Pre-modern values, religion and culture

Many people outside the USA have watched with astonishment as fundamentalist Christians have aligned themselves with a serial adulterer and sexual assaulter who lost the recent election and is now seeking to undermine democracy in order to stay in power. Since first elected, Trump has worked hard to equate disagreement with treason. He has banished loyal opposition, sacked people for doing their jobs and called for the criminal investigation of ordinary opponents. But this alignment is not as bizarre as it seems on the surface. Fundamentalists share the value of demonizing and seeking to punish those they see as “other”, one of the key characteristics of fascism, as I discussed in my previous post. This applies to Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists alike, as evidenced by the recent murders in France and Austria by Muslim terrorists angered by cartoons.

What is fundamentalism?

So I have extended my analysis of the the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) (see earlier post here) to see what it has to say about the extent of religious fundamentalism in the world today. Most religions developed in the pre-modern era and their sacred texts and teachings incorporate pre-modern culture and values to varying extents. Peter Herriot has written extensively on fundamentalist religious beliefs, characterized these movements as attempts to return to the pre-modern origins of their faith as prescribed by their sacred books [1]. He identifies five main general characteristics of fundamentalist religious movements:

  • Reactivity: hostility towards the secular modern world
  • Dualism: the tendency to evaluate in starkly binary terms, as good or bad
  • Authority; the willingness to believe and obey the sacred book of the movement and/or its leaders
  • Selectivity: the choice , from the sacred book or the tradition, of certain beliefs and practices in preference to others
  • Millennialism: the belief that God will triumph in the end and establish his kingdom on earth.

Other common characteristics include prejudice towards minorities and authoritarian aggression – in some cases resorting to violence. Fundamentalist groups may be mainly religious in focus, or the religious element may be strongly associated with nationalism or ethnic identity. Fundamentalists seek to erase the distinction between secular and sacred and impose their form of religious beliefs on all through political action or authoritarian control. In the 21st century, the mobilization of the fundamentalist vote in the USA has been an important contributor to the election of the two most recent Republican presidents, and a driving factor has been their wish to impose their moral values on others who do not share then, particularly in relation to abortion and homosexuality.

Herriot perceives fundamentalist movements around the world and in all major religions as having arisen relatively recently in the twentieth century as a reaction to modernity [5] and sees them largely as subgroups within the overall religion. I tend to disagree with this.  Some religions which have not gone through a Reformation process involving separation of church and state remain largely embedded in pre-modern beliefs and values. In other cases, as religious institutions have evolved along with modern science, technology, culture and moral values, subgroups have rejected this evolution as going further than their moral comfort zone.

However, I recently came across an excellent article on Muslim fundamentalism [2] which describes in some detail how Muslim fundamentalism has grown substantially in countries of the Middle East in recent decades and in fact, like fundamentalism in the West, has risen as a political phenomenon in the entire Muslim world, and as a driver of terrorist attacks on civilians in Muslim and non-Muslim countries. The authors define Muslim fundamentalism in essentially the same terms as Herriot, as “a reactionary, nonscientific movement aimed at returning society to a centuries-old social set-up, defying all material and historical factors. It is an attempt to roll back the wheel of history. Fundamentalism finds its roots in the backwardness of society, social deprivation, a low level of consciousness, poverty, and ignorance.”

Another examination of fundamentalism in eight Muslim-majority countries [3] (available here) conceptualized fundamentalism as a set of religious beliefs about and attitude toward religion, expressed in a disciplinarian deity, literalism, exclusivity, and intolerance. They found that fundamentalism in these countries is linked to religiosity, confidence in religious institutions, belief in conspiracies, xenophobia, fatalism, weaker liberal values, trust in family and friends, reliance on less diverse information sources, lower socioeconomic status, and membership in an ethnic majority or dominant religion/sect.

