After reading Steven Pinker's book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," my thoroughly atheist wife recently was moved to write a letter to the editor of our local newspaper, the Salem Statesman Journal.
The claim that the 20th century was the most violent is not true.
Most other scientific information shows that although the two world wars killed large numbers of humans, in terms of numbers of humans killed versus world populations at the time, this was actually mild compared with killings by Genghis Khan and others eons ago.
Historic facts now known demonstrate that the more secular and educated societies have become, the less violent they become. Humans today are statistically far less likely to die from violence than in any other time in history. In fact, we are becoming more moral in general as time goes on (speaking statistically).
Religion is not at all necessary for a moral society. Studies on very young babies have proved that we are born with a sense of morality that emerges very early before almost any learning. This can be later distorted by life experiences, brain injury, social influences, etc.
We evolved to be moral because we are social animals. We are inherently “good without God.” In fact, religion can be divisive and judgmental and has spurred much violence and cruelty.
Our forefathers were wise in creating a secular democracy.
Here's some quotes from "The Better Angels of Our Nature" that back up Laurel's points. The less religion there is in the world, the safer and more moral it is.
“Challenge a person's beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali is the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad.
When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them--or worse, who credibly rebut them--they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.”
“Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition.
A connected and educated populace, at least in aggregate and over the long run, is bound to be disabused of poisonous beliefs, such as that members of other races and ethnicities are innately avaricious or perfidious; that economic and military misfortunes are caused by the treachery of ethnic minorities; that women don't mind to be raped; that children must be beaten to be socialized; that people choose to be homosexual as part of a morally degenerate lifestyle; that animals are incapable of feeling pain.
The recent debunking of beliefs that invite or tolerate violence call to mind Voltaire's quip that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
“The theory that religion is a force for peace, often heard among the religious right and its allies today, does not fit the facts of history.”
Below is a video of Pinker discussing the theme of his book several years before it was published. Have a look, even if you only watch five or ten minutes of the 21-minute TED Talk.
Pinker persuasively argues that the Age of Reason -- 16th century onward -- has led to declines in violence. Yes, this goes against many peoples' intuitions, given the horrors of two world wars in the last century.
But religions also are intuitively appealing. Which goes to show, our intuitions often are wrong.