Progress for Pinker
It was three weeks after Christmas and the pastoral staff was going over the feedback we had received after Christmas Eve. We had led four worship services, 11:00 AM (the Early Service), 4:00 PM (the Family Service), 8:00 PM (Lessons and Carols – with Communion) and 11:00 PM (the Midnight Service – with Communion) and the buzz had been positive for all of them – except for the 8 o’clock service.
“We were there for 88 minutes . . . I checked my watch!” was one comment.
“We almost missed our dinner reservation,” reflected another.
Always mindful of the amount of time we dedicate to worshiping the one true God, we hashed this conundrum over for a good fifteen minutes. None of us clergy thought the service went THAT long. Sure there were seven lessons, seven carols, a sermon, prayers, and Communion to fit into the service but an hour and a half? Really?
“Wait a second,” one of us said, “Let’s look at David’s spreadsheet.”
Luckily, there is a member of the church who has kept a detailed spreadsheet of every component of each worship service at the church going back for over thirteen years. (Yes, his name is David). Not only is there historical data going back for over a decade, but there also is a breakdown of how long each prayer lasted on Christmas Eve (Prayer of Confession – three minutes), how long the anthems lasted (collectively 17 minutes) and yes, even how long the sermon lasted (21 minutes). When all was said and done, the entire service lasted an hour and seventeen minutes, not bad for a worship service with all those components. The service started exactly on time, and the postlude ended at 9:17. Additionally, it was not the longest 8:00 PM Christmas Eve service over the last 13 years (that happened in 2015) and it actually fit comfortably within the range of an average Christmas Eve service duration.
While all this data made the clergy feel better about the fact that the service wasn’t 90 minutes long, we only could have arrived at this conclusion (and thus best pastorally responded to the “hey the service was too long!” feedback) without the statistical data, that David provided. His immediate and historical quantifiable analysis was an imperative tool, as we took a look at what we had done, and what we could do moving forward. Progress!
It is in this spirit, the spirit of data and science driven reason and progress, that Canadian born, and current Harvard Professor Steven Pinker writes his fun read Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. While calling out the negative refrain often lifted up in popular culture, that the world is “going to hell in a handbasket,” Pinker makes the counterargument, stating, “I will present a different understanding of the world, grounded in fact and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress.” Then spending chapters specifically detailing the progress made in areas like democracy growth, health, and equal rights, Pinker makes his case.
My favorite section detailed the growth of the Environmental movement and how so much progress has been made in that field. “Beginning in the 1960’s, the environmental movement grew out of scientific knowledge (from ecology, public health, and earth and atmospheric sciences) and a Romantic reverence for nature.” Large thanks to women like Rachel Carson and Rosalie Edge, Pinker is then able to make the bold claim that the environmental movement, “made the health of the planet a permanent priority on humanity’s agenda . . . another form of human progress.” Pinker then discusses climate change, pollution, eco-fear, and a myriad of scientifically supported possibilities to drive the world into a “greener” future, one of which is his staunch support for furthering our nuclear power capabilities, despite the fact that global nuclear power use and generation has been on the decline. Throughout his entire book he remains upbeat, optimistic, hopeful, and strives to pull the reader along with him.
And yet, a comment from his environmentalism chapter has stayed with me. Pinker reminds the reader that the dark side of the environmental movement involves dislocation and human suffering. The “dirty secret” he writes, “is that wilderness preserves are set up only after indigenous peoples have been decimated or forcefully removed from them including the national parks in the United States.” The example of Standing Rock, is a poignant example here in the United States. Ultimately, my question for Pinker is what is the final goal of “Enlightenment”? Progress for Progress sake? Progress for Enlightenment’s Sake? While major advances have been made, it is not happening fast enough for many, locally enough for many, and as people of faith, how can we bring about an enlightened outcome that produces both progress and justice?
 Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, (New York: Viking Random House, 2018) xv.
 Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 121.
 Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 121.
 Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 147.
 Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 123.
7 responses to “Progress for Pinker”
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Hey Jacob. Good stuff. I had no doubt you’d be touching on the environment. I think that’s a good thing, namely for two reasons: (1) I know you well enough that this is part of your dissertation; (2) it’s an important topic for us Christian leaders to know and be aware of the nuanced views on this.
One thing on this chapter that got me thinking was the very large disparity between those who think climate change is real and those that don’t. It’s like 4 out of 80K that don’t believe it’s happening. That’s like WOW!
I was led to believe all these years that there’s about an equal amount of advocates on both sides. There must be something else going on there?
Jacob – great post! Loved the Christmas Eve story and laughed thinking of it and how many, many times I’ve been in similar debriefs.
I’m intrigued by what Harry pointed out about the numbers that believe there are climate issues. I find that encouraging and want to go read it myself. Pinker shares data that almost all people believe there is an issue, right?
HAHAHA, we have the data to prove it! Thanks for the great story.
I too was left with the question what is your point Pinker? He seems to want to believe in a utopian state without realizing the negative but never fully gets there. It seems as though he wants us to believe that if we all just embrace progress everything will eventually be ok!
I loved your opening story about the Christmas Eve service! I also am quite entertained that Dave has kept statistics for the last 13 years. (Have you suggested he write a dissertation using all that data?) I wonder if Pinker’s recognition that people bring their biases to data is useful here. If someone believes that a Christmas Eve service should take an hour, and makes plans around that belief, than the service would seem too long. But if someone believes that a Christmas Eve service should be an hour and a half, then it might have felt about right. Thus even the data may not quiet your murmurers, because it is a question of what the believe ‘ought’ to be. I appreciate that you ask this of Pinker as well. What ought to be the outcome of Enlightenment thinking? Similarly we might ask what ought to be goal of Christian life on earth? Peterson left us with the idea that what our ideal future is would help contribute to how we live today. How much agreement is there about an ideal environment 100 years from now? What is the Christian narrative around where we are going and what are the eternal consequences? Also…what did you make of Pinker being such a huge proponent of nuclear energy without addressing radioactive waste?
Jacob, your story makes a significant point. No matter what the data reveals scientifically, what people feel, experience and derive opinions about is what drives how they make decisions in today’s culture. I think that’s true for Pinker’s work as well. His data is convincing in some ways but no matter how utopian some may believe the world is, those that are experiencing hunger, poverty, abuse, violence and war will have a hard time believing the data. It’s just not true for them.
Thank you for the juxtaposition of progress and justice. This juxtaposition begs the question, “progress at who’s expense?” Perhaps that is why many see these empirical gross metrics as limited measures of progress at best or perhaps they are simply measuring the wrong items and therefore inferring false results. What do you think might be better methods to measure and indicate “progress?”
Jacob, I was wondering if David was the man I met that critiqued all of the sermons! LOL. Anyway, I was wondering what you would think of Pinker’s view of environmental issues. I think Pinker’s idea of looking at progress does not take into consideration issues like the Love canal, and how if someone doesn’t sound the alarm on these issues, there will not be progress. We need those who are critical of progress and the sacrifices made for one type of progress at another’s expense.