Using the World Values Surveys and European Values Study to identify pre-modern values

I’ve sought to identify questions in the WVS/EVS [4-7] that relate to “pre-modern” values associated with earlier stages of moral development (as defined by work of Piaget [8], Kohlberg [9] and Gilligan [10]. Gebser and Wilber have elaborated the link between these stages of individual development and the broad evolution of cultures over the course of human evolution through magic, mythic, rational, to integral stages [11,12]. Wilber also refers to the mindsets associated with the three broad stages of moral values as egocentric, ethnocentric and worldcentric [13].

Pre-modern moral values and related religious values focus on absolute rules, obedience and punishment and a stage 1 individual is good in order to avoid being punished. In stage 2, the individual internalizes the moral standards of the culture and is good in order to be seen as a good person by oneself and others. Moral reasoning is based on the culture’s standards, individual rights and justice. In stage 3, the individual becomes aware that while rules and laws may exist for the greater good, they may not be applicable in specific circumstances. Issues are not black and white, and the individual develops their own set of moral standards based in universal rights and responsibilities. Wilber relates these stages also to Maslow’s hierarchy of need, with stage 1 being common where survival and safety issues are dominant, and increasing movement towards higher stages as self-actualization becomes more important than survival and safety.

Because pre-modern religious teaching is expressed and interpreted in mythic terms, it may appear to conflict with scientific understanding of the natural world. A person with pre-modern values may thus reject scientific findings,  whereas another with modern values will understand that the myths communicate aspects of the human condition, but are not to be interpreted literally, and that the domain of religion relates to meaning, values, ethics, and does not generally conflict with the domain of science.

As moral values evolve through the three broad stages, the size of the in-group (“us”) with which an individual identifies typically expands from tribe to ethnic group or nation to all humanity. At lower stages of moral development, the “other” group is not seen to deserve the same rights as “us” and tends to become seen as the cause of the problems that prevent the society returning to its ideal state. The “other” becomes see as not deserving of humane treatment or even life. The “other” might be infidels, Jews, migrants, homosexuals, socialists, women, intellectuals…..depending on time and place.

Finally, enforcement of social norms governing human fertility have been a major factor in pre-modern religions. For thousands of years, very high levels of child mortality and other survival pressures meant that most societies sought to ensure that women produced as many children as possible and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality and contraception. Additionally sexual behaviour, particularly that of women and that not linked to reproduction, was strongly socially controlled to minimise uncertainty about paternity. Religion was the primary method of social control and pre-modern values regarding women’s rights, reproduction and sexuality are still dominant in most of the major religions.

I reviewed questions included in the WVS and EVS to identify those most relevant to distinguishing pre-modern and modern moral values and which are widely available in the WVS/EVS surveys [4-7]. The selected questions are summarized in the following table:

For more details on these questions and their analysis, see here.

The questions on belief in heaven and hell address two aspects of fundamentalism, namely the literal interpretation of mythic elements of the sacred literature and also the exclusion of others such as nonbelievers or homosexuals who will supposedly go to hell for eternal torment. My father was a Protestant minister and I grew up in a rural Protestant culture in Australia, went to lots of church services and don’t remember ever hearing anyone trying to claim hell was a real place rather than a metaphorical place. Belief in a real hell tends to be much more common for fundamentalists, who are a relatively small proportion of Christians outside USA and some other countries. I think for religious people focused on the message of the New Testament, rather than Old, it is usually clearer that hell is a mythological concept dating from primitive times and literally believing your God would torture people for eternity marks you out as having premodern values. I still have trouble getting my head around the idea that there are large numbers of people who appear to genuinely believe that people who don’t accept their beliefs will be tortured forever by an all-powerful and apparently psychopathic god. And its not too much of an ethical step to decide to start the torture before they get to hell, or to fire up the gas chambers.

Prevalence of belief in heaven and hell

For this reason, I took a closer look at the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell across the world based on survey responses for 76 countries in wave 7 of the WVS/(surveys in years 2017 to 2020). At a global level 53% of people believed in heaven and 43% in hell. Among those who said they were Christians, 58% said they believed in heaven and 45% said they believed in hell. At the country level, Denmark had the lowest prevalence of belief in hell at 8% and the other Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany also had low levels of belief in heaven (typically 20-30%) and in hell (ranging from 8% to 16%). Most countries have a lower prevalence of belief in hell than heaven, there are only 10 where the difference is less than 1 percentage point. Half of these are Muslim majority countries, and two are predominantly Buddhist (with low levels of belief in both heaven and hell). The USA is the only developed country in this group and it has identical levels of belief in heaven and hell at 64% of the population.

Global variations in prevalence of pre-modern values

Here are some graphs showing how responses to four of these questions varied across culture zones for practicing religious people compared to others (non-practicing religious, non-religious and atheists):

Development of a premodern/modern religious values index

As described elsewhere, I have calculated a continuous latent variable based on the responses to the 12 questions I identified above that relate to pre-modern religious values. The following plot shows how the responses for these questions line up with the latent variable (shown on the horizontal axis).

For ease of presentation, I rescaled the latent variable so that average values for countries ranged from just above zero to slightly below 10. Country averages for the most recent WVS/EVS wave for 2017-2020 ranged from 0.2 for Pakistan to 9.9 for Denmark, followed by 9.8 for Sweden and 9.3 for Norway. Note that higher values denote higher prevalence of modern religious values.

The following plot illustrates the distribution of the latent variable values in the surveys dataset for three categories of respondent:

Respondent 1. Person with the following pre-modern values: believe in hell, agrees their religion is the only right one, agrees that religion is right whenever science and religion conflict, and thinks that homosexuality is never justifiable. The average latent value score for this group is 0.9.

Respondent 2. Person with a mix of pre-modern and modern values: does not believe in hell, agrees their religion is the only right one, disagrees that religion is right whenever science and religion conflict, and thinks that homosexuality is never justifiable. The average latent value score for this group is 3.3.

Respondent 3. Person with the following modern values: does not believe in hell, disagrees their religion is the only right one, disagrees that religion is right whenever science and religion conflict, and thinks that homosexuality is justifiable (giving a score of 6 or more on a 10 point scale). The average latent value score for this group is 8.6.

The following map plots the country average religiosity latent variable against the country average pre-modern/modern values latent variable for the 104 countries in waves 5-7 of the WVS/EVS. Religiosity measures level of religious engagement ranging from close to zero for non-religious atheists, through non-practicing religious people to practicing religious people (high scores). The coloured zones represent the culture zones used in previous posts to classify countries.

The following plot shows culture zone population-weighted averages for the two latent variable for four categories of religiosity. This plot relates to averages for wave 7 only.

In every culture zone, practicing religious people have the lowest score for modern religious values, ie the most pre-modern values) and modern religious values increase with decreasing levels of religiosity. The variation across culture zones is approximately as substantial as the variation across religiosity categories. This is not surprising, the values of non-religious people are influenced by the culture in which they live, whose values have been substantially shaped by the dominant religions in the history of that culture.

Understanding the evolution of values at individual and societal levels

Looking back at the cultures and civilizations of the pre-modern eras, it seems clear that the boundaries defining “us” versus “them” were substantially narrower, whether to ethnic group, kingdom or tribe, and that authoritarian rule backed by brutal punishments and intolerance of dissent were the norm. All the major religions were formed during the pre-modern period and their sacred literatures account of their gods reflects often reflect similar values.  The Buddha and Jesus are two notable exceptions who proposed ways of living life to reduce suffering. Jesus in particular spoke of a God of love and acceptance rather than the Old Testament God of wrath and fear.

For people at Stage 1 and for many at stage 2 of Kohlberg’s levels of moral development, what appeals in their religion are the pre-modern values of past forms of religion and the authoritarianism of imposing absolute values and threatening and punishing those who don’t conform to them. The characteristics of the fundamentalist program are very similar to those I identified as the key features of fascism in my previous post. This is not a new insight, many others have made the same connection. See, for example, here and here and here.

