A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Steve West
Steven Pinker is one of the world’s leading intellectuals and secular humanists. Unlike some of the New Atheists, his tone tends to be less stridently offensive and his style is intellectual and erudite. Enlightenment Now has done very well in sales and may prove to be his most influential work to date. This is an important book for Christians to understand, since Pinker is arguing that the world is getting better, secular Enlightenment ideals are responsible for this progress, and religion can be a hindrance and danger to continued positive growth.
There is actually an enormous amount in this book that Christians can readily agree with. Pinker provides scores of grafts and statistical analyses that reveal remarkable improvement in living conditions all over the world during the last 250 years. This is a very helpful antidote to the persistent doom and gloom reporting of the media. He is optimistic but not naïve. One of Pinker’s major contentions is that there are still extremely serious problems facing the world today, but human ingenuity has a proven track record of conquering enormous obstacles. In every metric of life, human beings are flourishing more now than ever. Lifespan, health, food supply, wealth, peace, education, non-discrimination and equal rights—and much, much more—are all far more robust than ever before. Some metrics have improved by orders of magnitude. There is, indeed, a great deal for us to be thankful for.
Even if one agrees completely with the optimistic tone and positive forecast for the future, the question remains as to why this progress has been occurring. To answer this question, Pinker points to the values and ideals of the secular Enlightenment. He argues that the Enlightenment was concerned with reason, science, humanism, and progress. Harnessing reason and science for the purpose of helping humanity flourish has led to the incredible progress the world has enjoyed since the Enlightenment era. Reason and science allowed for understanding the world, which in turn produced technology which has overcome many perennial problems for the human race (e.g. diseases, famines, etc.). As economies have grown more complex and globalized, and as politics has become more democratic, wars have dropped off because they are terribly counter-productive. People see advantages to international cooperation rather than competition. Even the technological capability of modern armies makes a war between democratic powers virtually unimaginable.
Although people can always quibble with data and the presentation of statistics—and although anyone can prognosticate which trends will continue and which ones will change—it seems very difficult to refute Pinker’s basic point that life around the world has greatly improved in the last 250 years in almost every important metric. There is also no doubt that the advance of science has been a major factor in bringing about these changes. The application of reason has been critical, and the recognition of human rights has been a tremendous boon. Christians can recognize all of this and be thankful. They won’t agree with Pinker’s short section against the existence of God, nor will they appreciate the small jabs he takes at religion throughout the book (but these are rare, and, compared with some other atheists, far more ironic and kind than scathing and hateful). There are also the small comments that betray a lack of understanding of basic Christian doctrine. For example, on page 359 Pinker writes: “…only a person who is truly committed to the brethren has a reason to say that God is three persons but also one person…” This, of course, is a statement that no informed, orthodox Christian would ever make, because it’s a total distortion of the doctrine of the Trinity. One doesn’t mind Pinker rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, but one does wish he would at least formulate his rejection in terms that demonstrate basic comprehension.
As an evangelical, there was a lot in this book I was thrilled to read; it contains some excellent material and is brilliantly written. The major problem with it is that Pinker’s explanatory narrative is simply insufficient. The Enlightenment did not fall into existence without a pre-history. This is also not the only era in which human life has seen improvements. As the historian and sociologist Rodney Stark has demonstrated, Christianity has been a driving force for good for the last 2000 years. Christianity transformed Ancient Roman society in numerous important ways. Care for orphans and the sick—things that Pinker cares about—was provided by the church, not the state. The Renaissance and Reformation came before the Enlightenment, and both were concerned with human flourishing. In fact, this is one of the great weaknesses of Pinker’s presentation: humanism came long before the Enlightenment, and it wasn’t secular! Calvin was a humanist. Many Christians were humanists precisely because they believed in God and that human beings were created in his image. Science was surging in Europe before the Enlightenment, and it was based on religious convictions. Although Newton denied major Christian doctrines, he believed the universe was understandable because it was designed by God. So did almost every practicing scientist (many were Deists, but they still believed in creation and God’s order which served as the foundation for science). It is true that the Enlightenment refined the scientific method and applied it more rigorously, but this was not because it was secular rather than religious.
As a result of scientific investigation, technology was developed and the Industrial Revolution was brought about. But, again, it is simply unhistorical to suggest that the Industrial Revolution only came about because of a movement towards secularism and away from religion! We can hardly fault Augustine for not designing coal-powered factories or coming up with modified crops that produced greater yields and helped end famines. Christians and atheists can both be competent scientists; as the field of science has advanced, there have been both believers and non-believers driving it forward. There is nothing in science qua science that is opposed to God’s truth.
The great growth in human rights has also not emerged in a vacuum. Pinker fails to mention how Christian concerns were behind many movements that supported things like caring for the poor and orphans, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, healthcare and hospitals, education and literacy, fair wages for fair work, international aid, civil rights, etc. Martin Luther King Jr. may have something to say about secular humanism bringing about racial equality! In other words, it’s not that Pinker has erred in assembling his collection of data points, it’s that he has seemed to ignore all of the historical evidence that shows how important religion has been in bringing about the trends in human progress that he is so enthusiastic about. It’s simply not an even-handed and balanced reading of history. As a result, Enlightenment Now is a great book at the level of data, but less than stellar in terms of interpretation. And this, of course, has always been a problem in science: gathering facts and interpreting facts is not the same thing. Christians need to learn how to tell the difference, and this book may be a good place to start.
Steve West is Lead Pastor at Crestwicke Baptist Church in Guelph, Ontario, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics at Toronto Baptist Seminary.
Buy the books
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress