Steven Pinker on Unbelievable: The Hindrance of Religious Belief

Recently, Steven Pinker had an interesting conversation on Unbelievable with Nick Spencer. They were discussing Pinker’s recent book Enlightenment Now. I want to focus however on something that Pinker said right at the beginning of the conversation. On being asked by Justin Brierley “To what extent, though, do you see Christianity, or religion in general, as being a help or a hindrance in the progress?” ( referring to social progress since the Enlightenment) Pinker said,

“Well, it depends on whether you’re referring to the beliefs or the institutions. The beliefs, I think, are a hindrance. I think that any kind of supernatural belief, as opposed to our best scientific understanding of reality can’t possibly help. If you believe that disease is the result of divine punishment or that curing it is a result of intercessory prayer, then that’s clearly not going to make any progress towards global health. If you think that God would not let bad things happen to the planet so we don’t have to worry about man-made climate change… Any kind of belief that is just literally not true, or at least, not true to the best of our understanding. Now likewise, I think a belief in…a valuation of souls as opposed to lives is not helpful, because it implies that our time on earth is just an infinitesimal portion of our existence; that if you send someone off to heaven, you might be doing them a favour. If someone is  perhaps seducing people into eternal damnation, then they’re a public health menace and they ought to be neutralized for the greater good of all. So I think there are a large set of supernatural beliefs that we’re much better off abandoning…”

So is any major Christian group supposed to hold most of these beliefs? Does Pinker think that there are influential Christian groups today who believe in “neutralizing” heretics or unbelievers? Does this represent a general Christian belief? There is a great deal of outright falsehood here interspersed with some half-truths. But firstly, we should note that his comments assume a stark conflict between science and religion. He speaks about supernatural beliefs “as opposed to” the scientific understanding of reality, presupposing that both science and religion are self-contained metaphysical accounts of the world and that they are therefore in competition with one another. I’ll look at this a little more later in the post, but it’s important to recognize it at the outset. Pinker may be speaking about religion generally or he may be speaking about Christianity in particular ( he does not specify which is another weakness in his account) but it is reasonable to assume that he has Christianity in mind, at least as one of the religions that believes the things he says, and so I will treat it as such. In the interest of charity, I should note that it isn’t always clear whether he believes these beliefs can be ascribed to Christians today or whether they should be ascribed to Christians in history. In speaking about beliefs about climate change, he is clearly talking about Christians today ( since Christians in history didn’t know about it). But for the rest of the piece, I will assume that he is talking about Christians today.

Disease as divine punishment?

The belief that disease is a divine punishment certainly is a religious belief, but the idea that Christian doctrine believes that all diseases are divine punishments is false. There are times in the Bible when a specific event of disease is attributed to divine punishment, but these are not generalized into sweeping statements like  “sickness is divine punishment”. Also, there are times, such as in the case of the book of Job, and some statements made by Jesus in the gospels, where sickness is specifically denied to be divine punishment. Secondly, even if we believe that a specific event of sickness is divine punishment, why is this anti-scientific? There is no contradiction in recognizing that something can have both a natural cause and a spiritual or personal cause. For example, if I had to explain why I lifted up my arm, what would I say? I would say I lifted up my arm because I wanted to reach my mug of tea. Wouldn’t it be absurd for you to claim that this explanation is anti-scientific, because the real explanation is a complicated interaction between motor neurons, muscles and sinews? Both the personal and the physical explanation can be true at the same time. There is no contradiction. Similarly, a disease is caused by certain biological agents, but there is no contradiction between saying that an event of illness could also be divine punishment. For example, God could have caused someone to come into contact with the infective agent or some such thing.

Supernatural healing is anti-scientific?

Pinker also takes issue with the belief in intercessory prayer. Why? He doesn’t explain. Presumably he is worried that a belief in intercessory prayer will lead people to minimize medicine. And certainly there is a small recent Christian offshoot ( Christian scientists) who seem to discourage medical treatment by believing that prayer is most effective when not combined with medical treatment. This idea is not found in the Bible, which is why Christian science is a small and very recent Christian movement. This has not been the case for most Christians throughout history. Indeed, one of the gospel writers Luke, is called a physician. There is nothing in the belief in intercessory prayer itself which implies that medicine or caring for the sick through other means is wrong.

Science vs. religion or scientism vs. religion?

In order to think that a belief in supernatural healing is by itself anti-scientific, you must once again presuppose that science is metaphysics – that science is our source of knowledge about all of reality and not just part of reality. Only if science is our only source of knowledge for all of reality is it true that supernatural healing is anti-scientific. To put it a different way, only if scientism is true is it the case that all claims to truth or knowledge is divided into science and pseudoscience. Scientism is the belief that anything that cannot be explained by science cannot be real because science explains the whole of reality. Clearly, this belief is not the same as science on its own – it is a metaphysical belief about science. But more than this, it is an irrational and poorly supported belief. Scientism is self-refuting, because scientism itself cannot meet the criteria it places on knowledge. Can you give scientific evidence for the idea that only science gives us knowledge? No, if only science gives us knowledge then scientism is false, because it cannot be validated through science ( because that would be circular). But apart from this, it is also a belief based on blind faith. What justification is there for thinking that science explains all of reality? The past success of science? The past success of science does not imply, inductively or deductively, that science explains everything. Unless you assume scientism, there is no contradiction between the truths of science and the belief in supernatural healing.

We should be apathetic because of divine sovereignty?

Now we get to this idea that God will not let bad things happen to the planet, and therefore we do not need to do anything to combat man-made climate change. The conservative lack of concern for environmentalism is not based on the fact God will not let anything bad happen to the planet. It is because they disbelieve man-made climate change or simply disbelieve all the alarmist apocalypticism around this issue. Also, the idea that we must not make things better on earth and simply wait for God to do it is not a belief you will find in the Bible or Christian theology. In Genesis, God makes human beings  stewards of the earth, giving them responsibility over it. Also, the Bible repeatedly affirms our responsibility to address the wrongs that we see around us. I cannot deny that there are some people who believe this, but the idea that this is a general Christian belief is completely false. It is also clearly unfair to reduce a belief system to it’s lowest common denominator. How would Pinker react if I ascribe views to him that are held by some invidious village atheist, or by eugenicists and social Darwinists,  because they are all atheists?  I grew up in conservative “literal” churches and I never encountered the ideas that Pinker rambles off here, and the few that are familiar have been twisted.

The concept of souls will lead to human rights violations?

Pinker also opines that understanding human beings as souls as opposed to lives is not helpful, because it implies that our time on earth is just an infinitesimal portion of our existence. Something’s length of time has no implications for its importance. An event can be a short time and yet have great importance, and conversely, an event might stretch on for a long time and be of no importance. And on the contrary, the Bible and Christian Theology constantly affirm the eternal significance of our choices here on earth. In addition, understanding human beings as souls I think does much more to value human life than Pinker’s dehumanizing understanding of human lives as biological machines. This understanding can easily justify human rights violations. Indeed, it already has in, for example, social Darwinism, eugenics, and the influence that these beliefs had on Nazi cruelty to disabled and handicapped people. And in our own time, Down Syndrome children are aborted so often they are disappearing.

In other words, Pinker’s comments here seem typical of New Atheist polemic. It presupposes a conflict between science and religion, by claiming irrationally and without evidence that science is a self-contained metaphysics, and then making claims about religion that show a lack of knowledge about Christian theology and about Christian believers in general.

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