Enlightenment Now


#1

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 As historians now know, in contrast to the outdated thesis of Edward Gibbon, the Middle Ages laid the foundations for science.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.


(Stephen Matheson) #2

It’s an excellent book making a basic point about the condition of the world and mounting a defense of Enlightenment values. I highly recommend it as an antidote to fatalistic (and false) narratives of the human condition, and as a basic outline of one reasonable interpretation of what Enlightenment thought and action is and why it matters. I read it as a humanist, but I think that many Christians would also find it inspiring.

@Korvexius’ comments, whether or not you agree with them or find them to be accurate, don’t address the theme of the book.


#3

I don’t doubt the book is essentially accurate. What I think I doubt is Pinker’s interpretation of the Enlightenment values.


(John Dalton) #4

It’s not clear whether anything that happened in Europe during that time frame would have transpired without “Judeo-Christian” culture because that culture was entirely dominant. That dominance was taken seriously and deviance was not tolerated, and I will note, as one might possibly expect from the ultimate source of Enlightenment values.

The book sounds interesting; I will definitely look it up. One thing which has often occured to me is that if the Enlightenment is owed to Christian culture, it took its sweet time in taking place.

I’ll also make another note. You didn’t like me connecting Christian influence with the darker side of European history including basically continuous brutal warfare, and insisted on quite specific conditions for making connections. Some of your statements above seem to contradict that stance.

I look forward to seeing how he supports his ideas. I’ve heard of this book actually, but not this aspect of it.


#5

It’s not clear whether anything that happened in Europe during that time frame would have transpired without “Judeo-Christian” culture because that culture was entirely dominant.

I mean, that’s not precisely what I’m saying, though in another sort of way it is. I’m saying that the Enlightenment values that Pinker so greatly flaunts as an achievement of humanism, and replacement of religion, is actually directly derivative of Judeo-Christian morality and the Enlightenment thinkers were not as secular as Pinker would like them to be. John Locke wanted atheists jailed. Voltaire thought that the Church should have ultimate authority over the stupid masses (though he was a general theist rather than a Christian). Thus, Pinker’s attempts to paint the Enlightenment as some sort of gateway out of religion is more than highly suspicious and … if I must say it … stinks of historical ignorance.

I will probably read Pinker’s book at some point. It is probably pretty informative.

You also have a beating for me:

I’ll also make another note. You didn’t like me connecting Christian influence with the darker side of European history including basically continuous brutal warfare, and insisted on quite specific conditions for making connections. Some of your statements above seem to contradict that stance.

I have already said Christianity was deeply imbedded into the religious wars that followed the Reformation (precisely, when Luther posted his 95 theses). That was one bloody moment of European history that religion has a debt to give. But what I said is that, if you weigh the negatives and the positives of Christianity (not Christians), it is overwhelmingly positive. I still believe that and I don’t see how I could have contradicted myself here.


(RiderOnTheClouds) #6

I agree with you absolutely that it is often overlooked how Judaeo-Christian values had a huge role in bringing about the enlightenment (pretty much everything Locke believed in came from his faith). Many of those who spearheaded the enlightenment (such as Locke, Voltaire and Montesquieu) were Anti-Atheist.

Admittedly however, many Enlightenment figures; Hobbes, Paine, Hume, Smith etc were either atheists or (mostly) deists, the enlightenment was arguably the first time that Non-religious thinkers could be open. So it is not historically inaccurate per say to associate the enlightenment with secularism if you wanted to do that, though we can thank Judaeo-Christian values for bringing it about.


(RiderOnTheClouds) #7

Which makes me wonder, how good was the enlightenment really?


(John Dalton) #8

That would have to be demonstrated. Basically, I think that it would prove impossible to do so–Western history and Christian history are too closely intertwined. But I’m open to seeing what evidence there is. Do you know if there has been anything written on the subject?

I’m not sure what Pinker has said. I’d be more than surprised if there was some kind of secular majority though.

But now you seem to be flaunting this broad positive development which is not specifically tied to Christianity, and claiming it as an end result of Christian morality, while denying any connection of Christian morality to other broad negative aspects of Western history.


#9

Yes, I think we essentially agree. A number of Enlightenment thinkers were secular. But a lot of them were a lot less secular than Pinker would like when he tries to divorce religion from the Enlightenment, especially considering the fact that Enlightenment values find their progenitor in the religious, Judeo-Christian realm.

Also, @John_Dalton:

That would have to be demonstrated. Basically, I think that it would prove impossible to do so–Western history and Christian history are too closely intertwined. But I’m open to seeing what evidence there is. Do you know if there has been anything written on the subject?

I’m not aware of the academic papers on the subject (if there even is such a subject), but the continuity is practically undoubtable. The views on murder, rape, how people treat others, were not unique to Enlightenment thinkers by any stretch of the imagination, so far as I’m concerned.

I’m not sure what Pinker has said. I’d be more than surprised if there was some kind of secular majority though.

