Andrew Sullivan distrusts progress, says it erodes deeper happiness and meaning (i.e., we need more religion)

March 12, 2018 • 12:00 pm

Since Andrew Sullivan moved to New York Magazine, he seems to have become more liberal, more thoughtful, and more reasonable. But he doesn’t seem to have become less religious. Or so it seems in his latest piece (click on screenshot below).

Sullivan’s target is the thesis of Steve Pinker, who maintains in his new book, Enlightenment Now, that the world is improving in many ways, that those improvements are often permanent (we’re never going back to slavery or worldwide death penalties), that they are based on the Enlightenment values of science, reason, progress, and humanism, and that, although serious problems remain, we have ways to fix them. (I have about 75 pages to go in Pinker’s 550-page tome.)

Sullivan takes issue with this thesis—not the bit about the material improvement of our world and lives, but with the idea that this progress will make our lives happier and more meaningful. I don’t quite get Sullivan’s argument, for much of it is refuted in Pinker’s very book. What he seems to say, though, is that by concentrating on humanism and human progress, we are somehow sucking the spiritual meaning out of life.

A quote from Sullivan:

As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. This is the core of Deneen’s argument [Patrick Deenan, arguing in Why Liberalism Failed], and it rests on a different, classical, pre-liberal understanding of freedom. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result.

Sullivan sounds positively Buddhist here, arguing that attachment to individual welfare and material things brings misery. Yet his argument that we have lost meaning and satisfaction is countered by Pinker’s argument that however you measure happiness or life satisfaction, that, too, seems to be going up over time. Here are two figures from Our World in Data:

These increases are likely byproducts of improvement in human wealth, health, and the marked increase in leisure time afforded by both labor-saving devices and the recognition that slave-like work hours are onerous. In fact, Sullivan recognizes these data adduced by Pinker, but then undercuts them by saying that, yes, but there’s still unhappiness and loneliness in the world:

Pinker’s sole response to this argument — insofar as he even acknowledges it — is to cite data showing statistical evidence of rising levels of a sense of well-being in one’s life across the world. And this is a valid point. But Pinker seems immune to the idea of paradox, irony, or unintended consequences. He doesn’t have a way of explaining why, for example, there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in the most advanced liberal societies.

Did Sullivan even read the fucking book? (That’s the very question Sullivan asked me, including the obscenity, when he went after me for daring to claim that theologians once read Genesis as a literal creation tale.) In fact, Pinker talks about all this stuff; he’s not a sunny-eyed Pangloss who thinks that everything is now wonderful. Towards the end of the book, in fact, Pinker adduces drug abuse, suicide, and depression as indices of how far we have to go. But what Pinker does show is that all of these indices of misery have also declined over time; it’s just that life’s improvements haven’t touched everyone to an equal extent. Depression and addiction have genetic causes, too; is it Pinker’s brief to help us understand why not everyone is peachy keen? I don’t think so: the book’s purpose is to gainsay those who claim that the world is declining in material well being, health, and happiness; and that existential risks are increasing. And Pinker limns some solutions for issues like global warming and nuclear war. Pinker cannot psychologize the entire planet to find out why some malcontents or depressives remain!

Sullivan also gets the next bit wrong:

[Pinker’s] response to the sixth great mass extinction of the Earth’s species at the hands of humans is to propose that better environmental technology will somehow solve it — just as pharmaceuticals will solve unhappiness. His general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.

This is not in fact the case; people are getting more and more content over time, not constantly reverting to some baseline level of complacency and anomie as the world improves and they get richer.

We see the key to Sullivan’s grousing in the last two sentences, which I’ve put in bold above. Sullivan has no evidence that “modern souls” are more troubled than older souls; and Pinker’s data says otherwise. What seems to trouble Sullivan is that Pinker sees religion and spirituality as impediments to progress, and also doesn’t accept (nor do I) that you need religion to find meaning in life. The well being of the largely atheistic Swedes and Dutch, seen in the graphs above, show that “existential reality of our mortality” hasn’t kept them from being pretty damn happy. Further, it’s likely there IS no solution to “the existential reality of our mortality”: we die, and then that’s it. The solution is to accept that likelihood instead of believing in fairy tales, as Sullivan seems to do (he’s a Catholic). Indeed, Sullivan is upset that Pinker doesn’t tout religion (I find no “contempt” for it in the book, just a recognition that reason rather than superstition is the way to solve our problems).

Sullivan (my emphasis):

[Pinker] has contempt for religion — which is odd for an evolutionary psychologist, since his field includes the study of genetic, evolutionary roots for religious belief. And, equally odd for an evolutionary psychologist, he sees absolutely no problem that humans in the last 500 years (and most intensely in the last century) have created a world utterly different than the one humans lived in for close to 99 percent of our time on the planet. We are species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch; we are a species built for small-scale monocultural community and now live increasingly in multiracial, multicultural megacities.

Just because you can study something that has evolved genetically or culturally doesn’t mean you have to respect it! There may be evolutionary—and certainly cultural—roots to bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia, too, but why does that mean we shouldn’t have contempt for them? As for Sullivan’s claim that humans are “increasingly alone”, that also shows he hasn’t read Pinker’s book very carefully. Pinker looks at the claim that the electronic age has separated us from our fellow humans, and finds no evidence that social and family interactions have waned in the last few decades.

