Steven Pinker on Textbooks, Culture Wars and the “A” Word

On April 22, Dr. Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University, lectured at Midland College in Texas on “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.” Based on his latest book, also titled The Stuff of Thought, his presentation was part of The Davidson Distinguished Lecture Series, which in the past decade has featured distinguished writers, scientists and artists, such as Bill Moyers, Ken Burns, John Updike and E.O. Wilson.

Listed in Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine as one of “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Pinker was the American Humanist Association’s 2006 Humanist of the Year. So it was with great excitement that I met with Pinker prior to his lecture for a 30-minute interview. Among the subjects we addressed were the “cultural wars” in the United States–especially in regard to the influence of religion and the attacks on the teaching of evolution, how to appropriately address religion, and the AHA’s “Good Without God” campaign.

Humanist Network News: What do you know about Midland, Texas and the conservative political climate of this region?

Steven Pinker: (Laughing) Well, you can’t miss it, knowing our most recent ex-president grew up here.

HNN: What do you think about the current battle over textbooks in Texas and the determination of the [Texas State Board of Education] that Jefferson doesn’t need much attention and that the Enlightenment should be downplayed, that our founders were Christians, etc.?

SP: Well, it’s outrageous. Let’s hope that the textbook publishers won’t knuckle under and adulterate these books for the rest of the country.

HNN: You’ve written a great deal on the impact of the political left and right in the United States. How does the political division figure into the debate over textbooks and especially the teaching of evolution?

SP: Partly it really is a culture war. The country does have two cultures: the European Enlightenment and the Culture of Honor. The Scots-Irish settled into a lot of the South and West. What came of this was two different paths to civilization. One path was civilized by the law and government and the king, and the other by self-help justice, avenging wrongs and insults with the help of your own manly honor. They co-exist in one country, but they are different cultures. The civilizing force in the West came first from the church. A lot of the Western cowboy towns were first civilized by the women and the church–in cahoots. Churches have the talismanic role as the source of morals and decency and civilization. But part of the division is just sheer oppositionalism: if the liberals say x, we’ll say y. Part of it is also an emotional affiliation with the church, and some of it is a disengagement from the wider world.

HNN: How did you think you would be received, especially because of the anti-evolutionary sentiment in Texas?

SP: I’ve spoken at a lot of universities in the South, including some not so famous ones, and never had a problem. I’ve spoken in Alabama, Mississippi, Utah and Texas. Universities tend to be cultural bubbles that are more similar to their counterparts on the coasts than they are to their host communities, I suspect.

HNN: But 38% of people polled in Texas believe we humans were made “as is” 10,000 years ago. If they don’t believe in evolution, what will they say about evolutionary biology? Will they understand what you’re talking about?

SP: Yeah, my lecture tonight will not be on evolution per se. But I’m not going to hesitate to mention evolution as relevant, as it clearly is for some of the topics I’ll be speaking about, including dominance and swearing. But they’re not going to get the talk tonight that would be most inflammatory.

Part of the hostility to evolution might be ignorance about the vast knowledge base that makes it indispensible to understanding life. You just can’t work in biology if you don’t believe in evolution. It’s everywhere. You don’t even know where to begin when you’re talking about it and the evidence for it. It just makes a shambles of the whole science without it.

Part of the hostility to evolution may [also] be the symbolic affiliation. Evolution for many people means amorality. It means you behave like animals. It means if you teach your kids that they came from animals, then they’ll start to behave like animals.

We’re at the level of Muslim countries in the degree of religious influence on the educational curricula. We’re down there with Turkey among industrialized countries. I like to think we rank above Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan….

HNN: You mention Irving Kristol in your book The Blank Slate, and his opposition to the teaching of evolution, based on the notion that people can’t handle the truth and need the security of religion. Irving wrote that atheism was a truth that should be held in secret by a few sages.

SP: It is ironic that the secular Jewish intellectuals should be more conservative on evolution than the pope, or at least the last pope. This new pope has lurched to the right. John Paul II agreed that evolution was the best explanation for the human body and for and bodies and brains of animals.

HNN: Would you call that theistic evolution?

SP: Yes, that’s it. Evolution is responsible for everything but the human soul. We got a soul injection. Actually, it wasn’t even John Paul that introduced that idea. That was introduced by Pius in 1953 in his encyclical acknowledging the evolution of man.

