03/31/2015 02:47 pm ET Updated May 31, 2015

Giving Peace a Chance

Jamie Grill via Getty Images

Watching the recent chaos in Yemen and Tunisia, it's easy to feel as though the Arab Winter will never end, and that the violence will just spiral upward, both in the Middle East and worldwide. But that's not a foregone conclusion. Steven Pinker, noted cognitive scientist and author of Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, states in a recent article for Slate:

The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable -- homicide, rape, battering, child abuse -- have been in steady decline in most of the world... Wars between states -- by far the most destructive of all conflicts -- are all but obsolete.

But how can this rosy outlook on violence be possible in the era of ISIL, nontheist bloggers being hacked to death, and death sentences for atheists accused of blasphemy? As Ayaan Hirsi Ali pointed out on the Daily Show last week, the spike in violence we see in the Islamic world is part of an emerging reformation where activists are "risking their lives trying to get this change done." Some studies, like a recent one by the World Bank into ethnic violence and economic growth, provide evidence that as societies become more economically-developed and stable, instances of violence among different ethnic and religious groups decrease. Another barrier to bloodshed is empathy. Empathy might prevent violence because people are less likely to hurt others when they come to understand that we are similar in so many ways. The onset of globalization brought increased opportunities for travel, communication and education about others in many different circumstances, and with it increased empathy.

The growth of peaceful conflict resolution is something that people of all backgrounds, religious or not, must encourage if we wish to stop religious and ideological extremists from instigating violent reprisals, both individually and through government action.

Peaceful resolutions to conflicts, at personal and national levels, are not unattainable aims. Rather, they are rational means of behavior that have time and again resolved problems and prevented dangerous escalations. And such methods are rooted in self-preservation because without them, these dire conflicts can lead to holocausts and global wars. This isn't to say that peaceful solutions to political and personal conflicts are always possible. In rare circumstances, such as full-blown genocides, diplomacy may be insufficient, necessitating the use of force.

By communicating with the opposition and finding common ground, however narrow, human beings have the potential to reduce acts of violence and to promote cooperation on some of the most pressing challenges facing our species. For instance, rather than fighting over freshwater supplies in the near future as global warming causes drinking water to become a scarce commodity, humanity can work to support research into affordable desalinization technologies by which we can increase our water supplies. We must recognize the practical impact of cooperation and how, in this case, it provides both the direct benefit of new technology and the indirect prevention of wars over scarce resources.

War and violence must be our last resort, and such methods should almost always be seen as no resort at all for the resolution of most disputes. By promoting increased dialog between aggrieved parties and attempting to address their needs with the ultimate goal of a peaceful reconciliation, we can end much of the unnecessary violence that plagues our world and slows our development. We can end the slaughter of one religious group by another and stop the desire for brutal political retribution that is often handed down from one generation to the next in violent war zones. By embracing empathy and overcoming religion and politics' exceptionalist tendencies, we can realize that we are one people living in this one world. Only then can we truly give peace a chance, and thereby give humanity its best chance at survival.