Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Better and Worse Angels of Steven Pinker

I am really enjoying Steven Pinker's company.  Frighteningly clever, original, a smooth writer and often generous to the Christian church. What's not to admire? And when he does criticise the faith (my particular interest I suppose) sometimes he gives us a lot to think about. All good and I'm giving him as a Christmas present and recommending him to everyone I can.

But--well--just sometimes his humanist slip shows, which is a shame. For example:

'The Bible is one long celebration of violence' (p7). 'Catalogue' would be better than 'celebration'. You have to read it to the end. 'You have heard it was said ... but I say to you, love your enemies'. Jesus put a stop to it. Since he's the destination of the scriptures, the fulfilment of everything that was foreshadowed (and foreshortened before), that's a bit of a misreading.

Then,he  blames  the Church for the worst excesses of the Inquisition and witch burning, but claims that good old humanists reclaimed that bloody heritage.

'What made Europeans finally decide that it was all right to let their dissenting compatriorts risk eternal damnation [rather than torturing the heresy out of them] .... One gets a sesne that people started to place a higher value on human life ... The gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendancy of skeptiicism and reason' (pp 172-173).

Except these 'skeptical and reasoning' humanists he quotes were passionate Christians - Erasmus (commemorated in stone in the theology department of the very city I live in) and even John Milton (spin doctor to the Puritans and greatest Christian poet since King David). Nicking our saints and clsiming they were working for your side all along is cheating. Get your own saints.What was actually happening was that these were pioneering, prophetic figures in the Church.

The renewal of the church is behind much of the decline in violence through the centuries. Another example: he notes (proper atheist) Jeremy Bentham speaking out against animal cruelty (p178) but totally neglects his friend and contemporary, the passionate evangelical William Wilberforce, who in between abolishing slavery, practically singlehandedly invented the NGO and among other things founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whch actually did something about the problem, and also was (I think) the source of the anti-cruelty laws in Parliament that Pinker praises. It was pioneering, prophetic Christian figures who led the revolution. Which Steven Pinker fails to mention a little too often.

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