As one goes through this uncharacteristically unreasonable and emotion-laden piece, one senses that Sullivan’s real beef is that arguments like Pinker’s leave little room for religion or superstition of any sort. It hasn’t helped humanity progress, it’s superfluous, and people live perfectly happy lives without it. In other words, Sullivan is projecting his personal anguish over God’s death onto the world as a whole. This is clear by the end:

For our civilization, God is dead. Meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants and can become, at its very best, merely a form of awe at meaninglessness. We have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism, and therefore we stand alone. Maybe we will muddle through this way indefinitely, and I sure hope we do, numbed or placated by continuous material improvement. But it is perfectly possible that this strange diversion in human history — a few centuries at most, compared with 200 millennia — is a massive error that will at some point be mercilessly corrected; that our planet, on present trends, will become close to uninhabitable for most of its creatures thanks to the reason and materialism Pinker celebrates; that our technology will render us unnecessary for the tasks our species has always defined itself by; and that our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event, as it did in 1914.

Well, God’s not dead yet, but he’s moribund, and we’re the better for it. Sullivan, I suspect, wishes we were all religious, but we’re going in the opposite direction.

And as for Sullivan’s claims that “our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event”, that’s just more evidence that he didn’t read the book carefully. Pinker in fact discusses that possibility, and can’t rule it out, but makes data-driven arguments that these events, like a nuclear exchange, are becoming less likely. Nobody can say for sure what will happen to our world. But we know that the trends are good, we have an idea of some of the reasons why, and given that those reasons still obtain, that’s reason to expect progress rather than tragedy.

Come back to us, O Andrew—come back and join the Godless! You have nothing to lose but an enormous waste of spiritual energy.



(Let me add that Sullivan resumes rational argument in his following piece, “An Implicit Anti-Semitism,” which is about a topic I’ve recently discussed: the anti-Semitism of the Left, as exemplified by the co-Presidents of the Women’s March.)

And. . . Grania found this tweet in which Michael Shermer responds to Sullivan’s piece more succinctly:

95 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan distrusts progress, says it erodes deeper happiness and meaning (i.e., we need more religion)

  1. The book is large enough that reviewers see what they want to see. I haven’t yet read any negative reviews that have brought up arguments not refuted in the book.

    1. I just finished Pinker’s book and sent him my criticism of his chapter on environmentalism, experts and sources for which he chose Stewart Brand, and Nordhaus and Shellenberger of the Break Through Institute, none of whom qualify as environmentalists, and all of whom qualify as technophiles, which Pinker seems to be as well. The environmental chapter actually contradicts the thesis of his book, namely reason and science, because it is nothing but personal opinion and speculation, and thus no different from religious faith.The part on nuclear power is especially weak and wrongheaded, and Brand’s vicious attack on environmentalists reflects more on his own huge blind spots and his techno-optimism than on the movement. I was surprised Pinker quoted him, or used him as a source; the Whole Earth Catalog had nothing to do with the environment…it was just musings on how much humans could exploit the
      planet. My other criticism is that while Pinker’s statistics are convincing in a broad sense, they deal with the MACRO world, not the MICRO. India may be an advanced technological democracy….but it will has 15 million slaves, most of them underage. Women’s rights are definitely improving…except for the trafficking of young women in eastern Europe and Latin America. It is these micro problems that environmentalists try to address, and to
      charge their efforts with being gloom and doom fatalism is dismissive and just plain wrong.

      1. Your critique of Pinker’s chapter on the environment raises a larger question. How much credence can one give to an author who writes on a topic outside of his expertise? On technical, scientific, or historical topics, I think that one needs to accept startling conclusions with a degree of skepticism. For example, A.N. Wilson’s biography of Darwin has met with largely critical disdain, but could easily fool a naïve reader. Part of Pinker’s work is a discussion of the Enlightenment. Several reviews that I have read argue that Pinker has gotten it all wrong. I do not know enough about the Enlightenment to opine whether Pinker is right or wrong, but I would approach his analysis with caution. I have come across several books about the Civil War (which is my area of expertise), written by non-historians, that got some basic facts wrong. It seems that almost everybody thinks they can be historians. Perhaps out of professional jealousy, I would beg to differ. In any case, as a general a rule, I always have a skeptical attitude of people writing about areas of knowledge that they were not trained in, no matter how eminent they may be in other areas.

        1. This is why one should read from as many sources as possible. One thing is for sure; Pinker’s book is not lacking in others who think they can discuss its claims better than him.

          1. “Women’s rights are definitely improving…except for the trafficking of young women in eastern Europe and Latin America. It is these micro problems that environmentalists try to address,”

            Trafficking of young women is of course a detestable phenomenon and every effort should be made to stamp it out. But, however much of it goes on today in E. Europe, Latin America or anywhere else, there was vastly more of it going on in past ages. Female “trafficking” (and other forms of female subjugation) were the stock in trade of almost every ancient or pre-modern civilization, whether in Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, the Ottoman Empire, India, or anywhere else you could name. The fact that is still continues at some level to this day doesn’t negate Pinker’s thesis that the condition of women has hugely improved since, and largely as a result of, the Enlightenment.

            And what has female trafficking got to do with environmentalism? I see no obvious connection at all between the two.

          2. Bill Nye isn’t the only one who thinks that the two have some connection – the US military does too;

            The link between climate change and terrorism is not a sole cause, of course, but as global weather patterns change and water distribution challenges arise, conflict is likely, if not inevitable. Some of that conflict will undoubtedly be in the form of terrorism, at least so says them.

            How the hell Lorna Salzman manages to link up environmentalism and human trafficking….I really can’t say.

