Religion and nationalism are signature causes of political conservatism, and continue to affect the fate of billions of people in the countries under their influence. Many left-wing colleagues who learned that I was writing a book on reason and humanism egged me on, relishing the prospect of an arsenal of talking points against the right. But not so long ago the left was sympathetic to nationalism when it was fused with Marxist liberation movements. And many on the left encourage identity politicians and social justice warriors who downplay individual rights in favor of equalizing the standing of races, classes, and genders, which they see as being pitted in zero-sum competition.
Religion, too, has defenders on both halves of the political spectrum. Even writers who are unwilling to defend the literal content of religious beliefs may be fiercely defensive of religion and hostile to the idea that science and reason have anything to say about morality (most of them show little awareness that humanism even exists).5 Defenders of the faith insist that religion has the exclusive franchise for questions about what matters. Or that even if we sophisticated people don’t need religion to be moral, the teeming masses do. Or that even if everyone would be better off without religious faith, it’s pointless to talk about the place of religion in the world because religion is a part of human nature, which is why, mocking Enlightenment hopes, it is more tenacious than ever. In chapter 23 I will examine all these claims.
The left tends to be sympathetic to yet another movement that subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity, the ecosystem. The romantic Green movement sees the human capture of energy not as a way of resisting entropy and enhancing human flourishing but as a heinous crime against nature, which will exact a dreadful justice in the form of resource wars, poisoned air and water, and civilization-ending climate change. Our only salvation is to repent, repudiate technology and economic growth, and revert to a simpler and more natural way of life. Of course, no informed person can deny that damage to natural systems from human activity has been harmful and that if we do nothing about it the damage could become catastrophic. The question is whether a complex, technologically advanced society is condemned to do nothing about it. In chapter 10 we will explore a humanistic environmentalism, more Enlightened than Romantic, sometimes called ecomodernism or ecopragmatism.6
Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions, providing people with a community of like-minded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology, and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause. In chapter 21 we will see how political ideology undermines reason and science.7 It scrambles people’s judgment, inflames a primitive tribal mindset, and distracts them from a sounder understanding of how to improve the world. Our greatest enemies are ultimately not our political adversaries but entropy, evolution (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in human nature), and most of all ignorance—a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems.
This is a quote from the end of Part I to Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I am listening to it, so I don’t know the page numbers. I am looking forward to the book and have enjoyed it so far (with his analysis of entropy in terms of human behaviour and progress being something to think about).
I thought this was an interesting quote because, aside from the fact that Pinker, as an intellectual, cuts across political divides (the far left think he is on the right and the right think he is on the left). I felt that this summed up Pinker’s own underlying political positioning quite well.