December 14, 2015

Currently Reading: The Better Angels of Our Nature

English: Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've loved books ever since I first learned to read. These days, I buy quite a few even though I have far too little time to read them. It would probably be fair to say that I hoard books because once I get one, it is rare that I get rid of it. I do read many of them more than once, so this might not be quite as crazy as it sounds. But I admit that it used to be problem before I bought a Kindle 3 back in 2010 (that model has since been replaced by the Kindle Paperwhite, which is the one I'd buy today if mine died). Fortunately, buying most of my books in the Kindle format means I'm less likely to run out of space for them.

I'm currently reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and enjoying it very much. It had been on my to-read list since I first heard about it in 2012. I bought it last year, and I hate that it took me this long to get around to starting it. It provides a dramatic example of how wrong our perceptions can be (i.e., most of us perceive the world as becoming more violent instead of significant less violent), but the real contribution has to be Pinker's insightful analysis of why and how violence has declined so much throughout the span of human history. His writing style is well-suited for this type of book, as he is able to present complex theories and statistical data in such a way that lay readers should have little difficulty understanding.

Pinker's book is the sort of scientific and skeptical writing I value. He does not hit readers over the head with a litany of facts or suggest that those who are slow to come around to his point of view are somehow unintelligent. He's patient, thoughtful, and makes his case in such a reasonable way as to not provoke unnecessary defensiveness. I imagine that some religious readers may object to his praise of humanism, and a few secular authoritarians may object to his praise for Enlightenment values (i.e., classical liberalism). Still, it seems like one would have to be looking for an excuse to take offense since none is provided.

I have a feeling that it may be awhile before I pick up another book focused primarily on atheism. Not only will Pinker's book take me awhile to finish, but the next several on my reading list seem to focus more on Islam (e.g., Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue), science (e.g., Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation), or political psychology (e.g., The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion). Of course, many of these will have at least some relevance to religion, secularism, and the nature of belief.

I can almost always count on having the opportunity to get through at least a couple of books each December due to the extra time off work. I'm bummed that this probably won't be the case this year. I have a big project due at the beginning of January that is going to eat into the free time I usually have. But even if I have to limit myself to 30-60 minutes each night before falling asleep, I plan to do some reading.