Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker.jpg

Steven Pinker begins his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, on a considerably less Panglossian note than the one sounded relentlessly in his hilariously clueless earlier book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. In that earlier book, Pinker looked out from the terrace of his ivory tower, surveyed as much of the world as he could see from that vantage point, and declared it the best of all possible worlds: that despite literally all the evidence, the world was in fact becoming less violent and miserable, because humanity was becoming more intelligent and peaceful – a conclusion that would have come as a surprise to the dozens of slaves starving to death in cargo containers twenty minutes from Pinker's front door, or to their families still living back in their war-torn homelands or in plague-ravaged refugee camps, or to the slaver-traders who found willing customs and shipping officials at every port and sea-lane along the way.

It was impossible to reconcile the world of The Better Angels of Our Nature with observable reality, which made its buoyant optimism feel embarrassingly silly. Pinker's new book takes much, much less for granted, and if its pieties still don't seem at all scuffed by the outside world, at least this time around they're informed by the evening news. As its title indicates, Enlightenment Now takes up the cause of the “ideals of the Enlightenment” by first noticing that those ideals actually need defending “more than ever” (Donald Trump, virtually a living negation of the Enlightenment, gets a mention on Page 1). “In the memories of many readers of this book – and in the experience of those in less fortunate parts of the world – war, scarcity, disease, ignorance, and lethal menace are a natural part of existence,” he writes. “We know that countries can slide back into these primitive conditions, and so we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril.”

The bulk of Enlightenment Now is spent elaborating on that achievement – the advances Enlightenment thinking made possible in such areas as peace, safety, political equality, and of course science. Pinker pays very fitting tribute to the sheer extent to which the Enlightenment has shaped the modern world:

… newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with the flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world's knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.

The book is full of similar role-calls of the gifts of modernity, humanism, and rational inquiry – but there's an added emphasis on fragility. Even considering just that brief quoted list on the benefits underscores this fragility: the majority of lawmakers in the United States today, for example, believe in neither climate change nor evolution – and since they control the government, their belief can touch millions of lives. The residents of Flint, Michigan don't have that clean water at the flick of a finger, and the wars to which many sons now volunteer are open-ended things approaching their second decade. And if the current President and his lieutenants had what they really wanted – what the President himself has repeatedly pined for – their enemies would indeed be jailed. And yes, the world's knowledge is available in a shirt pocket, but that's little consolation if half the populace writes it off as “fake news.”

A refreshingly iconoclastic strand running through Enlightenment Now is the aspect of the Enlightenment that even most of its secular humanist defenders quietly sideline: a well-mannered assault on organized religion as both a tease of false promise in its offers of “deeper meaning” and “spirituality” and as an enemy of progress in virtually all fields of human improvement. Although Pinker, here as always willing to cherry-pick statistics when it suits him, recycles the standard inaccuracies about religion's decline – “... the rebound [of religion] is an illusion: the world's fastest-growing religion is no religion at all” (a recent Pew report predicted and enormous surge in religiously-affiliated people, up to over 8 billion by 2050, 23 times more believers than there were in 2010, and more recent reports tend to echo these predictions, particularly regarding world-wide surges in Islam), he counters this by refusing to sugar-coat the role of religion as the anti-Enlightenment.

But the book's most careful watch is always on the near-universal rise of know-nothingism that is now seen in virtually every polity on Earth, that boasts an international figurehead in an ignoramus US President who receives his daily intelligence briefing in cartoon form, and that stands ready at the levers of science denial, anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism, and plutocracy come election-time. The best thing about Enlightenment Now is its clarion-call to protect all that we've built from such forces intent on tearing it all down. The worst thing about the book – not its own fault, but demoralizing nonetheless – is that it's an insular triumph, preaching to the choir. The barbarians might now right now have the power to kill Pinker for writing it – but they'll never read it either.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.