politicking software gardener
186 stories

Forgotten Kana’s Masterpieces

1 Share


You might find works of Svetlana Kana Radević (1937-2000) at the collateral event at the XVII Biennale Architettura, organised by the APSS Institute. The exhibition showcase some of Kana’s best works, among them being the anti-fascist memorials, hotels, residential projects, and civic buildings. 


We encounter an architect who mediated between geopolitical and societal registers: regionally, negotiating between vernacular building tradition and the globalising tendencies of late modernism; nationally, designing public spaces that facilitated a progressive public sphere in the socialist society of former Yugoslavia; and internationally, articulating a decentralised approach while simultaneously working in Yugoslavia, Japan, and the United States.


Portrait prints from Radević’s  photo archive - shown in the exhibition “Skirting the Center Svetlana Kana Radević, on the Periphery of Postwar Architecture” 

The Gendered Architect - Through hr five-decade career, Radević assembled a photographic dossier with specific emphasis of her own countenance from late adolescence through the 1990s. The trove of portrait photographs - selection from which are shown here - makes palpable the intention with which she construed a pointedly gendering public image, marshalling affectations of femininity to command authority and visibility in a professional context dominated chiefly by men. Examining her self-presentation in architecture’s disciplinary milieu alongside ephemera depicting her figure in personal or domestic realms sheds light on the multivalent nature if her creative practice as an architect, photographer and an activist,”  wrote the curators Dijana Vučinić and Anna Kats, who succeed to finally position Svetlana Kana Radević among the most prominent architects in socialist Yugoslavia. Photographs, original drawings, correspondences and other documents stem from her private archive, so far unseen by the public and put at disposal to the exhibition team by Kana’s family. The archival materials reflect her stylistic tendency and her character clearly – merging local materials and international Brutalist tendencies, always with one foot in her hometown of Titograd (today’s Podgorica).


Dijana Vučinić’s presentation at the opening in Venice. | Photo Boštjan Bugarič 

Skirting the Center is a highlight in this year’s biennial collateral events because it presents an exceptional and overlooked figure of postwar architecture. The exhibition aims to significantly expand Radević’s representation within the architectural canon by exhibiting the highlights of her built work for the first time the Hotel Podgorica (1964-1967), the most important of Kana’s works, whose design was the winning proposal at the competition. It was also her first important work which placed her at the very top of the architectural scene. The following year it was awarded first the state, and right after the federal Borba award for architecture. 


The balconies of Hotel Podgorica faced the river as the building followed its bend. | Photo Personal Archive of Svetlana Kana Radević

Next is the Hotel Zlatibor (1979-1981), which aimed to make the best of socialist lifestyle accessible to both locals and foreign visitors. It is one of the landmarks of the city of Užice in Serbia, named after the nearby mountains, very popular for winter sports. Due to its gray color, the locals derisively called Sivonja (Gray-ner). The Rocket, called by Uzice dwellers, Hotel Zlatibor was completed in 1981 to replace a former, postwar hotel that had been demolished.


Zlatibor hotel betrays the influence of the Metabolist movement grew out of Japan in the 1960s. Indeed, she worked at the Metabolist Kisho Kurokawa’s office for a period. | Photo Svetlana Kana Radević Legacy Collection, Faculty of Architecture, University of Podgorica

Another great architecture is the Monument to Fallen Fighters at Barutana (1980), a sculptural memorial landscape that commemorates local anti-fascist fighters. The monument is dedicated to the warriors fallen in the liberation wars, starting from the First Balkan war to the Second world war. Grouping different motives - a vertical dominant, a radial sequence of elements, separate groups - she managed to create a unique and moved memorial center. Kana said “One of the most difficult design tasks is the monument because it belongs to the domain of non programmatic architecture. The monument is a fixation of certain act for future generations. But this fixation doesn’t mean oblivion. That’s why the monument must be introduced into the cycle of life. I am not for a monument that is experienced in one moment of intense emotions, in pain, in suffering, but rather for a continued experience, for the liberation of the sanctity and dignity, for the feeling that life triumphs over death.“ 

Photo Luka Bošković

Kana in front of her monument in Barutana. | Portrait prints from Radević’s  photo archive - shown in the exhibition “Skirting the Center Svetlana Kana Radević, on the Periphery of Postwar Architecture”

Skirting the Center - Svetlana Kana Radevic on the Periphery of Postwar Architecture
exhibition at Palazzo Palumbo Fossati San Marco 2597, Venice
from May 22 to November 21, 2021
a collateral event at the XVII Biennale Architettura is organised by the APSS Institute, Strategist, with the support of the Capital City of Podgorica and under the patronage of the President of Montenegro; curated by Dijana Vučinić, Anna Kats.

Read the whole story
163 days ago
Athens, Greece
Share this story

The Great Myths 12: Religious Wars and Violence

1 Share

That religion is uniquely prone to violence is a truism anti-theistic atheists assume almost without question. The cliché that more people have died in wars over religion than any other cause is a unassailable dictum among atheist activists, and religious violence is a driving motivation for their zealotry. But, on closer inspection, this idea becomes increasingly incoherent and actually leads several New Atheists into some ethically paradoxical positions. The idea that religion is essentially and particularly violent is a founding myth of the modern nation state, though one with highly dubious historical and philosophical foundations.


Many commentators have observed that the so-called New Atheism arose at a particular juncture in reaction to a specific event. As some who have objected to (and, actually, misunderstood) the label like to point out, there is nothing especially novel about New Atheism – it simply articulates ideas about religion that have been around for centuries. But “New Atheism” is “new” in the same sense as “New Wave” – not “uniquely original”, but rather “the latest in a sequence”. This particular wave of anti-theist polemics and activism arose in the early 2000s in direct reaction to the events of September 11, 2001. The first chapter of Christopher Hitchens’ 2007 book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is entitled “Religion Kills”, and it begins with an anecdote introduced with the words “A week before the events of September 11, 2001 …” (p. 7). The book refers to the terrorist attack on the US on that day four more times, each time using is as a touchstone of religious violence. In his The End of Faith (2004), Sam Harris does much the same thing in his 13 references to 9/11. Richard Dawkins, A.C Grayling, Peter Boghossian and other New Atheist luminaries all regularly refer to 9/11 as the epitome of a key element in their argument against religion: it shows that unfettered religion leads inevitably to violence and this is why religion needs to be at least restricted and, preferably, neutered or even eliminated.

While the motivating event is particular, the sentiment is general and has been a mainstay of arguments against religion for several hundred years; since the eighteenth century at least. It is such a well-worn and widely accepted idea that Hitchens and Harris give examples of religious violence not to substantiate their claim that religion is particularly and uniquely violent, but purely for rhetorical effect – to reinforce their arguments for atheism as the solution to this wholly unquestionable problem. Hitchens details his experiences in Belfast, Beirut, Belgrade and Baghdad to illustrate just how deadly religion inevitably is. Harris asks in exasperation why we do not acknowledge that religion is simply “the most prolific source of violence in our history” (p. 27). No piece of New Atheist polemic is complete without a catalogue of religious violence, both ancient and current. Invoking the John Lennon song, the opening pages of Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) invites us to “Imagine”:

Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’, no Northern Ireland ‘troubles’, no ‘honour killings’…. no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it

(Dawkins, pp. 1-2)

Again, these lists of religious atrocities have a long pedigree in anti-religious polemic. Voltaire employed them in his works, though perhaps with rather more wit and charm than his modern successors. In his 1763 plea for religious tolerance (but not, it should be noted, for “the end of faith”) old François-Marie Arouet noted just some of the sorrows religion had brought to his native France:

After the death of Francis I – a monarch better known for his amours and misfortunes than for his cruelties – the execution of a thousand heretics caused the persecuted sect to take to arms. …. They imitated the cruelties of their enemies: nine civil wars filled France with carnage; and a peace more deadly than war led to the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day. …. The League assassinated Henry III through a Dominican monk and Henry IV through a monstrous former Cistercian monk. Some claim that humanity, indulgence, and liberty of conscience are horrible things; but could they have produced calamities such as these?

