You’ve Got to Admit It’s Getting Better: Steven Pinker and “The World”

If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be–what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into–you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now.
                          —Barack Obama, 2016 graduation speech at Howard University


51sBWhI4e9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Christianity is based on a narrative of decline that goes something like this: The world began as a perfect place where people walked and talked with God and lived in harmony with the natural world. But human beings sinned and were cast of paradise, where they became wickeder and wickeder until God had to destroy all but eight of them. Those eight started a new society that also became wicked, and God had to periodically destroy cities and send Assyrians and Babylonians to punish His chosen people. Then he sent his only son into the world, and we killed him. Since then, we have been getting wickeder and wickeder and, sometime in the near future, everything will be destroyed again and Jesus will come back and be king.

This narrative has been so baked into the Christian world view that we hardly even notice it anymore. But it conditions the way we think about almost everything. It makes us see human desires as fundamentally evil, natural disasters as divine punishments, and “the world” as a collection of people who have been inspired by Satan to tempt us away from God’s path. To resist the world, we have to (among other things) develop a relationship with God, obey lots of stuff, and stop being gay.

The narrative of decline—which many contemporary Latter-day Saints have adopted enthusiastically—works against what some people call the “Enlightenment narrative,” which arose in the 18th century to tell a different story. According to the Enlightenment narrative (or so people say), human beings are capable of reason but not particularly good at it, and we have the capacity to use applied reason and science to solve our many problems. We can improve health, government, social institutions, and human flourishing—if we set our minds to it. But we have to do it ourselves; it is not God’s job.

In his newest book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker is here to tell you that the Enlightenment worked. It didn’t work perfectly, and we have not created Eden. But it has worked pretty well. The world has  gotten a lot better. The political and economic ideas that came out of the Enlightenment—including liberal democracy and regulated free markets—have swept across the world and made people wealthier and more free. And Enlightenment scientific principles have wiped out diseases like smallpox and polio that used to kill or disable millions of people every year.

As one who, like Pinker, is a liberal but not a leftist, I find myself agreeing with almost everything in this over-arching argument. Sure I have specific quibbles with all kinds of stuff. Pinker is not content to show that most things are a little bit better. He wants to be more comprehensive than that and show that everything is a lot better. And in the process, he often stretches his argument beyond what can be reasonably proved.

But even adjusting for some hyperbole, the data he presents is overwhelmingly persuasive—not just that life has gotten better in the world since the 18th century, but that it has improved dramatically in just the last 30 years. During this time, extreme poverty has fallen from 50% of the world to 10%, the number of people killed in wars has fallen by 200%, criminal violence has decreased dramatically, cars are safer, more countries are democratic, and income inequality has decreased in all but the most developed nations. It seems to me that there is no reasonable way to refute the proposition that the world today is more amenable to human flourishing than it has ever been.

It is as a religious believer that I find Pinker’s arguments uncomfortable. To be clear: Pinker is an atheist (though not a “new atheist” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris). He sees the Enlightenment as an inherently secular movement, and he sees counter-Enlightenment religious narratives as a dangerous rejection of the principles upon which most of the world’s progress is based.

And I agree, sort of. But not entirely. I have never bought in to the standard narrative of decline. But I have also known many, many religious people who have spent their lives addressing problems like poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation. And they have done so largely by using the tools of the Enlightenment: they have set up schools in poor countries and impoverished areas of our own country. They have worked hard to bring vaccinations and modern medicine to people who could not otherwise afford it. And they have convinced many people to do the same. There are some religious narratives that are fully compatible with Enlightenment values.

If Enlightenment Now has anything to say to religious believers it is that our narratives matter—and that there are real ethical problems with narratives that see history as an inherent decline and “the world” as the opposite of God. When we adopt these narratives, we tend to do the wrong things and call it being moral. We try to solve things that aren’t really problems, and we try to solve real problems by obeying authority instead of examining facts. Or we give up solving problems altogether because we think that the world is supposed to get worse.

And it seems to me that religious believers and Enlightenment humanists can find enough common ground to fill many lifetimes by starting with the assumption that we all have the ability, and the responsibility, to do everything we can to make the world better.


