Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University, plays fast and loose with the term “The Enlightenment” in his latest column for the Wall Street Journal. In an essay adapted from his new book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” Pinker argues that the progress we have been enjoying for more than two centuries is due to the triumph of reason and science. But he writes as though there is only one understanding of the Enlightenment, and he surely is referring to the French Enlightenment and what he thinks is a wholly secular event at odds with religious belief.
Pinker is a smart guy who surely knows some of the history of the Enlightenment, but you would not know it from his latest polemic. Except for his blatant bias against religion and misconstruing of who and what actually launched the age of Reason, his is an informative and admirable piece, listing all the ways that human life has improved since roughly the eighteenth century.
But besides listing all the wonderful effects of the dawn of Enlightenment, Pinker’s main point is this:
To what do we owe this progress? Does the universe contain a historical dialectic or arc bending toward justice? The answer is less mysterious: The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.
Let’s take that assertion apart.
Yes, the Enlightenment is working. Wherever reason and science are engaged, they have helped make for progress as people live longer, healthier, and more orderly lives. Ever since figures like Bacon, Newton, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Locke, Smith, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and I’ll add Tocqueville—and many, many more in the West—arrived on the scene, human life has improved economically, socially, and materially. And it is true that “dogma, tradition, and authority” have had to make way for “reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking.”
There Was More Than One Enlightenment
But is it true, as Pinker assumes throughout his essay (and his many other writings), that “The Enlightenment” means religious belief and tradition have been replaced? That they had to be completely set aside in order for the salutary effects of science and reason to take hold? That the intellectuals we owe so much to were rank and file opponents of religion and faith? And is it true, as Pinker seems to imply, that science and reason on the one hand, and faith and tradition on the other hand, are at odds?
The answer in all cases is, no. Admitting the truth about the Enlightenment—that is was a complex, multi-national affair with several centers and led by men who were religious as well as deist or atheist—would undermine his thesis. For Pinker, the “good” is reason and science, and these are exclusively secular ideas and activities; the “bad” is religion and faith, which contribute only ignorance and superstition. But that is far too simplistic.
He’d be on firmer ground if he were more careful to understand the Enlightenment not as simply a monolithic intellectual movement born in eighteenth-century France, where a vigorous secularism hostile to the established Roman Catholic Church reigned. Rather, he should know it as a collection of thinkers from across Europe and the British colonies in America. Then he would have to admit that by no means is it accurate to argue that “The Enlightenment” is about secularism versus religion; about reason versus faith. As Gertrude Himmelfarb explains well in her book Roads to Modernity, the Scottish, the English, and the Americans contributed much to what came to be known as the Enlightenment, and many if not most of the figures in these locales held firmly to their traditional Christian understanding of the nature of man, society, and creation.
It is, in fact, more accurate to say that there were several Enlightenments, and each should be studied as parts of a whole to which religious as well as deist and atheist thinkers contributed.
Pinker also would be careful to acknowledge that men like Newton and Bacon in the physical sciences, and Locke and the American founders in the social sciences, maintained to varying but significant degrees in almost all cases adherence to a Judeo-Christian worldview and natural law. That is, their understanding of the natural and social orders, and concepts like justice, reason, and science, grew out of their Christian notions of anthropology and nature. Early science was predicated on the idea that God had created an orderly universe whose laws could be discovered and applied so human beings could be proper stewards of the earth. Early efforts to end tyranny and enshrine individual liberty were predicated on the idea that only God can be our master and all stand equal before him as to law and rights, and government should reflect these truths.
Pinker is right to point out that early reformers in both the natural sciences and social institutions had to combat the power of religious figures who had temporal power or suasion outside their proper sphere. But he is wrong to cast all religion as superstition, dogma, closed-minded, and authoritarian; and that religion rightly is defeated once the smart, secular guys gain the upper hand.
The figures I have listed above would have rejected Pinker’s arguments as absurd, and they did just that regarding their more zealous atheist critics. In fact, some of those atheist critics were hypocrites, if you will; men like Voltaire (a conflicted deist) argued for applying religion to keep the masses in check. But men like Montesquieu, Adams, and Tocqueville knew that religion is an aid to reason and science as well as to social order and progress. They would very likely have agreed with Pope John Paul II when he said “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”
The Enlightenment Brought Together Faith and Reason
Far from believing that faith and reason are at war, they knew that only religion could fit a people to properly use the gifts of reason and science and government power without causing harm instead of blessing (causing harm was a French radical Enlightenment specialty, see “French Revolution, Reign of Terror,” etc.). They knew that only religion can teach morality and prevent the descent into an inhumane materialism and a misuse of the gifts of the Creator. If man were to be free and self-governing, he must also be moral, as John Adams affirmed when he told the Massachusetts militia in 1798 that “Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Pinker’s blind spot hides from him another serious problem. Although the Enlightenment has indeed been “working” for some time now, ameliorating the human condition all over the world, in recent years it has been definitively rejected by the modern Left and by some elements of the Right. On college campuses, Enlightenment ideas about the rule of law and freedom of speech have been replaced by campus tribunals and the heckler’s veto. The Enlightenment itself is condemned for being the project of racist white men and the product of societies devoted to empire and colonialism. Even the Enlightenment notion of objective truth is scoffed at by academics and activists alike.
Pinker is of course correct that the Enlightenment has brought immense benefits and progress. But because he believes the Enlightenment is less than what it truly is, he fails to see the ways in which it is eroding, and why a defense of Enlightenment ideals today must include a defense of faith alongside reason. He might do better to consult that titan of the Enlightenment, Sir Francis Bacon, who rightly claimed that the final purpose of knowledge was not for power or profit, but “for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.”