The Progressive (Enlightenment) Road
This post initiates a new series in this blog. It will be entitled “The Third Way”. This series is a sequel to the series of posts under the title “The Demise of Christendom” which extended over eight parts.
For readers who have not read “The Demise of Christendom”, that series surveyed the journey of Western society and culture over 1700 years, during which the prevailing paradigm of the West’s identity as a society was assumed to be based on the values and story of Christianity. As we moved through the ‘History of Christendom’, as we may term that long saga, we recall that the model of ‘Christendom’ was flawed from the beginning, having attempted to marry (Roman) imperial, coercive power, as per the typical world order born millennia before during pre-Christian times, with ideals born and derived from the example and teachings of Jesus and his Apostles. Jesus’ saying that his Kingdom “is not of this present age (way of doing, being, ruling, ordering – the term is kosmos in Greek and is often mistranslated as ‘world’)” was suborned by the temptation that, with the aid and authority of the government holding ‘the power of the sword’, the ‘Kingdom of God’ would be established on earth[i] before Christ’s promised return.
I will not recapitulate the whole story of how that illusion collapsed and finally and only recently has faded to mere phantom memories. Anyone desiring to learn more of that story is invited to peruse “The Demise of Christendom”.
The Progressivist Road
I begin this series with an extensive quote from Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Pinker is a highly acclaimed Harvard academic of the first rank who enjoys a well-earned, positive international reputation. As a prominent point-man and proponent for the Enlightenment and its undoubted contributions to the material improvement of humanity, Pinker has produced a sort of ‘manifesto’ for Progressive Ideology. It is presented as the true faith and only real hope for humanity to avoid self-destruction, or devolution, or even the complete annihilation of life on earth. Here is how he concludes Enlightenment Now, his magnum opus, his ‘manifesto’:
“ …. human nature has … been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively[i], to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.
“These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties been expanded by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.
“As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others have yet to be conceived.
“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 is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true-true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. We believe it because we have reasons to believe it …. 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.”
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, (Viking, 2018) pp. 452-3
It is not my desire to dissect Pinker’s projection of humanity’s future in detail here, as tempting as that is. However, I invite the reader to note a few salient points. First is Pinker’s use of religious language to speak about the kind of future he hopes for and aspires to for Humanity and Planet Earth. He says “human nature has been blessed with resources that open space for a kind of redemption”. [Emphases are mine.] He speaks of humanity’s having received ‘endowments’, and anthropomorphizes concepts such as ‘history’ and ‘journalism’, endowing endowment with some sort of autonomous power [which hints at a kind of magical thinking].
Like almost all Enlightenment progressives and their post-modern kin, Pinker does not attribute much, if any, of human progress to the contributions of ‘religion’. Rather the opposite, if not explicitly, certainly by weighty implication. He cites a figure of 55 million deaths in wars of religion which the adherents of the major monotheistic religions waged on one another or on pagan miscreants. In the same quote above, he ends his book [it is the actual last sentence] by saying “knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance”. I will not dispute his closing statement because I agree with it wholeheartedly, as I in fact do with most of the citation – except to say that it actually requires something more than “only … convictions” which he lists. Any ‘reasonable’ person would agree with those convictions, including we ‘religious types’ who actually believe we are reasonable – no doubt a largely oxymoronic statement to an Enlightenment Progressive.
Another example of the actually quite religious flavour and fervour of Pinker’s manifesto’s resounding conclusion is his talk of ‘heroic tale’ and ‘myth’. His use of ‘heroic tale’ is of course borrowed from the (mainly religious) heritage of the West, beginning with the Greeks, whose heroes (such as Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Heracles) were all intimately connected to deities (such as Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hera, Ares, Hephaestus), the Romans, who had their own parallel pantheon guiding and protecting their destiny, and the Vikings.
A heroic tale is a specific literary genre involving supernatural elements and the conflict of good against evil, light against darkness, justice against injustice. It is easy to understand why Pinker and Progressives would frame their story in such terms – to inspire! The saga of ‘heroic reason’ does not sound very inspirational. Inspiration needs emotion and enthusiasm, belief in a higher cause, and heroic protagonists who actually act heroically. Such is the forte of ‘religion’, not science, reason, and logic. (Not to say that there have been and are no heroic philosophers and scientists. But even there, conspicuous by absence in Pinker’s heroic tale is the amazing fact that a good many of them were Deists, Theists, and, heaven forbid! – even Christians! Progressive History is largely revisionist history.)
Then there is the wholly egregious negativism towards a category of story Pinker calls myth. He implicitly divorces ‘myth’ as he has defined it (“fiction”) from truth, because truth is only attained by the application of reason. This is the supreme tenet of the Enlightenment. He wants to have his cake and eat it too – elevating the Enlightenment Progressive Story to the status of the one and only ‘true myth’ – an oxymoron by his own definition. The problem is that, for us to be converted to (or renewed in our faith in) the Enlightenment Now vision and version of “redemption” – his term – he needs the religious symbolism and language.
He sounds much like Auguste Comte in his invention of the Religion of Positivism as a necessary substitute for (then outlawed) Christianity at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Centuries as the French Revolutionaries, invoking all the most noble principles of the High Enlightenment, devolved into tyranny and mass killing to rival any done by the ‘Christianity’ they so deplored and excoriated. It seems that appealing to high philosophical principles and the light of Reason and Science alone simply does not inspire much hope or commitment among the ordinary unwashed masses who just don’t know any better. The ‘truth’ has to be dressed up with religious vocabulary, regardless of the century we find ourselves in.
In our next instalment, we will discuss the idea of ‘redemption’ à la progressiste.
[i] Unfortunately some die-hards in extremist groups who still identify themselves as ‘Christian’ would still love to take over the government and then use the ‘power of the sword’, as the Apostle Paul called it in the Letter to of Romans, to create a ‘Christian’ theocracy. Sorry guys, we’ve been there and done that and moved on. It was ugly and would be just as ugly second time around. Look at Iran or Saudi Arabia.
[ii] “recursive/recursively” – an academic term referring to the faculty of using an ability or skill to improve itself by tweaking it through new uses and situations. Simply: a fancy way of saying ‘practice makes perfect’ – like a mechanic or musician learns a new, more efficient and elegant way to do old things and then, from that, finds improvements and makes ‘advances’ in their area of expertise. In this context, we get better at reasoning by reasoning; we get better at communicating by communicating. We get better at science by applying previous science and trying new stuff with it. We get better at helping people in real, practical ways by helping them in real practical ways. All in all, we learn from our mistakes – but there are always new mistakes to learn from.