          3. Bill Nye linked a specific terrorist attack in Paris to climate change. It is another story to talk about hypothetical future scenarios induced by mass migration related to abrupt geographic changes.

        2. His actual discussion of the Enlightenment is really quite minimal, and I suspect that’s what’s ticking people off. Some of them: Brian Leiter’s hostility probably also stems from the fact that Pinker takes Nietzsche up as his big villain.

          It misses the point of the book, I think, which is a “go and do likewise” thing.

          I actually did reread the entry “Enlightenment” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, which is about the same level as what Pinker makes use of.

          *My* critique is over the use of markets and capitalism and a few others. He’s a typical plutocratic Democrat (which makes him a Red Tory or the like in his original country) and doesn’t see that externalities and such are a really big deal that have to be handled upfront especially now: the stakes are, in fact, too high. (Previously one could “hope”, I think, using the same data, but now “status quo” can kill millions.)

      2. This will be short:
        – Environmentalists are persons that concerns themselves with the environment; technology at large is how we handle the environment and it concerns all of us.
        – Statistics includes outcomes on all scales, whether or not you attempt to resolve them specifically.

        (Also, the what-about-ery is besides the point and so eminently tedious.)

  2. Why are we miserable?

    Who is this “we” of whom he speaks? I wish religionists would stop telling me how I feel.

    Anyway, I’d rather be miserable now than happy in religious medieval Europe. In fact, I’d probably already be dead given my current age.

    1. Exactly. The answer to Sullivan’s question is: we aren’t. He’s making the perfect the enemy of the good. No, we aren’t all walking around in blissed-out stupors our entire lives, but that doesn’t mean “we’re miserable”.

    2. I’m sure the Barons and Queens and Marquis and Knights and Duchesses and Princesses used the same arguments when the serfs came a knocking. So they built cathedrals when the local church was a bit undersized. And then everything was right again!

      Happy hearts, even if empty bellied.

    3. Yes. He goes on about the only meaning being in satisfaction in our material needs being met, and that’s why we need some imaginary being to fill a hole in our lives or we’ll all be miserable.

      Has he got no imagination. There’s so much to enjoy without needing to revert to a god!

      Walks on the beach, gazing at the night sky, friends, family, love, music, art, literature, and so much more. People have the leisure time to immerse themselves in their hobbies whether that’s enjoying the great outdoors in some way, or something that keeps them indoors. And if they have a hobby that not many are interested in, these days they can find fellow travellers on the Internet.

      What is wrong with Sullivan and his co-Religionists that they can’t enjoy themselves outside religion? Since he’s Catholic, perhaps it’s the idea that all pleasure not related to God is in some way sinful. Being gay and therefore not supposed to engage in a sexual relationship, maybe his ability to enjoy himself has been completely screwed up?

    4. I know why I’m “miserable”; I have severe social anxiety, depression, and am fully aware that I have fallen from the middle class and failed to follow my dreams and thus live up to my potential. However, I am not homeless, unemployed, starving, dying of a preventable disease, lacking water to drink or clean with. I have clothes, a house, land, a car, tv, a phone and laptop, heat and A/C, books, education, healthcare, and a social safety net of some sort.

      Whatever the causes of my mental issues, it has nothing to do with our humanistic progress or my lack of religion. I’m better off than I was ten years ago, better off than I was at age ten when I still suffered many sleepless nights worried about death and sin and god’s punishments, and much much better off than my ancestors 200 years ago. Perhaps being miserable is what makes Sullivan happy and want the rest of us to be “happy” just like him.

  3. A pity. But I wish he would just let religion ‘go’ and find his puzzle is actually complete, with no missing pieces.

    Even his statement that all this progress “solves the existential reality of our mortality” is sort of wrong. Human life expectancy has increased steadily until recently. So potentially none of his pointy points are correct.

    1. Gah. — for all of this progress, “none of this solves…”

      Now I wish I had a time machine to go along with my internet and health care and horseless carriages. Life sucks!!

  4. I haven’t read Pinker’s book. I would love to believe that world conditions are getting better. If one focuses carefully enough on specific areas, he seems to be right. But, I occasionally go back and reread books from earlier times that sound as though they could have been written right now. Same problems. Same kinds of people taking advantage. Racism. Religious craziness. Etc.

    It seems more likely to me that our “progress” swings repetitively from bad to good to bad, and so on, over and over. And, very often what we view as good at one time morphs into something bad, and vice versa. Certain medical advances such as antibiotics for example. Big business agriculture for another. Depends on when you look and what the time frame is you’re looking at.

    1. The difference is of course that Pinker lists and measures the constituents of what he believes to be progress – those who disagree just seem to have a feeling that he’s wrong and support that feeling by cherry picking issues which though undeniably counter-examples are unaccompanied by the evidence which would show them to be universal

    2. @Marou. Yes, Pinker “lists and measures the constituents of what he believes to be progress”, but he has a tendency to build his arguments to suit his thesis! When we get to Chapter 19 on existential risk his reasoning [very, very roughly] , is that there have always been doom-sayers with us & that the range of NEW threats that face us today [1] are of small chance of occurrence [2] can be reined in by science, tech, co-operation[3] could be overly harmful in an unexpected way – in that thinking about existential risk in the wrong way may lead to inaction.

      What Pinker does in Chapter 19 is cross his fingers & list all the times the doom-sayers were wrong in the past [often about myths such as the ‘End Times’] & then he uses that mood of ridicule to minimise the truly existential NEW threats that are not myths! I ain’t buying it.

