The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom
by michael shermer
henry holt, 560 pages, $32
The world was a dark and gloomy place until the Enlightenment came along, after which people began to think for themselves and break free from the shackles of religious authority. So we are told, once again, in The Moral Arc, a book by journalist Michael Shermer. For him, the Enlightenment did not merely accelerate humanity’s moral progress, but rather it reversed the moral regress characteristic of pre-Enlightenment human history. Since then, science and reason have been guiding humanity on a path toward justice, truth, and freedom.
But what are “science” and “reason,” these forces to which we owe humanity’s moral progress? Unfortunately, Shermer’s definitions are unclear. Taken together, they seem to say that science and reason are simply the methods by which people test and think about truth claims in order to ascertain their veracity. As shown by his scattered remarks about pre-Enlightenment times, such as that it used to be acceptable merely to assert one’s beliefs rather than to argue for them, it seems that Shermer seriously believes that rational thought was nonexistent, or at least extremely rare, before the Enlightenment. One would think that an author so insistent on rational evaluation would offer some defense of such a bold assertion, but there is none.
So if science and reason advance moral progress, what place does religion have? None, according to Shermer, who dedicates a whole chapter to defending the thesis that religion not only does not drive moral progress forward, but cannot. While Jesus may have said a few nice things, Christianity (which is the only religion that Shermer treats in this chapter) is fundamentally xenophobic and misogynistic. To defend these claims, Shermer mostly draws on cherry-picked passages from the Old Testament that, as he presents them, do not seem to view non-Israelites or women very charitably. It would be easy to counter these claims by pointing to the parable of the Good Samaritan (in which a foreigner gives aid to a Jew) or to point out that women were the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus (thus showing that the early Christians, unlike other Jews of their time, respected the testimony of women). Unfortunately, Shermer does not consider any such counterarguments; evidently, mere assertion is permissible in post-Enlightenment times, so long as the assertions concern religion.
After this, Shermer aims to show that the world is becoming more moral, thanks to the application of Enlightenment philosophy. But of course, for Shermer, “more moral” simply means “in better accord with Enlightenment philosophy.” This entire section, therefore, despite all of its graphs, anecdotes, and data, is nothing but an exercise in begging the question. The final section is no better, as it contains no argument but simply a collection of unfocused speculations about what the future may hold.
Shermer’s book is less than impressive. For a treatment of a similar thesis that offers more-cogent arguments and better engagement with its dissenters, see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Matthew Dugandzic is a PhD student in Christian ethics at the Catholic University of America.
The Inspirational Atheist: Wise Words on the Wonder and Meaning of Life
edited by buzzy jackson
plume, 256 pages, $16
Buzzy Jackson is dismayed by “inspirational” books. Not so much because they exist, but because she “never encountered a single one that spoke directly to those of us with a secular outlook.” “Where was the motivating quote of the day for nonbelievers?” she asks. What she wanted was a Chicken Soup for the Soulless, depressing as that sounds on its face, for that one-fifth of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. She wanted a source of hope and comfort for “the atheists, the skeptics, the agnostics, and the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ among us.” Yet, on going to the bookstore, she found a void. If Chicken Soup for the Soulless didn’t exist, would it be necessary to invent it? Yes, apparently.
Jackson seems to have scoured an extensive book collection—or possibly Wikiquote—for timeless wisdom on thirty-three alphabetical subjects, from “advice” to “work.” Her only criterion for selecting the thinkers she quotes seems to be the exclusion of voices commonly seen as religious. Out, then, with Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Sojourner Truth—and in with William Shakespeare, Joan Didion, and Bill Hicks. But the inspirational atheists need not actually be atheists. Søren Kierkegaard and James Baldwin both appear, for instance, and she made an exception to her one rule by giving the Dalai Lama a pass.
Jackson, of course, includes avowed atheists. It is regrettable that the imperative to select uplifting quotations has muzzled the darkly toned realism that is the hallmark of great atheists such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, H. L. Mencken, and Ambrose Bierce—all of whom make strangely uncharacteristic appearances. Instead of their most stringent sayings, we have more anodyne observations that few can quibble with, including Seneca’s “Take care not to make your pain greater by your complaints” and Charles Bukowski’s “If you want to know who your friends are, get yourself a jail sentence.” That’s a shame. Something that could have been called The Uninspirational Atheist would have made for a much more vital, if less commercially appealing, book.
Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey.
The Return of George Washington 1783–1789
by edward j. larson
william morrow, 384 pages, $29.99
Edward J. Larson, a Pepperdine professor of law and history and a Pulitzer Prize winner, fills in six missing years of Washington’s life as a private citizen, from the formal close of the Revolutionary War in 1783 to his inauguration as president in 1789.
Washington had surrendered his military commission to the confederation Congress and “retired” from public life. He may really have longed for life as a Virginia planter, but he equally ached for an American government that could do things, like pay its own debts. He wanted a “national” government, one that was “energetic” at home and respected abroad. What the young nation instead had was an enfeebled unicameral Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and a grant of power that went only so far as the states might permit—and they permitted very little.
Washington’s role in what became the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was large, as Larson shows. His only hesitation in being one of Virginia’s delegates was that he did not want his name attached to the Convention if it failed. Advisors ultimately persuaded him that without his presence, the Convention certainly would fail. Thanks to Larson, we see a Washington who is far more calculating than generally suspected, and far better at it than one would guess. He had an obsession with appearances, and was very good at projecting the appearance he wanted.
When the Convention was debating the power and role of the presidency being proposed—and everyone understood if there was to be an office of the president, Washington would be the first to fill it—he went out of his way to tour a local gristmill and plant nursery during a recess. The sight of Washington poking here and there, asking questions only another farmer would understand, was a reassuring gesture for the other delegates, probably as he intended. He simply did not look, notes Larson, like “a would-be Caesar conspiring to create an imperial presidency for himself.”
After the Convention, Washington was active in the Constitution’s ratification. His private correspondence with fellow nationalists (who were coming to be called Federalists) was extensive, frequently directive, and clearly dismissive of the anti-Federalist opposition (Patrick Henry among them). He followed James Madison’s advice on whom to contact and when to do it, showing his hand openly only when it was likely to have the greatest impact. Larson’s book makes it clear that Washington’s active support for ratification was one of the decisive factors in its eventual adoption.
Washington largely succeeded in acting as an impartial, above-the-fray statesman, awaiting the call of his country. What Larson reveals, though, is a Washington who never was quite that. He was a partisan politician, and a very good one. Still, it is something of a surprise to find that when he decried the effects of “party faction,” Washington hardly had his own party in mind.
Russell E. Saltzman’s latest book is Speaking of the Dead.