Enlightenment, atheism, reason, and the humanist Left 25

This is a kind of review. But it is more of an argument about ideas that vitally affect the real world.

I am in emphatic agreement with roughly half of what Professor Steven Pinker says in his new book Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress*, and in vehement disagreement with the rest of it. Like him, I esteem the Enlightenment most highly; profoundly value science; and certainly want progress in everything that makes us happier and better informed, our lives longer, healthier, less painful, and more enjoyable. Like him, I am an atheist. It is chiefly with his ideas on Humanism that I disagree. Which may seem strange since humanism is atheist. And, certainly, on all his criticisms of religion I am in complete accord. More than that: where small “h” humanism is concerned with humane morals – the imperative to treat our fellow human beings and other sentient beings humanely – the great professor and I could sing in harmony.

“The moral alternative to theism,” he writes, “is humanism.”

But Humanism-the-movement holds principles that I not only do not like, but strongly dislike. They are principles of the Left. And  while he is not uncritical of the Left, Professor Pinker upholds those principles. Humanism, wherever it may be found, is a Leftist ideology. And because the Humanist movement is well-established, widespread, its opinions prominently published, and taught (or preached) where scholars gather, atheism is assumed by many to belong to the Left, inseparably, part and parcel of its essential ideology.

Atheism may be indispensable to the Left, but Leftism is not necessary to atheism.

Atheism as such carries no connotations. No political or ethical ideas logically flow from it. It is simply non-belief in the existence of a divine being. Nothing more. A person’s atheism does not itself make him more humane or less humane.

Steven Pinker implies that it does. Although he states that “atheism is not a moral system … just the absence of supernatural belief”, he also declares that “secularism leads to humanism, turning people away from prayer, doctrine, and ecclesiastical authority and toward practical policies that make them and their fellows better off.”

He reasons along these lines:

“Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.”

Not from holy books. Agreed.

“Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.”


There being no supernatural moral authority, and as human beings have natural needs –

“Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.”

So far, no cause for quarrel. But he elaborates on this last statement to demonstrate that Humanists do this “deriving” well:

“Humanists ground values in human welfare, shaped by human circumstances, interests and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem …”

There it comes, as if it followed logically from scientific knowledge and humane secularism, one of the main obsessions of the Left: concern for the planet, for which, the Left claims, human beings bear responsibility. The words “man-made global warming” silently intrude themselves; as does the “solution” for it – global governance, by those who know what the human race must do; total communism, the highest principle of the Left; its vision of a whole-world Utopia. Though Steven Pinker himself is not a Utopian, he writes a good deal in this book about the virtues of “globalist” politics. He sees globalism as an enlightened, reasonable, science-based, progressive, humanist creed. To “maximize individual happiness”, he remarks, “progressive cultures” work to “develop global community”. He has much praise for international institutions – including, or even led by, the (actually deeply evil) United Nations. He is confident the UN and other international bodies such as the EU, formed after the end of the Second World War, can help keep the world at peace. In fact, there has not been a single year since 1945 when the world has been without a war or wars.

To the globalist view he opposes the populist view. Not wrong when stated thus. But he does not see the populist view as the one held by 63 million Americans who voted Donald Trump into the presidency of the United States because they wanted more jobs, lower taxes, and secure borders; or that of the British majority who voted to withdraw their country from the undemocratic and corrupt European Union. No. He sees populism as a cult of “romantic heroism”, a longing for “greatness embodied in an individual or a nation”.

He is adamantly against the nation-state. He thinks that those who uphold the idea of the nation-state “ludicrously” envision a “global order” that “should consist of ethnically homogeneous and mutually antagonistic nation-states”. Who has ever expressed such an idea? And he puts “multiculturalism” (the failing experiment of enforcing the co-existence of diverse tribes within a nation’s borders) on an equal footing with “multi-ethnicity” (the melting-pot idea that has worked so splendidly for the United States of America).

To him, nationalism is ineluctably authoritarian and fascist. He sees President Trump – who is in fact unswervingly for individual freedom – as a “charismatic leader” of the dictatorial Mussolini mold. The politics of the Right for Professor Pinker are irredeemably dyed in the wool with Nietzschean anti-morality, “superman” aspirations, and genocidal urgings. Libertarianism is tainted with it too. He writes: “ … Ayn Rand’s celebration of selfishness, her deification of the heroic capitalist, and her disdain for the general welfare had Nietzsche written all over them.”