      I would respect his argument more if he’d listed a selection of civilisations from pre-history that collapsed & disappeared. We have a new, singular global civilisation experiment today for the first time & nobody knows how resilient we are [or aren’t]. We have a range of threats never before encountered such as…
      ** disease in a connected world
      ** weapons that can ‘break’ our highly connected just-in-time [JIT] delivery lifestyle
      ** diminishing shares of resources, particularly water suitable for agriculture
      My own city of 1,000,000 people will start starving in about a week should the JIT economy collapse – that’s the approximate amount of dry & fresh food goods on our shelves at any one time in our city supermarkets.

      Anyway here follows a bit of chapter 19 in two sections:

      1. I interpret Pinker a bit different from you. I don’t read this as him minimizing existential threats. He criticizes, accurately in my view, the general doomsday attitude of a certain proportion of society. The majority of which ranges from crack-pot to seeking personal gain, to merely misinformed. He says that this can have a detrimental effect on progress. That seems very self evident to me. A perfect example is nuclear power, particularly in the US.

        He also says that we need to evaluate existential threats using the best tools we have which he argues are those developed from the Enlightenment such as modern science and a liberal perspective. That also seems very self evident to me. Of course he also says that it is probable that we have the ability to deal with them. That is what really seems to upset people.

        I don’t read Pinker as poo-pooing existential threats at all. I read him as saying we need to deal with them pragmatically rather than like reality TV.

      2. Or my current field, IT security – people keep doing the *wrong thing* there too, so extrapolating trends is a dangerous game.

        (For example, people keep wanting to put power systems on public internet. The answer should be: no, never, not in hell, but …)

      1. If only our supposedly college-educated “leaders” would discuss these hypothetical, existential, and potentially catastrophic scenarios in terms of cost, benefit, and probability of occurrence. That would be such a huge win for humanity.

  5. I want to point out that Sullivan is really reviewing Pinker’s lecture, perhaps not so much the book. I believe he never actually says he’s read Pinker’s latest book though he hints at it.

    His post shares a flaw with several other reviews of Pinker’s book. They all find Pinker’s positive attitude hard to fathom given today’s serious problems: Trumpism, racism, global warming, etc. Of course, Pinker doesn’t deny these real problems but simply encourages people to take a longer view of human existence and take courage by suggesting that “this too shall pass”.

    It does seem like religion is the heart of the issue for Sullivan. Based on his appearances on Bill Maher’s show and elsewhere, I most like Sullivan but have noticed that he hangs on to religion despite being a mostly critical thinker. Oh well, we aren’t all perfect.

  6. Humans often hold self-contradictory beliefs, which means that polls can emphasize one or the other side of these contradictions. So, people may say that they are personally happy, yet at the same time be very angry about political events. The Trump phenomenon was based on the politics of personal resentment. At the moment, democracy is in retreat around the world. At least this one trend is not positive. In the United States partisan hatred has reached record levels, at least in the last 50 years or so. How can personal happiness and seething anger be reconciled? I don’t think they can. No matter how good people have it, it doesn’t take much to get them riled up.

    When Pinker suggests that the world will continue to get better, he is making an educated guess. My study of history makes me somewhat less optimistic. I will not regurgitate what I wrote in previous comments regarding how seemingly irreversible trends can reverse themselves over night. Sullivan’s reference to 1914 is a good example. Pinker’s solutions to possible catastrophic events rely on the application of human reason. My study of history suggests that such a commodity is often unavailable just when it is needed.

    1. While democracy seems to be trending downwards right now, I think Pinker would suggest we take a longer view. He would also suggest that we all still have to work hard for change. His message is NOT to tell us we needn’t bother as things will improve by themselves. Instead, he is telling us that it may look bad now but it will likely get better, based on his statistics, and we should continue the good fight.

      1. Television commercials that try to sell investments usually have the caveat that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future performance. When Pinker says that the world will likely get better, I think it would be useful if he would assign a percentage (if he has not already done so) to likely. 50%? 90%? In reality, assigning such a percentage is a parlor game. Nobody knows for sure; it is mere guessing. If I were to play the parlor game, I would assign a 50% likelihood to the world getting better in, say, the next 50 years. Presumably, Pinker would assign a higher number. But, at bottom, such assignments are meaningless. However, this is a case when time will tell.

  7. I’m puzzled by the increasing happiness in Zimbabwe, a country that has gone from wealth to economic disaster, are rife with racism. What the hell are they happy about?

    There is a point to be made, though in the concept that one can’t search for happiness, happiness is what happens when you have a productive life, and live up to your standards. By that token, it probably is not closely correlated to what we might call progress (which itself can be a bit slippery of a definition).

        1. Not allowed down my pub either, among the blokes, except one-to-one whispers. A perfect evening = four hours of razor sharp insults & lies. Then home to bed with absolutely nothing of consequence said or heard. Long may this rule be observed! 🙂

          [just having fun]

  8. I don’t know how happy a 13th-century peasant’s life seemed to the peasant, and neither does Sullivan, but I do know that, on any possible objective basis for comparison with mine or Sullivan’s, it was sh*t. The peasant did not have what we would now call First World Problems. He (or she) probably had a fairly realistic grasp of how little his (or her) life could be expected to change for the better — maybe more realistic than we have from our far higher baseline — and, subjectively, may have adjusted his (or her) expectations accordingly. Living through the winter may well have been a source of joy for 13th-century peasants, while we merely expect it, and instead get miserable about things literally beyond the peasant’s comprehension.

