Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now Is Mostly Right

(Portrait: Rebecca Goldstein/Wikimedia)
Capitalism has created great advances, but the consequences of secularization are yet to be seen.

Steven Pinker is a rare type of public intellectual, capable of writing prolifically without sacrificing an iota of scholarly rigor. Meticulously researched, closely argued, and elegantly written, his books are always exemplary pieces of scholarship. Most recently he committed his pen to making the case for Enlightenment values in his boldly titled Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

As in much of his writing, in Enlightenment Now Pinker takes great delight in denouncing both leftist and rightist pieties. He affects a certain distance from systematized political theories, preferring instead to remain above what he perceives to be petty and often irrational ideological squabbles.

Against the Marxist revulsion to the free-enterprise system, for instance, Pinker unabashedly embraces capitalist globalization — and his empirical arguments in favor of it are devastating. With a deluge of charts he shows that 200 years of property protections and international trade have helped create a world that is healthier, wealthier, happier, smarter, safer, more peaceful, and more democratic. Far from bequeathing to us a hellishly unequal dystopia, capitalism over the centuries has diminished life’s brutalities and broadened access to its contentments.

The improvements in global living standards enabled by modernity are breathtaking. In 1800, Pinker writes, “almost 85 percent of the world lived in . . . extreme poverty (less than $1.90 a day).” That figure today is below 10 percent. Scientific developments such as the chlorination of water, the discovery of blood groups, the measles vaccine, and the eradication of smallpox have saved billions of lives. And famines, which in the past century killed millions, pretty much no longer happen.

The progress of recent centuries, however, has not been confined to material advancement. Attitudes are changing too, and often for the better. People worldwide are abandoning their prejudices against women and ethnic minorities; most countries have banned discrimination and decriminalized homosexuality.

Writers on the left were unimpressed by what they believed to be Pinker’s unwarranted triumphalism. Backed into a corner by the onslaught of Pinker’s data but determined to sustain certain anti-capitalist commitments, several left-leaning commentators attempted to refute Enlightenment Now by attributing to Pinker beliefs he does not hold and proceeding to wage war against these straw men. John Gray of the New Statesman, for example, lambasts Pinker for being “an ardent enthusiast for free-market capitalism” and for subscribing to rationalist prescriptions that say “nothing about human kindness or fairness.” In fact Pinker eschews libertarianism, endorses pragmatic interventions in the economy (especially in the form of social spending), and spills much ink elucidating how science can help us better care for our fellow creatures. Jennifer Szalai of the New York Times deplores Pinker’s “crude utilitarianism” and accuses Pinker of being “sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human beings.” This is a curious accusation to launch against a book that resoundingly celebrates all the ways individual humans have come to endure less suffering, poverty, discrimination, and oppression.

I could list more examples, but you get my drift. Left-leaning reviewers did make insightful contributions — they were right to say that Pinker is too dismissive of concerns about income inequality — but too often they swung wildly and failed to land many punches.

Conservative critiques of Pinker focused their ire elsewhere, taking him to task for mocking — or rather loathing — most forms of religious sentiment. Indeed, Pinker displays nothing less than contempt for faith; he never misses an opportunity to take cheap shots at God, and after a while the relentless jabs start to feel rather gratuitous. Against Pinker’s sneering, conservatives such as Rod Dreher, Kevin Williamson, and Andrew Sullivan have argued that without faith people will be unable to find a higher purpose in life, or that at the very least they will find it much more difficult to do so. Science alone, the argument goes, cannot help us find meaning or provide guidance on leading lead virtuous lives.

His point about how awful life sometimes was prior to modernity seems to me irrefutable — particularly so in the case of women

I knew a confrontation between a traditional conservative religiosity and a ferocious Pinkerian secularism was coming from the moment I read the first page of Enlightenment Now; in it, Pinker chastises declinist intellectuals for their “pessimism about the way the world is heading, cynicism about the institutions of modernity, and inability to conceive of a higher purpose in anything other than religion.” Pinker, it is clear, can easily conceive of higher purposes in the absence of religion. Many of his conservative critics cannot. Before reading the book I was more sympathetic to the latter view than to the former, but as it turns out Pinker (unsurprisingly) defends his positions very compellingly. His arguments are powerful and often convincing, and for that reason they deserve to be carefully addressed.