Essentially, Pinker tries to completely divorce the Enlightenment from any form of religion whatsoever.

But now you seem to be flaunting this broad positive development which is not specifically tied to Christianity, and claiming it as an end result of Christian morality, while denying any connection of Christian morality to other broad negative aspects of Western history.

I actually never flaunted this positive development, though I could if I want. What I said was that Pinker tries to divorce the Enlightenment values from religion, even though it’s not particularly curious where those values came from. It would appear as if Pinker thinks that they came right out of a vacuum or something.


(RiderOnTheClouds) #10

As I said though, there is nothing wrong in itself with associated the enlightenment with Irreligion, considering how it was th first time in history where atheists, agnostics and deists could be open regarding their beliefs.


(RiderOnTheClouds) #11

I’d take anything in Pinker’s book with a pinch of salt though. He’s a great scientist (I assume) but historian he is not.


#12

Agreed. There’s nothing wrong with associating the Enlightenment with increased secularism, because that undoubtedly took place, but the values of the Enlightenment, which is what I’m talking about, I think we both agree cannot be divorced from Judeo-Christian culture. I’m also quite curious to see Pinker get pressed on how the Middle Ages essentially laid the foundations for both the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.


(Stephen Matheson) #13

This is nonsense. First, those who take the time to read the book will learn that the question of “where the values came from” is irrelevant to Pinker, as it should be given his purpose. Even if the values “came right out of a vacuum,” his point would remain and it would be powerful. It doesn’t matter, not even a tiny bit, whether Enlightenment values came from Christianity or from Mars or from Satan. His book isn’t about that. Second, only an ignoramus would assert that Christianity had nothing to do with the Enlightenment. Pinker isn’t an ignoramus, and that probably explains why he never asserted anything like that.

The book is inspiring to those of us who agree that there is something good and powerful about the values and ideas associated with the Enlightenment, and to those of us who think it makes sense to assess the status of humanity by asking empirical questions about how things are going. It’s a plain fact of history that religion, and especially Christianity, erected (or bolstered) many of the barriers that the Enlightenment overcame. It’s also a fact that most Enlightenment values/practices are enthusiastically embraced by thoughtful religious people, and stridently opposed by many other religious people. (Biologos would hardly need to exist otherwise.) Christians should be eager to embrace most of what Pinker says, and to celebrate the fact that the world is getting better.


#14

Warning: Moderately Long Response Incoming

This is nonsense.

Quite frankly, I don’t think you got my point. Let me make some qualifiers here. For one, I never said the Enlightenment values were not good, or not powerful, or inspiring. That’s not what I’m saying. And I said earlier that Pinker is entirely accurate about the fact that the world is better in many measurable ways. Secondly, I never called Pinker an ignoramus, since Pinker is far from an ignoramus. He is a professor of psychology at Harvard. However, he is not a historian. Other world renowned academics, like Richard Dawkins, easily can be said to be an ignoramus in relation to history.

When reading Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene, I came across a historical blunder on pg. 190:

Not only does our understanding of the universe change as the centuries go by: it improves. Admittedly the current burst of improvement dates back only to the Renaissance, which was preceded by a dismal period of stagnation, in which European scientific culture was frozen at the level achieved by the Greeks.

Of course, this is a fiction that never occurred, which is why important monographs in the history of science that correct these misunderstandings such as James Hannam’s Gods Philosophers get shortlisted for so many prestigious awards. And Dawkins is a world renowned biologist, yet he swallowed this thesis whole. This simply serves to show that important intellectuals, if they are not exactly historians, may be quite easily prone to the modern, popular version of secular history. Other scientists like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Jerry Coyne are equally historically … erm … illiterate (though I really liked Tyson’s new book).

The same applies to Pinker’s understanding of history. A few years back, he came out with a book called The Better Angels of our Nature. On Quora, someone asked if Pinker’s depiction of the medieval period was right. I’d recommend reading Tim O’Neill’s answer, the first answer. O’Neill (who is an atheist) has extensively studied medieval period for decades and he mainly reviews recent works on it on Armarium Magnum (before) and History for Atheists (again, O’Neill himself is a lifelong atheist) and these blogs have been endorsed by top historians. He gives a scathing review of Pinker’s historical claims. So Pinker can’t be historically trusted. Thus, I think I rest assured when Pinker attempts to divorce humanistic values from Judeo-Christian values, which is precisely what he seems to have done, and when he conceives of the Enlightenment as a totally secular phenomenon ignoring its anti-secularistic aspects and prehistory, he has made an error. Again, as I wrote many times over now, human prosperity has increased. No doubt. I’m only talking about Pinker’s interpretation of these values.

Also, I have a question. You mention that the Enlightenment overcame many barriers erected by Christians. I would like to ask what you’re talking about. This is a curious question.


(Stephen Matheson) #15

None of that has anything to do with what I wrote. I was responding to your claims about what Pinker writes or believes. You just quoted Richard Dawkins. I think there’s not much point in going further if that’s your plan.