    1. I agree. It always amazes me at attitudes toward infant mortality as depicted in writings from a couple of centuries ago. So many children didn’t survive their first few years of life. It is also clear that many people led happy lives. It is well known that happiness is relative but it is still hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes.

      1. Indeed, happiness is relative and hard to define. I think you would find that if people are asked what they mean by happiness, you would find very varying definitions. Thus, a Trump supporter may consider herself personally happy, but at the same time she is seething with rage that the government may try to take away her guns or that immigrants are ruining the country. So, personal happiness is not a perfect proxy for predicting that the world will get better. Happy people could very easily support actions that, if implemented, would result in disaster

        1. Indeed, happiness is a bizarre metric: you would think that privileged college students in ivy league college campuses in the USA and Canada in the year 2018 would have a basic understanding of how unique their condition is in human history, instead they scream histerically against patriarchy and white supremacy and toxic masculinity as if there is no difference with 1930 Alabama.

    2. If we think of things from an evolutionary “function” point of view, being either very happy or very unhappy are likely sub-optimal — in the sense of doing the job that “happiness” is there for.

      Thus it is likely that “happiness” self-adjusts such that we’re most of the time middlingly happy, and always will be in most circumstances.

      1. Pinker does address the “hedonic treadmill”. I for one am not convinced the response is satisfactory – but IMO there are bigger problems to address with the book.

        (Which, in spite of what I say above about the problems, is well worth reading and I would recommend to all.)

  9. There is a statistical effect here, also. Pinker is focused on per capita measures. The population growth over the years has made it so that while per capita violence has declined, there are still plenty of violent acts for our “If It Bleeds It Leads” media to report on.

    If you want to improve someone’s mental state, have them stop watching the “news.” Most of what is reported is noise, doesn’t affect our lives, and is just plain depressing. My life got better immediately when I stopped viewing the “news” on TV. It took me a bit longer to give up most newspapers but they suffer from the same problems.

  10. The trouble with believers such as Sullivan, they always want credit given to religion, even though there is no real evidence for giving religion any substantial credit. Maybe he wants Pinker to make it up so he can feel better. The religion in our society, republican politics has a pretty good history of doing just the opposite, making us feel worse and not so happy. Is taking away health care or reproductive assistance a feel good thing. Giving big tax cuts to the rich, that’s a real feel good. Did religion create a lot of new vaccines we did not hear about? Save a lot of people from wars? I think life has obviously improved since we learned how to clean up the water, the air and not live in our own garbage but I don’t see religion working on any of this.

    1. Yes indeed. If religion didn’t have this pesky separation of church and state matter gunking up the works, we can look forward to the 2020’s being like the good old 18, 17, or 1620’s or better.Sad.

  11. Did Sullivan even read the fucking book? (That’s the very question Sullivan asked me, including the obscenity …)

    My, my. As Mr. Porter said: “Good authors too who once knew better words/Now only use four-letter words/Writing prose./Anything goes.” 🙂

  12. I listened to the recent FFRF podcast of a speech by Pinker apparently summarizing main points of the book. Unfortunately, he only addressed measures on which he saw improvement and did not say anything regarding measures on which many would say show clear problems. Very one-sided – it is easy to pick and choose. Just a podcast, but it did not provide much incentive to read his book…

  13. “none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality”

    Humans and our ancestors have dealt with mortality for over a hundred thousand years. We are no closer than our ancestors were at solving that problem. The solution to that problem appears to be uncorrelated to happiness in a finite lifetime. Sullivan is neglecting evidence: people are happier and there are quantifiable reasons why associated with this happiness, namely wealth, health, and education and individual freedoms.

    1. We are not miserable, as the data suggests, but after re-reading Sullivan’s article I can answer his question: Why are [some people] miserable?

      It’s because they are finding out that religion was never an antidote for lack of meaning. It’s something that one must make for themselves.

  14. I’m a fan of Sullivan’s writing in the Age of Trump (and was, to a lesser extent, even earlier). But let us never overlook that, at heart, Sullivan is a Xtian Tory.

    What’s missing from Sullivan’s fulmination is any specification of an earlier age in which human well-being and happiness flourished to an extent greater than they do now — except to cite Deneen’s vague reference to “the post-Machiavelli project.” (Many on the resentment-ridden Right, especially among Americans who suffered no post-War deprivations, seem to posit the 1950s as such a belle époque, but I’m loath to attribute such simplistic, distorted thinking to Sullivan.)

  15. So far nearly every criticism I’ve seen leveled at Pinker’s most recent and one previous books has been somewhere between non sequitur and not applicable. Or simply kvetches about something that Pinker didn’t actually claim.

    For example, many critics argue as if Pinker has claimed that our future will inevitably improve. Pinker doesn’t say that. Pinker says the data show that it is reasonable to think that continued improvement is reasonably probable. And he isn’t talking about tomorrow, literally, he’s talking about over generations. And he clearly points out that yes, it is possible that we will go backwards along the way, or even that we may crash and burn.

    Another sizable category of criticisms are those in which the critic has a favored expert that has a different take on some specific bit of data out of a much larger set, though Pinker’s take is always well represented among the experts of the field in question, and they use that to argue against a general conclusion made by Pinker. Or even to completely dismiss Pinker as incompetent or worse.

    Undoubtedly there are legitimate criticisms of Pinker’s new book, but most that I have seen are not. Many of the critics are also rude or condescending to one degree or another, very much as if they were personally offended. My conclusion is that a positive outlook is very offensive to many people. So much so that it significantly impedes their ability to give what Pinker is saying a fair assessment.