First, Pinker implicitly responds to conservatives who worry that the death of God will destroy meaning in modern society with the following challenge: At what point in human history — and kindly be precise — would it have been better to live? Was life better or more meaningful when we were hunter-gatherers, struggling for daily sustenance, fighting off predators and other environmental dangers, ignorant of the world around us? (Recall that the hunter-gatherer phase encompasses most of the history of homo sapiens.) Was life more meaningful in the Middle Ages, when most people lived as destitute peasants and succumbed frequently to famines and plagues? What about the period right before the Industrial Revolution — say, 1812 or thereabouts — when 85 percent of the world was illiterate and much of it was enslaved? Or was life better in the early 1950s, when blacks in America lived under the threat of lynching, Russians languished under Stalin, Chinese braced themselves for the rule of Mao, and Indians recovered from a bloody partition that killed a million people? Clearly not, Pinker would argue — and convincingly, in my view. The historically unprecedented combination of prosperity, freedom, peace, and stability that we are currently experiencing suggests that the best time ever to have lived is now.

“Those who are nostalgic for traditional folkways,” writes Pinker, “have forgotten how hard our forebears fought to escape them. Though no one gave happiness questionnaires to the people who lived in the close-knit communities that were loosened by modernity, much of the great art composed during the transition brought to life their dark side: the provincialism, conformity, tribalism, and Taliban-like restrictions on women’s autonomy.” One might quibble with Pinker’s characterization of our forefathers’ activities, but his point about how awful life sometimes was prior to modernity seems to me irrefutable — particularly so in the case of women, given that they were prevented from fully pursuing their ambitions for much of history but are now able to use their talents in far more diverse ways.

The newly created wealth and technological advancement of modernity, Pinker also points out, have made it easier for everyone to access what George Steiner calls “the excuses for life” — namely, literature, art (including film), music, and philosophy. The entire repository of human knowledge has been made available by the efforts of Google and the expansion of public libraries. We can read great books and listen to the best composers on our iPhones; with the same devices we can learn about the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Furthermore: Because logistical barriers to international travel have been overcome, more and more people can visit the natural and architectural wonders of the world — a luxury unimaginable a few decades ago. Pinker argues that we can find meaning in such pursuits and that they can satisfy the human yearning for fulfillment. “The claim that people should seek deeper meaning in supernatural beliefs,” he concludes, “has little to recommend it.”

Contrary to caricature, then, Pinker is not guilty of “scientism” — that is, he does not believe that science alone can fully explain the human condition. Instead he argues that science enhances the understanding of the human condition. It isn’t reductionist to explain the chemical processes behind our emotions, the evolutionary origins of our behaviors, and so on. Scientific understandings of our predicament complement the insights we gain about the human experience from literature, philosophy, music, and art. And here I believe he is right.

But is Pinker’s secular path to meaning in life fully persuasive?

I . . . hesitate to say so. Pinker is too optimistic about the fate of a world bereft of faith. He hopes that as religion withers away, people will adopt humanist values (i.e., values oriented toward maximizing human flourishing) and apply them to the pursuit of meaningful lives without the help of religious injunctions. For Pinker, religious charities and associations can be replaced with NGOs and service organizations devoted to improving the lives of others.

The high priest of secular humanism has much to teach us.

Yet we cannot be entirely certain that people won’t supplant the void left by religion with nihilism or with the totalizing political ideologies of the far Right and/or the radical Left. Already we see indications of such an occurrence taking place. John McWhorter, for instance, correctly notes that much of today’s social-justice activism has morphed into a sort of religion: It speaks of Judgment Day (or of a “confrontation with America’s historic racism”), preaches a form of original sin that one must strive to overcome (“white privilege” and “unconscious bias”), and endeavors vigorously to excommunicate heretics (examples are too numerous to list).

McWhorter’s insight reminds me of George Orwell’s observation that just as it is possible for “patriotism [to be] an inoculation against nationalism,” so too can organized religion serve as “a guard against superstition.” Similarly, a strong case could be made that religion can function as a bulwark against nihilism and political extremism. Pinkerian secularism assures us that people in a post-faith world will seek meaning in humanism rather in ideological fanaticism. One hopes for him to be right, but he can offer us no guarantee.

At the same time, one should also resist a full-throated, pessimist fear of secularization: Some religious societies, after all, are awful places to live — Saudi Arabia, for instance; meanwhile, some secular societies (think of the Nordic countries) are doing wonderfully. Religion, then, is not an assurance of public virtue. Nor does secularism necessarily lead to nihilism, even though that danger certainly exists.

Apart from his answer to the question of secularism and meaning, with which some conservatives might differ, Pinker is nevertheless right about many things — about most things, I would argue. Generally his intellectual project is commendable. Pinker is a defender of liberal democracy, a fearless advocate of science, an opponent of all obscurantism, and an annihilator of reactionaries and revolutionaries. Everyone would do well to read him. The high priest of secular humanism has much to teach us.

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