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.

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

 

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war