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Man and God: Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

By David Hale - posted Thursday, 30 July 2020

Enlightenment Now, is a book by Steven Pinker, that makes the same argument page after page {perhaps too many pages}. Things are getting better from a reduction in violence to workplace accidents to an increase in life expectancy and education.

The book argues what has made that happen, the Enlightenment and especially science.

It is not just Steven Pinker who is optimistic, his dad Harry was too, noted at the start of the book, and that is saying something.


Harry Pinker was born in 1928, just before the worst financial crisis in the 20th century. Lived through two World Wars, Korea, invention of nuclear bombs, 9/11, and the Global Financial Crisis. And all the other bad things the news likes to focus on, as per an argument in the book.

Yet, Harry remained an optimist. As Harry Pinker also lived to see the end of the Great Depression, the end of the World Wars, a vaccine against polio, no nuclear annihilation and the recovery after the GFC.

There is no real issue with thd progress mentioned in the book.

Yes, life expectancy has improved across many places. Yes, smallpox has been eradicated. Yes, crop yields across some places have improved. Yes, workplace accidents compared to the 19th and early 20th century is much less. Yes, being poor 100 years ago was generally worse than it is now.

I could not help feeling that the argument for progress became too repetitive. As Pinker noted, however, he was mindful that people dismissed his previous argument of a fall in violence in a previous book. So, he has come back stronger.

There does seem to be a dismissal though of individual suffering in the book. It is not that Pinker does not reference personal suffering, but he constantly goes back to how good things are in the aggregate.


A kind of moot point, when someone is suffering to note that 100 years ago, there may have been more suffering.

The progress argument can be somewhat undermined if your definition of success is not progress, but the end of diseases {at least all preventable and curable ones}, all poverty and violence. If that is the definition, then we are nowhere near achieving those goals.

The book, however, is much more than just about progress.

The book also counters many of the Gospel and secular truths that many people hold.  Income inequality for example is not that bad. Just because someone has much more money than you, not an issue.

If you have enough money, that is what matters, and as the wealth pie is not fixed, the income increasing at the top does not mean less money at the bottom. And if you are at the bottom, you are better off than someone at the bottom in another time. A dollar today buys things that were of lesser quality in the past or did not even exist.

Pinker counters environmentalists that oppose GM and nuclear power.

Pointing out that environmentalists must reckon with environmentalist caused poverty. As GM crops give poor farmers the ability to grow more crops and resistant crops, opposing that can mean poverty.

In keeping with one of the themes of the book, Pinker also criticises environmentalists for not being optimistic enough. The constant focus on peak oil, or peak coal or peak land or peak food and worse case scenarios. Never giving credit to the fact humans find ways to preserve resources, to find or make new ones, to fix things and to avoid worse cases.

Religion is not completely dismissed by Pinker. It is credited with helping to combat excessive materialism and encourage charity giving.

This does not mean it fair wells overall in the book.

Pinker notes that religion has been wrong about many things. Focusing too much on saving souls rather than lives here and now.  Believing that prayer works better than say technology and medicine to solve our problems.   Blaming suffering on fate, and thus there being a supernatural reason behind it.

It has always been problematic to imply that bad things happen to people because it is fated or there is some higher purpose behind it. Yet, believing there is some purpose to suffering has lessened some people’s suffering. Finding a way to make sense of what is going on, beyond you have a scientific described disease.  

It is ironic that much of the good things that Pinker notes have occurred because of Enlightenment could have been brought on by religion. At times, religion did play a role in these good things.

The opposition to slavery, care for the sick, addressing poverty, an expanded circle of sympathy, and peacemaking are all built into religious teachings, and long before the Enlightenment. Yet not unfortunately built into many of the followers of religion.       

The book does give us a chance to think of the progress that has been made.

Progress as the book notes is often under celebrated.

Pinker noted that when the Polio vaccine was announced there were bells ringing and parades planned. Yet, the fall in childhood mortality, the HPV vaccine, and the reduction in workplace fatalities is not as celebrated.

There is of course concern that Pinker and others can become too fanatical about science. In its record, in what it can achieve and make excuses for it when it goes bad. 

There is also the problem of poverty. Has extreme poverty really fallen significantly as the book states? Are critics right when they note arguments that people on more than $1.90 per day are not in extreme poverty seems a little too optimistic, shall we say.

Surely the rate of progress can be criticized. It did take centuries for general poverty rates to significantly fall, smallpox to be eradicated and workplace fatalities to greatly reduce.

One argument from the book to focus on is things can get better. Focusing on that may make us all focus more on the good we can and should be doing.

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About the Author

David Hale is an Anglican University Lay Chaplain, staff worker for the Australian Student Christian Movement and a member of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.

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All articles by David Hale

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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