For people approaching Kohlberg stage 3, religion and spirituality become paths for expanding the boundaries of love, acceptance and inclusion as “us”, and for addressing and transcending our limitations and suffering. I came across an article recently which perfectly encapsulated one woman’s experience of this different between looking backward and contracting our boundaries of “us”, and looking forward and expanding our boundaries for tolerance, acceptance, care and love.  Emma Cooper wrote of the God of Fear that she followed in her evangelical childhood, in which the core of salvation was a desire to avoid hell: “It was faith out of fear, for a God made out of fear. It was abusive.”  She argues that millennials are leaving the Church in droves because of this abuse, and that we no longer need a God of Fear, but that there is an alternative new understanding of God as a God of love. She mentions “new interpretations of Christianity” which contest if there even is a hell.

This is weird for me to read, not only because the my analysis of WVS/EVS showed that belief in hell was a minority belief among Christians globally, but also as an Australian who lived as a child in a religious environment that was not fundamentalist. I never encountered the God of Fear as a child, the religious message was always about the God of love. And hell was never presented to me as a real existing place, only as a mythic metaphor. The religion of fear drives the need for fundamentalists to seek to impose their beliefs on the whole of society. In their different ways, and not so different beliefs, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists (and those of other religions also) pose a real threat to democracy, human rights and our ability to use our science to address pandemics, global warming and other major issues for the human race, other living things and our planet.


  1. Herriot, Peter. Religious Fundamentalism and Social Identity. Routledge, 2014.
  2. Farooq, Tariq. Religious Fundamentalism in Muslim countries. Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres, 3 July 2015.
  3. Moaddel, Mansoor, and Stuart A. Karabenick. “Religious Fundamentalism in Eight Muslim‐Majority Countries: Reconceptualization and Assessment.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion4 (2018): 676-706.
  4. Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: All Rounds – Country-Pooled Datafile Version: Madrid: JD Systems Institute.
  5. Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno,A., Welzel,C., Kizilova,K., Diez-MedranoJ., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2020. World Values Survey: Round Seven–Country-Pooled Datafile. Madrid, Spain & Vienna, Austria: JD Systems Institute& WVSA Secretariat[Version:].
  6. Gedeshi, Ilir, Zulehner, Paul M., Rotman, David, Titarenko, Larissa, Billiet, Jaak, Dobbelaere, Karel, Kerkhofs, Jan. (2020). European Values Study Longitudinal Data File 1981-2008 (EVS 1981-2008). GESIS Datenarchiv, Köln. ZA4804 Datenfile Version 3.1.0,
  7. EVS (2020): European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 3.0.0,doi:10.4232/1.13511
  8. Piaget, Jean. The moral judgment of the child. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co: 1932.
  9. Kohlberg, L. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages (Essays on Moral Development, Volume 2). Harper & Row: 1984.
  10. Gilligan, Carol. In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review. 1977, 47(4), 481-517
  11. Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin, authorized translation by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.
  12. Wilber, Ken. Up from Eden. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981
  13. Wilber Ken. Integral Spirituality. Integral Books: Boston and London, 2007.

Why do people treat others with such inhumanity?

One of the key values of the Western Enlightenment that underlie the rise of science and our understanding of ourselves and the natural world is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is under attack from the right and the left and from religious extremists. Last week, a French history teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by an Islamic extremist after a lesson about free speech being a fundamental value of the French republic. And other extremists have attacked and killed people in France and Australia in the last week. Police forces and right-wing extremists in the USA have attacked Americans protesting against the extra-judicial murder of black Americans by police. And both the right and left are “cancelling” people whose views they disapprove of and in some cases making sure they lose their job or are boycotted.

