Capitalism has created great advances, but the consequences of secularization are yet to be seen. The high priest of secular humanism has much to teach us.
Steven Pinker is a rare type of public intellectual, capable of writing prolifically without sacrificing an iota of scholarly rigor. Meticulously researched, closely argued, and elegantly written, his books are always exemplary pieces of scholarship. Most recently he committed his pen to making the case for Enlightenment values in his boldly titled Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
As in much of his writing, in Enlightenment Now Pinker takes great delight in denouncing both leftist and rightist pieties. He affects a certain distance from systematized political theories, preferring instead to remain above what he perceives to be petty and often irrational ideological squabbles.
The improvements in global living standards enabled by modernity are breathtaking. In 1800, Pinker writes, “almost 85 percent of the world lived in . . . extreme poverty (less than $1.90 a day).” That figure today is below 10 percent. Scientific developments such as the chlorination of water, the discovery of blood groups, the measles vaccine, and the eradication of smallpox have saved billions of lives. And famines, which in the past century killed millions, pretty much no longer happen.
The progress of recent centuries, however, has not been confined to material advancement. Attitudes are changing too, and often for the better. People worldwide are abandoning their prejudices against women and ethnic minorities; most countries have banned discrimination and decriminalized homosexuality.