  1. Katie M. says:

    I think it’s impossible to argue against the notion that things have gotten immensely better on many fronts, like technology and health and social justice. Things have gotten unarguably better from a human perspective

    The hard part is to know how things have gotten from a God-perspective. What does He think about all our progress?

    I think one can make the case that He’s on board with all of it, even the gay stuff.

    But then I also think that a God who somehow can only forgive me from my sins by letting his son get nailed to a tree, and sometimes floods the earth and destroys whole cities, and says he lets people go through terrible hardships (war, pestilence, disease!) — and even intentionally sends these hardships! — to humble them, is a Being I cannot pretend to understand with my human mind. As soon I think I know exactly how He wants things, I’m lost.

    Is He more pleased by fewer babies dying, or by more people believing in Him? He is more pleased by greater world peace, or greater church attendance? Is He made less happy by empty bellies, or by the increase in those who deny His existence? Is He made more happy by more people being able to marry, period, or family life having a higher priority for all people, overall? What does He most value — what counts as progress to Him?

    It’s hubris to say we know. For every scriptural example you can find to buttress one part of the equation, you can find another that shows the opposite. So progress from a secular perspective, yes, but I feel like our humility should force us to be agnostic on the question of progress from a faith perspective.

    (This doesn’t disagree at all with the conclusion about finding common ground, and the responsibility to make the world better — just some thoughts on the perspective of progress!)

  2. Bro. Jones says:

    War deaths have fallen by 200%? That seems…off.

  3. I haven’t read Pinker’s book, but I see evidence of the improvement narrative on many fronts, which makes the remaining problems all the more noticeable. But our track record on reducing 3rd world poverty is good. Many diseases are no longer a problem and more are on the ropes. Again, the exceptions stand out even more because of the progress that has been made.

    But from a strictly church related view, I am aware of events that match the “world in decline narrative.” More people are leaving church attendance, it seems, than ever before in my lifetime, including many in my own personal circles. Our missionary program appears to be stalled, struggling to overcome the plateau that it has been on for some time. Additional missionaries did not overcome the inertia of a general population in the developed world that is, mostly due to Enlightenment gains, doing quite well without us, thank you, And keeping our youth and young adults involved in church-related activity seems to be a growing concern,

    For all this, I agree that the more engaged we are as individuals and as a church community in the greater world out there, the better off we all will be in the long run. There is much common ground, but our natural tendency as a church towards insularity needs to give way, I believe, towards that greater involvement in “the world.” We will all be better off for it.

  4. Michael, thanks for your thoughts. A number of people have recommended this book to me. I still haven’t read it, but I suspect I would agree with this review from Nick Spencer in These: Spencer’s basic point is that Pinker does a wonderful job discussing the present and the future–things really are getting better, and there’s great reason to be happy about this–but his view of the past–that all the glorious institutions and practices of today are due to the enlightenment–is really off. Pinker ignores the possible ills that the enlightenment has brought, and he forgets that much of the institutions he praises predated the enlightenment, and some are, in fact, founded in Christianity. Francis Fukuyama points this out in his awesome series on the origins of Political Order, and Jordan B. Peterson (in “12 Rules of Life”) also speaks to the fact that, yes, Christianity may have its share of problems–but they obscure, at times, the problems that Christianity solved, which were numerous and which we find hard to see now. But again, it seems that Pinker is a brilliant optimist and statistician but a not-always-excellent historian. Back to Spencer’s essay–would love your thoughts on it from you or anyone else whose read the books.

