Steven Pinker Shortchanges Both the Enlightenment and Religion

March 8 2018

In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker offers an enthusiastic defense of rationalism, liberal democracy, and human progress against religion, superstition, socialism, and totalitarianism. To John Gray, Pinker’s understanding of the 18th-century movement is woefully inadequate, his attitude toward science quickly devolves into scientism (the belief that science can provide political and moral guidance), and his view of religion is reductionist in the extreme. Gray writes:

The link between the Enlightenment and liberal values, which Pinker and many others today assert as a universal truth, is actually rather tenuous. It is strongest in Enlightenment thinkers who were wedded to monotheism, such as John Locke and indeed Immanuel Kant. The more hostile the Enlightenment has been to monotheism, the more illiberal it has been. Comte’s anti-liberalism inspired Charles Maurras, a French collaborator with Nazism and the leading theorist of Action Française—a proto-fascist movement formed during the Dreyfus affair—in his defense of integral nationalism. Vladimir Lenin continued the Jacobins’ campaign against religion as well as their pedagogy of terror. . . .

Instead of acknowledging that the Enlightenment itself has often been illiberal, Pinker presents a Manichean vision in which “Enlightenment liberal values” are besieged on every side by dark forces. Amusingly, he is in no doubt as to the identity of the intellectual master-criminal behind this assault. The Professor Moriarty of modern irrationalism, the “enemy of humanism, the ideology behind resurgent authoritarianism, nationalism, populism, reactionary thinking, even fascism” [is revealed to be Friedrich Nietzsche]. . . .

A lifelong admirer of Voltaire, Nietzsche was a critic of the Enlightenment because he belonged in it. Far from being an enemy of humanism, he promoted humanism in the most radical form. . . . He recognized no principle of human equality. But where does concern with equality come from? Not from science, which can be used to promote many values. As Nietzsche never tired of pointing out, the ideal of equality is an inheritance from Judaism and Christianity. His hatred of equality is one reason he was such a vehement atheist. . . .

Enlightenment Now is a rationalist sermon delivered to a congregation of wavering souls. To think of the book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at New Statesman

More about: Enlightenment, Friedrich Nietzsche, History & Ideas, Rationalism, Religion, Scientism

 

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at New York Times

More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror