Book Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, comes with an impressive recommendation from no less a figure than the principal founder of Microsoft and noted philanthropist, Bill Gates, who describes it as “my new favourite book of all time.” For my part, my spirits were lifted when I saw a familiar quotation right at the beginning of the book from the physicist David Deutsch: “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.” Deutsch happens to be the author of one of my all-time favourite books, The Beginning of Infinity.

The quotation from Deutsch is certainly very apt as it underlines a major theme of this book whose full title is “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”.  At a time when populists and demagogues appear to be on the rise, Pinker’s re-affirmation of the values of the Enlightenment and his insistence on spelling out in detail via no less than seventy-five graphs how the human condition has improved in recent centuries is very welcome and for believers – and I include myself in this category – contain a number of passages that will prove very challenging.

Pinker gets into his stride right away and draws our attention to the facts about how major progress has been made due to science in the areas of life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality and reducing deaths due to disease. Pinker estimates that 177 million lives were saved due to the discovery of the benefits resulting from the chlorination of water alone. He notes how smallpox killed 300 million people in the 20th century and then asks us to now look at a dictionary definition of the disease:

Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola Minor. (p64)

Look at that again. “Smallpox was.” The last case was diagnosed in Somalia in 1977 after the World Health Organisation set itself the task in 1959 of eradicating the disease. It was a tremendous achievement and it was due to an increase in our knowledge about vaccinations. There has also been major progress made in the fight against measles, diphtheria and whooping cough with vaccines having been discovered for each of them.

Deutsch’s quote suggests that there should be many more victories in the future against disease if we continue on the path of reason and science. Pinker agrees and stresses that “It is knowledge that is key.” (p67)

For Muslims, this may serve as a reminder of the Qur’anic prayer “My Lord – increase me in knowledge” (Qur’an 20:114).

Yet, for Pinker, religion is not the answer. He makes the, by now, familiar humanist case that religion has served more to hinder than facilitate progress and asks why we now need religion at all? Did the God of the Bible not command “the Israelites to commit mass rape and genocide, and prescribed the death penalty for blasphemy, idolatry, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath, while finding nothing particularly wrong with slavery, rape, torture, mutilation and genocide.” (p429)

By contrast, Pinker refers to the progress made when we think about maximising human happiness and freedom. He contrasts the religious penalty for idolatry with the words of Thomas Jefferson.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (p417)

The choice is a clear one. Which form of government, religious or secular, will grant more freedom to human beings and prevent more discrimination? When we look at some of the most self-professedly religious states in the world today, whether it is Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan or the Vatican city, Pinker’s argument does seem to have considerable force.

So, if we go along with the argument that reason and science and increasing our store of knowledge are all key to making progress then one has to ask, as Pinker does, “How to build a society that cultivates rational thoughts?” (p27). Pinker argues that a secular and rationalistic approach to education is the key to growth (p234)

“…education exposes people in young adulthood to other races and cultures in a way that makes it harder to demonize them. Most interesting of all is the likelihood that education, when it does what it is supposed to, instils a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdote, and emotional demagoguery.” (p339)

Pinker insists that allowing vigorous open argumentation and reasoned critiques (which interestingly the Muslim societies mentioned a couple of paragraphs above notably do not seem particularly keen on) will lead to good ideas prevailing and bad ones being rejected.

“…as people are forced to justify the way they treat other people, rather than dominating them out of instinctive, religious, or historical inertia, any justification for prejudicial treatment will crumble under scrutiny. Racial segregation, male-only suffrage, and the criminalisation of homosexuality are literally indefensible: people tried to defend them in their times, and they lost the argument.” (p221)

Will we see this progress in the Muslim world? Pinker is optimistic.

“…in every part of the world, people have become more liberal. A lot more liberal: young Muslims in the Middle East, the world’s most conservative culture, have values today that are comparable to those of young people in Western Europe, the world’s most liberal culture, in the early 1960s.” (p228)

Since Pinker’s book was published at the beginning of 2018, this year has seen Muslim organisations protesting in Tunisia – a country with a relatively free press and more liberal attitudes compared with much of the rest of the Arab world – against laws that would grant women equal inheritance rights with men. Maybe it is just birth pangs – because the growth of enlightenment values in much of the Muslim world is very much needed.

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