    But I also question the optimists, or at least the Pinker-style optimists. I’ve been really digging deep into Genesis this year–I bought a couple of commentaries and have been plowing through them. In The Word Biblical Commentary, the editor Gordon Wenham, commenting on Genesis and modern thought, says this:

    “If it is correct to view Gen 1– 11 as an inspired retelling of ancient oriental traditions about the origins of the world with a view to presenting the nature of the true God as one, omnipotent, omniscient, and good, as opposed to the fallible, capricious, weak deities who populated the rest of the ancient world; if further it is concerned to show that humanity is central in the divine plan, not an afterthought; if finally it wants to show that man’s plight is the product of his own disobedience and indeed is bound to worsen without divine intervention, Gen 1– 11 is setting out a picture of the world that is at odds both with the polytheistic optimism of ancient Mesopotamia and the humanistic secularism of the modern world. Genesis is thus a fundamental challenge to the ideologies of civilized men and women, past and present, who like to suppose their own efforts will ultimately suffice to save them. Gen 1– 11 declares that mankind is without hope if individuals are without God. Human society will disintegrate where divine law is not respected and divine mercy not implored. Yet Genesis, so pessimistic about mankind without God, is fundamentally optimistic, precisely because God created men and women in his own image and disclosed his ideal for humanity at the beginning of time. And through Noah’s obedience and his sacrifice mankind’s future was secured. And in the promise to the patriarchs the ultimate fulfillment of the creator’s ideals for humanity is guaranteed.” (Wenham, Gordon John; Wenham, Gordon John. Genesis 1-15, Volume 1 (Word Biblical Commentary) (Kindle Locations 1899-1910). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)

    Obviously you could amend parts of that with Latter-day Saint perspectives. We believe in the Felix Culpa, after all, or Fortunate Fall. But I tend to think the main outlines are right. I guess it comes down to how much faith we can have in human institutions and in human nature, sans God and divine intervention. Does the enlightenment, and liberalism, and all the good parts of our society–and I really do think they are good–have legs? Can the trends go on forever? Is our modern world, with all its progress, really resilient? That’s my main question to Pinker.

  5. Loursat says:

    The millennialism of early Mormonism was vigorous. It drew the Saints out of the world and spurred them to build something great that would become a light to those they had left behind.

    The millennialism of contemporary Mormonism is entirely different. Its function now is to draw a rhetorical boundary between Mormons and “the world.” We no longer gather to Zion; repeating the trope that the world is getting worse is really a reminder to stay in the boat with the others of our tribe. When we double down on traditional prejudices, blaming the “increasingly evil world” is the most convenient shorthand justification. The effect is to create a bubble of sullenness that makes it hard to reach out to others.

    It’s not obvious to me how to create an authentic, vigorous, and creative Mormonism that loves the reality of great good in the world. Is our predicament an unavoidable consequence of millenarian theology?

  6. Emily U says:

    Katie M, you make a really interesting comment. You wrote, “For every scriptural example you can find to buttress one part of the equation, you can find another that shows the opposite.” Do you think that’s true we leave out the Old Testament? Because to me God in the OT seems pretty different from Jesus in the NT. Either way, what counts as progress to God is a very good question.

  7. I am all over the enlightenment progect. The long arc of moral and world improvement. So good to be alive now. I hope poverty, wars desease will nearly disappear one day.
    But with the rest of the world moving up the ecommic ladder and facing 10 billion people in 30 years pushing more and more usage on this little earth, with Putin pushing a 2nd Cold War, EU braking down. I just fear we are too fragile as humans to keep the good news outbalancing the bad. Something will give and we fall back into a dark age?

  8. Last year I was in the habit of watching the BBC’s documentary Great Continental Railway Journeys. The host, Michael Portillo, conducted his tours based on a 1913 Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide. Things were going splendidly in 1913 and had been going well for a long time. Continued progress, advancement, and prosperity in all fields seemed assured.

    Then came 1914 and the War to End All Wars, which set the stage for an even greater bloodletting in World War II. Today, except for Syria and Myanmar and a few other hot spots, things look pretty good. For now.

    1913 had the advantage that a world war then would take years to kill a fraction of what we and the growing number of other nuclear powers could kill in an hour or two. Do I believe this sort of disaster will happen soon? No. Do I believe it could happen? Of course.

