See Chapter 7.
…judging by the value we now place on human life, if the immediacy of war brought into our homes by the media has had any effect on our morals it seems to have improved and not diminished them.
Even so, if ethical improvements continue, our great-grandchildren will regard us as moral reprobates. We still often pass by on the other side of the street, or worse, play politics in the face of genocide, as with Hutu extremists in Rwanda in 1994 who killed 800,000 and precipitated further conflicts that have probably cost over 4 million lives. For a gripping account of the UN’s cynicism and the world’s indifference to this holocaust, see Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Arrow, 2004.
Workplace accidents were commonplace in the UK the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but fell below 1,000 a year in 1967 and were down to 175 in 2010.
In 1900 the carnage was officially put at 4,622. Fatalities reached a peak in 1912 and have declined ever since. In 1967 they fell below 1,000 and by 2004 were down to just over 600 (source: Health & Safety Executive). The rate of workplace fatal injury in Great Britain is one of the lowest in Europe Statistics of workplace fatalities and injuries in Great Britain, International Comparisons 2000. [HSE: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/pdf/eurocomp.pdf] and has always been lower than the USA American industrial methods developed with remarkably little reference to their safety. [See: http://www.eh.net/encyclopedia/?article=aldrich.safety.workplace.us.]
Britons killed roughly 6,000 of each other each year in traffic accidents between the 1920s and the 1970s until a decision was made to set ambitious targets. Deaths fell below 2,000 in 2010. On the whole this was achieved consensually
Road fatalities had peaks (as during the Second World War) and troughs but showing remarkable consistency despite the vastly increasing use of motor vehicles. The death rate was 6,831 in 1978, fell to 5,400 in 1990, then to 3,814 in 1993 and by 2007 was down to 2,940 – the lowest rate since records began in 1926. This has been an international trend but the UK has the lowest rate of road fatalities in the EU and a fraction of the US, which kills almost three times the UK rate per capita. The author was instrumental in persuading the government to set targets, and almost all the changes were widely welcomed, with the exception of speed cameras, which provoked a backlash. Most other laws, including compulsory wearing of seatbelts, were introduced only after compliance reached acceptable thresholds.