(“Voltaire, “Treatise on Tolerance” (trans. Jonathan Bennett 2017)

Voltaire invokes the Reformation, the French civil wars of the sixteenth century and the Wars of Religion of the seventeenth century as evidence that religious intolerance leads inevitably to violence. But his more recent successors take this much further. For Harris, Hitchens et. al. the problem is not simply religious intolerance but religion per se. And the solution is not merely rather more tolerance all round from everyone, but more substantial measures. Victor Stenger ends his The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009) with the declaration that religion “is absurd and dangerous and we look forward to the day, no matter how distant, when the human race finally abandons it” (p. 244). A.C. Grayling hopes this eschatology will be realised soon. He assures believers that secularisation is very much to their advantage, but he too is eager for religion’s demise:

In a truly secular world, one where religion has withered to the relative insignificance of astrology, tarot card divination, health-promotion based on crystals and magnets and other marginal superstition-involving outlooks, an ethical outlook which can serve everyone everywhere …. will at last be possible. That outlook is humanism.

(Grayling, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 138)

So Grayling’s secularism is essentially one where religion is given room to quietly die. Peter Boghossian believes this death needs to be helped along by atheistic “street epistemologists” – essentially atheist evangelists – who “intervene” with religious people they come across in day to day life to help them understand how wrong they are – see Boghossian’s helpful evangelical tips in his A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchtone, 2013, pp.57-9; 112-17).

But the spectre of religion’s inherent and particular tendency for violence means that some New Atheists go much further than relegating religion to the margins or evangelising it out of existence. Harris thinks sometimes things need to go much further still:

Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

(Harris, pp. 52-3)

At least Harris has the faintest glimmering of self-awareness that he acknowledges this “may seem an extraordinary claim”. He is stating that religion is, in at least some cases, so intolerant that tolerant people cannot tolerate it. And he declares that some religion has such an inherent tendency to spill blood that the only way to combat it is to spill blood. Harris has decided that the intolerance and violence of religion must be met with intolerance and violence. And he has little to no cognisance of the irony here.

He is not alone. Hitchens’ politics were left wing and progressive for most of his life, but his anti-religious zealotry, particularly after 9/11, led him to support the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. War, he argues, is justified when it is a just war. In one of many such premature declarations of victory in a war that dragged on for years and resulted in predicatable chaos and suffering long after, Hitchens lauded Bush’s invasion and hailed its “success” as a triumph of secularism over religion:

Secularism is not just a smug attitude. It is a possible way of democratic and pluralistic life that only became thinkable after several wars and revolutions had ruthlessly smashed the hold of the clergy on the state. 

(Hitchens, “Bush’s Secularist Triumph”, Slate, Nov. 9, 2004)

War is good when Hitchens says it is good. Harris spends many pages fulminating against the irrational torture of suspected witches (Harris, p. 88 ff), but gives what he considers perfectly rational justifications for the torture of suspected terrorists (pp. 192-99). Torture is good when Harris says it is good. Harris takes this “ends justifies the means” utilitarianism to a certain type of conclusion when he decides that the vast dangers posed by some religion’s intolerance and irrationality can perhaps be cured by the tolerant and rational application of thermonuclear warheads:

There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. …. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.

(Harris, pp. 128-9)

To paraphrase the apocryphal Vietnam Era justificiation for extreme violence, “we had to nuke the believers in order to save them.”

That New Atheist rhetoric could get to this level of bizarre hypocrisy is remarkable, but to an extent it is explicable. It is an outgrowth of a series of historical myths with their roots in the eighteenth century and the establishment of the European nation state as the primary institution of the modern world, at least until very recently. It is based on several ideas: (i) that there is a distinct social category called “religion”, (ii) that “religion” is inherently and distinctively inclined to intolerance and violence and (iii) that the nation state and its governmental institutions are the best way to hold this violence in check by reducing religion to the private sphere (or supressing it altogether). These claims are justified by reference to history, but the historical bases for them are both outdated and highly dubious.


Holy War

All discussions of religious violence have to mention the Crusades. The New Atheists usually gesture toward them rather than discuss them in any detail, seeing them as the epitome of religious violence and so needing no elucidation. Dawkins mentions them on the very first page of The God Delusion and then repeatedly throughout. Harris and Stenger mention them in passing in catalogues of religion’s violent ills (see, for example, Stenger, God and the Folly Of Faith, Prometheus, 2012, pp. 254-5). Hitchens gives a summary of his understanding of the subject in his chapter “Religion Kills”:

[T]he Crusades, when a papal army set out to recapture Bethlehem and Jerusalem from the Muslims, incidentally destroying many Jewish communities and sacking heretical Christian Byzantium along the way, and inflicted a massacre in the narrow streets of Jerusalem, where, according to the hysterical and gleeful chroniclers, the spilled blood reached up to the bridles of the horses.

(Hitchens, p. 9)

Like most of Hitchens forays into history, this one is heavy on rhetoric, light on details and slightly garbled. He seems to be giving an account of the First Crusade (1096-1099 AD), but works in the sack of Constantinople, which happened a century later in the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204 AD). This is a little like saying the D-Day Landings were a prelude to the Battle of Waterloo, but near enough is good enough when it comes to history for Hitchens. He also notes the tale of “spilled blood … up to the bridles of the horses”, though it is not clear if he actually thinks this should be taken as a literal event or just gleeful hysteria from the “hysterical and gleeful chroniclers”. Plenty of other modern commentators take this story and its variants very literally. No less than historians Karen Armstrong and Arthur Goldschmidt and former US President Bill Clinton have assured various audiences that the Crusaders waded up to their ankles or to their knees in blood after the massacre that followed the fall of Jerusalem in 1099. Thomas F. Madden traces the origins of this story and how it grew in the telling in the various sources in his paper “Rivers of Blood: An Analysis of One Aspect of the Crusader Conquest of Jerusalem in 1099” (Revista Chilena de Estudios Medievales, No.1, 2012, pp. 26-37). Madden also has some macabre tongue-in-cheek fun by calculating the amount of blood that would need to be spilled for even the less ludicrous versions of the story to be true and arriving at a figure of approximately three million exsanguinated corpses; which is about one hundred times the entire population of eleventh century Jerusalem.

Of course, the stories of Crusaders wading in blood are clearly not meant to be taken literally, but they do show the very religious nature of this war and its violence. The claim that the blood of massacred Muslims in their last stand at the Al-Aqsa Mosque was up to the bridles of the Crusaders’ horses (“usque ad frenos equorum“) comes from Raymond of Aguilers – the chaplain to Count Raymond of Saint Gilles and a priest who was present at the fall of Jerusalem. A version of this claim was also made in the letter the Crusade leaders sent to Pope Paschal II in September 1099, informing him of the Crusade’s (to them) miraculous success. But the Biblically-literate clerics of the eleventh century would all have understood the allusion – Revelation 14:20 reads “… And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles”. In the Vulgate the Latin reads exactly as in Raymond’s account: “usque ad frenos equorum“. No-one was taking this literally.