    Yet the Latter-day Saints have arguably had a positive narrative. The scientific advances of the 19th century were seen by early Church leaders as favorable to the spread of the gospel. The narrative of history, including the Enlightenment, was seen as setting the stage for the Restoration. In our day President Hinckley seemed to me to be particularly optimistic. (See

  9. Katie M. says:


    I would personally like to think that the God who elicits faith with fear fully transformed into the God who draws faith with love in the turning of the OT to the NT. But then there are multiple references in the D&C to God chastening people in order to produce obedience; I honestly find them disturbing, and wish they weren’t there (might we chalk them up to the frustrations of their scribe?).

    Even if we were able to cleanly close the book on the OT God, we’re still left with a God who once killed thousands to humble them and then transformed into a much kinder and gentler version of Himself — a transformation that is quite wild to contemplate in and of itself, and still points to the utter mysteriousness of God and the ultimate unknowable-ness of His mind.

  10. Love this!! Thank you.

  11. Franklin says:

    But our religion is based on the idea that the world is going to hell and a handbasket. Without that, how are we supposed to identify our enemies, especially Satan and his minions, who are winning all the skirmishes until Jesus comes and binds him for a thousand years? What’s the point if we can’t use all those military metaphors to describe our religion’s place in the world?

  12. Deborah Christensen says:

    I’ve wondered for years if the world-is-evil narrative is not part of the Gospel but part of Satan’s plan. We only see it appear in the scriptures because it was written by flawed people with an imperfect understanding. Fear and dividing the world into groups that are at war with each other is what the Advisary thrives on. Whereas I learn from the Gospels how we are not enemies by virtue of our differences.

  13. I agree that Pinker’s book should make us skeptical of narratives, but that goes for Pinker’s narrative just as much as the decline narrative. Pinker is obviously a talented mind, but he needs to read more broadly in history and philosophy. The idea that the Enlightenment doesn’t have anything to do with religion and that the counter-Enlightenment does has it completely backward. Also, the notion that the humanistic ethic that he subscribes to is the natural outgrowth of the scientism that he embraces is simply laughable. The reason he is so afraid of Nietzsche is because he knows somewhere deep down that Nietzsche is right — if God is dead, then there is no a priori reason why one should cling to the values of humanism.

  14. Bryan, would you please explain why you decided to use bold-face type?

  15. Franklin,

    No worries about identifying enemies, even after (or especially after) the last priest’s entrails have been used up. The secular left and the secular right will continue to provide subjects for the Two Minutes Hate. Even states without religions (or I should say especially states where religion has been suppressed) have had no shortage of lists of enemies of the people, the state, or the party, and their militaries and the military of Hobbes’ Leviathan have not been metaphorical.

    Suggested reading: Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, especially the first three chapters.

  16. I’ve been thinking of reading this, and if you say it’s worth reading, I’m going to read it.

  17. anon4life says:

    But please read the essays as well that explain how little Pinker knows about the Enlightenment.
    Here, for example:

  18. Geoff - Aus says:

    As a non American mormon I had always thought the wicked world concept was republican, because it doesent seem to me to have anything to do with Christ, and is not in my culture, but is popular in the church general conference etc.
    It is also another of those things that turns away those who have dissonance detectors as we understand millennials do. I cringe every time I hear it.
    The world is so obviously better than it was when I was younger.

  19. jaxjensen says:

    “But then there are multiple references in the D&C to God chastening people in order to produce obedience” And don’t forget the NT account of Ananias and his wife. The God of the OT is the same God of the BoM, NT, D&C, and currently.

  20. John Mansfield says:

    John’s Gospel always comes to mind when “the world” comes up. It comes up over and over in that book. The true light that comes into the world that knew him not. The Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world. God so loving the world that he gave his son and sent that son not to condemn the world but to save the world. The Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive. Yet a little while, and the world sees me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. The world rejoicing at Jesus’ death while his disciples will sorrow. Jesus having loved his own which were in the world.

    It’s a complicated, dynamic relationship in those chapters between God, the world, and the disciples.

  21. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    FWIW “the world is screwed and everything’s heading to hell” is a 5000-year-old narrative. There are Sumerian tablets saying just as much.

    Narratives of loss and decline are as dangerous as narratives of progress and ever-increasing happiness. Everything that benefits us in one way harms us in another.

  22. Katie M — Interesting comments. I agree with you about the importance of humility. I get worried about people who claim to *know* what God thinks about this or any topic.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that I would go so far as to say that we must be “agnostic on the question of progress from a faith perspective.”

    Your description of God — that God “sometimes floods the earth and destroys whole cities” and “even intentionally sends … hardships” — relies on a highly literal reading of the scriptures. That’s the dominant perspective in Mormonism, but is it the only way to see things? Did God actually flood the earth and do all the other horrifying things that are attributed to God in scripture? Personally, I don’t think so. My own faith journey has led me to think a little differently about those scriptural accounts.

    To be clear, I am NOT saying that I *know* the mind or will of God. I certainly don’t. But I also don’t *know* that God exists at all. Is there any reason to be more “agnostic on the question of progress from a faith perspective” than to be agnostic on the question of God’s existence? If there are good reasons to have faith in the existence of God, I wonder if there aren’t similarly good reasons to have faith that God considers humanity to be making progress overall (not monotonically, and not in every respect, but generally speaking).

    My own faith is that our Heavenly Parents are pretty darn pleased when fewer babies die and there is greater world peace. Of course I might be wrong. But I might also be wrong about having Heavenly Parents in the first place. It’s all a matter of faith.

  23. I think the religious narrative of decline is powerful and resilient, as evidenced by some of the comments here and more. Here and elsewhere I hear:
    >”Maybe a blip up, local and temporal, but in the long run . . .
    >”Measured by human scale to prove what you want to prove . . .
    >”God’s perspective . . .”
    >”The best we get is zero-sum where every winner means a loser . . .”
    >”I will greatly multiply thy sorrow . . . cursed is the ground . . . in sorrow shalt thou eat . . . until you Rest in Peace or in the Arm’s of the Lord or He Comes Again.”

    I actually believe we — human kind, with or without God’s help and even despite God sacrificing a thousand here and there (if I really believed that) — can make things better. That we can and are improving in a global net-net every way that counts sense. I’ve seen religion be an active force for good in that direction and want to see more.

    For what (little) it’s worth, I think the Mormon experience is a better than average expression of religion for the good of people in this life on this planet. Its primary limitation being that most of the “good for people” is inward looking and that it is not a good fit for everybody.

  24. Michael H. says:

    Thank you for this, Michael. I’ve long resisted the narrative of decline, but as the LDS general-authority culture skews older and older and older, the cranky-old-man perspective dominates more and more and more. Cranky old men have been snarling about “kids these days” for thousands of years. In “The Ages of Man,” Hesiod writes about his own day (8th century BC) as if humanity couldn’t possibly survive one more generation, since everyone around him was a godless, ungrateful deadbeat, etc., etc., etc. Problem is, when LDS hierarchy is all 70-, 80-, 90-something, the cranky-old-man talk is taken for granted as GOD’S point of view, and therefore incontrovertible, even though it’s the same stuff cranky old men have been saying since human beings began to grow old. (Jimmy Kimmel’s joke comes to mind–about Oscar being 90 years old and not attending the awards ceremony, instead staying at home and watching Fox News…)

  25. While I have long resisted the world is evil and in rapid decline, I also am a little cautious of unbridled optimism that things are all wonderful. While many things are awesome there is reason for concern as well that it’s either unsustainable or hollow in many areas. From environmental to economic to political it’s easy to find some major cracks in the foundation.

  26. What I meant to say was that while I have resisted the idea that the world is in decline I also have concerns

  27. Of course, the more equal or progressive society gets, the more its people are likely to complain about inequality and regression.

  28. Dog Spirit says:

    I agree that hands down there is no time in history in which I would rather live than now. The past was really, really terrible.

    On the God is an alien being whose moral compass we cannot fathom and therefore we cannot judge what true progress is question (I love what Tom Hardman said above), I think Christ’s central message of love is the answer. Is there more or less love in the world? I think it’s useful that we can’t really quantify that because the building of a narrative of decline or of progress can serve as an excuse for inaction on our part. Whether love in the world is going up or going down, our job is the same: love more. And if God, whatever it is, defines progress or success differently from that, then there is nothing any of us can do to please such a being, in which case I will be content if I eased the way of some of my fellow travelers.

  29. jaxjensen says:

    War deaths: down. Dead babies: down. Death to disease: down.

    Love of fellow men: down. Shame for sin: down. mutual respect and understanding: down.

    Guess we can’t win them all.

  30. jaxjensen — It’s not entirely clear to me that love of fellow men, shame for sin, and mutual respect and understanding are in fact down, as you say they are. I recognize that yours is the majority position within the Church, and I’m in the minority. Nonetheless, I’m skeptical.

    Here are a just a few reasons why I believe that love of fellow men (and women), shame for sin, and mutual respect and understanding are actually improving (though still far from where they need to be):

    –For most of the history of civilization, the practice of slavery has been the rule rather than the exception. Although slavery has not been completely eradicated from the face of the earth, today there is a law against slavery in every country, no economy is dependent on slavery, and no one is trying to justify it any more.

    –For about a century after slavery was abolished in the United States, African American families were terrorized by organized thugs such as the Ku Klux Klan. Thousands of lynchings and night raids were carried out in black neighborhoods. Today, in our country and elsewhere in the developed world, antiblack riots are a distant memory, and terrorism against blacks no longer receives support from any significant community.

    –In the 1950s and 60s, ugly mobs hurled obscenities and death threats at black children for trying to enroll in all-white schools. In the 1940s and early 1950s a majority of Americans said they were opposed to black children attending white schools, and as late as the early 1960s almost half said they would move away if a black family moved in next door. Such attitudes are incomprehensible from the vantage point of today’s moral sensibilities.

    –There was a time in America when women did not have the right to vote, could not hold property in marriage, and could not serve as jurors. Today it is taken for granted that women can do all of these things.

    –In moral and legal systems all over the world throughout human history, rape has been seen as an offense not against the woman but against a man — the woman’s father, her husband, or in the case of a slave, her owner. It took a long time for this perspective to be eliminated from our criminal justice system. For example, as late as the 1970s, marital rape was not a crime anywhere in the United States. Today, every level of the criminal justice system in the United States has been mandated to aggressively prosecute violence against women, regardless of whether or not the perpetrator is the woman’s husband.

    –Since 1992, the homicide rate in the United States has dropped by more than half. In addition, the rates of every category of major crime in the United States have dropped by at least half, including rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and even auto theft.

    –Since 1945, no nuclear weapons have been used in any conflict. No interstate wars have been fought between major developed countries since 1956, when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. In fact, as of May 15, 1984, the major powers of the world had remained at peace with one another for the longest stretch of time since the Roman Empire.”

    Most of these statistics are taken from Steven Pinker’s previous book on this subject, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” For exact citations, see:

  31. Not a Cougar says:

    Tom, I find it interesting that the low crime rate we now enjoy in the U.S. appears to be related to the legalization of abortion in the United States (though the major study on the issue has been criticized). Members of the Church may, by and large, be against abortion, but I suspect they enjoy the reduced likelihood of being a crime victim (and yes, I understand many, many members probably were never affected by higher crime rates in the past based on race, income, and location).

  32. nobody, really says:

    There are more people in slavery today than were in slavery during the entire 400 years of the British/American slave trade.

  33. Erik L. says:

    An improvement narrative is fine, but Pinker is not anyone I respect. His past books have ignored over important sociological, anthropological, and other cultural knowledge we have and his conclusions show his ignorance often.

    I’ll probably avoid this book, especially after reading this:

  34. The BCC commentariat would be quick to condemn any comment filled with sexism, racism, and any other sort of bigotry, but no one has challenged Michael H.’s blatant ageism: a derogatory and prejudicial stereotyping directed against persons of age.

    Contrast his negative comment with the post I made earlier about the optimism of President Hinckley ( which is supportive of the original post and, of course, completely contrary to Michaels H.’s narrative.

    See To call these servants of God “snarling” and “cranky” is simply malicious vitriol.

  35. I’m really glad to see all of the negative reviews being posted, and I have to add one more (note that it’s from a progressive, not conservative outlet).

    Good points of this review include: Pinker’s anti-intellectualism would make President Packer sweat, Pinker leaves out real causes behind historical events to focus on loose trends, Pinker’s metrics are often wrong and ignore recent developments.

    As someone who studies international relations, I find that Pinker’s view of war is myopic and doesn’t actually explain much in IR. Liberalism is declining around the world, even in formerly entrenched democracies. Illiberal nations are closing the military gap with the United States and the US (and Trump is not exceptional in this regard) usually responds in a way that increases the likelihood other nations will use nuclear weapons.There is a lot to be worried about that defies Pinker’s analysis.

    As a Mormon, I’m also skeptical of Pinker’s narrative because his statistics don’t actually measure moral improvement (something religions should care about). For example, there might be less war (for now), but that has more to do with the US being a unipolar superpower and nuclear weapons and less to do with people thinking war is an immoral act. The world, and Mormons especially, should be very aware of how perceived improvements have less to do with morals and more to do with coercion, selfish incentives, or Brave New World-style opiates (real or metaphorical).

    To end, sure read Pinker. But read historians, read social scientists, read political scientists, and read intellectuals and don’t let this one populizer suck all attention from hard scholarship.

  36. nobody, really — “There are more people in slavery today than were in slavery during the entire 400 years of the British/American slave trade.” Do you know if that is in terms of raw numbers or as a percentage of the population?

    Thanks for the article that you linked to. I learned a lot. It still seems to me that overall, humanity has made tremendous progress against slavery (would you agree?), even though we have a long way to go (as the article clearly demonstrates).

    To be clear, I’m NOT saying that all is well in Zion, or that we don’t have anything to worry about. I readily acknowledge that there is tremendous evil in the world. I just don’t necessarily see that as inconsistent with the idea that things are (generally speaking) getting better.

  37. Hanson — Would you be willing to provide an example of a perceived improvement that has “less to do with morals and more to do with … Brave New World-style opiates”? I’m not sure I completely understand what you’re getting at here, and I think an example would help. Thanks!

  38. Tom
    There is a lot of research out there which suggests pornography reduces rape. If that is a case, then it is an improvement in that fewer people are being raped, but it’s certainly not a result of ethical reflection. I would argue porn serves as a metaphorical opiate in this case.

  39. Tom, your comment is extremely Anglocentric.

    The number of slaves in the fishing and textile industries today in 2018 is much greater than the number of slaves at the peak before the Civil War.

    Secondly, the number of black males incarcerated for victimless crimes also surpasses levels in African slavery.

    By all means, keep singing the praises of the utopia that exists in the post-religous progressive white bubble you must live in.

  40. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Not a Cougar: despite Steve Levitt’s best efforts at self-promotion (he’s really good at it), the correlation between Roe and crime rates has been pretty well debunked, not least because there should have been statistically detectable violent crime increases in places that implemented restrictions after Planned Parenthood v. Casey in the late ’00s.

    The correlation between bans on tetraethyl lead in gasoline and lead in paint and declines in violent crime, on the other hand, is armor-plated. The relationship between violent criminality and “unwantedness” is tendentious, but the relationship between childhood lead exposure and violence in late adolescence and adulthood is extremely empirically well founded.

  41. What the comments and the reviews linked to here reveal is quite simple: Pinker’s ideas serve as a Rorschach Test.

    There are reviews that praise it and those that rail against it, but most reviews I’ve read contain a combination of both–not surprising, as you know, critical thinking usually required to publish reviews in most outlets.

    Just how hard someone rejects or accepts the ideas–and based on what sorts of evidence: other reviews, own field of study, own millennial views, etc–reveals much more about those commenters and reviews, it seems, than anything about the book. Some are more inclined to lean to one side or the other; some are more inclined to accept or reject more absolutely; and some are in the middle.

