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For millennia, human life was nasty, brutish and short. Cruelty and violence were much more prevalent in past centuries that were marred by slavery, torture, murder, rape, petty wars, racism, dueling, genocide, subjugation of women, killing of gays, killing of "witches" and other evils.
Coincidence or not, those vile times were the Age of Faith, when religion held sway. But the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason brought ever-rising human rights and public decency while religion retreated.
Two major books outline this blessed transformation. In 2011, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He said Western civilization has experienced a "humanitarian revolution". He noted: "Between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a tenfold-to-fiftyfold decline in their rates of homicide."
Dr. Pinker credited much of the improvement to "the escalator of reason" an intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs." Greater education, he wrote, "can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interest over others.'"
In 2015, science professor and columnist Michael Shermer wrote The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People. He contends that modern scientific thinking and shunning of supernatural religion have made Western society more peaceful, humane and cooperative. Westerners have grown more empathetic toward the feelings of others, he says.
Dr. Shermer cites the "Flynn Effect" named for a researcher who found that Western I.Q. rates are rising by around three points per decade. Smarter people see the benefit of living harmoniously together, avoiding vengeful violence.
All these findings are supported by work of researcher Gregory Paul, who has proven that the most educated and prosperous nations have the least religion while countries with high religiosity have more poverty, misery, crime and ignorance.
"Prosperous modernity is proving to be the nemesis of religion," Paul declared in Science magazine.
Moral progress is real in the West if not in religion-dominated Islamic places. The advance of western democracy has been won chiefly by selfless, secular, liberal-progressive reformers who defeated hidebound conservatives and fundamentalists.
Before the Civil War, fiery abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker declared in an 1853 sermon:
"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but a little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who attended Unitarian churches in Boston before heading south to become a human-rights crusader adapted Parker's comment in his own fiery speeches.
Moral progress is a fact. Much of the credit goes to secular reformers.
(written for the United Coalition of Reason newsletter, which ceased operation)