You then go on and on about Pinker and history, ignoring what I actually wrote:

Then you tell me that you didn’t call Pinker an ignoramus. Yeah, except you wrote that he apparently “thinks that they came right out of a vacuum or something.” And I wrote that only an ignoramus would write that. Because… only an ignoramus would write that.

My challenge to you and to everyone else reading this is to read the book, and maybe even read it with the intent to understand what Pinker is saying. It’s not a book about history, and it doesn’t give the slightest pretense of being that. As long as you are harping on history, you are either missing or avoiding the point of the book.

Uh, first off, that’s not what I wrote. But if you are truly curious about the ways in which the Enlightenment challenged barriers that were erected or bolstered by religion, maybe read this little entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/#RelEnl


#16

Stephen, I agree Pinker’s being is not about where the values came from. But my problem is that Pinker, as I keep repeating, is appearing to make some sort of dichotomy between Enlightenment values and religious values, directly contrasting religion with what happened during the Enlightenment. In the lecture I was talking about, Pinker claims we don’t need a “father in the sky” to get our values. Really, so where did the Enlightenment values come from? That same father in the sky?

I’m going to probably try to get my hands on Enlightenment Now eventually, since I am interested in reading the books. You also say a few things I need to respond to:

You just quoted Richard Dawkins. I think there’s not much point in going further if that’s your plan.

The reason I mentioned Dawkins and some others to show that renowned academics can very much be ignoramuses when it comes to history. Like it or not, Pinker’s book is all about history, and Pinker trying to divorce his values from the father in the sky values is historically invalid since that’s where it comes from.

Uh, first off, that’s not what I wrote

Uhh, yes it is:

It’s a plain fact of history that religion, and especially Christianity, erected (or bolstered) many of the barriers that the Enlightenment overcame.

What I wrote:

You mention that the Enlightenment overcame many barriers erected by Christians.

Looks identical to me. You sure that’s not what you wrote? Thanks for the Stanford article.


(Stephen Matheson) #17

It’s not even remotely about history. You already told us you haven’t read it; I can tell because of what you write.

If you are claiming that my values (which are largely the same as Pinker’s) came from the ridiculous Christian god, then you’re just telling me your religious opinion. If you are actually claiming that this god’s provision of values is some kind of historical fact, then you are spouting offensive nonsense.

You should look up “identical.” Your version edited out ‘religion,’ ‘bolstered’, and ‘Christianity’. Since you don’t seem to understand what I write in the first place, I must ask you to stop editing what I actually do write.

No need to respond. To anyone else reading this thread: The book is inspiring and interesting. You may disagree with some of its emphases, but please don’t be misled by the claim that Pinker wrote a book about Enlightenment history or that he tried to show that Enlightenment values are unconnected to Christian thought. Those are both falsehoods.


#18

I’ve honestly no idea why you’re being so hostile. You needn’t respond if you actually want to as you’ve said, but seriously, you need to take a break for a second and reconsider your misstatements of what I wrote among other things (probably arising from your hostility), as I’ll show over the course of this response.

If you are claiming that my values (which are largely the same as Pinker’s) came from the ridiculous Christian god, then you’re just telling me your religious opinion. If you are actually claiming that this god’s provision of values is some kind of historical fact, then you are spouting offensive nonsense.

Ridiculous Christian God? Perhaps you’d like explaining a little more, I’m listening. The fact that the Enlightenment values are largely derived from pre-Enlightenment Christian values is practically undeniable. Western society has been shaped by Judeo-Christian culture and that’s one of the main reasons why the West was the progenitor of modern science and human rights. These are not secular values. These are the Judeo-Christian values that secularists happened to like.

You should look up “identical.” Your version edited out ‘religion,’ ‘bolstered’, and ‘Christianity’.

You took the word ‘identical’ ridiculously too literally. Again, what you wrote, then what I wrote:

It’s a plain fact of history that religion, and especially Christianity, erected (or bolstered) many of the barriers that the Enlightenment overcame.

You mention that the Enlightenment overcame many barriers erected by Christians.

Moving on;

please don’t be misled by the claim that Pinker wrote a book about Enlightenment history or that he tried to show that Enlightenment values are unconnected to Christian thought. Those are both falsehoods.

Interestingly, I never once wrote that Pinker tries to trace the origins of Enlightenment values. This is a strawman. Pinker’s book is about history, because that’s what all of Pinker’s statistics are based on. The change of the rates of crime, wealth, among other things across history from the Enlightenment to the modern period. The X axis in all of Pinker’s graphs have the time period on them. Why is that so? Because this is history. Historically speaking, we’re better off than we were back then. And that historical claim of Pinker is right.


#19

We should welcome all truth and goodness, imo. Sometimes religious people really do oppose the values we take for granted now.


(RiderOnTheClouds) #20

Dawkins (though he otherwise does not endorse mythicism) promoted a talk by Joseph Atwill on Twitter.