Skip to main content

Culture Books

Enlightenment optimism

Steven Pinker (Rose Lincoln / Harvard University)


Enlightenment optimism

From Pangloss to Pollyanna to Pinker

Several readers have asked me what I think of Steven Pinker’s best-selling Enlightenment Now (Viking, 2018). They could have asked Bill Gates, who called it his “new favorite book of all time.” They could have asked The New York Times (“a terrific book”) or Publishers Weekly (“heartening”). But they asked me, so I’ll give them my opinion: It’s partly true materially, and nuts spiritually.

Super-optimist Pinker is part of a great tradition. Voltaire, the Enlightenment philosophe, had fun in 1759 with his satire Candide. It starred Professor Pangloss, “the greatest philosopher of the Holy Roman Empire,” who believes this is the best of all possible worlds. Pangloss contracts syphilis and is being hanged in Lisbon when an earthquake intervenes.

Pollyanna, a best-selling novel published 105 years ago at a time when war seemed extinct and prosperity seemed to be spreading, starred a girl who could have been a Pangloss descendant. Pollyanna’s ability to be content in every circumstance was certainly a Christian virtue, but after misery-multiplying World War I began in 1914, a “Pollyanna” became someone excessively and naïvely optimistic. Nevertheless, 12 sequels known as “Glad Books” followed the first.

Harvard psychology prof Pinker, 64, is a member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research. He published in 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature, which claimed violence is decreasing. This year’s Enlightenment Now contends that just about everything bad is decreasing, and a few of his facts are true. A smaller percentage of the world’s population sits in extreme poverty than ever before (except in the Garden of Eden, where the poverty percentage was zero). More children than ever before survive childhood (although more die in abortions). Literacy and other good things are more common.

Other purportedly factual statements, though, are questionable. Pinker uses IQ tests to argue, “An average person of 1910, if he or she had entered a time machine and materialized today, would be borderline retarded by our standards.” Hmm. A half-century earlier, average Illinois voters were able to follow the Lincoln-Douglas debates, filled with thoughtful, lengthy, and complex arguments rather than sound bites. Bill Gates says we’re getting smarter because we interpret symbols on our phones’ home screens, so “our world today encourages abstract thought from a young age.” But do those who depend on GPS know how to read a map?

What about Pinker’s contention that we owe good things to Enlightenment thinkers, who condemned “not just religious violence but also the secular cruelties of their age, including slavery.” Hmm. The most important individual in the abolition of slavery was William Wilberforce, who based his position on the Bible rather than Voltaire or Rousseau. Sadly, Pinker doesn’t even mention Wilberforce. (If facts don’t fit the hypothesis, away with fact!) Christian values also underlay advances in science, medicine, and much besides.

Pinker’s dislike for Christianity distorts his analysis. He refuses to recognize that hostility to Christ among some Enlightenment thinkers led to the flashing guillotine of the French Revolution and its progeny: Paris Commune, Russian Revolution, China’s Great Leap Backward, and so forth. The enlightened 20th century became, as great novelist Walker Percy put it, “the most scientifically advanced, savage, democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history.” It’s too early in the 21st to see whether we’ll top that record.


Ben Reiter’s Astroball: The New Way to Win It All (Crown, 2018) shows how the Astros win by combining statistical analysis with personal observation. Fans of Mohandas Gandhi have to be really big fans to go through 1,000 pages of Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 (Knopf, 2018). I learned more from it about how Gandhi brilliantly used civil disobedience to battle overseers with a Christian tradition—he wouldn’t have fared well against Nazis—but I confess to skimming and sampling, and investing more time in John Frame’s 140-page Christianity Considered (Lexham, 2018), an excellent summary aimed at skeptics and seekers. —M.O.


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Sun, 11/04/2018 05:41 am

    I notice that the absence of the awareness of bias is one of the hallmarks of progressive writers.  They write from a particular bias but they are unaware that they may have created their world view out of nothing or may base it on the opinion of other men who created it out of nothing.  Christians should, I think, be aware, that they have bias (biases?) too and be sure they know what their bias is based on.  If we say we believe the Bible then certainly we have set our minds on that way of thinking.  Being double minded makes us unstable. 

    Based on a review from World, I purchased and read Cult City a book by Daniel J. Flynn.  I was offenended by the language and the graphic detail of some aspects of these peoples lives.  I felt like I needed to wash my hands after reading.  Then I realized that an author may need to write that way to fully expose the personal traits of some individuals without sounding judgemental--Sort of like, "here it is you decide"  Anyway read "Cult City" at your own risk.  It is an eye opener.