Amara Green, a teenage girl who was hit in the face at close range by a deliberately aimed rubber bullet in Minneapolis, is facing months of reconstructive surgery

How can people treat others with such inhumanity?  And its not an insignificant proportionof the population. Despite horrifically cruel actions, such as separating babies and young children from their parents, locking them up, and not keeping any information that would allow the return of these children to their parents, a fairly stable 40% of Americans approve of these actions or simply don’t care all that much about them.  Evidence is now emerging of the extreme and unprovoked violence unleashed by police on peaceful protesters in the USA. There are now a number of documented cases of police vehicles being driven at speed into crowds. The same tactic that has been used with success by Islamic extremists in Europe. And clear evidence that so-called “non-lethal munitions” have been fired at point blank range at people, sometimes causing death, blindness or severe injury.

The same question has been examined in depth and debated at length regarding the role of the German people in the holocaust.  Why did ordinary Germans take part in large numbers in the rounding up and killing of Jews? This has been a question that I’ve thought a lot about, and found three books in particular to be very relevant.  I have been rereading these books over the last couple of months, as they examine these questions in depth and reach somewhat different conclusions from each other.

Christopher R. Browning. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. First published in 1992

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. First published in 1996

James Carroll. Constantine’s Sword: the Church and the Jews. Mariner Books, USA, 2002.

Browning is an American Professor of History who is a specialist on the Holocaust. His best known book Ordinary Men is a detailed study of a group of average middle-aged German police, not eligible for military service and mostly not Nazis, who were sent to Poland and ordered to kill tens of thousands of Jews. He obtained access to detailed records of the interrogations of and investigation of 210 of the 500 men sent to Poland in order to understand how and why they became mass murderers.

The author estimates that this single battalion transported 45,000 Jews to death camps and directly murdered at least another 38,000. In the 1960s, 210 surviving members were interrogated about Holocaust crimes, and the testimony they provided forms the basis of this book. The author acknowledges that the evidence given should be treated with caution. The men clearly wanted to avoid incriminating themselves. That said, he argues the interviews were carried out by skilful attorneys, who drew out some gruesome testimony.

Browning found that the Battalion divided into three groups. Some were sadists who tortured, beat and humiliated Jews before murdering them. He does not put a figure on this group of “enthusiastic killers” but if was probably less than 20%. Another group, the largest, simply followed orders. This group did not enjoy their work, and alcohol was liberally supplied to them to numb their feelings, but they did not avoid killing. A third group, between 10% and 20%, asked to be excused from shooting Jews or otherwise evaded doing so. No punishment was inflicted upon this group. In fact, the commander of the battalion explicitly gave the men the option to opt out of the killing. Fewer than 12 did so openly out of a battalion of 500, though more would avoid the killing by getting themselves lost in the forest etc.

None of them objected to serving on the transports to the death camps. They knew that the Jews would be killed but their role ended when the victims were delivered to the camp – “out of sight, out of mind”. The author concludes that the relentless and pervasive denigration of Jews in Nazi Germany did affect the attitudes of the men of RPB101, but he also argues that deference to authority and pressure of conformity were uppermost in explaining their participation in mass murder. Those soldiers who did not participate in the shootings were effectively shirking their share of an unpleasant collective duty and perhaps might have been seen implicitly critical of the others. They risked rejection and ostracism in a situation where a tightly knit unit was in the middle of a hostile population in a foreign country.

Browning provides evidence to support the notion that not all these men were hateful antisemites. He includes the testimony of men who say they begged to be released from this work and to be placed elsewhere. In one instance, two fathers claimed that they could not kill children and thus asked to be given other work. Browning also tells of a man who demanded his release, obtained it, and was promoted once he returned to Germany.

Browning concludes that the men of Unit 101 killed out of obedience to authority and peer pressure, and quotes the results of the famous Milgram experiments of the 1960s and 70s to support this conclusion. The Milgram experiments showed that when asked by an authority figure to inflict an escalating series of fake electric shocks upon an actor/victim, two-thirds of Milgrams subjects, who were not coerced in any way, were compliant to the point of inflicting severe shocks. Variations of this experiment identified some of the conditions that led to more or less compliance, and there has been some controversy about the detailed implications of these experiments. However, they have been replicated a number of times with broadly similar results.  In the broad, they provide a remarkably similar distribution of responses to those of Reserve Police Unit 101 to Jew killing.  Around 2/3s of the experiment subjects were compliant, a small fraction actually proposed trying more extreme shocks, and around 20-30% objected to continuing the experiment.

