This magazine has recently discussed two of the most important books of this century so far: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress and Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, both of which praise Enlightenment values and humanism. In light of the long-range metrics, Pinker is pleasantly encouraged that humanism may be winning. Andersen is a bit more reticent and concerned about the loss of critical thinking since the 1960s.
Personally, I admit to despair over the growing political power of the right wing and Christian evangelicals, and their moves to dismantle almost every social action we humanists hold close to our hearts. I’ve never seen such discouragement and, yes, anger in the humanist community. I’ve also never seen such resolve.
Pinker notes that, while history shows periods of departure from Enlightenment principles, overall the trend has been up. He tempers this by warning us not to be smug in thinking those gains will continue. It shows why our commitments to reason, science, progress, and humanism are so important. They work. Yes, there are tens of millions still suffering, but it is our long dedication to our noblest Enlightenment values that has made the difference in enabling the good life for so many.
Andersen is concerned that the forces opposing reason, science, progress, and humanism have grown in recent years and the Enlightenment project may be in danger. He points to a resurgent Right that has taken over our political sphere, with Donald Trump merely a symptom of the deeper problems. Andersen thinks we’re in a critical time period and that humanist voices are needed more than ever to push back.
A friend of mine pointed out that long-term statistics are great, but to a homeless person today the words ring hollow. I am reminded that during the Great Depression fully one third of the men in the United States were homeless, including both my father and grandfather, and took to the rails trying to earn something to send home.
I also remember a conversation I had not long ago with a self-admitted conservative in Switzerland who said, “We have no homeless there. We don’t allow it. Everyone goes through tough times and they provide a place to stay and salary that includes enough even for two movies a month.” The Swiss believe it’s cheaper and more humane to help people get back on their feet. You see variances on this throughout Scandinavia, where Enlightenment humanism is more firmly rooted. Hopefully someday we can see this kind of rational and compassionate practice in the United States.
Unquestionably, if there were ever a time we needed to stand up for reason, science, humanism, and progress, it is now. We are challenged on both the Left and the Right. Courage is crucial in our fantasyland culture that tries to undo 400 years of progress. The task of humanism is never finished, never going to be easy, never without self-doubt, and never without enemies. It will always require self-examination and an unending commitment to education and the goal of a good society.
Let’s take pride in the accomplishments humanity has achieved and move forward on the transformative power of the idea that reason, science, and humanism can lead to a better life. We still need to get homes for the homeless, just as Charles Dickens and Jane Addams did. We still need to feed the hungry, as Norman Borlaug did, saving an estimated one billion lives with his green revolution. We still need to fight against racism as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. did. We still need to fight for women’s rights as Elizabeth Cady Stanton did and as Gloria Steinem keeps doing. We still need to fight for reason and science as Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan did. We need to fight for the environment as John Muir and Rachel Carson did. We still need to fight for Enlightenment values and humanism as Steven Pinker and Kurt Andersen have shown. It’s our turn.