Reflections on Steven Pinker's "Enlightenment Now"

The end is near. 
Society is in the midst of collapse. 
Crime is increasing. 
Inequality is soaring. 
Global Warming will doom us all. 
Moral rot will be the end of us. 
The doomsday clock is mere seconds from midnight. 
Every institution is corrupted. 
The year 2020/2021/2022/2023 is the worst year in history.

A daily scan of the headlines will convince you that Western civilization, and indeed, the human race itself, is on the brink of extinction. We hear Al Gore’s dire warnings of rising ocean levels, Donald Trump’s fear-laced conspiracies, and the nightly jeremiads of of talking heads on both the right and left. One thing that both the right and the left agree upon is that society is in shambles and civilization is on life support. Those on the left argue that systemic racism, global warming, and inequality are existential threats. Those on the right argue that moral corruption, big government, and shadowy elites are conspiring together to destroy our world as we know it. But is it true? 


In his 2018 book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker decimates these common narratives. Contrary to popular belief, Western civilization is not circling the drain. In the course of over 500 pages, through 70+ charts and graphs covering vast amounts of raw data, Pinker shows that, by almost every metric, life is getting better, not worse. Way, way, way better, in fact.

Life expectancy is up. Poverty is down. Diseases are being by eradicated. Inequality is decreasing. Wars are less frequent than ever before. Crime is decreasing. The environment cleaner. Racism is on its way out. The global economy has brought unprecedented opportunity and wealth to the developing world, lifting billions out of poverty. Technology and innovation continue to improve our every day lives. In short, we are healthier, wealthier, freer, and happier than ever before. Though there are many challenges still facing us (some of which are the by-product of other solutions), our problems are solvable through the right application of science, innovation, and collaboration.

In spite of all this demonstrable and undeniable progress, most people are convinced that everything is awful. We have a bad news bias. We confuse anecdotes with trends and bad events far away with impending doom. This fuels dangerous demagogues and illiberal populist movements. 

Enlightenment Now is essentially an extended argument for the success of classical liberalism and the Enlightenment. The free market, scientific inquiry, and the use of reason should continue to be championed and leveraged to produce greater human flourishing. Freedom and innovation should not be jettisoned for romantic populism, authoritarianism nationalism, or scientific obscurantism.


As a whole, I found this book to be an enlightening and encouraging read. As a result, I am immensely grateful to live in 2023 with all the amenities we now enjoy. In a world in which emotive appeals tend to trump facts and anecdotes smother actual trends, I appreciated Pinker’s repeated appeal to data and logic. There are real facts out there. Knowledge is objective. I would say that the charts alone make this a worthwhile book.

While it’s obvious that Pinker has a dim view of conservatives (such as myself), he wasn’t afraid to ding extreme environmentalists, Critical Theorists, and others on the left who are guilty of rejecting objectivity, science, liberalism, and the Enlightenment. It is incontrovertible that free markets, free societies, science, innovation, and democracy have improved humanity’s lot like nothing else in human history. Embracing identity politics, authoritarianism, Critical Theories, and postmodernism is an unmistakable step backwards.To those who are convinced that 2023 is the worst time to live in human history, I encourage you to read Pinker’s inspiring and sweeping presentation. Though we have our share of problems--not the least of which is the creeping illiberalism of Critical Theories on the left and nationalism on the right--I would rather be alive today than at any other time in history.

In spite of the book’s overall compelling narrative, I found Pinker’s critiques of theistic morality to be disappointedly shallow and surprisingly puerile. I expected something more robust than the argument of the final chapter. In place of a substantive argument, Pinker simply asserts that “there is no good reason to believe that God exists...Historical scholarship has amply demonstrated that holy scriptures are all-too-human products of their historical eras...The Cosmological and Ontological arguments for the existence of God are logically invalid, and the Argument from Design was refuted by Darwin, and the others are either patently false” (421). Ironically, contrary to Pinker's own professed values, no data was presented to substantiate these sweeping claims.  

Pinker maintains that sympathy is the primary basis for universal moral values. He upholds “human flourishing” as a measure of moral rightness. But on what basis? Why is it that human life has value and dignity? Why is plunging infant mortality a good thing, but any limitation on abortion a bad thing? 

Pinker suggests that “universal human values” lie behind religious moral codes, rather than the other way around. Yet, as American adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq showed, our “universal human values” are not as universal as we would like to think. They require a transcendent framework, an objective foundation, namely Christian morality. To be clear, I am not arguing that one must be a Christian to be moral. Rather, I am arguing that what many like Pinker regard as “humanistic values” are little more than fruits plucked off the tree of Christianity and then labeled as “universal.” Could it be that they have universal appeal because, as Christian theology teaches, all people are made in God’s image? Could it be that reason is universal because the Imago is universal? 

As historian Tom Holland convincingly demonstrated in Dominion, the very Enlightenment values that Pinker praises are, in fact, the fruits of Christianity. The notion that human beings have inherent worth and equality flows from the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei, not from the scientist’s laboratory. That’s not to say that Christianity’s sometimes troubling history is beyond critique. Rather, it is to say that even as Pinker rightly extols the values of equality and human flourishing, he ignores and deprecates the historical and philosophical roots of those very values. He sits atop a tree enjoying its fruit, while sawing on the very limb on which he sits. 

It is not a fluke of history that liberal democracy and free markets sprang from the soil of Protestant Christianity, not atheism, Hinduism, or Islam. Thankfully, because the trees of freedom, reason, and science are common grace gifts that resonate with the Imago Dei, they can flourish in other soils. But it is simply historically inept to divorce the Enlightenment from Christian history. 


As a whole, Enlightenment Now was a fascinating and enjoyable read. By demolishing the pessimistic narrative of political pundits, it gives readers hope and motivation to work for human flourishing. It is not a lost cause. Christian readers can benefit from Pinker’s work, while recognizing that the values Pinker finds so compelling are, in the final analysis, Christian values. Christians can and should work for human flourishing, addressing both man’s body and soul, something that Pinker’s rootless tree cannot do.


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