Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

By Finstuen, Andrew | The Christian Century, July 4, 2018 | Go to article overview

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress


Finstuen, Andrew, The Christian Century


Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

By Steven Pinker

Viking, 576 pp., $35.00

Steven Pinker's book is a polemic, although he claims the opposite: "This is not a book of Enlightenolatry." But by his account, the Enlightenment and its values of reason, science, humanism, and progress have provided the "objective standards" necessary for human flourishing. They have exposed the ignorance and delusion of religion, politics, mysticism, and any other approach to the world not governed by data gathered through reason and science. These principles have advanced health, wealth, peace, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. For Pinker, the forward march of history is a glorious story backed by mountains of data and graphs all pointing in the right directions.

But data does not tell stories; interpretation does. Pinker's interpretations flatten legitimate disputes about a variety of topics, from the value of crops engineered by the Green Revolution to the benefits of social media. His inattention to counterpoint is often joined to a callous presentation of the progress he wants to deface. For instance, he says poor people "are likely to be as overweight as their employers and dressed in the same fleece, sneakers, and jeans," a bizarre statement of the modern abundance of food and clothing. He also notes all poor people also own air conditioners. Warren Buffet "may have more air conditioners than most people" but "the fact that a majority of poor Americans even have an air conditioner is astonishing."

This narrative setup presents the Enlightenment as the arbiter of all things good. "Most people," he writes, "agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness.... Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war.... Happiness is better than misery." Who could ever argue with that? And that is precisely the point. Pinker does not want argument. The Enlightenment is "timeless," "nonpolitical," "benevolent," and the truth. These claims mark his argument as ahistorical and ideological.

This bias frames the Enlightenment as a sharp break from the miserable dark ages. At best, such a perspective tells a partial truth. Historians have often countered this simplistic narrative with attention to the 12th-century renaissance; the interdependence of faith, reason, and humanism in the 15thand 16th-century Renaissance and the Reformation; and the religious contributions to the scientific revolution.

Pinker blames Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong for most of the 20th century's catastrophes, ignoring Marx's use of Enlightenment principles like the critique of religion and the rationalization of the economy. In reality, Marx and his communist legacy cannot be divorced from the Enlightenment and its complex historical shadow.

And he treats other shadows just as obliquely. He admits that some of the Enlightenment figures "were racists, sexists, anti-Semites, slaveholders, or duelists." Yet, he avers, these "daffy ideas" emerged with "brilliant ones." These figures were, furthermore, hardly accountable because "if you're committed to progress, you can't very well claim to have it all figured out." This sort of evasion dominates the book. At one point, Pinker calls for a "more contextualized understanding" of the Enlightenment's role in antiprogressivism. That would be a good start.

The chapter on climate change is characterized by mental gymnastics. Pinker reports that the contemporary world generates "38 billion tons" of carbon dioxide each year, increasing the amount in the atmosphere from "270 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to more than 400 parts today. …

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