But they were taking it religiously. The lurid imagery of the various versions of this “wading in blood” story is making a point about divine justice and the cleansing of the holy places with the blood of the unrighteous. Modern people would (I hope) find this fairly abhorrent, but medieval clerics and knights were not modern people. There has been a tendency in much modern analysis of the Crusades to the Holy Land to downplay or at least modify the idea that they were primarily religious in motivation; in part because the idea of a holy war is so alien to us. There was a tendency in twentieth century analysis to react against pious and romantic conceptions of the Crusades by explaining that they were “really” driven by base motives. This reappraisal was led and substantially shaped by Sir Steven Runciman’s three volume A History of the Crusades (1951-54), which debunked the earlier lofty views of the Crusades and depicted them as barbarian invasions of the superior Byzantine and Islamic cultures of the east. In this view, the Crusaders were motivated more by land and loot than faith and the Papacy was more interested in expanding its power and influence than any pious motives.

This view has been popularly accepted, largely because it plays into many modern prejudices, and can be seen reflected in popular culture, such as in the Ridley Scott movie Kingdom of Heaven (2005), where the Crusaders are mainly bloodthirsty oafs and the clergy mostly scheming weasels. More recent scholarship, however, has tempered these views considerably. Most historians now agree that the Papacy actually had no plan to expand eastward, let alone start a religious-military movement, so the idea that the Crusades were launched to increase its power is mostly baseless. Work by Christopher Tyerman and Jonathan Riley Smith has also largely debunked the idea that seizing land or profiting from loot was a primary or even a major motivation. In fact, going on crusade was more likely to bankrupt someone than make them rich and most Crusaders already had land back in Europe and, having fulfilled their Crusading vows, were eager to get back to it. The Crusader kingdoms of “Outremer” consistently suffered from a manpower shortage and ultimately collapsed precisely because most Crusaders actually did not want to settle down in the occupied lands of the east and generally went home as soon as they could.

A slightly different view of the “real” motives for the eastern Crusades comes from some Christian apologists and right wing commentators, particularly in the context of recent Islamic terrorism and post-9/11 military excursions. In this reading, the Crusades were not barbaric invasions of the Islamic world and proto-colonial occupations of the Middle East. Rather, they were entirely justified defensive wars in the face of Muslim encroachment on Europe. Christian convert, Rodney Stark, tries to make this case in his God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (2009), where he projects a kind of “Bush Doctrine” onto the Crusades, whereby European Christendom was under assault by “Islam” and so decided to “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here”. Stark’s case does not square at all with the evidence however, and is a classic case of bad history shaped by modern political and ideological biases.

The fact is that, no matter how odd it may seem to moderns or uncomfortable it may be for some Christians, the Crusades were, in fact, primarily a religious phenomenon. Jay Rubenstein’s excellent study Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (Basic Books, 2011) argues the origin of Crusades is best understood in the context of medieval popular apocalyptic thought. This goes a very long way toward explaining how a religion based on the distinctly unwarlike texts of the New Testament inspired a succession of holy wars and why Urban II’s sermon at Clermont in 1095, which aimed only at stirring some western knights to support the Byzantines against the Seljuk Turks, unleased an unprecedented popular mass movement which, at times, the Papacy and the aristocracy found difficult to control.

The key point here is, despite attempts at arguing otherwise, the Crusades were primarily and fundamentally religious. Similarly, there are plenty of other examples of wars, pogroms, persecutions, violent suppressions etc. which were and are also primarily and fundamentally religious. Few of these things are only religious in their inspiration or motivation – few to no historical events have simply one cause, except in the minds of the simple – but we should be clear that religion can, has and does, on occasion, inspire violence. But while this fact can furnish anti-theists with plenty of examples for their catalogues of religious atrocities, it is definitely not sufficient to sustain the argument that religion is somehow especially and uniquely violent, and more so than other motivating ideas and ideologies. As William T. Cavanaugh puts it in his provocative but carefully-argued book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford, 2009):

There is plenty of important empirical work to be done on the violence of certain groups of self-identified Christians, Hindus, Muslims, etc., and there are no grounds for exempting their beliefs and practices from the causal factors that produce violence. …. Where [these arguments] fail is in trying to separate a category called religion with a peculiar tendency toward violence from a putative secular reality that is less prone to violence.

There is no reason to suppose so-called secular ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism and liberalism are any less prone to be absolutist, divisive and irrational than belief in, for example, the biblical God.

(Cavanaugh, pp. 54-5)

This is the “myth” of Cavanaugh’s title – not that religion can be violent, but that it is uniquely and particularly so. The New Atheists do not bother to even examine this latter claim, they simply assume it. But closer inspection shows it to be deeply dubious and ultimately impossible to sustain.

Religious Studies

The Invention of Religion

Part of the problem for any argument that religion is fundamentally and especially prone to violence is the fact that “religion” is a remarkably slippery thing to define. For many people it is a little like good art – they do not know exactly how to describe it but they know it when they see it. Unfortunately, anyone who wants to make an argument about the inherent violence of religion needs to do better than that, and here is where things get tricky.

Definitions of “religion” generally fall into two broad categories – substantivist definitions and functionalist ones. Substantivist definitions of religion look at the focus of religious belief, defining religions as being oriented toward “the gods”, “the divine” or, more broadly, “the transcendent”. Unfortunately this fairly traditional approach usually takes a Western idea of religion – i.e. the sort of things Muslims, Christians and Jews believe and do – as its template and the further one gets from Western ideas and practices the less useful this measure becomes. This has led to more recent attempts at defining religion by what it does and how it works. But these functionalist definitions then become so broad or fuzzy that they can encompass almost any ideology or even any abstraction at all that people care enough about to motivate them to do anything. So the first set of definitions is too narrow, and struggles to find way to sensibly include many forms of Buddhism or traditions such as Shintoism, let alone multiple traditional indigenous traditions that do not fit into the Western template neatly or even at all. While the second is too broad, and finds ways to corral most things we would think of as “religion”, but in the process also rounds up everything from Marxism, to nationalism to a belief in the superior goodness of liberal democracy. So neither serve the purposes of anyone who tries to argue “religion” is particularly and especially violent very usefully.

Not that the anti-theist polemicists bother to actually define “religion” with any rigor, if at all. Harris provides no definition of the term and just claims that religion is the cause of most woes and violence in the world and that this can be substantiated by “a glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper” (p. 12). His various examples include, of course, the usual religious suspects, but also include Stalinism and Maoism as “political religions”. As Cavanaugh observes:

[Harris] does not consider the possibility that Western political religions, such as American civil religion, might qualify as religion, for that would confound his neat dichotomy between liberal reason and religious irrationality.

(Cavanaugh, p. 212)

So it is only political ideologies that Harris does not like which he includes in his vague parameters, not things he is trying to fence off as being legitimate in ways “religion” is not. This gets particularly thorny for him when he turns to justifying torture, war and even nuclear first strikes in the name of his favoured ideologies.