Interestingly – and restoratively to my esteem for him – he also asserts that certain Marxists and certain Leftist movements are equally, or even more, colored with Nietzsche’s inhumanity: “[Nietzsche] was a key influence on … Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, and a godfather to all the intellectual movements of the 20th century that were hostile to science and objectivity, including Existentialism, Critical Theory, Post-structuralism, Deconstructionism, and Postmodernism.”

Steven Pinker’s humanism, then, is not far to the Left, just “left-of-center”. And most of the humanists I have known (and argued with) would also place themselves on that section of the political spectrum. “[T]he moral and intellectual case for humanism is, I believe, overwhelming …,” he writes.

He concludes (and here he specifically rejects Utopianism):

We will never have a perfect world. And it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing. This heroic story … belongs not to any tribe but to all humanity – to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

That is the vision of the Decent Thinking Western Man. He believes that all human beings ultimately want the same things; that the good life is defined for all in the same general terms; that all  would agree to the Golden Rule, which has been “rediscovered in hundreds of moral traditions”.

But are those beliefs true? He himself records that there are many who do not value knowledge above ignorance, reason above superstition, freedom above coercion, even life above death. Which is to say, he writes about Islam (in which there is no Golden Rule). He knows Islam has no trace of “Enlightenment humanism”. He declares it an “illiberal” creed, and observes that “[M]any Western intellectuals – who would be appalled if the repression, misogyny, homophobia, and political violence that are common in the Islamic world were found in their own societies even diluted a hundred fold – have become strange apologists when these practices are carried out in the name of Islam.”

He finds one explanation for the double-standard of these intellectuals in their “admirable desire to prevent prejudice against Muslims”. But when it comes to revulsion against ideologists of repression, misogyny, homophobia, and political violence, is it prejudice or is it judgment? He says also that some of the apologetics are “intended to discredit a destructive (and possibly self-fulfilling) narrative that the world is embroiled in a clash of civilizations”. (Or, as I see it, of civilization against barbarism.) I wonder how anyone can look at the drastically changing demographics of Europe, or at least the Western part of it which will surely be under Islamic rule before the century is out, and not notice the clash.

But he does say that “calling out the antihumanistic features of contemporary Islamic belief is in no way Islamophobic”. Being the decent thinking Western man that he is, he is firmly for critical examination of all ideas.

His optimism shines out of the book. He thinks Islam can be reformed, even that a Muslim Enlightenment is possible. He believes there was an earlier age of Islamic Enlightenment, an “Islamic Golden Age” which could serve as a precedent. Well, if one wants to see bright possibilities, Islam may come to prefer science to the assertions of its prophet. It may become humane in its law and stop oppressing women. It may contribute to human progress. But whatever changes may come to Islam in the future, at present it does not value life above death, freedom above coercion, knowledge above superstition. And there is no good reason to believe it ever will.


Jillian Becker    April 12, 2018


*Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker, Viking, New York 2018. The quotations in the article come from the last chapter, Humanism.

  • It’s disappointing that humanists like Pinker don’t see what we see in terms of the dangers of paternalistic government. They advocate some arbitrary “mixed economy” and are impatient when we point to the logical consequences of collectivism. They respond “but we wouldn’t go there” as if that wasn’t said 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago … to no avail. With nothing but “we elites can be trusted now” they repeat the same pathetic rationalizations.

    Still, I believe Pinker is one who would stop half way down the road to serfdom. He’d stand aghast as the juggernaut continues to the gas chamber. Still, he’s the kind we have to reach. Perhaps not him, but a younger version of him that is still open to alternatives. I’m glad you brought his book to our attention.

  • liz

    What really irks me about people like Pinker, who are “just left of center”, is that they choose to remain there in spite of all the enormous evidence of the vile, destructive, evil underpinnings of leftism itself.
    It is way past time to tolerate our enemies. We must recognize our enemies for who they are and NEVER compromise with them, accept their premises, or gloss over their lies just to maintain civility.
    Why is he so blissfully ignorant of the true history and motives of the U.N.?
    Or so naively sold on the snake oil shtick of “global community”?
    He ridicules the “romantic heroism” of populism, and Rand’s “deification” of capitalism. It was the communists who romanticized the “noble struggle” of the heroic “workers” against “evil capitalists”, and deified every leader they had, from Marx to Stalin to Castro. Yet he floats along merrily down the stream of their making. I can respect that no more than I can respect Muslims who claim their religion has no connection to the motivations of terrorists.

