Though Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life still conquers the bestselling lists on top, there is another one jumping up and down the top 20 for some time now by another of the West’s top intellectuals, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. I have not read the book, though I just watched a recent lecture by Pinker at the Cato Institute about his book.
Essentially, Pinker demonstrates that since the Enlightenment, the world has gotten better in almost every way that we can use to measure the prospertiy of humans (with a few outliers, such as the increase of the opioid epidemic, climate change and AIDS, though I will qualify that at least the last two examples I named are also being reduced). Now, Pinker attributes a lot of this to humanism, i.e. not religion, and at one point in the lecture refers to the religious as believing in a “father in a sky”, the typical strawman version of religion (just as creationism is the strawman version of Christianity). He’s a secularist and likes to attribute the achievements of the Enlightenment to Enlightenment philosophy, including the moral philosophy that matched the rise of the Enlightenment. Now, I have two problems with this.
For one, Pinker seems to flatly not recognize just how enormously Enlightenment values are rooted in Judeo-Christian culture. Without it, it’s not clear whether or not an ‘Enlightenment’ would have taken place within a thousand years of when it did take place, or if ever (though he likes to use the Enlightenment as a direct alternative to Christianity and religion, and lets not forget one of the main men to bring about the Enlightenment, John Locke, wanted atheists jailed). Secondly, Pinker seems to miss something that is important, but not crucial to his thesis. That is, the Middle Ages (the “Dark Ages”, this stagnation of science and culture that occurred between 500-1500 is an event that never occurred). As historians now know, in contrast to the outdated thesis of Edward Gibbon, the Middle Ages laid the foundations for science. It’s right there in the title of the book The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages by Edward Grant, one of the worlds foremost historians. So, the Enlightenment would have never occurred without the Middle Ages, and there is a direct continuity between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, though it appears as if Pinker seems to be completely unaware of its importance. And we know how religious that period was.
What does Pinker’s thesis have to say about the wider culture of the Enlightenment, and about the relationship between the Enlightenment to secularism? Does this negatively affect religion and religious views?
EDIT: I want to note that, to avoid confusion, I am not doubting the accuracy of Pinker’s statistics and claims on the improvement of human life, rather I am doubting how Pinker interprets the Enlightenment and its values in relation to religion.