Contemporary Classical Composer


Review of Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Long book with much data to support the thesis that the progress we see in the modern world stems from the legacy of the Enlightenment – that time in history when thinkers and leaders replaced aristocracy with democracy and dogmatic religion with modern science. Pinker overstates the case, in my view, by criticizing religious faith without qualification. It is authoritarian religion rather than religion per se that is the real opponent of reason, science, and humanism. The book would have been somewhat shorter and, frankly, more humanistic if he had omitted the parts that criticize faith in general without making that distinction (he nods to religious humanism in the last chapter, to be fair, but also wastes several paragraphs arguing against God’s existence). In the chapter on environmentalism, for example, he criticizes Pope Francis’ approach to awakening people to the environmental crisis. This is the wrong battle to pick. The Pope calls for repentance and warns against merely technical solutions without a change of heart, individually and collectively; but he is not denying science, or ignoring the rights of poor people – he is doing exactly the opposite.

The graphs in the chapters on peace and safety, moreover, measure incidences of violence per 100,000, and shows the lines going down over time; but as one reviewer has observed, the actual “body-counts” have gone up incredibly, though outstripped by the population explosion. The decrease in infant mortality rates and longer life-expectancy of modern times, moreover, means that there are more souls in existence, but fewer of them able to wield the sword or the gun. This makes the comparison with the middle ages difficult, if not meaningless. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be optimistic; however, my sense is that it is Pinker’s hatred of religion, authoritarian or humanistic, that is motivating the thesis: since God “died,” things have gotten better in virtually all spheres. This thesis is absolutely not borne out by the evidence or by reflection on what those concepts mean.

To Pinker’s credit, and speaking of Nietzsche, the last chapter on humanism exposes and condemns that sociopath’s ravings. One of the best parts of the book, for me, was Pinker’s imaginary statement to Nietzsche if he could travel back in time. Also to Pinker’s credit, there is a good deal of humor, of his own invention (I laughed out loud several times), and also in reference to comedians who illustrate the points he is making. And to Pinker’s great credit, he robustly defends the values of reason, science, and humanism against the tiresome trend of subjectivism manifested of late in so-called postmodern critique and left-wing identity politics. Pinker’s stance against that nonsense is admirable, and a necessary call to order for the Left. The last two pages of the book give some pragmatic advice to thinking citizens, and, delightfully, a “heroic narrative” of the human spirit, which I see as a creation story. Such a story is critical for any body of believers committed to love and reason – whether they believe in God, humanism, or both.

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