Hitchens has much the same problem. He too does not bother to define religion, but when he turns to examples he also includes Stalinism and Maoism. Even more strangely, he includes the Baathist ideology of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime, despite the Iraqi Baath Party being a secularist party with socialist leanings founded by a Christian and open to all people, religious or otherwise. Saddam had been tolerated by western powers for decades partially because he kept radical Islam and political clerics in check, often by the most brutal methods. But Hitchens seems happy to include Iraqi Baathism because, like Stalin, Saddam adopted some religious trappings when it became politically expedient to do so. Though Hitchens’ main motivation is probably his own very vocal justifications for the 2003 toppling of Saddam’s regime.

Hitchens’ reasoning gets even more tangled when he turns to arguing that the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin were “religious” precisely because they were totalitarian. To demand total control of people’s lives and have them submit totally to a leader, state or ideal is what religions have done down the centuries, therefore, according to Hitchens, any ideology that does these things is religious. But this is a clumsy attempt at a functionalist definition of religion and far a better conclusion to his argument is that, actually, it is not only religions that do these things – other ideologies can do them as well. Like Harris, Hitchens is shaping his definitions to fit his ideological preferences and doing a bad job of it.

This gets Hitchens into some odd tangles. He does not like Saddam’s Baathism, so he tries to rope this secularist and socialist ideology into “religion”. On the other hand, he does rather like Martin Luther King’s moral teachings, so he has to wrangle this devout Baptist pastor away from Christianity on the flimsy grounds that his non-violence is contrary to Hitchens’ conception of the vengeful God of the Bible. Apparently King’s own conception of that God is not relevant here, and so Hitchens can thus boldly declare that he was “in no real as opposed to nominal sense … a Christian” (p. 61). Hitchens’ definition of “religion” is endlessly flexible.

The whole concept of something called “religion” that is distinct from secular ideas and ideologies is actually remarkably recent and distinctively western. This means that it is not only a difficult concept to define, but it is also very difficult to treat “religion” as a constant in all human cultures across time. The word derives from the Latin religio, but both that word and its later derivatives have changed markedly in meaning over the centuries before eventually arriving at its modern manifestation. There is no word in the cultures of ancient Greece, Egypt, India, China, Japan or Mesoamerica which fits the modern conception of “religion”. And the Latin word our term derives from does not actually fit it either. To the Romans, religio did not refer to a set of beliefs, ideas, teachings or dogmas. It referred to a powerful obligation to perform an action, particularly to renew a bond or confirm a link. This means it often was used to refer to the ancient obligation to worship the gods in particular ways, but it was not confined to this. It applied to a wide range of social and cultural obligations or actions that were venerable and so proper and fitting, many or even most of which a modern person would not regard as “religious” at all.

This means that when Augustine wrote his treatise De Vera Religione (usually translated as “Of True Religion” ) in the late fourth century, he was not maintaining that Christianity was the true “religion” and other “religions” were untrue. He was defining what he regarded as proper worship. He argued that any worship that focuses on created things – idols, animals, nature etc. – rather than the Creator was not proper worship or true religio. Naturally, as a Christian, he regarded the worship of the Trinity the only true religio, but while an earlier Roman like Cicero would have disagreed with this conclusion, he would have agreed with Augustine’s use of the key word. For both, religio in this context referred to the focus of practices, not beliefs.

In medieval Christian usage this Roman meaning became obscure and the word was rarely used at all. The exception was its use to refer to the various kinds of monastic rule or orders. This is its meaning in its earliest recorded usage in English (c. 1200), defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “a state of life bound by monastic vows”. This is why members of monastic orders are referred to even today as being “religious clergy” while non-monastic, diocesan clerics are “secular clergy” – terminology which is puzzling to many, given the modern meaning of those words. By the later Middle Ages the various orders – Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans etc. – were referred to as “religions”.

The process whereby religio became “religion” was a very gradual one, beginning with the Platonists Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464) and Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who both presented Muslim, Jewish and Christian worship (religio) as all inspired by the same universal divine impulse, though with the Christian form as the best and closest to God’s ideal. This is still not too far from the medieval conception found in, say, Aquinas, but it provided a stepping stone to conceptions of religio in the debates of the Reformation that not only made it a universal impulse but also very much a matter of doctrine and belief rather than practice. As the various Christian sects and churches of Europe defined themselves by increasingly codified lists of doctrines, “religion” began to emerge from religio as something with hard and clear edges and, increasingly, ones defined by what you thought rather than how you worshipped.

The Reformation saw some call for greater toleration of varied beliefs, which began to emphasise the idea that “religion” was a universal human instinct. In his 1624 book De Veritae, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) presented an early form of Deism and defined five essential beliefs found in all religion: (i) Belief in a deity, (ii) Worship of the Deity, (iii) That virtue and piety combined are the best form of worship, (iv) Rejection of our sins, (v) Punishment or reward after death. Like all later definitions of religion that try for universality, Herbert’s clearly falls well short. But his ideas were heavily influential on Descartes and John Locke (1632-1704). It is in Locke’s work that we start to see the – to us – commonly understood idea of a clear and hard division between the private, internal, belief-based “religion” and a public, external, political and non-religious secular sphere. For Locke, religious ideas cannot be settled by public authority and so are and have to remain matters of private conscience.

So here we finally arrive at an idea of “religion” which is recognisable to us. It is private and individual, but also universal and trans-temporal. And it is also quite distinct from civil, political, mercantile and worldly affairs – or at least, it should be. This conception would be very odd to anyone from a late medieval society and totally alien to Augustine or Cicero. It also arose in a specific European context in reaction to the upheavals of the Reformation, the threat of the Ottoman Empire and the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which we still call “the Wars of Religion”. This is why this very modern and very European conception seems so “normal” to us, despite not actually fitting most of human history or most of the world beyond Europe.

Wars of Religion

The “Wars of Religion”

The wars that wracked Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – from the civil wars in France from 1562-98 through the Thirty Years War (16-18-48) and up to the English Civil War (1642-51) and its aftermaths – occupy a central place in the concept of religious war and violence. These have long been dubbed “the Wars of Religion” and held up as the quintessential example of what happens when religion’s unique tendency toward violence and oppression is unchecked. This idea has a long pedigree and actually began as early as Spinoza, but was shaped by Hobbes and Locke and given polemical expression by Gibbon and Voltaire.

As a result, it is a truism that the Reformation broke the domination of Catholicism but also unleashed the pent up violence of religious disputes and it was only the assertion of political control by the liberal nation state and the political marginalisation of religion that controlled this chaos caused by the clashing of doctrinal absolutism. This is what Hitchens is invoking when he talks about “several wars and revolutions [that] ruthlessly smashed the hold of the clergy on the state”. It is also the example that he, Harris and other anti-theist activists have most in mind when they not only warn against the dangers of religion, but also justify violence and military action against Islamic nations and groups, since they are the modern manifestation of “the hold of the clergy on the state”. So it is right and good that modern, liberal, secular states act to contain and curtail their inevitable barbarism.

The idea that modern secular liberal states have their origin in the eventual political solution to the problem exemplified by the Wars of Religion is so well accepted that it is repeated without question in most contemporary political theory, with Cavanagh providing multiple examples in his analysis (pp. 130-41). Quentin Skinner’s summary in his The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: 1978) is typical:

[T]he religious upheavals of the Reformation made a paradoxical yet vital contribution to the crystallizing of the modern, secularized concept of the State. For as soon as the protagonists of the rival religious creeds showed they were willing to fight each other to the death, it began to seem obvious to a number of politique theorists that, if there were to be any prospect of achieving civic peace, the powers of the State would have to be divorced from the duty to uphold any particular faith.

