Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wonders where God was in the Florida shootings. That’s what he said last week on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
Pinker has a new book out, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. In it, he argues that the world is becoming a better place. Health and longevity have improved, and violence and murder have dropped precipitously since the Middle Ages. We overlook those improvements, Pinker says, because the media like to report bad things. He calls for a more balanced representation of current conditions.
But he also finds another hindrance: religion. Too many people, Pinker says, still believe in tall tales and pseudo-religious tricks (also known as miracles). They tend not to be the smart people. Hewitt presents this quotation from the book: “Few sophisticated people today profess a belief in heaven and hell, the literal truth of the Bible, or a God who flouts the laws of physics.”
When asked by Hewitt, Pinker proceeds to define “sophisticated people” as those who are “aware of the scientific realities of the last several centuries.” Pinker acknowledges that religion has, at times, helped to “mobilize people’s moral sentiments,” but it also has an enervating effect, when people count on God to intervene in the real world.
Pinker has a can-do attitude and a practical wariness of God. It all comes down to responsibility. To grant God any administration of human affairs, Pinker argues, lessens the incentive for human beings to correct and improve them. If God lords over all, humans lose their entrepreneurial drive. “If we want to make the world a better place,” he tells Hewitt, “we have to figure out how to do it ourselves.”
The notion that prayer has an impact is “a dangerous belief.” We grow complacent over suffering, and instead of forestalling horrors such as the Florida shooting, we accept the monsters in our midst and pray that they won’t spring into action. “If you’re going to count on God to make the world a better place, then you’re probably going to make the world a worse place.”
This secular outlook is supported by the evidence, according to Pinker, for all catastrophes “cast doubt on whether there is a benevolent shepherd.”
But if you’re going to question God’s existence and motives when bad things happen, you have to do the same when good things happen, right? If you think God’s existence collapses when things go wrong, then you must affirm God’s existence when things go right. Right?
Or, one is tempted to ask the skeptic, do you believe that when things go right it’s because of what we’ve been able to accomplish by ourselves, without God’s help? We discovered penicillin, not God. We developed anesthesia and built the Empire State Building and painted beautiful pictures of Rouen Cathedral. Evil doesn’t come from the devil, either. It comes from shooters and tyrants and sadists, people who were made that way by other people when they were children. It’s all us.
The reasoning is so clear and simple to the secularist that he can’t understand anybody who doesn’t buy it. He can’t figure out why faithful people persist in their error. He has shown them the truth, and they don’t see it.
But what he doesn’t see is that the God of his thinking is not the God in their hearts. Pinker’s God may have supernatural powers, but his parameters are worldly. The secularist concedes that if this God can do miracles, the expression of them comes in thoroughly worldly events—the parting of the waters, a man brought back to life. A prayer is answered or not. That is the measure of Pinker’s God’s love. He likes us a lot, or he leaves us to suffer.
People of faith know a different God. To them, suffering has a different value. Early in I Fiori di San Francesco, a beautiful 1950 film by Roberto Rossellini, St. Francis and a dozen monks find shelter from a terrible storm in a hut they’ve built. But a man and his donkey have taken it over, and he threatens to beat them unless they leave. “Get out, you thieving bastards,” he growls, raising a club.
The others grumble and stare, but Francis only smiles and leads them outside into the rain and cold. He exhorts them, “Shouldn't we be rejoicing in our hearts? It’s the first time that providence has made us useful to someone else.” Pinker’s God would find some way to keep them dry and warm. In Pinker’s view, Francis is delusional.
Christians believe in the Fall and are unsurprised by brutality. Secularists believe they could expel violence from the world, if only everyone adopted their live-and-let-live point of view. Don’t be judgmental, and all will be happy. In my Church, however, before we end the service with a Hail Mary, we recite a prayer to St. Michael: “Be our protector against the wickedness and snares of the devil.” We acknowledge that the battle won’t end until God ends it, though we must keep fighting.
Most important of all, Pinker’s God has no mystery. He’s a do-gooder or a do-nothing. (Secularists don’t assert an evil God—that would be even more superstitious than a good God.) But Christians know that God is, in full, unknowable, and a day of intense suffering is at the center of their worship. They have God’s written word, the example of the saints, and the impulse to revere him in their hearts. But his works are inscrutable. At times His wisdom makes no sense, and we assume that our confusion is our own fault, not His.
We know what goes on in human affairs, but we recognize divine affairs, too, though we barely sense them. The secularist knows only the first, which makes his God a measurable thing. We are not so unimaginative.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.