A small group of people is trying to persuade the world that, “Everything is awesome!” Time Magazine devoted a recent issue to these apostles of optimism. They include Bill Gates, who acted as guest editor for Time’s optimistic edition. And the Pied Piper of this merry band of optimists is the author of Bill Gates’s bestest most favorite books in the whole wide world, the Harvard psychologist and atheist Steven Pinker. He has a new book out called Enlightenment Now, which argues that the world is better because of certain “secular” values that arose during the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Because of these “secular” values, we can see a quantifiable improvement in the world. It is essential that we emphasize the word secular here. For the first enemy of enlightenment and progress according to Pinker is Christianity:
“It sounds mad, but in the 21st century . . . counter-Enlightenment ideals continue to be found across a surprising range of elite cultural and intellectual movements. . . . Let me introduce some of the popular alternatives to reason, science, humanism, and progress. . . .
The most obvious is religious faith. To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason. Religions also commonly clash with humanism whenever they elevate some moral good above the well-being of humans, such as accepting a divine savior, . . . enforcing rituals and taboos, proselytizing other people to do the same, and punishing or demonizing those who don’t. Religions can also clash with humanism by valuing souls above lives, which is not as uplifting as it sounds. Belief in an afterlife implies that health and happiness are not such a big deal, because life on earth is an infinitesimal portion of one’s existence. . . As for incompatibilities with science, these are the stuff of legend and current events, from Galileo and the Scopes Monkey Trial to stem-cell research and climate change.” Pinker, Steven (2018-02-13). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (p. 30). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
My chief complaint about Pinker’s view of the world is that it pays short shrift to the debt we owe to Christianity. Where in his book is there even so much as a shred of evidence that the enlightenment ideals he extols are the product of atheists like himself? He praises schools, hospitals, and charities as enlightenment institutions, for example, but where were these institutions prior to the arrival of Christianity? The first universities all came from the Catholic Church:
“[I]t was in “Dark Age” Europe that the university system, a gift of Western civilization to the world, was developed by the Catholic Church. Historians have marveled at the extent to which intellectual debate in those universities was free and unfettered. The exaltation of human reason and its capabilities, a commitment to rigor-
ous and rational debate, a promotion of intellectual inquiry and scholarly exchange— all sponsored by the Church— provided the framework for the Scientific Revolution, which was unique to Western civilization. For the last fifty years, virtually all historians of science— including A. C. Crombie, David Lindberg, Edward Grant, Stanley Jaki, Thomas Goldstein, and J. L. Heilbron— have concluded that the Scientific Revolution was indebted to the Church. The Catholic contribution to science went well beyond ideas— including theological ideas— to accomplished practicing scientists, many of whom were priests. For example, Father Nicolaus Steno, a Lutheran convert who became a Catholic priest, is often identified as the father of geology. The father of Egyptology was Father Athanasius Kircher. The first person to measure the rate of acceleration of a freely falling body was yet another priest, Father Giambattista Riccioli.” Woods Jr., Thomas E. (2005-05-02). How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Kindle Locations 221-230). Regnery Publishing. Kindle Edition.
You know that telescope floating around the earth, the Hubble? It’s called a Cassegrain after the man who designed the first one back in the 17th century—Fr. Laurent Cassegrain. I could go on and on, as I in fact do in my book, and as Thomas Woods does in his own illuminating book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, from where the above excerpt is taken.
What that excerpt shows, along with the rest of Woods’s excellent book, and what those historians of science show is that the enlightenment ideals that Pinker loves so much actually came from Christianity. Reason. Science. Humanism—all of it from Christianity. Even Pinker himself identifies the Golden Rule as the foundational principle of humanism:
You have been endowed with a sense of sympathy— the ability to like, love, respect, help, and show kindness— and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues. And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself. You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace. History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress. Pinker, Steven (2018-02-13). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (p.3–4). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Which brings me to the source of my pessimism. While I agree with Pinker that human progress is the fruit of reason, science, and humanism, it is equally clear to me that Christianity is the Source and Summit of these values, of authentic human enlightenment. With the rapid disappearance of the Christian faith today, I see little hope that the march of progress can continue. But what brings me to the edge of despair is the cause of great rejoicing and hope to Pinker and his merry band of optimists, for they believe that “RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING!”
Thus, what we have before us is a disagreement about the contribution of Christianity to human well-being. I think Dr. Pinker would agree that we should let the evidence decide the case. He would also say that he has already supplied that evidence in his books. He would be wrong about that. True, his books are loaded with evidence, to be sure, but it is evidence of the wrong kind. For he marshals truckloads of data to prove a thesis that no sane human being would ever contest: we are doing better today than people who lived 10,000 years ago:
Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer: NB homicide rate (mean of 15 samples): 303/100K (median=169). Compare modern homicide rate: 6/100K. Or war death rate for 2016: 1.2/100K. https://t.co/uKqcYVwk2o via @QuilletteM
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) December 17, 2017
Are you kidding me? Do we really need a 500-page book to prove that? But to claim that Christianity had nothing to do with that progress—to claim that in fact the Church has been the enemy of that progress all along—for that, Pinker has got a lot of explaining to do–explaining that you can’t find in his books.
Can we expect to see this sorely lacking evidence in the future? I wouldn’t be too optimistic.
One thought on “Good Reasons Not to Be an Optimist”
Apparently we do indeed need a book about it, since many contest the idea, including anthropologists. Jared Diamond even wrote that taking up agriculture is the worst mistake human beings made in history.