(p. 352)

In his Leviathan (1651), Hobbes had written of the inherent violence of humanity’s natural state and of “the war of all against all”, proposing the benign commonwealth of the nation state as the solution to this natural chaos. The inevitable sectarian violence of the Wars of Religion and the secular liberal nation state as their ultimate solution, is an extension of this idea. This means the concept of the secular, liberal nation state has its roots deep in this conception of Early Modern History.

That conception is based on two widely-held ideas about the Wars of Religion. Firstly, that the combatants opposed each other primarily and fundamentally because of religious differences and intolerance, with any political, economic or social causes being at least secondary if not insignificant. Secondly, the modern nation state was the solution to the wars and the agent of their end, not their cause. But modern reappraisals of these conflicts have cast serious doubt on both of these assumptions, to the point where neither are able to be strongly sustained.

To begin with, if the Reformation was supposed to have unleashed the violent forces inherent in religious differences, it is very strange that it took about three decades to do so. The first war usually cited as one of the Wars of Religion is the Schmalkaldic War of 1546-47, between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Lutheran Schmalkaldic League. Not only did it take Charles many years to decide to attack any Protestants, but he had spent most of those years at war not with any Protestant princes, but with the Pope. As Richard Dunn points out, “Charles V’s soldiers sacked Rome, not Wittenberg, in 1527” (The Age of Religious Wars 1559-1689, Norton, 1970, p. 6). Charles was far more interested in the long struggle with the Papacy for control of Italy and control over the Church in the German principalities than Protestantism. And even the Schmalkaldic War was hardly some neat Catholic versus Protestant “religious war”: several Protestant princes joined the emperor against the League, indicating that it was more about power and control than doctrine.

And this is the pattern we see across the so-called Wars of Religion. Catholic France allied with German Protestant princes against the Catholic Charles V in 1552, while Catholic German princes sat back and watched. France allied with the Muslim Turks against the Holy Roman Empire in 1525: which saw a Catholic ruler fighting another Catholic with Islamic assistance. The Pope withdrew forces from Germany in 1547, fearing that Charles V’s military successes against rebellious Protestants would make him too strong to deal with. In 1556 Pope Paul IV went to war against another Catholic monarch; Philip II of Spain.

The French civil wars of the sixteenth century are traditionally seen as conflicts between the Catholic majority and the Huguenot minority over religious differences. In reality, we see nobles happily switching sides as the fortunes of war shifted and plenty of examples of Catholic and Protestant nobles cooperating to maintain the rights of the nobility over the increasing centralising power of the monarchy. Such alliances were also found among the commoners, with Catholic and Protestant peasants uniting to resist abuses by both the nobility and the crown. In Agen in 1562, Catholic peasants joined their Huguenot compatriots in rebellion against the Catholic baron Francois de Fumel, seized the lord from his chateau and beheaded him. There were similar revolts where Catholic and Protestant commoners made a common cause in Pont-en-Roians (1578), Roissas (1579), the Vivarais (1580) and many other areas.

When we get to the piece de resistance of the Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years War, the image of one denomination battling another over doctrinal differences became even more endlessly muddled. The nominally Catholic Imperial army included several Protestant generals and many Protestant soldiers. The war was increasingly sustained by mercenary companies whose allegiance was to the highest bidder, regardless of confession. Ernst von Mansfield originally worked for the Catholic Spanish and then switched to Lutheran Fredrick V, before switching sides several more times. Sweden’s king Gustavus Adolphus is often depicted as the great champion of the Protestants, but was often seen as an invader by both Protestants and Catholics in Germany – he massacred Lutheran peasants who tried to drive out the Swedes in November 1632. Cardinal Richelieu made a treaty with the Swedes in 1631 and the latter half of the War was effectively a struggle between France and the German Empire – both Catholic. In 1635 Catholic Spanish troops attacked Trier and captured the Catholic archbishop-elector, with France subsequently declaring war on Spain – again, both Catholic. In 1635 the Protestant principalities of Brandenburg and Saxony signed the Peace of Prague with the emperor and their armies joined the Imperial forces to fight the Protestant Swedes. Meanwhile the Pope, far from backing the Imperial champions of Catholic Europe, gave his blessing to the French-Swedish alliance. And this is just a small selection of examples of how this war was clearly not some Catholic versus Protestant struggle over religious belief.

This is not to say that religion was not a factor, that doctrinal disputes were not often the inciting element that began these conflicts or that both sides did not use religious propaganda to inflame and motivate their troops and supporters. But the examples above cannot be dismissed as mere exceptions. The switching of sides, shifting alliances and multiple examples of armies of different confessional backgrounds uniting against a common enemy or kingdoms of the same faith turning on each other shows that, while religion was a factor in these conflicts, it was clearly not the factor. Anything more than the most cursory reading of the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth century shows that they were driven by social, political, territorial and economic factors as much or more than anything religious.

This means the equally simplistic narrative that the rise of the secular, liberal nation state was a response to and therefore solution to the Wars of Religion is clearly a dubious one. These wars were primarily nation states jockeying for supremacy while also consolidating their new forms of authority and economic strength. The English Civil War was sparked, in part, by a Parliamentary party scandalised by a king who seemed overly “Popish”, but at its heart it was a struggle between a newly and increasingly absolutist monarchy seeking to centralise its power and a Parliament fighting for a much older form of distributed authority. This pattern can actually be seen across Europe, and it pre-dates both the Wars of Religion and the Reformation.

More centralised nation states had been rising across Europe since the later Middle Ages, driven by the economic boom of the later medieval period and by the influx of wealth from the New World and other long distance trade and colonisation. Long before the Reformation, these newly rich and powerful nations began a process of the transfer of much of the Church’s power to the state. Looked at this way, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses are not so much the beginning of the Reformation but rather an incident within this already accelerating process. It is interesting to note that the Reformation took only hold where it was backed by the state and it did not take hold where it was resisted by the state. Closer examination of this shows that the states that backed the Reformers tended to be ones which had not managed to wrest political independence and economic benefit from its local Church (e.g. England, where the Church had remained rich and politically powerful), while the states that resisted the Reformation were ones where the Church had already increasingly been suborned to royal domination and economically weakened (e.g. France and particularly Spain, where the Church had in many respects become an instrument of royal policy).

This means both the Catholic and the Protestant spheres emerged from the seventeenth century with either a Protestant national church firmly in the hands of the king or the supposedly “universal” Catholic Church locally dependant on royal protection, with the reluctant acquiescence of popes not wanting to see more kingdoms turn Protestant. At the same time older, medieval systems of distributed authority and economic power had increasingly been reshaped or simply marginalised and replaced with more centralised state authority. The division of the realm into secular and religious spheres, the consignment of religion to a matter of personal conscience and the increasing removal or dilution of religious institutions’ political authority was all part of this process. It was not wise and noble kings and politicians realising that religion was uniquely dangerous and so had to be neutralised. It was a growing and increasingly powerful state authority reshaping how everything worked and doing so to its advantage.

This means the Wars of Religion were actually these states jostling for individual benefit and supremacy, thanks to an influx of wealth combined with a revolution in military technology and organisation. Their secularisation was a function of religious institutions being neutralised or marginalised. And any liberalism and democracy came much, much later and as a result of economic and social forces that had little to do with religion.

