I really liked Pinker’s book The Language Instinct and have one or two more Pinker titles on my shelf that I look forward to reading eventually. But when he turns to anything touching on morality or theology, I’m afraid the results are often crude and jejune. His 1997 essay on infanticide for the New York Times Magazine was a case in point. (He concluded that it is a bad thing but that a) it can be an understandable act and b) we don’t really have strong grounds for condemning it.)
Pinker’s new essay on bioethics is pretty bad, for the reasons Yuval Levin goes through and a few more. Levin is, I think, a little too soft on the vicious hostility to religion that the New Republic has let Pinker express in its pages. Note how Pinker begins his discussion of a report by the president’s bioethics council.
The report’s oddness begins with its list of contributors. Two (Adam Schulman and Daniel Davis) are Council staffers, and wrote superb introductory pieces. Of the remaining 21, four (Leon R. Kass, David Gelernter, Robert George, and Robert Kraynak) are vociferous advocates of a central role for religion in morality and public life, and another eleven work for Christian institutions (all but two of the institutions Catholic). Of course, institutional affiliation does not entail partiality, but, with three-quarters of the invited contributors having religious entanglements, one gets a sense that the fix is in.
As Levin points out, Pinker has done a fine job of highlighting the theocratic menace of Georgetown University. The question this passage raises for me, though, is: What proportion of people with “religious entanglements” would Pinker consider appropriate? Defined as broadly as Pinker defines them, three-quarters of the American public probably have “religious entanglements.” Later in the essay he takes a swipe at a “a smattering of scientists (mostly with a reputation for being religious or politically conservative)” on the council. To the extent there is any argument here at all, it is that religious people are by definition less rational and sensible than non-believers. Pinker himself seems to be a walking refutation of that claim.