Ordinary Men achieved much acclaim but was criticized by Daniel Goldhagen for missing what he called a specifically German political culture, characterized by “eliminationist anti-semitism” in causing the Nazi genocides.

Goldhagen wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the reasons ordinary Germans participated in the Holocaust and made substantial use of the same documents concerning Police Battalion 101 as Browning. His subsequent book, published in 1996 four years after Browning’s “Ordinary Men” was highly critical of Browning’s conclusions, arguing that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were “willing executioners” because of a unique and virulent antisemitism in Germany that had developed over many centuries. He has aggressively attacked Browning’s conclusions and there has been substantial public debate among historians, among the Germans, and in the media about whether Goldhagen’s interpretation is justifiable. The Wikipedia article on Goldhagen’s book  has an excellent and detailed summary of this public debate. It notes that Goldhagen’s assertion that almost all Germans “wanted to be genocidal executioners” has been viewed with skepticism by most historians, ranging from criticism of his methods as “not valid social science” to dismissal as “nonsense”.

Daniel Goldhagen is Jewish and his father was a Holocaust survivor who was interned in a Jewish ghetto in what is now Ukraine. Whether that has coloured his views on the overriding importance of anti-semitism in Germany I don’t know.

Christopher Browning included a lengthy afterword in the 1998 edition of Ordinary Men, then one I have been reading. In it he addresses Goldhagen’s criticisms and refutes them.  He notes that he and Goldhagen agree on two crucial findings:

  • The bulk of the killers were not specially selected but drawn at random from a cross-section of German society
  • They did not kill because they were coerced by the threat of dire punishment for refusing. In fact, there is no evidence of a German ever being severely punished for refusing to kill Jews.

But he then goes on the argue, in my mind fairly convincingly, that Goldhagen has selectively used the evidence and fails to make a plausible argument that anti-semitism was a major enduring feature unique to German culture, noting that the Germans had no trouble finding willing collaborators in the eastern European countries. He notes this as one of several major problems in Goldhagen’s selective interpretation of the evidence.

James Carroll is an active Catholic, a former priest and a civil rights worker, who spent part of his childhood in post-war Germany. He examines the awful 2000-year history of the Church’s anti-semitism, which provoked a crisis of faith in his own life as a Catholic.  This book is a tour-de-force, taking us on a 2000-year-journey from the earliest days of Christianity in the Roman Empire through the dark ages and middle ages, to today. He examines the Catholic Churches involvement in pogroms, the Crusades, forced conversions, ghettos, and the Holocaust. The Chapters of the book on the silence of the Church and Pope Pius XII on the Holocaust are eye-opening. He examines the detailed historical evidence to show that the Church was not entirely silent, it spoke up to protect Jews who had converted to Catholicism, but let it be known that it had no concern about the Nazi treatment of other Jews. What I had not known was that in the early 1930s when Hitler came to power,  the Papal Envoy to Germany Eugenio and negotiated an accord with the Hitler, the 1933 Reichskonkordat, which was Hitler’s first bilateral treaty with a foreign power, and immensely important in giving him legitimacy and international prestige. Pacelli would later become Pius XII.

The church saw Jewishness as a religious not racial identity and in late 1933, a German Cardinal wrote to Pacelli seeking protection for German Jews who converted to Catholicism. Pacelli raised the issue with Berlin, seeking protection for “non-Aryan Catholics” but noting that the fate of other “non-Aryans” was not the Vatican’s concern, as it had no intention of interfering in “Germany’s internal affairs”.

