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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