So the “Wars of Religion” were, actually, not wars of religion. They were certainly not the salutary lesson in unchecked religious impulse of common imagining. And the secular, liberal nation state did not arise as a solution to the problem of religious violence. Rather, the rise of the nation state was the primary cause not only of these wars, but also of the Reformation and its aftermath.

Four Horsemen

The Central Myths

The secular, liberal nation state, therefore, has its roots deep in the myth of religious violence. Again, it should be emphasised that this is not the idea that religions can be violent or that religion can inspire violence – they clearly can and obviously sometimes do. But the myth is that religion is particularly and uniquely violent, and so must be contained, curtailed, marginalised and, preferably, eliminated. This myth is a central assumption in most current anti-theistic argument. And it is no coincidence that the so-called New Atheism that still motivates most anti-theism today arose in the early 2000s; in a direct response to a religious movement by non-state actors striking the dominant nation state at the height of its post-Cold War supremacy.

It is also no coincidence that this myth arose in the eighteenth century and was reinforced into a certain dogmatic force in the nineteenth century as one of several “historical” founding myths of the Western nation state and its status as the best and, in fact, the “normal” way of ordering human affairs. Like the myth of “the Dark Ages” and the tangle of myths about the rise of science, it is a foundational story in the establishment of this model of social, political and economic organisation. So it is hardly surprising that it would be invoked so forcefully by the New Atheists when the 9/11 attacks seemed to threaten this model. Nor is it remarkable that people like Harris and Hitchens would use it to justify a response – military action, torture and even a nuclear option – wielded by Western nation states against the Islamic “other”.

This is why the arguments of these polemicists have to slip and slide around making any clear definition of “religion”, so they can include things they do not like (e.g. Baathism, communism) but exclude things they do like (liberal democracy, capitalism, some forms of nationalism). It is also why a tension quickly emerged between the progressive politics of many atheists and the rather politically staid and even conservative tendencies of the New Atheist agenda. This is why what was at one point called the “Atheist Movement” has increasingly descended into political bickering between a progressive wing (called “Woke” or “Social Justice Warriors” by their opponents) and a conservative opposition (called “Alt-Right” or just “Nazis” by the others). New Atheism was always a political enterprise.

This is not to say that secularism, liberalism or a separation of Church and State are therefore wrong or bad ideas – I happen to think all of them are very good things. But it does mean that the historical underpinnings of many arguments for them are, at best, distinctly wobbly. The trite claim that “more people have died in wars over religion than any other cause” is too simplistic and glib to be anything other than a weak cliché. No war has a single cause and not even overtly religious wars like the Crusades were only about religion. Even so, the Encyclopedia of Wars (Alan Axelrod, Charles Phillips ed.s, 2004) lists 1,763 historical conflicts and only classifies 123 of them (6.98%) with religion as their primary cause. Religion is not uniquely and especially prone to violence: no more so than any other motivating ideology or idea. Humans are eminently capable of finding reasons for violence and religion is not some special case that requires particular or particularly extreme counter-measures.

Grayling and Dawkins may fondly imagine a world where there is “no religion” and think it would be a better place. Personally, I think this is a naïve fantasy and that the sum total of happiness and misery, stability and turmoil and peace and war would be about the same as now and the same as it ever has been. History tells us this, at least.

Further Reading

William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford, 2009) – I would like to acknowledge my debt to Cavanaugh’s book in my writing of this article and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Borden W. Painter, The New Atheist Denial of History: Hijacking the Past in the Name of Reason (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

Nathan Johnstone, The New Atheism, Myth, and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018)

The post The Great Myths 12: Religious Wars and Violence appeared first on History for Atheists.

Read the whole story
190 days ago
Athens, Greece
Share this story

The Gwangyang Steel Works in Gwangyang, South Korea is the...


The Gwangyang Steel Works in Gwangyang, South Korea is the largest facility of its kind in the world. It outputs an average of 18 million tons of steel per year, producing parts for bridges and other infrastructure, cars, refrigerators, and more. The plant even serves as a tourist attraction, receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world.

See more here: https://bit.ly/3wo6zjD

34.914935°, 127.740139°

Source imagery: Maxar

Read the whole story
190 days ago
Athens, Greece
198 days ago
Athens, Greece
Share this story

Anti-Pseudoscience Advocate Anne Borden King Has Cancer, and Now Her Facebook Feed Is Full of Pseudoscience Cancer ‘Alternative Care’ Ads

2 Comments and 4 Shares

Anne Borden King, writing at The New York Times:

Last week, I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

There’s a reason I’ll never fall for these ads: I’m an advocate against pseudoscience. As a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and the founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, I’ve learned to recognize the hallmarks of pseudoscience marketing: unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. Things like “bleach cures” that promise to treat everything from Covid-19 to autism.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t.

“May be” is too kind, as is “social media” in general as opposed to Facebook in particular. Scammers and fraudsters of all sorts, from alternative “medicine” quackery to financial investment grifters have found a welcome home advertising and promoting their rackets on Facebook.

They don’t advertise on legitimate media because legitimate media won’t have them, and because Facebook makes it affordable by doing all the hard work of targeting for them. Facebook is a criminal enterprise fully and knowingly complicit in all of this — from the spread of bigotry to the spread of pseudoscience.

Conversely, legitimate advertisers are abandoning Facebook because they want nothing to do with any of this. To remain on Facebook is to be complicit by association.

Read the whole story
508 days ago
CDA Section 230 is the liability protection Facebook relies on. Without Section 230, Facebook (and NewsBlur for that matter) couldn't thrive as it would be liable for the content posted on it by third-parties, *including ads*.

I cover this in a COVIDCURES hypothetical on my side project WTF is CDA: https://cda.wtf (it's a short quiz to see where you stand on the law. Find out if you agree with it or want it reformed.)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
508 days ago
I feel like there’s an interesting area between taking things down and labeling them - especially with politicians and other public figures it can be useful to have a public record even if something is flagged as false or abusive. I’m not sure it would make enough of a difference.
508 days ago
This particular hypothetical seems the most cut and dried to me of all of them: In this case Facebook isn't an "open platform" for communication, it is a paid publisher that should be culpable for the ad revenue it generates, and for the most part existing Truth in Advertising laws should apply pretty heavily with little to no modification needed. You cannot "disintermediate" advertising, and given the existing paid relationship that should be self-evident that Facebook is directly publishing such posts not as a "general platform" but as an advertising magazine. Otherwise you are whitewashing advertising as "regular content" and while that is clearly Facebook's MO in this case, that leads to even more critical and obvious violations of existing Truth in Advertising laws (disguising paid content as editorial or news content!). It's a cake that Facebook should not be allowed to have and to eat.
507 days ago
I don’t see a problem here: she consumes free service from Facebook in exchange for seeing ads. Sometimes these ads are going to be annoying and tasteless. And if these ads are illegal, there is an established framework for dealing with such ads.
499 days ago
Athens, Greece
Share this story
1 public comment
506 days ago
"Conversely, legitimate advertisers are abandoning Facebook because they want nothing to do with any of this. To remain on Facebook is to be complicit by association." Legitimate content producers/users are also abandoning it because it increasingly only reaches an audience of racist, delusional people trying to sell each other on the pyramid schemes.