    1. Exactly! I suspect you have actually taken the trouble to read the books under discussion before commenting on them. Apparently that is not considered necessary in order to form an opinion. And in order to be paid for that opinion.

      1. Not finished with Enlightenment Now, just got it a few days ago.

        It does seem like many critics haven’t read the books they opine on. More puzzling to me are the cases where the critic has read the book and still mischaracterizes it just as if they haven’t read it. It leaves me wondering if they did that premeditatively to push their own agenda (in other words, dishonestly) or if they are so offended by something having to do with the author that they can’t get by that bias long enough to make the effort to try and understand what the author intends to convey in full detail.

        1. There’s a habit I’ve seen in some academics (including Brian Leiter, whose opinions on various matters I normally agree with or am neutral on) of jumping on *one* thing and using that as an invalidation of the whole. Sometimes also it is a “guilt by association” – which ironically in a way Pinker himself is also guilty of. Nietzsche is not *quite* as bad Pinker makes him out to be – and that’s part of what Leiter would likely say. Pinker not reading Nietzsche for himself was a bit bad form if he is going to take him to be the villain. Unlike Leiter, I am happy with him as an example in that role, but I do agree that relying on Wolin and Russell to have done the work for you is bad form. A lot of historians of philosophy think Russell’s _History of Western Philosophy_ is naïve to the point of worthlessness, but in my experience the mistake is thinking it is anything but a popularization. Ironic, since it was later popularized even further in his _Wisdom of the West_. But there you go.

          Leiter would also likely agree with bits about Pinker trusting to markets – even with corrections – too much. I can see *some* people blowing up at that, too.

          I know it rankles me when people don’t understand about externalities and how you can’t correct markets by more markets in every case. In fact, there are whole popular books now about incentives in economics, which could be used by someone like Pinker.

          1. I agree with your suggestion that many reviewers jump on one thing and claim it invalidates the whole thesis. My guess is that many reviewers approach their task with the goal of finding something wrong, that “gotcha” angle. When they apply this to a work by a competent thinker and writer like Pinker, they resort to exaggeration and straw man tactics in order to have anything at all to say.

  16. It’s not as if the only alternative to religion is materialism. Many people without religious beliefs nonetheless have a deep sense of empathy for the joys and sufferings of others and that for them is meaning-providing. Pinker is saying religion is not necessary for happiness, though it may provide meaning for many.

    Now it might be the case that those specific people who are miserable are in fact more miserable than ever, but that could be true even if they are a dwindling number.

    As for the contempt charge, I suppose it is somewhat true that Pinker has contempt for theology, but that isn’t quite the same thing as a contempt for religion.

  17. I wonder if it occurred to Sullivan that for 99% of those “200 millennia” he talks about, there were no Catholics?

      1. But how can that be? All those people – Buddhists, polytheists, Confucians, Hindus, Muslims, Manichaeans,etc, ie, the majority of the world – who believed in the wrong gods have obviously lived meaningless lives; or will any religion, true or false, do so long as it’s a religion?

  18. I think that we’d better get rid of our obsession with happiness and “sense”. It almost guarantees profound unhappiness, even for relatively lucky people. I think that one has to live his life the best way he can, try to enjoy its small gifts and to make the world around him slightly better. If we lived in an earlier age, our lives would have been more miserable but I suppose the general principle would be the same.

    1. Of the many mistakes I’ve made in my life perhaps the biggest was expecting happiness. It would have been much better to be rid of the expectation, then I wouldn’t mind so much that it is missing and more enjoy those brief moments when it comes to sit by me for while.

  19. FYI, George Monbiot has another interesting take on Pinker’s latest book.

    “…I doubt such poor scholarship will dim the adulation with which his claims are received. While Pinker is lauded, far more interesting and original books, such as Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct and Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, are scarcely reviewed at all. If there is one aspect of modernity that owes nothing to the Enlightenment, it is surely the worship of celebrities….”

    1. This corresponds to my critique – the “failure modes” of getting the environment wrong are too high to be left to “more of the same”. (And arguably in a few things like IT security, where the stakes are generally lower, but not insignificant. Bruce Schneier, who he cites and thanks, might be able to help him.)

  20. Andrew Sullivan:

    our technology will render us unnecessary for the tasks our species has always defined itself by;

    They’ve been saying that since those radical disruptive agriculturists put most of the hunter-gatherers out of work.

  21. For our civilization, God is dead. Meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants and can become, at its very best, merely a form of awe at meaninglessness. We have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism, and therefore we stand alone.

    Oh, give it a rest. Yet another dreary theist making another dreary conflation between metaphysical materialism and “the satisfaction of our material wants.” Yeah, I get it. The same word root. And the opposite of “matter” is “spirit.” Okay. Got it.

    It’s so shallow. All the many concepts of human flourishing only flourish when we’re no longer concerned primarily with survival. Philosophy, ethics, art, and meaning — what Rebecca Goldstein calls “mattering” (matter!?) — generally require a certain level of well being, of leisure to think and consider and appreciate.

    There’s an old saying that “Christianity cuts you and sells you a Band-Aid.” Sullivan seems to think that we’re at our normal best when we’re broken.

    1. He’s blaming the wrong “stand aloner” anyway. His god is the one “standing alone” because… no god in sight!

    2. He would make more sense if he switched his “therefore” around. We stand alone, therefore we have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism. Still wrong, but at least it makes more sense lol.

