Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, moves along quickly and lucidly, as one expects from a practiced popular speaker and writer. Its larger thesis merits the attention of anyone who wants to think properly, and with some historical perspective, about life on earth today. Given how dark the daily news cycles tend to be, we can all benefit from being reminded of the solid and wholesome progress we are making for the betterment of the human race. Pinker tells us, again and again, of the need to safeguard the attitudes and values that sustain integral human progress: freedom of inquiry, democracy, respect for all persons regardless of race, gender, religion, etc., and individual and communal commitment to decision-making guided by the best research possible. (For a good summary of Pinker’s argument, see Gary Gutting’s review.)
In general, there is no reason why religious people should reject Pinker’s thesis or his underlying values. Pinker takes up a host of topics that should be honestly debated in the best traditions of academic exchange: the proofs, or lack thereof, for God’s existence, and what “proof” means in a faith context; the relationship of the Good and God; the pluses and minuses of imagining morality to be handed down by a supernatural lawgiver (ideally with attention to actual texts of law, ranging from the Torah’s Exodus to Hinduism’s Manu); the notion that theistic morality tends to the arbitrary and theocratic; the depth or banality of the wisdom put forward by religious and secular people; the viability of spirituality apart from religion. All of this is open to refinement and debate, and often enough we discuss such matters at Harvard Divinity School, where I teach. We do so with due attention to what the Enlightenment has achieved, but also by attending to premodern cultures in the West and to other great religious cultures around the world.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly to those who have read his earlier work or are familiar with his attempts to exclude the study of religion from Harvard’s curriculum, Pinker also continues his ill-informed attacks on religion in Enlightenment Now. In the book’s last chapter, “Humanism,” he dismisses religion in order to sharpen his narrower, exclusivist thesis: the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, furthered by heirs such as himself, has made the world a better place. Religion was and is the enemy of enlightenment and the Enlightenment. Luckily, religion is dying, and this demise will speed the arrival of a thoroughly secular human community. This utopia, Pinker suggests, is apparently already in evidence at Harvard, which at some point in the future will ideally eliminate any serious consideration of religion from intellectual life. A decade ago, when the general education (core) requirements at Harvard were under review, Pinker famously wrote that a core requirement on “faith and reason” “makes it sound like ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them.” But that cannot be tolerated, “since universities are about reason, pure and simple.” Faith, after all, is “believing something without good reasons to do so,” Pinker claimed.
I’d like to offer a rebuttal to that view by making three points about Pinker’s own approach to the religions of which he speaks. First, he is out of touch. He seems unable to digest the fact that religious people, because of their faith and not despite it, are indeed citizens of the twenty-first century, not just outsiders who have interloped on Harvard Yard. He fails to note how the enduring religions of the world, even while maintaining their roots, have evolved over the millennia, and cannot fairly be reduced only to their worst attributes. Believers have long found the grounds for deeper respect for the human person and care for the earth in their fundamental revelations. People of faith are regularly leaders in the defense of human rights, including the rights to basic health care. Modern religious believers are entirely comfortable with a balanced harmony of faith and reason, religion and science. They often lead the fight for human progress. Pinker also seems earnestly oblivious to what goes on regularly at Harvard, especially in the Divinity School, where courses and lectures hosted by the Committee on the Study of Religion are conducted in cooperation with many other parts of the university. (Though he and I joined the Harvard faculty at approximately the same time in the early 2000s, I can’t recall ever meeting him.) In addition, there is the programming offered at Memorial Church or by various student groups, and in a host of smaller faculty, staff, and student initiatives. Religion remains an important aspect of Harvard’s academic and campus life, despite those who ignore its presence and power.