Bill Gates calls Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, “My new favorite book of all time.”
Pinker’s work is a 453 page, incredibly well researched tour de force on every aspect of life across the globe since The Enlightenment.
And almost every page explores the incomparable progress we humans have made during the last 250 years to beat back death, extend life, multiply productivity, equalize rights, increase leisure, and add to happiness.
Pinker’s book is a detailed reminder of how blessed we are to live at this time in human history. As a reference for those facts, figures, insights and reminders, I recommend this book.
But I have two arguments with it. First, Pinker describes all of this accomplishment as the triumph of science, reason, and humanism over faith, religion and belief. Pinker believes that the latter, with few exceptions, have held us back and added to or extended our misery. He cannot imagine that faith and reason can co-exist in a joint approach to solving the “big” questions of who we are, what is our purpose, and where we are going.
As a reasonably intelligent, hopefully rational embracer of the scientific method, who also happens to be an Old Earth creationist evangelical Christian, I should have a bit to say on the faith vs. reason subject, but I want to save it for a later post.
Here I want to address a more limited but very enlightening (no pun) subject from squarely within the four corners of Pinker’s own recommended world: a public square in which reason, science and humanism are the only arbiters that count.
Consider the following (bold emphases added):
Pinker calls the Declaration of Independence, with its emphasis on Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, “the most famous product of the Enlightenment.” (p 12)
“The struggle to stay alive is the primal urge of animate beings, and humans deploy their ingenuity and conscious resolve to stave off death as long as possible…A long life is the ultimate blessing.” (p 53)
“The uncanny assemblage of scientific, institutional, legal and social forces all pushing to strip government of its power to kill makes it seem as if there really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice. More prosaically, we are seeing a moral principle—Life is sacred, so killing is onerous—become distributed across a wide range of actors and institutions that have to cooperate to make the death penalty possible.”(p. 213)
“Any tour of progress in rights must look at the most vulnerable sector of humanity, children, who cannot agitate for their own interests but depend upon the compassion of others. We’ve already seen that children the world over have become better off: they are less likely to enter the world motherless, die before their fifth birthday, or grow up stunted for lack of food. Here we’ll see that in addition to escaping these natural assaults, children are increasingly escaping human-made ones: they are safer than they were before, and likelier to enjoy a true childhood.” (p. 228)
“[Humanism] is one of a family of principles that have sought a secular foundation for morality in impartiality—in the realization that there’s nothing magic about the pronouns I and me that could justify privileging my interests over yours or anyone else’s. If I object to being raped, maimed, starved or killed, I can’t very well rape, maim, starve or kill you.” (p. 412)
“It’s an inescapable feature of the human condition that we’re all better off if we help each other and refrain from hurting each other.” (p.429)
Having read those words from Steven Pinker, consider that in all of these 453 pages he never considers abortion, or even mentions it, except in passing as a medical process. Pinker goes out of his way to describe how much better off we are in every imaginable way, from conquering disease to preventing car accidents, but never addresses the impact of abortion. He even cites a book by Matthew White which states that thirty religious conflicts “are among the worst things that people have ever done to one another, resulting in around 55 million killings” (p.429), but never mentions the 60 million babies killed in the past 45 years in America by their mothers.
How can this be? How can a book so full of facts, figures, trends and good news turn a blind eye to abortion? It’s too big a killer for Pinker to have just missed it. He must have left it out intentionally.
But if he argues so passionately for life, for protecting children, and for, in essence, the Golden Rule, how can he just sidestep 3,500 babies a day being killed in the U.S., and approximately 125,000 killed each day worldwide?
I can only speculate that his Progressive beliefs have trumped in this one case his call to humanism, reason and science. On this issue he abandons his own measures of progress to bow to the god of abortion in the Progressive Manifesto.
Notice how patently irrational is the result: It goes against Reason, Science and Humanism to kill children, unless you are killing your own baby, and then it’s acceptable.
So, not from my faith, but from Pinker’s own words, if I add killing unborn babies to the list of actions which any enlightened person should detest and want to stop, then limiting abortion fits tightly within the other calamities which have been reduced by reason, science, humanism and progress.
By Pinker’s own rules, he should oppose abortion and speak against it. Perhaps he does. But he missed 453 opportunities in this book. And Pinker’s ignoring of abortion as a huge moral issue also sheds light on another of his lapses: his explicitly stated detesting of Donald Trump (over 57 references in the book) and, in particular, of anyone who voted for him.
Any reader of this space knows how I agonized over the 2016 election—you can go back and read exactly what I wrote at the time, and then a year later, about policy vs. personality with both of the imperfect candidates. I finally voted for Trump explicitly because I did the calculation that many fewer babies were likely to be killed with him as President, and selecting future Supreme Court justices, than if Clinton were elected. That was it. Given the choice for “least worst”, that is how I decided.
Pinker, because either he doesn’t get this issue at all, or again consciously chooses to ignore it, writes that Evangelicals chose Trump to increase their churches’ political activism. “Donald Trump won the votes of 81 percent of white Evangelical and born-again Christians, a higher proportion than of any other demographic. In large part he earned their votes by promising to repeal a law which prohibits tax-exempt charities (including churches) from engaging in political activism. Christian virtue was trumped by political muscle.” (p. 433).
What? No. It was abortion that drove many Evangelicals to the polls to vote for this difficult man, not arcane tax laws. And given the centrality of this issue, it was not unreasonable to do so.
So I am all in for reason, science, humanism and progress. I understand how lucky (blessed?) we are to be living three centuries after the Scientific Revolution kicked off the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, given all of the incredible advances that Pinker so ably inventories.
My point here is that the evil of abortion should have been addressed head on in a study about overcoming death and protecting the innocent—worthy goals for both secular and religious activism. And it is addressing that pair—faith combined with reason—to which I hope to return in a later post.