  • Jeanne

    I have come to think that any society, whether theist or atheist is just lucky if all things that affect them are mostly positive and their communities live in harmony. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

  • Cogito

    Another thoughtful piece by Jillian. I agree that atheism is a morally neutral term, but the political left has seized it and made it theirs. This is unarguable. Most atheists are decidedly leftist in their thinking. So we, that rare breed of conservative atheists are forced to choose our allies in the fight for the preservation of civilization. My allies have proven to be, not atheists such as Pinker, Dawkins et al., but orthodox Jews such as Prager, Daniel Greenfield, Shapiro, evangelical Christians who support Israel, Catholics such as Weigel and Buckley. It is the way of the world.

    • As long as religious conservatives are talking only about political issues, I am with them. When they start on religion, I go away. As also I do from the semi-religious Jordan Peterson. As long as an atheist – of the intellectual stature of Hitchens, say – is talking against religion, I am with him. (And Hitchens came very far over to the political Right without actually admitting it.) Prager is brilliant on political issues, but puts forward childishly absurd arguments for religion. Shapiro is silly about Trump, and talks too fast. Greenfield is a splendid thinker and journalist – I greatly admire him. Because political faiths are dominant now, political opinions matter more than the old religious affiliations. But if I were asked which, in theory, I am the more against, religiousness in the traditional sense or Leftism, I would not be able to say. Fortunately we have such thinkers as Thomas Sowell, Victor Davis Hanson, Mark Steyn, who don’t pollute the wisdom they publish with the thick sticky emotionality of religion.

      • Cogito

        I cannot argue with most of what you say, Jillian. Yet, when I consider the two most formidable opponents we have to face today – islam with its leftist apologists on the political front and cultural and ethical relativism on the intellectual front, I know what I would choose. As fallacious and risible as their religious beliefs may be, it cannot be denied that the fiercest opponents of islam are Christians, orthodox Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhist. Once this enemy is destroyed we can sit down and debate the acceptability of polytheism, vicarious sacrifice, Mosaic commandments etc.
        Similarly on the intellectual front. Cultural and ethical relativism is destroying the underpinnings of Western Civilization and, astonishingly, we see who is defending the superiority of the West and denying the noxious nihilism of the leftist atheists.
        Atheist conservatives are a noble breed of thinkers.

      • Jeanne

        Yes, please someone tell Shapiro to slow way down. I enjoy his conversations with other conservatives on the radio, but it makes me weary trying to catch every word. lol

        • liz

          I used to like Shapiro, but since he became a nevetrumper I find him extremely annoying. As I do all nevertrumpers, who seem to be more worried about keeping their lofty principles from being soiled by Trump than from being destroyed altogether by leftists.

      • Don L
        • Enjoyed and appreciated! (Assuming that’s the Christian fish and not the Darwinian one.)

          • Don L

            It is meant as an honor to you and TAC. T-Shirt, bumper sticker?

            LOL…didn’t know Darwin had a fish icon.

          • Don L


            • Sorry you deleted it! Would you consider putting it back again, please? I think the Darwin fish icon has legs. So it’s the Christian one crossed out. . And “my” motto. Very good! Don’t want to lose it.

            • Don L

              I suspect you found it.

        • Don L

          I posted the Faith Prohibition image on the Mises Site. I have received untold prayers and may god bless yous. I don’t think they got their prayers answered. I posted my younger brother’s x-mas card:

          Inn keeper, can you help put this guy up for the night?https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ef399267f338f67b51a618c823656644506820dbf55b1b1f6ec24eda5e09e221.png

      • Don L
        • It’s terrific! I like it immensely. (I think the Darwin fish has legs.) Let it be the Faith Prohibition sign, as you so aptly call it.

  • Don L

    In a comment under a previous article on TAC” We Never Think About Things We Don’t Think About” the thing not thought about was economics. Specifically, free-market capitalism (the Austrian school of economic thought). My sense is this guy hasn’t a clue and all he has ever known,is the central planning model and he knows that it does not work. So, unaware of the option, he defaults into the emotional SHOULD fascistic mode. Or, he’s a jerk.

    • I think you are very likely right about what he doesn’t know. Few if any professors of the “soft” subjects – the arts, sociology, psychology, all the “studies” – trouble themselves to learn something of economics. (He’s not a jerk.)

      • Don L

        OK…I plead diminished capacity! LOL. He does have a lot right. It’s the seeming contradictions that triggered my “here’s What’s missing”. Don’t cha just wish one of these “persons” (PC) who gets so much but then goes off in some bizzare tangent. Oh, wait. That’s me. Nuts!

        • liz

          Yes, him, Dawkins, Hawkins, Hitchens, etc, etc… It makes you want to pull your hair out. How can smart people, who get so much right, at the same time get so much wrong???
          The same way people like Prager do, I guess – religion – spiritual religion for some, leftist religion for others, both rooted in altruism.