  22. I enjoyed reading ‘Enlightenment Now’. Lots of interesting ideas, backed by data. Much better than reading mere opinion pieces, such as many of the critical reviews of the book.


  23. I’ll withhold judgement until I finish the book, (I’ve read about the first quarter,) but I gotta say, I’m skeptical of some of Pinker’s views here (at least as I infer them from their appearance in these debates, again need to finish the book first). Everything I have seen on the topic says that mental health issues, far from being the purview of a few isolated ‘depressives and malcontents’ (sorry Jerry but that was harsh!) who just can’t get happy like everyone else, are very much on the *rise. That of course doesn’t negate the fantastic gains we have seen in quality of life elsewhere, but it does suggest that Sullivan’s views – while characteristically a bit over-the-top – may well have validity. Same for studies showing that loneliness is very much on the rise; or the fact that tribal conservatism seems to hold a fair bit of appeal for young people all over the globe these days. I’m also curious to see what his arguments are regarding ecological sustainability in the future, as those statistics don’t look promising – to say the least – to the layperson either.

    Aside from that, I sympathize with Sullivan’s position in that material gains can never really be a substitute for subjective gains. (Subjective gains can happen in any number of ways, of course, of which religion is one. But there are also the increasingly popular ‘mind training’ practices taken from secularized Buddhism that are growing in popularity, the morals and character traits encouraged and developed in any given zeitgeist, child rearing and educational practices, effective psychological assistance for both mental health disorders and to build ‘positive psychology’ even where no disorders exist.) The hedonic treadmill (see the study of paraplegics / lottery winners that I won’t summarize here as it is almost a trope at this point) is real, so far as I know. And no matter how well any civilization is doing in aggregate, that never totally insulates any individual member from the possibility of tragedy – large or small – at any moment. As long as individuals are vulnerable to personal devastation at any moment (the level of wheat production globally will be of little comfort to the person whose child is in a car accident,) then I think it’s unrealistic to think that people won’t search for traditions that promise more unshakable happiness.

    Pinker himself speaks to this in the first portion of the book, actually, albeit indirectly, in talking about how the number of ways in which our well-being can be decreased appears to most of us to be infinitely larger than the ways in which it can realistically be increased, in any given moment. And how humans are loss averse by nature. I actually think his thinking aligns with Sullivan’s here, although I see no reason for it to be an either/or dichotomy. It’s easy enough to just say that there are various measures of well-being and perhaps some but not all of them have increased, and not all of them *can be increased using the same methods. Mind training won’t grow more food and agriculture won’t console the person diagnosed with a painful form of cancer – but that doesn’t mean the idea of problem solving in different ways creates two styles of diametrically opposed thinking. Quite the opposite, they are probably lines that travel in the same direction and intersect in places. Agriculture will help the grief stricken in that not having a food shortage is one less stressor to add to the list; and happy resilient people are more likely to engage with the world and contribute to science, I would think.

    1. I’m not clear on what inference you’re drawing here, but I do think it’s an interesting question. Google tells me that the universe is not an open or a closed system, it is an ‘isolated’ system, so I’m not sure what philosophical implications the 2nd law of thermodynamics would have at the most ultimate level, if any (I feel like it would be very zen-koan-esque, right? Nothing is actually happeniiiiing….)

      At any smaller scale, it seems to me that what you call a ‘system’ would be something of an arbitrary designation, so again, I’m not sure how this applies to the real world in sociocultural terms.

      1. My point is that you can’t solve the “existential reality of morality”. Even if you can drag on your life for 10^48 years, the heat death of the universe will catch up with you.

  24. “Sullivan is upset that Pinker doesn’t tout religion (I find no ‘contempt’ for it in the book, just a recognition that reason rather than superstition is the way to solve our problems).”

    Interesting blind spot here: if characterizing religion as “superstition” doesn’t connote contempt, I’m not sure what would.

  25. 200 millennia of religion and happiness?
    I rather doubt subsistence-living, hunter-gathering with the Godiness du jour could be characterized as happy when life was replete with tribal warfare, infant mortality, and death-by-dentition as Hitch alluded. I’d wager the average neaderthal might go for grocery stores and anti-depressants. More recently, happiness under the penumbrum of Catholicism? Sullivan does appear to lack imagination when it comes to characterizing just how bleak an existence survival was.

  26. So pray for your god to reveal itself Andrew. Gobbledygook about uh-huh god did too reveal itself nya nya nya ain’t gonna cut it and you know it.

  27. I recommend reading the review of Pinker’s book written in ‘The Nation’ by David A, Bell, a historian at Princeton. It is entitled ‘THe Power Point Philosophe’ and makes, I think, some very telling points. It is not a mere diatribe, like John Gray’s review. I say ‘I think’ because I have read some of Pinker’s earlier books, and Bell’s review puts its finger on many of my dissatisfactions with those, and because I have no intention of reading it, since I have more important things to read, such as the moral philosopher Derek Parfit’s ‘On What Matters’, which I am getting through at the moment.

    Here are a few extracts:

    ‘… as Enlightenment Now clearly shows, Steven Pinker is no philosophe. The great writers of the Enlightenment, contrary to the way they are often caricatured, were mostly skeptics at heart. They had a taste for irony, an appreciation of paradox, and took delight in wit. They appreciated complexity, rarely shied away from difficulty, and generally had a deep respect for the learning of those who had preceded them.

    ‘Enlightenment Now has few of these qualities. It is a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history and a starkly technocratic prescription for the human future. It also gives readers the spectacle of a professor at one of the world’s great universities treating serious thinkers with populist contempt.’