Perverse Incentives Created Our Terrible Criminal Justice System

1 Share
Jason Brennan and Chris W. Surprenant

The U.S. criminal justice system is worse than you think. Horrific incidents like the recent video of a Minneapolis police office kneeling on the neck of George Floyd happen more often than most people believe. Almost daily, we see police officers beating or shooting subdued citizens, judges or prosecutors imposing unreasonable punishments, or county sheriffs seizing cash and goods from people doing nothing more than driving on the interstate. You can watch cops play murderous games of Simon Says with civilians. Police are rarely punished for excessive force. Prisoners who serve their time return to society as second-class citizens who often cannot vote and have little hope of securing good long-term employment.

The so-called Land of the Free is the Land of the Imprisoned. In 2018, the U.S. imprisoned approximately 2.3 million people, about 1 in 100 adults. The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s known prison population. 27% of all people incarcerated in the United States, including 60% of all females incarcerated, have not been convicted of a crime. An additional 4.6 million people—2% of the population—are under state control through probation or parole. Over 7 million people, or nearly 2.5% of the population of the United States, are under some form of “carceral supervision”—that is, incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.[1] Only 11 U.S. states incarcerate citizens at a lower rate than the Russian Federation.[2] 35 U.S. states, including overwhelmingly white states like Wyoming and Montana, put people in prison at a higher rate than repressive, authoritarian Cuba.[3]

It wasn’t always like this. As late as 1971, the U.S. incarceration rate was only about 150 per 100,000 people—higher than other OECD countries, but within the same cluster. Since then, it’s exploded to over 700 per 100,000. It’s hard to find reliable data on police violence over time, but what data we do have suggests they are far more violent than before. For instance, in 1981, for example, SWAT teams were deployed about 5,000 times across the United States, mostly to respond to violent crime. By 2015, no-knock SWAT teams were deployed about 100 times per day; 93% were for non-violent drug arrests and searches.[4]

How did we get here? What do we do about it?

Three Incomplete/Mistaken Theories

People of different background ideologies come ready to give the same answers they give everywhere else. Progressives want to blame racism and poverty. Conservatives want to blame family and social collapse and the (resulting?) crime. Libertarians want to blame government overreach, especially the drug war. They are each only partly right, and their stories don’t quite work.

Progressives are right that the U.S. criminal justice is systematically racist. Police officers act more violently toward blacks in ways that cannot be explained away by differences in crime rates. Black Americans are disproportionately and excessively fined by police,[5] are arrested at disproportionately higher rates for non-violent offenses like marijuana possession,[6] and black men receive longer sentences than white men for the same crimes.[7]

Nevertheless, the trends go the wrong way. Neither poverty nor racism have disappeared, of course, but they went on a strong downward trend while the criminal justice system’s degree of harshness and punitiveness went on a strong upward trend. Further, racism does not easily explain why the U.S. system became unusually punitive and harsh toward the white majority.

The conservative story faces similar problems. Conservatives are correct that violent criminals tend to come from one-parent households. The breakdown of families partly explains the rise in crime.[8] Yes, crime rose in the United States (for reasons no one quite knows), and so we might expect increased incarceration.

But the conservative story does not quite work either. Yes, crime rose, but then, starting around 1994, it fell. Yet the punitiveness of the system continued to rise steadily the entire time. Single-parent household rates have been generally stable since 1994, but the criminal justice system has become harsher. U.S. imprisonment rates are not proportional to our higher crimes, and the United States gives far longer sentences than other countries do for equivalent crimes. There is little evidence that adding extra length to sentences does much to deter criminals.[9] In fact, some empirical work finds that increased sentences promote recidivism; the longer a prisoner is in jail, the more he becomes institutionalized and the weaker his ties to his community become.[10]

Libertarians want to blame the War on Drugs, and they are partly right. But if jails released all the prisoners convicted or accused only of drug offenses, the United States would still have far more prisoners than any other country, would still incarcerate at a higher rate than almost any other country, and would still impose longer sentences and harsher punishments.[11] Only about 1 in 5 U.S. prisoners are there only for drug crimes.[12] Some of crimes result from conditions created by the Drug War—just as alcohol prohibition lead to increased gang violence in the 1920s—but eliminating the Drug War wouldn’t solve the problem on its own. There are too many other crimes not connected, even indirectly, to conditions created by the Drug War.

Perverse Incentives: Follow the Money

In Injustice for All, we argue that the United States is unusually dysfunctional because the key players in the system—from voters to politicians, town aldermen to state legislatures, local police to prison guards, prosecutors to district attorneys to public defenders—face unusually dysfunctional incentives.

Cash-strapped municipalities can make money by demanding fines for every small infraction—and by expanding what counts as infractions. Local jurisdictions can save money by hiring fewer police and sending more people to state prisons.

Electing prosecutors, DAs, and judges is largely unique to the United States. Thanks to the problem of rational ignorance, voters are systematically misinformed about crime statistics (they persistently believed crime has been increasing though it actually has been falling) and have no incentive to research more effective criminal justice methods. Prosecutors, district attorneys, and politicians win elections by showing they are “tough on crime” and on criminals, not by defending more humane—or more effective—approaches to criminal justice. They are in an arms race to push for more convictions and ever longer sentences.

State legislators have every incentive to keep jails and prisons open in their home districts. Prisons systems have become a workfare and fiscal stimulus program for impoverished rural areas. Prison guard unions, prison supplies, and poor towns lobby for more prisons.

The U.S. Census counts incarcerated persons as residents of town where they are imprisoned, not the town they lived in before incarceration. In Connecticut, this is responsible for creating nine (majority white) state representative districts that would not meet minimum population requirements but for their prison populations.

In 1981, the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act authorized the military to cooperate with domestic law enforcement agencies. The military began training police in military tactics—the kinds of home invasion techniques SWAT teams use come from the army’s playbook. The 1990 National Defense Authorization Act authorized the military to donate “excess” military equipment to local law enforcement.[13] As of 2005, 80% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team.[14] Thanks to this and other measures, the federal government has inadvertently—or perhaps on purpose—incentivized and subsidized training local U.S. police to deploy military-style suppression tactics during routine calls—except that police face fewer restrictions on violent force than U.S. soldiers.

Public defender offices are poorly funded, while prosecutors work hand-in-hand with police. Prosecutors threaten to throw dozens of charges at suspects for one crime, and then scare suspects into accepting plea bargains. Pre-trial incarceration is common: Citizens who cannot afford cash bail rot in jail while awaiting their trail, and thus lose their jobs, their homes, and often their families.

These and dozens of other unusual perverse incentives explain why the U.S. system is an outlier. It’s true that external shocks made a difference. Rising crime in the 1970s and the moral panic of the Drug War led to an overreaction (to put it charitably), but the overreaction has continued even as crime dropped away.

The key players have a monetary and power-based stake in keeping things going as is. The benefits of bad behaviors are concentrated among the few while the costs are diffused among the many.

Fixing the Incentives

If we want to fix the problems, we need to fix the incentives.

In some cases, that means admitting we can’t really fix the incentives, and so we should instead strip government of some of its power. In general, something should be a crime only if it causes a wrongful harm to a victim, only if criminalization works (by reducing rather than increasing overall crime), only if there are no superior alternatives to criminalization for reducing the problem, only if enforcement passes cost-benefit analysis, and only if government agencies show they are competent to handle the problem.

