Steven Pinker is a Harvard Professor of Psychology who has studied languages and cognition. He is an ardent atheist and a staunch proponent of reason, science, humanism and progress. His project in Enlightenment Now is to demonstrate the successfulness of the modern era and to recapitulate it so that we do not lose the precious ground that has been gained. He is thoroughly optimistic about how the Enlightenment has performed and rails against those that see it otherwise with their doom and gloom.
If modernity’s project and aim is happiness and progress, Pinker would assert that it is wildly victorious. Truly, the progress and technology and advancements in the last three hundred years is mind-numbing. Hicks maps these ends clearly early on in his Explaining Postmodernism.
While I prefer these ends over evil, totalitarianism, genocide, etc, I wonder if there is more to the story. And I am not the only one. Pinker’s critics note his vehement defense of the Enlightenment keeps him from acknowledging the existence of any correlating problems. Maxwell accuses him of committing this intellectual sin and yet agrees that Pinker makes some great points. Pinker has an impressive number of charts to prove that the state of the world is better than any other time in history but his wanton lack of admission that the human race still faces significant crises is peculiar.
There is much here to ponder and I offer three short, somewhat unrelated musings:
- I think it’s important that Christian academics take Pinker seriously.
Nick Spencer, a Senior Fellow at Theos, offers a response to Pinker that is an excellent example of a Christian posture towards those that detest our worldview. He is generous with his words, complimenting Pinker where he can. Yet Spencer respectfully disagrees with Pinker on the origins of many of the Enlightenment ideals and institutions. He makes his case for Christianity’s contribution to what has transpired without committing the intellectual “sin” Pinker does. Spencer acknowledges the messiness of history and admits that “Christianity gave us Crusades, Inquisition, and Wars of Religion, alongside the rule of law, the invention of the individual (to use Siedentop’s title) and the notion of ineradicable human dignity and equality.”
Sure, Spencer has a bias and an ascribed worldview but he is appropriately open, thoughtful, and researched in his critique. His example offers a model to resist Noll’s anti-intellectualism without moving to rationalism as god.
2. Christian leaders could take a positivity lesson from Pinker.
Today’s Christian leaders (mega-church ones may be more fair?) are trained to run systems and give feedback and operate with an eye for continuous improvement. Most leaders can easily pick out what is wrong, weak or broken. Status quo is not an option for the best leaders. Among many of my colleagues, we have joked that it is a spiritual gift to be able to see all the deficiencies. It is also exhausting. It has become part of the wider culture and Pinker would have us place much of the blame at the feet of many academics, media, postmodernists, the far politically left and right, and so on. Pessimism and dystopia is at obsessive levels among these groups according to Pinker and he accuses them of “progressophobia” Most leaders I know are no where near this level but I think we must guard against an infiltration of pessimism in the Church.
How do we lead and live from a more positive outlook? I would venture that more than Pinker, who has placed his hope for the future squarely on the backs of science and humanism, we have reasons to be optimistic. And I wonder if church leaders have room to grow in our celebration and appreciation for all the good God is working through our local contexts?
Of course Pinker is not positive about Christianity as he views it as irrational and wishes it would “defer to reason, science, and humanism on all questions relating to human conduct, including morality.” But he is exceedingly positive about his beliefs and his project and I think we should be more so about ours.
3. Is progress and happiness a worthy end or goal for life? Is worshipping God a better one?
Perhaps moralistic therapeutic deism is not working for us. Can happiness and progress hold our full human weight? What of the environmental crisis? What of the staggering anxiety epidemic? Is progress at all costs really giving us what we want or truly need? We are more connected in some ways and deeply fractured in other ways. Christian leaders must ask if there is more to life’s pursuits than Enlightenment’s ends.
Instead of cowering from Pinker’s intellect and his disdain for my worldview, I am more appreciative of the faith I hold. He has nudged me towards gratefulness for the era I live in. And I am eternally grateful that I do not bear the weight and pressure of my own immanence – that my fleeting and flickering happiness is not my ultimate end. I believe in what Taylor describes as the Transcendent – Someone greater than my own existence. Pinker mocks the idea that “the universe is saturated with purpose” and calls it primitive. He makes a valid point about some naive abuses but I do not agree with him and believe there is a higher purpose than my happiness and it does not diminish me even slightly to admit it.
I know I am biased but I am more comfortable living with the chief end of man being to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever” than with progress and humanistic happiness that depends on what this world alone offers.
 Stephen Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Brisbane, Australia: Connor Court, 2019), 13.
 Nicholas Maxwell, “We Need Progress in Ideas about How to Achieve Progress,” Metascience 27, no. 2 (2018): pp. 347-350, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11016-018-0312-4.
 Nick Spencer, “Enlightenment and Progress, or Why Steven Pinker Is Wrong,” Theos Think Tank, February 20, 2018, https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2018/02/20/enlightenment-and-progress-or-why-steven-pinker-is-wrong.
Geoffrey Galt Harpham, “Get Shorty: Steven Pinker on the Enlightenment,” Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture2, no. 2 (2018): p. 103, https://doi.org/10.26613/esic.2.2.95.
Charles Taylor, “Challenging Issues About The Secular Age,” Modern Theology 26, no. 3 (August 2010): pp. 404-416, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0025.2010.01615.x.
Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 24.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Philadelphia: Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1936).