Rereading this book really brought home to me how responsible Christianity is for the deep anti-semitism which runs through the entire history of Western civilization over the last 2000 years, and ultimately led to the Holocaust. This was a much broader case of seeing the “Other” as not worthy of being treated as human, not just a uniquely German pathology. Similar “othering” of groups such as indigenous people, black people, homosexuals, other religions, political out-groups have led to genocides or extreme brutal treatment and continue to do so. Unfortunately, the focus on “the” Holocaust in order to prevent future holocausts has been entirely ineffectual.

Goldhagen’s conclusions would be very comforting if correct, that very few societies have the cultural prerequisites to commit genocide and that they only occur when the population is strongly supportive of its necessity. I am more inclined to agree with Browning that we live in a world in which organized violence, racism and demonization of the “other” are common and widespread and in which governments are increasingly powerful and legitimizing, personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated, and where peer group pressures on behaviour and moral norms remain immense. Given these conditions, governments which want to commit mass murder will not find it impossible to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners”.

At a somewhat less extreme level, governments across the world are not finding it at all difficult to find men and women willing to brutalize groups who are deemed “other”, including taking babies and small children from their parents, locking up people in cages or concentration camps indefinitely, firing projectiles and chemical weapons into crowds of peaceful protestors, and where agents of the state know that they can murder people in full public view with impunity. These things are happening not just under unashamed authoritarian rulers like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, but also in supposed democratic states like Australia and the USA.

What is largely missing from all three books is an examination of the role of levels of moral and cultural development. Ken Wilber (1,2) has written extensively on this, and I won’t dive into that material, except to note the broad levels of moral development in humans, both for humans and cultures over historical time and in each individual as they mature, first identified by Kohlberg (3). Very briefly, the three broad stages are:

  • Preconventional: The person is good to avoid punishment and gain rewards. A stage typical of young children and fundamentalists.
  • Conventional: The person internalizes the moral standards of the group and authorities and is good in order to receive the approval of others and avoid guilty feelings. Middle childhood, and for a substantial proportion of people their adult moral stage.
  • Postconventional: While recognizing moral rules are for the greatest good, also realizes that there are times when they are not appropriate.  A reasonable proportion of adults in modern societies reach this stage of development. At the higher stage, the person has developed their own set of moral guidelines and will be prepared to go against social disapproval and sanctions in situations they judge appropriate. Few people reach this stage.

Ken Wilber has guestimated that 70% of people are at the conventional stage. This may or may not be in the right ballpark for developed countries, and I’m doing some analysis to see whether the World Values Survey can provide some information. But it is this likely majority of people who are susceptible to the conditions under which group norms and demonization of an out-group, combined with human propensity to do what the group and authority want them to, who can under the right conditions become “willing executioners” who can and do treat others with extreme inhumanity.

Of the three books, I’d recommend Browning’s book as the first to read. It puts into context aspects of human nature that are fairly universal. Humans have evolved as group animals with very strong and powerful instincts to identify with the group and its values, important for survival in ecosystems where survival is the dominant concern. We all go through the stage of moral conformism and the identification with an in-group and exclusion of the “other, and a majority of us don’t get past that stage. And before I congratulate myself on being one of the minority who has, I need to remember that we all have that stage of development as part of us, and we can easily revert to it under extreme conditions.  Indeed, with the current wave of terrorist murders in Europe, I could easily imagine that I could revert to a fairly primitive level of behaviour if a member of my family was a victim. Or I simply need to recall a few occasions in the past when I kept silent about things I wish I had not (admittedly much much less consequential than genocide), out of fear of group disapproval and rejection.

If you are interested in the Holocaust and the reasons for it, I can strongly recommend reading all three books, and some of the discussions and controversy they have raised. If you are interested in the long history and causes of anti-semitism in Western civilization, or particularly in the role of the Catholic Church in  fostering anti-semitism and particularly its collusion in the Holocaust, then Carroll’s book is a must read.


(1) Wilber, Ken. Up from Eden. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981

(2) Wilber, Ken. Integral Spirituality. Integral Books: Boston and London, 2007.

(3) Kohlberg, L. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages (Essays on Moral Development, Volume 2). Harper & Row: 1984.