The Gospel of Human Progress

E was for infanticide before infanticide was morally acceptable among politicians in New York and Virginia. That’s one of the reasons Tom Bartlett’s recent article in the Chronicle about Harvard professor Steven Pinker, carries the title, “Why Do People Love to Hate Steven Pinker?” Bartlett argues that the professor’s “gospel of human progress” has made him a lot of enemies.

Richard Dawkins certainly isn’t one of them. He calls Pinker secularists’ “leading public intellectual.” In his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Pinker argues for an optimistic, or as he prefers, possibilist, view of the future. Many have noted that Pinker’s thesis overlooks a whole lot of suffering and war in order to make the case for the progress of our species.

One review in the New York Times says that Pinker’s book is “disdainful and condescending — sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human beings.” The article in the Chronicle also quotes one of Pinker’s colleagues who questions if Pinker’s optimism is overstated. “I have the really awful feeling,” Niall Ferguson said, “that one day we’ll all be sitting in a bombed-out bunker saying, ‘Hey, remember Steven Pinker’s book?”

One thing is clear, Pinker has led the way in his vision for human progress. Over twenty years ago journalist Michael Kelly, writing for The Washington Post, was both amazed and alarmed that Pinker, then teaching at MIT, would publicly argue for the moral right of a mother to kill her newborn baby. Consider Kelly’s assessment of the infanticide discussion from twenty years ago:

“Of all the arguments advanced against the legalization of abortion, the one that always struck me as the most questionable is the most consequential: that the widespread acceptance of abortion would lead to a profound moral shift in our culture, a great devaluing of human life . . . . This time, it seems, the pessimists were right. On Sunday, Nov. 2 [1997], an article in the New York Times, the closest thing we have to the voice of the intellectual establishment, came out for killing babies. I am afraid that I am sensationalizing only slightly. The article by Steven Pinker in the Times’ Magazine did not go quite so far as to openly recommend the murder of infants, and printing the article did not constitute the Times’ endorsement of the idea. But close enough, close enough.”

Kelly ends his article by quoting George Orwell’s response to a wide-spread lie, “You have to be an intellectual to believe such nonsense. No ordinary man could be such a fool.” If Pinker is indeed a preacher of “the gospel of human progress” all we can say is that it is a false gospel of the worst variety. If this is what we are to call progress, our future is bleak not bright.

If things are to get better we must not progress any further down this perilous path. We need a regress. In other words, we must turn around. And the biblical word for this is repentance.

Photo by Arthur Poulin on Unsplash