I am not quite sure how I feel about Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It was like riding a roller coaster for me. There is the thrill and edge-of-the-seat anticipation of ratcheting to the peak just before a heart stopping descent through the twist and turns, not knowing which way is up or down. Pinker does this by introducing supposed societal ills only to present counter arguments buttressed by facts. He does a wonderful job of showing that the world is indeed a better place since the Enlightenment and the evidence is unassailable.
However, just like the roller coaster analogy, there are the pivots and zigzags in Pinker that I have trouble understanding. For example, on the one hand he supports Kishore Mahbubani’s ideas in The Great Convergence 1that help explain the causes for worldwide progress: decline of communism, leadership, end of the Cold War, globalization, and science and technology. And yet on the other vilify Ronald Reagan as a “know-nothing.”2 Really? The person who was a significant influencer in two (decline of communism and end of the Cold War) out of the five factors leading to worldwide progress is someone to blame?
Be that as it may, what intrigued me about Pinker’s project is the effusive manner in which he wrote about all the positive indexes pointing to the fact that we live in a better world. Human progress in areas of health, food, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, equal rights, terrorism, democracy, quality of life and other measurable indicators of progress all have good trajectories pointing to an optimistic view of the future. But he had to pause and backpedal a bit when it came to the happiness index in the United States. Apparently studies show that happiness increases with a nation’s wealth.3 Countries such as Denmark and Singapore report outsized levels of happiness compared with countries having weaker economic growth.4 The United States is a country with a strong economy and is wealthy by all accounts. But the United States reports a lower level of happiness in relation to its wealth. “Whatever the reason, happyologists agree that the United States is an outlier from the global trend in subjective well-being.”5
Why is the United States an outlier on the happiness index? That is good question and worth exploring. But I’ll have to save that for another time. For now what intrigues me is the idea of hope. There were several missed opportunities for the author to connect the idea of a future-looking human flourishing with hope. But he did not. Sure he would begin sentences with a trivial “I hope to show….” or “I can give you no hope….” but that is far different than the kind of hope intrinsic to humanity. This is not the “pie in the sky, bye and bye” kind of hope where one rails against reality to escape it. Rather, it is the mature hope that C.S. Lewis talks about in Mere Christianity; the kind that looks longingly to a future eternal world. Lewis says this is not a form of escapism or simple wishful thinking.
In a world without hope Pinker is clear, that if all of the advances in knowledge, peace, safety, democracy, rights have left us no happier but just lonelier and suicidal, that it would be history’s greatest joke on humanity. And clearly suicide is a final solution that is diametrically opposed to happiness. But is history a jokester? Is the field of study called history even blameworthy? What is humanism’s response if humans are ending their own lives? The sad reality is, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that the suicide rate for people aged 10 to 24 increased by 56% between 2007 to 2017. Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death among members of Gen Z. Studies show drastic changes in outlook of life among teens, all pointing to an all time low. Jean Twenge says teens today are “on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades.”6
Gen Z is not happy and yet hope remains illusive. Humanism’s answer is to hope in humans. But that is no hope. The Humanist Manifesto III from 2003 proudly affirms that humans are “the result of unguided evolutionary change.”7 That is like saying “I’m hoping to visit the Cotswolds” but without a map, means, or the ability to ask for directions. After all it is “unguided.” Gen Zers are smarter than that but they need to know there is a better way. On the topic of human progress, Lewis says “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”8 Gen Z’s hope must be directed heavenward. It is a strange rule, Lewis says, but “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in;’ aim at earth and you will get neither.”9
1 Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (NY, NY: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018). 80-94.
2 Ibid., 374.
3 Ibid., 270.
4 Dan Buettner, “The World’s Happiest Places,” National Geographic, November 2017, 37.
5 Pinker, 272.
6 Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious,
More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us. (New York: Atria Books, 2017). Kindle. Loc. 1318.
7 Pinker, 410.
8 C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher, 2002). 75.