The drug war fails each part of this test. The U.S. government has proven itself incompetent and highly corrupt in how it fights the drug war. It blights our cities by incentivizing cartels to run violent black markets. The drug war has become a cash cow for both governments and cartel. Reform is unlikely. We should end the war on drugs.

Similar remarks apply to SWAT teams. They are rarely used for their proper purpose. We should at least eliminate them in any town smaller than 100,000 people.

Further, rather than merely asking how to reform prisons, we should look for alternatives to imprisonment. We tend to assume incarceration is the normal, natural way to punish criminals. But historically speaking, it’s unusual and recent. Prison should generally be reserved for convicted violent offenders who represent a continuing safety threat to others, and only if there is no better way to contain them.

We could instead require the guilty to pay restitution to their victims—perhaps with exemplary damages in some cases. We could expand house arrest. We could even substitute caning/public flogging for imprisonment. While we do not endorse this as the best punishment, in the book, we argue that caning is both more effective and more humane than imprisonment. Even our own criminal code agrees: If we beat you with a cane, we might receive a 3-month jail sentence, but if we kidnapped you and forced you to live in horrible, prison-like conditions for 3 months, we’d receive a far longer sentence.

Beyond that, here are other reforms, some we should clearly implement, and others more speculative:

  1. Towns may no longer keep monetary fines. Police may not keep confiscated goods or cash. All fines collected go to restitution funds to make victims of crime whole.
  2. End career prosecutors. Instead, government lawyers will alternate between serving as public defenders and prosecutors, and they will be judged by factors other than their win rates.
  3. End the election of judges and district attorneys. Have them appointed, as in most of Europe. Voters have proven themselves incompetent to judge this matter.
  4. Remove laws immunizing police and others from bad behavior. Make it easier to sue them. Have damages paid not from general taxes, but from salary pools, merit raise pools, and even from retirement funds. Incentivize the police to police each other rather than to look the other way.
  5. Eliminate cash bail. There’s almost no evidence showing that assigning cash bail makes it more likely for defendants to appear for their court dates. New Jersey passed sweeping bail reform measures in 2014,[15] implementing them in 2017. Since these measures were implemented violent crime is down by more than 30%,[16] pretrial detention is down by 44% or about 6,000 people at any given time,[17] and there was a statistically insignificant percentage change in the number of defendants who failed to appear for their court dates.[18]
  6. Eliminate plea bargaining. In practice, prosecutors threaten suspects with multiple charges to incentivize them to plead guilty, even when they are innocent.
  7. Bring back mens rea and test for fair notice. Require prosecutors to prove to grand juries that a person could reasonably have known something was a crime before they committed it. Before even hearing the case, jurors are given the law, and then given a wide range of behaviors, including not only the behaviors attorneys are thinking of prosecuting as crimes, but a range of other related behaviors. Unless a supermajority of the jurors agrees the behavior in question is clearly a violation of that law and that a reasonable citizen would know this ahead of time, then the charges are automatically dropped.
  8. Change who pays for prison: Make cities pay the full cost of any prisoners they send to state or county prisons.
  9. Adopt the ancient Athenian model for punishments: After a conviction, both the prosecution and the defense propose a punishment. If the jury does not unanimously accept the prosecutor’s punishment by private vote, the suspect receives the defense’s proposed punishment instead

The system is broken from top to bottom. There is no singular law or policy responsible for its problems, and so there is no one law or policy that can fix everything. But proposals like these should be taken seriously.


[1] Prison Policy Initiative, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.”

[2] BBC, “World Prison Populations,” 2019; Prison Policy Initiative, “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration,” 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonsson, P. “After Atlanta Raid Tragedy, New Scrutiny of Police Tactics,” The Christian Science Monitor; Hohmann, L, “No-Knock Police Raid Ends in Blazing Tragedy.”

[5] Sances, M. and H. You, (2017) “Who Pays for Government? Representation and Exploitative Revenue Sources,” The Journal of Politics 79(3): 1090-1094.

[6] Drug Policy Alliance, “From Prohibition to Progress: A Status Report on Marijuana Legalization.”

[7] United States Sentencing Commission, “Demographic Differences in Sentencing: An Update to the 2012 Booker Report.”

[8] Harper, C. C., and S. S. MacLanahan, (2004) “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14:369-397.

[9] Nagin, D. S. (2013), “Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century,” in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, vol 42: Crime and Justice in America, 1975-2025, ed. M. Tonry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 199-263; Levitt, S. D. (2004), “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18:163-190; Doob, A. and C. Webster. (2003), “Sentence Severity and Crime: Accepting the Null Hypotheses,” Crime and Justice 30(2003):143-195; Levitt, S. D. (1998), “Why Do Increased Arrest Rates Appear to Reduce Crime: Deterrence, Incapacitation, or Measurement Error?” Economic Inquiry 36:353-372; Gendreau, P., T. Little, and C. Goggin (1996), “A Meta-Analysis of Adult Offender Recidivism: What Works!” Criminology 34:575-607; Farrington, D. P., P. A. Langan, and P. O. Wikström (1994), “Changes in Crime and Punishment in America, England, and Sweden between the 1980s and 1990s,” Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention 3 (1994): 103-131.

[10] Gendreau, P., T. Little, and C. Goggin (1996).

[11] Pfaff, J. (2017), Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform. New York: Basic Books.

[12] Prison Policy Initiative, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.”

[13] Andrzejewski, A. (2016), “War Weapons for America’s Police Departments: New Data Shows Feds Transfer $2.2B in Military Gear,” Forbes, May 10, 2016.

[14] Fund, J. (2014), “The United States of SWAT?National Review.

[15] State of New Jersey 216th Legislature (2014), “An Act Concerning Court Administration, Supplementing Titles 2A and 2B of the New Jersey Statutes, and amending P.L. 1995, c. 325.”

[16] Ibarra, R. (2018), “Crime Rates Plunge in New Jersey, and Bail Reform Advocates Are Gloating,” WNYC.

[17] Parmley, S. (2019), “Two Years Into Bail Reform, Pretrial Detention Much Lower, AOC Report Says,” New Jersey Law Journal.

[18] New Jersey Judiciary 2018.

Read the whole story
506 days ago
Athens, Greece
Share this story

What does the time spend unlocking your IPhone has to do with the time it takes your CI to build? More than you might think. We tend to underestimate how inefficient workflows impact developer productivity and distract from the task at hand.

1 Share

In this article I explain the first- and second-order effects of inefficient developer workflows. We share real-life examples and analyse at what point you should invest in automation vs. doing things manually. I discuss inefficient setups I am frequently coming across and that I believe have an extreme impact on developer productivity: test-automation quality, build time of CI pipelines, vulnerability scans pre-vrs post-commit, static vrs. dynamic environment setups, insufficient configuration management. Thank you to Nigel Simpson who is the Director of Enterprise Tech at a fortune 100 to give some additional insights in the way they are thinking about these things.

Key question for me remains: at what point is a problem sufficiently big enough to invest in automation? Even for my very personal day to day work, I set aside an hour a month to look at how I can optimize. I will sort applications on my devices for fast access depending on usage, I will look into my project management setup or simply the way I organize my inbox.

I very much encourage every team to regularly (maybe ones a quarter) spend an afternoon as a team and reflect on your workflow. We do groomings for everything right? Take the time and think how you want to work together as a team. It will pay off faster than you think.

submitted by /u/kvgru
[link] [comments]
Read the whole story
513 days ago
Athens, Greece
Share this story
Next Page of Stories