I recently finished Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and was reminded that we live in extraordinary times. Contrary to the dystopic forecast of pundits and politicians, Pinker charts the astounding scale of human progress and shows dramatic increases in life expectancy, gross domestic product, income gains, and literacy, as well as drastic falls in child mortality, extreme poverty, hate crimes, and undernourishment. He argues that the Enlightenment conviction that knowledge enhances human flourishing has brought us here, an enlightening argument for those of us who have been inundated with the apocalyptic hyperbole of Twitter and Facebook.
The Enlightenment is often thought of as the age when humans began to abandon the religious superstition which had previously stunted scientific progress. When Pinker names populism as an enemy of progress, what he really means is religion; after all, a majority of American Christians voted for Donald Trump. Pinker suggests that if those Christians embraced a more “rational” worldview in secular humanism, they, too, could be enlightened and would no longer hold back the reasonable, secular citizenry. As a staunch atheist, Pinker betrays his contempt for religion with continual references to the barbarity of the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe—the institution that was responsible for founding numerous hospitals and universities which survive to this day.
Early Modern and Medieval Christians did burn witches, though, and the papacy itself was responsible for unspeakable acts like the Cadaver Synod, a bizarre and macabre affair which took place circa 897. Pope Stephen VI put his predecessor, Pope Formosus, on trial in front of his peers—or, rather, he put the newly deceased pontiff’s corpse on trial. Formosus was exhumed and dressed in ecclesiastical finery. A deacon spoke on behalf of the accused, who sat hunched over in the papal throne while Stephen hurled insults and accusations. This isn’t a summary of a Monty Python sketch; this actually happened. Surely it is welcome that the Enlightenment thinkers trained us to be docile.
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But religious superstition has not, in fact, been eradicated. Self-described secular groups devote themselves to political agendas with quasi-religious zeal. Pinker names one other threat to progress: the postmodern conviction that the good days are still to come and can only be achieved by dismantling and restructuring our corrupt and inequitable society. This ideology is punctuated with contradictions and paradoxes.
Postmodernists ostensibly believe in toleration, which is necessary if we wish to have diverse classrooms, workplaces, and nations. Oddly, those who voice any disagreement with this new orthodoxy–by questioning activist aims or harboring traditional values–risk being cancelled. The Christian message that we are all flawed individuals who may yet be redeemed has been replaced in higher education and the media with the postmodern belief that redemption and forgiveness are unattainable. An increasingly narrow definition of morality is being imposed on society, a morality which exalts the superficial (race and sex) over the significant (our shared humanity). People who fail (or have failed in the past) to champion this new dogma are cancelled—that is, excommunicated.
What will happen if these impossible standards of acceptable belief and behavior continue to be imposed on our ancestors on whose backs our current prosperity was earned? What is cancel culture if not a modern-day Cadaver Synod?
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of cancel culture is the fact that those who are cancelled are, more often than not, also accomplished, inspiring and important figures, even if they are flawed. (Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln come to mind.) It is cowardly that slanderous and fallacious allegations are being levelled against men who have been dead for decades, by people who themselves have achieved nothing in comparison. In the spirit of Pope Stephen VI, “woke” critics are trying their opponents in a senseless and self-ingratiating kangaroo court; the verdict often says far more about the insecurity of the jurors than it does about the character of the accused.
Some select statistics from Enlightenment Now may help to provide a picture of what our ancestors’ world looked like: average life expectancy in the Americas was around thirty; more than eighty percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty; and fewer than ten percent of the world’s nations had decriminalized homosexuality. The nineteenth century was harsh, brutal, and intolerant. The policies of governments and the personalities of their officials reflect that. If we are more tolerant and compassionate than our ancestors it is not because we are morally superior to them; it is because we have had things so good, partly because of their hard work, sacrifices, and innovation.
The great irony of cancel culture is that while its proponents consider themselves champions of toleration, they are incredibly resistant to different points of view. To Pinker’s credit, he recently withstood the cancellation attempt which followed his endorsement of the Harper’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate. This letter (while necessary and perhaps even brave) made the same error as Pinker in Enlightenment Now: personal hatred of Trump trumped fear of postmodernism which is the more significant threat to our culture, history, and institutions. (The letter could also have been improved had there been bipartisan representation among the signatories.)
Ultimately, Pinker’s critiques of Christianity seem misplaced; it is a secular orthodoxy that threatens progress because that orthodoxy threatens freedom of expression. People must be allowed to speak their minds if progress is to be made; that is the lesson that Socrates and Galileo taught the West. Freedom of religion is underpinned by free speech, and so as Christians we have a duty to defend it.
My generation has been unwavering in its judgment and criticism of its forbears, and some of the most pitiless critiques are levelled against Christianity, which is, for some, emblematic of an oppressive colonial past. Some criticism is indeed necessary, of our own faith as well as our own culture and institutions; without it we fall victim to the populist delusion that an Inquisition is better than religious freedom, or that the polio and rubella of the 1950s are preferable to their vaccines. One has to wonder what will be said of us, however, when our commitment to tolerance and diversity so poorly masks our intolerance and our ingratitude towards the giants on whose shoulders we stand.
[Image: Pope Formosus and Stephen VII by Jean-Paul Laurens]