    ‘Pinker dismisses concerns about rising economic inequality with the blithe assertion that inequality matters less than actual levels of income and comfort. He barely raises the question of what it might mean for a society to have the lion’s share of its economic resources and power concentrated in a tiny number of super-wealthy hands. He acknowledges only in passing that real wages in the United States and many other economically advanced countries have stagnated for several decades, and he has even less to say about the increasing precariousness of employment for millions of workers.’

    ‘…when it comes to issues like “democracy” and “equal rights,” Pinker seems to believe that progress has occurred almost by itself, as a result of whole populations spontaneously turning more enlightened and tolerant. “There really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” he writes. Almost entirely absent from the 576 pages of Enlightenment Now are the social movements that for centuries fought for equal rights, an end to slavery, improved working conditions, a minimum wage, the right to organize, basic social protections, a cleaner environment, and a host of other progressive causes. The arc bending toward justice is no mystery: It bends because people force it to bend.’

    ‘Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? Behind the insistence that women do not have the mental capacity for full citizenship? Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science.
    Indeed, it was. But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories, but it did provide a new language and new forms of reasoning to justify inequality and oppression and new ways of thinking about and categorizing natural phenomena that suggested to many an immutable hierarchy of human races, the sexes, and the able and disabled. The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted. Again, progress did not just occur because the ideals of the Enlightenment mysteriously percolated out through society. It occurred because men and women fought, and sometimes died, for progressive moral values.’

    I think that will do.

    1. Those criticisms don’t seem any better or more on point to me than any of the other negative criticisms I’ve seen so far. Off target, bitter, offended perhaps a bit of turf protection. Not impressed.

      1. Yes, darelle, I have no doubt you are not impressed. I would think better of your not being impressed if you came up with more than a handful of banal epithets to justify your not being impressed.

        1. Ahh I see. So you don’t need to come up with more than a handful of banal epithets, less actually, to justify your not being impressed with Pinker, but I need to . . . what? Write an essay? Of course I’m sure I don’t have anything remotely like your chops in literature or literary criticism so perhaps the condescension is only to be expected.

          You’ve posted some excerpts from an expert you prefer and state you haven’t read and won’t read the book. And in the excerpts you provide your expert does nothing but fire off non-sequiturs and denigrate Pinker. Does that qualify as banal epithets? Seems worse to me. Sounds personal too.

          1. I’m not asking you to write an essay. But if you disagree so strongly with Bell’s review, why not write a letter to The Nation that states at least some of your objections to it in such a way that what you write is more than a fistful of epithets? You might start a ‘dialogue’, and most people seem to be agreed that that is a good thing.

    2. It does seem unreasonable to offer a review and hint at your opinion but say nothing more. It’s as if you agree with the quoted review but want to maintain some level of plausible deniability, all with the excuse of being busy with more important things.

      1. It is perfectly reasonable to draw the attention of readers of this website to a review that is not adulatory and to say that it speaks to dissatisfactions that I have felt about Pinker’s previous work. I do not know what ‘plausible deniability’ has to do with it. And, yes, I do have things to read that interest me more and look to be more enlightening than Pinker’s latest. I note that George Monbiot’s review, which is drawn to people’s attention by Adam M. below, ends thus:

        ‘I doubt such poor scholarship will dim the adulation with which his claims are received. While Pinker is lauded, far more interesting and original books, such as Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct and Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, are scarcely reviewed at all. If there is one aspect of modernity that owes nothing to the Enlightenment, it is surely the worship of celebrities.’

    3. I’d like to read Pinker’s book, but I’m not sure when that will actually happen. For now, I think Bell’s review is interesting in light of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which I just started reading. I’m no economist, but from first impressions with Piketty’s book, inequality seems to matter quite a lot in societies modern and ancient, and shouldn’t be dismissed.

      Regarding Sullivan’s review, I agree with him that materialism can be the source of unhappiness, or perhaps simply fail to increase happiness and satisfaction with life. Religion and spirituality aren’t the solutions to this problem, however, and I’ve never thought so, even when I was a grad student and not especially well-off. I pretty much max out at “rather happy” though, regardless of my circumstances, and I don’t swing to the other extreme of “very unhappy” either. I guess I am an Owl of Moderate Temperament.

      I can see how people might be oppressed by materialism. The more stuff you have, the more you have to worry about it. Should I have more stuff and is it as high quality as my neighbors’ or co-workers’ stuff? How should I store and organize my stuff? How can I protect my stuff from thieves or from natural disasters? How will I pack and transport my stuff if I have to move? When I die, who will have the burden of disbursing my stuff?

  28. The most disquieting review of Pinker’s book that I’ve read is this one by George Monbiot, the journalist I most respect. An excerpt:

    Citing the famous ecologist Stuart Pimm, Pinker maintains that “the overall rate of extinctions has been reduced by 75 percent”. But Pimm has said no such thing: I checked with him. Pinker had latched onto a seven-word quote in The New Yorker, invested it with spurious precision, and misunderstood it to refer to all species, rather than only birds. Stuart Pimm’s work has upgraded the overall extinction rate to 1,000 times the natural background rates, while “future rates are likely to be 10,000 times higher.” This is what happens when you rely on a throwaway remark in a magazine, rather than the scientific literature.

    His specific complaints are few, but they indicate a degree of sloppiness.

    1. Finally, a criticism we can sink our teeth into. I’m looking forward to learning if Pinker is really as sloppy as this sounds. Evolutionary biologists, what say you?

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