The podcast, Unbelievable, with host, Justin Brierley, is becoming a favorite food for thought. I just listened to Steven Pinker vs Nick Spencer: Have science, reason & humanism replaced faith? Pinker is an atheist professor of Psychology from Harvard, and Spencer is billed as a member of “the Christian think tank, Theos”. The subject was “Pinker’s recent book ‘Enlightenment Now’, addressing his claim that science, reason and humanism are the drivers of progress in the world, not religion”.
As with most of the episodes I have listened to, this one was a very civil and respectful “debate”, really more of a dialogue, on the respective points of view. This civility and respect sets Unbelievable apart from more reactive “discussions” of controversial topics.
In this particular discussion, the focus was on Pinker’s optimistic view of humanism bolstered by science and technology echoing the familiar theme that we are progressing as a species as we free ourselves from religion with the aid of science and technology carrying us forward. Pinker minimizes the influence of religion on the enlightenment and the sudden advancement of science that accompanied it, while Spencer argued that the influence of religion is what fundamentally motivated and shaped those movements.
Spencer agreed with much that Pinker says about the progress of modern man, though he disagrees that science has shaped the moral advances we have experienced. He says that the value of the individual and sanctity of human rights is at heart a religious concept. He even points out that Pinker has to resort to the religious term, sacred, to describe these concepts as some evidence of the religious influence.
I have long toyed with the notion that we are not as advanced, morally, as we think ourselves. The 20th Century was the bloodiest of all centuries. Characteristic of the 20th Century was the genocidal bloodshed and cruelty of the atheist regimes under Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot and others. Some would add Hitler to the hit list of atheist genocidal despots, but that point is often argued, with religionists foisting Hitler on the atheists, and the atheists pushing him back on the religionists.
Hitler is somewhat of an enigma, generating an almost religious following marked by a personality that modeled a religion-like fervor. Pinker and Spencer debated whether Hitler was influenced by Darwinism, with Pinker countering that Hitler despised Darwin.
Though the truth of Hitler’s motivations my remain a mystery, and despite the unprecedented genocides perpetuated in the 20th Century, Spencer agreed with Pinker that we have progressed morally into the 21st Century. We generally exhibit a higher morality, however you slice it, (at least in the western world) in modern times than ever before, and this higher morality tracks scientific and technological progress.
As the two men carried on the conversation about the relative influences of religion and scientific and technological advancement on that progress, some thoughts occurred to me that I hadn’t considered before. I would agree with Spencer that religion (principally Judeo-Christian principles in the west) has largely carried us to this place where, ironically, we are finding no more need of God.
This perspective, also, flows from those same Judeo-Christian roots that holds out human pride as the principal problem (sin) of humankind. Having achieved a degree of independence and comfort through the advancement of technology, we believe “can do this” on our own (to paraphrase the testosterone influenced enthusiasm of my former teenage boys).