    As evidenced here, however, I don’t think there’s much of a question that religious thinkers–including Mormons–tend to embrace a more negative view of progress and a narrative of decline. That Pinker calls them out for it serves as further evidence of their belief: he is attacking religion. Really, however, Pinker is not attacking religion as much as he is combatting this ‘gloom and doom’ mentality. It’s hard for me to imagine that such a mentality really helps people or is healthy for them–like it is for Pinker, a psychologist–but apparently a lot people think it is really is good for them to focus on the negative or accept a narrative of decline, perhaps because they tell themselves that it will inspire them to do good.

    To each their own, I guess–again, as the reception of the book suggest.

  42. The idea that Christianity entails a narrative of decline seems problematic. There’s certainly a strain of decline theology. However the main theology was the Christ introduced the Kingdom. There are other variations on that. From that perspective there simply is no decline and for much of Christian history that was the dominant view. The decline view was always there – especially in the more esoteric traditions. But also in the esoteric traditions was the idea that everything is getting better. The very tradition Pinker is part of but seems rather unaware of. (It has a very, very long history – although maybe he touches on some of that in this book)

    Even with Mormonism I think our view is complex despite the strong strand of millennialism. Some see the current trend which downplays or out right effaces millennialism as the right way to go. But to me the idea was always that regardless of what’s happening “out there” we were supposed to be improving. (Thus Joseph’s famous quip about going to hell, booting out the devil, and turning it into heaven)

    However the Book of Mormon always offered a more complex parallel. First we have the famous Nephi cycle that most likely are meant to apply typologically to ourselves. In that case it’s not an up nor a down but a cycle often due to the consequences of our own actions. Further what people perceived as righteous and what was righteous weren’t always the same thing. Not to use Mormon to undermine Pinker, but sometimes the seeds of our success hold the seeds of our failure too.

  43. jpv — Thanks for the info. I’m sure that I do live in a bubble (although that’s the first time anyone has called my particular bubble “post-religious”). If my comments were offensive to you, I apologize; that wasn’t my intention. It sounds like I might need to reconsider some of my assumptions about the extent to which progress has been made regarding slavery.

    Hanson — Thanks for the example. I understand better what you mean, and I agree with you about the need to account for progress that is due to reasons other than improved morality.

  44. Tom, thanks for your willingness to engage in dialogue and your respectful response–a better tone than mine.

    Let us all work towards liberating the captive and renouncing war and proclaiming peace.

    I enjoyed your post on Engaging with Dawkins.

  45. east of the mississippi says:

    To quote Adam Carolla… “There’s never been a better time to be poor”.

  46. I’m just going to admit that I don’t know who Pinker is, except that he’s one of those people I probably should know who they are. And that he wrote this book.

    One of the problems my oldest child had with church was that they were always talking about how horrible the world was, and how much worse things had gotten, when this was so obviously untrue in so many ways. I agree with Barack Obama that now is certainly the best time for humans to be alive. I wouldn’t say that every single thing about the present is preferable to the past, but I can’t argue for returning to a time when women couldn’t go to school or own property and routinely died in childbirth, so I guess I find the trade-offs acceptable. Also, I think the things about modern life that are worse can still get better, not because progress is inevitable but because it’s always possible. I think my religious training probably beat those beliefs through my otherwise cynical skull.

  47. This article by Andrew Sullivan also speaks to my problems with Pinker quite well: “Things Are Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?”. (It’s an interesting and insightful pair with the other critique I posted, “Enlightenment and Progress, or why Steven Pinker is Wrong.”) I think it observes, quite rightly, that Pinker is a materialist–he doesn’t think highly of religion and scoffs at the idea of the soul. For precisely this reason, he’s missing that, so far as matters of the soul go, the world is an increasingly difficult place. Yes, the genders are more equal than ever before; slavery is less common and accepted; absolute poverty is down; lifespans are up. But we’re lonelier, a fact at odds with our evolved and God-given social natures. We regard self-control less highly than the Ancients did. We’re more materialistic and are making more plastics than before. And all it takes is one event, like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, to set off chaos. I don’t want to come off as a pessimist; I’m an optimist at heart. But I’m pessimistic about the liberal project, about the idea that our progress can last without the unintended consequences of our progress coming back to get their due, about the idea that we can keep going like we are without human nature and the earth sending us an invoice.

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