HNN: What do you think, though, about Kristol’s idea that most people need religion and that atheism is a truth that they can’t handle?

SP: This is an idea associated with Leo Strauss. This is an empirical hypothesis, and I think it has been falsified. Namely, the nations of Europe are overwhelmingly secular, many of them are majority atheist, and yet their rates of violence are far lower than American states in the Bible Belt. So if you want to know what kind of ideology leads people to be civilized versus to shoot each other to death, we have the answer: the atheist countries have homicide rates of one per 100,000, while Southern American states have rates 10 times as high.

HNN: Kristol seemed to argue that humans aren’t very responsive to change, in regard to behavior. How adaptable are humans?

SP: Well, a lot of our emotions are only so adaptable, but our cognitive apparatus is an open-ended combinatorial system–that’s the essence of language. No two sentences are identical, except for some clichés. We’re constantly spinning out and understanding new sentences, and that’s because part of innate human nature is the ability to entertain new thoughts. We don’t really know the limits. But I think a lot of human behavior is not ideological anyway, it’s just an unconscious sense of decency that evolves over time. I think the vast majority of people don’t kill or rape, not because they consciously think about burning in hell fires afterwards. I think that change comes over the course of history as we internalize norms about what we don’t do.

HNN: What about the European safety net? Does it make a difference with regard to belief in God when people feel more comfortable with what society has to offer?

SP: There’s a hypothesis by Phil Zuckerman and Gregory Paul in [their Edge article] “Why the Gods Are Not Winning” that belief in God is a function of uncertainty over catastrophes in your life. If you live in a welfare state it buffers you against some of the worst things that life can throw at you, and so you’re less likely to believe in God. They claim that there’s a very strong correlation across countries between the size of the safety net and atheism.

HNN: How far should humanists/atheists go in finding compromises with religion?

SP: There should be ordinary decency and tact in talking about organizations that mean a lot to people. I think there should no compromise on the intellectual front with religion. I don’t think you should say that God, well, kinda, sorta, maybe on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays exists. When it comes to the track record of religion, you have to make distinctions. There are some things that religions do that are praiseworthy and some are not, but an across-the-board condemnation doesn’t make sense. Nor does a make-nice position. The Inquisition and the Crusades and radical Islam deserve to be criticized. But it’s also true that the Quakers had some good things to say about slavery in their time and that in the inner city the African American church is often a source of community. One just has to make distinctions. It’s a question of criticizing what deserves to be criticized. And there can be no compromise with falsehood. Nor with out-and-out immorality and evil, which religious practices in the past have sanctioned.

HNN: In discussing how to advance humanism and atheism, what do you think about the AHA’s “Good without God” campaign?

SP: Right. Greg Epstein [Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University] uses that as his book title. I think it’s a successful approach. It’s a great slogan. Madison Avenue couldn’t have done better.

HNN: There’s a lot of debate about this campaign, especially among Unitarian Universalist humanists with whom I correspond, and there’s resistance to the word atheist and to Godless. What do you make of this?

SP: It’s a linguistic phenomenon. Atheism does [evoke] a very primitive emotional reaction in the minds of many people. Many people simply equate it with immorality, which is why I think they tell pollsters that atheists are people they distrust the most. Often when there is a disliked word–a word with a negative connotation–people find a euphemism, that’s why what used to [be called] garbage then became sanitation and now its environmental services. And likewise atheism is constantly reaching for the untainted euphemism. Secularist, freethinker, humanist, bright and so on. I think each one is going to get infected in turn until the societal attitude changes.

Atheism is merely absence of belief. Humanism will succeed when no one notices that it’s there, when it’s just common decency in Western civilization. In a way, really, humanism should just be. Western civilization since the Enlightenment doesn’t depend on the belief in God. All of philosophy is humanism, all of science, all of law–we should claim that. We should claim Shakespeare. And modern biology and the modern Western university and democracy–that’s humanism.


Previous to teaching at Harvard University, Steven Pinker taught in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. A preeminent cognitive scientist and linguist, he writes for several publications, such as The New York Times, Time and The New Republic, and is the author of numerous books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate.