(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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My partner, Keith Murrell, was born two months premature. His mother, who was a work at home mom already caring for four children, suffered several complications that threatened her health during the pregnancy with Keith. Doctors encouraged her to think about her large family – and consider her’s and their well-being instead of continuing with the pregnancy. She refused that encouragement to forsake her baby, out of love for the child, and she continued with the pregnancy until it become necessary to induce early labor.
Keith was then delivered premature and he was very sick and underweight. He immediately went into an incubator in a neonatal intensive care unit. Over the next month, his condition slowly improved. At that point, instead of still being in despair over their premie infant, Keith’s parents were filled with optimism. The child that his mom had loved so much that she risked her own life to deliver, was improving – even though he still had a ways to go until he would be fully healthy.
I recite this story as a way to illustrate the title of my message today – the paradox of Humanism. Social scientist and author Steven Pinker has written two recent bestselling books, Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature, that have revolutionized 21st century thinking. The books discuss the paradox of Humanism and its often negative views of the human condition.
With climate change and its dire consequences, with terrorist attacks a constant threat, with viruses regularly emerging that could potentially kill millions, with human rights around the world attacked, with the possibility that artificially intelligent machines may one day dominate people, with fundamentalist religions seemingly gaining influence, and with the rise of anti-democratic politics around the world – including in the U.S. – it seems that humanity is very sick and even faces potential extinction.
Many progressives, liberals and Humanists have responded to these problems with alarm. They rightly confront right-wing, reactionary forces that want to undue human progress.
The paradox, author Steven Pinker argues, is that the world is much like a premature infant. Despite the very real truth that we humanity is a long way from perfection, it’s condition has dramatically improved over history and people now enjoy the best conditions ever.
A part of that paradox, Pinker believes, results from the failure to see that humanity has continuously improved. Many people hold the mistaken belief that the human condition is getting worse. That belief, held by many Humanists – including me until I read Pinker’s book – ironically helps strengthen the many reactionary forces that threaten the well-being of humanity. If the world is so bad, most right-wing politicians and organizations say, then it is all due to progressivism, science, Humanism, and liberal democracy. America and the world needs, these right wing extremists say, to return to the supposedly good old days with less liberalism, less democracy, less social welfare, and more religious influence.
In other words, Pinker says Humanists are paradoxically helping to create the political, social and religious forces that seek to undermine all that the world has achieved. Humanity, according to Pinker, is not anywhere close to being as bad off as many believe. Humanists must continue their work to improve the world, but they should adopt the optimistic and hopeful attitudes of Keith’s parents when he was improving – but still sick. Yes, conditions for all of the world’s people are imperfect, but humanity is much, much better off than ever before. Humanists should therefore be upbeat and positive – all as a way to champion the amazing benefits that historic liberal forces have created – and will continue to create.
The problem with many people – Humanists included – is that they cognitively see the world in a mistaken way. People are prone to think according to what psychologists call an “availability bias.” People react to things and events that are most available to their memories – those that have very recently happened. Almost all people fail to remember the truth about the past – or at least study it to see how worse conditions used to be. Availability bias leads people to essentially be prejudiced in how they think – to only recall and react to recent events – and thereby believe they define reality.
I confess to having availability bias myself – which often causes me to worry and fret. I can hear ten nice things about me but then hear one criticism, and I focus exclusively on that. I can also see one seemingly bad event when, if I actually studied the data, I’d see it’s not so bad at all. I was concerned this past fall when fewer children were attending our services. When I expressed my concern to RE teachers, one of them – Jennifer Schmahl, told me things are just fine – some kids have aged out of the RE program and others are often engaging in Sunday sports games. But youth involvement and commitment to GNH, Jennifer said, as witnessed by our youth Holiday program, is still very good.
One funny illustration presented by Pinker in his book describes a sketch by the original Saturday Night Live comedians. Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase are lying in bed after making love. Chase is worried that Radner was not, I use a euphemism here, “fulfilled”. Radner ponders for a moment and then says to reassure him, “Maybe I was. I often reach “fulfillment”……….but I don’t know it!”
That, for Pinker, summarizes how people – and specifically Humanists – often think. People don’t even know how fulfilled and happy they are.
The situation with many of today’s liberals and humanists is that they highlight only the bad stuff they remember from recent past – the 2016 election, recent police shootings of unarmed black men, the homeless people they’ve just seen at a shelter, perhaps the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, or recently terrible weather storms. Their false conclusion according to Pinker:……..the current world is a terrible place. Many liberals and Humanists become pessimists. They accept a false reality that history and data do not support. In every aspect of human life, from civil rights, to death rates, to levels of poverty, things have dramatically improved such that we live in the best of times – regardless of the fact that bad stuff still happens.
In his book The Better Nature of Our Angels, Pinker carefully uses charts and statistics to show that rates of violence, war, murder, and deaths from natural disasters have continually and regularly declined since the dawn of Homo sapiens. The development of tribes, cities, nations, laws, Enlightenment ideals, advanced technology, and international cooperation have all led to far fewer violent deaths today than ever before. As Humanists, we lament war, murder, and unnatural death. But we fail to analyze historical data to see that warfare and violent deaths have steadily declined.
Availability bias is enhanced, according to Pinker, by the media. Pinker does not attack journalists as enemies, like some politicians, but he still sees them as over-emphasizing bad things. Indeed, Pinker says that news reporters are governed by the statement, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Death, mayhem and suffering make for better headlines than do reports that life is getting better. And the problem is, we as news consumers remember only those stories.
Just by looking at wars we might remember, each succeeding war the US has fought has resulted in many less deaths. World War Two caused over 400,000 US military deaths. The Viet Nam War caused 58,000 US combat deaths. Total military deaths in both the Afghan and Iraqi wars are 4,200. That dramatic decline in US war deaths is true for all nations. Humanity is learning from past experience, negotiating more, and avoiding wide-scale wars like World Wars One and Two. When nations do fight, modern technology and better medical care result in fewer casualties.
Of course, any death in any war is terrible and we must continue peace advocacy. But as Pinker says, we should also celebrate the fact that the US and the world continue to become less violent.
But if Humanists overlook historical data and persist in a mostly negative attitude about violence, for instance, they cause an added paradox. They ironically support the arguments of right-wing isolationists like the President, and Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul. Such reactionary politicians want the US to retreat into itself, put up walls around its borders, shun alliances with other nations, and think of itself as an island separate from the rest of the world. And the likely result, should that come to pass, would be that the U.S. will be made less great and less safe. Humanists, Pinker argues, should not help these isolationists with a negative view of the human condition. They should boastfully brag about less violence and unnatural death in the world – and rightfully claim that is due to progressivism of the past.
In this way, Pinker is an equal opportunity critic. He blames both far-left and far-right extremists for ignoring data and the truth of continual human progress. Far left extremists champion great ideals but it is often their negative outlook about the present condition of humanity that paradoxically works against what they seek.
And that is true in a number of areas. Far-left, overly pessimistic extremists, Pinker argues, often unknowingly support far-right extremists who want to defeat forces that improve life. For instance, Humanists like me see poverty and lament it’s reality. Far-right extremists use that negativity about poverty and other issues to claim past social welfare programs have made things worse, when they have dramatically made things better.
This highlights yet another paradox – one called the Easterlin paradox originated by economist Richard Easterlin in 1973. As all groups of people in the US have steadily increased their incomes – even the poor due to rising minimum wages – the level of happiness for all Americans has historically remained stagnant. This paradox notes that even as every American class is wealthier now then they were 50 or 100 years ago, the contentment level has not equally increased – even though it has in Western European countries. Part of the reason is due to rising wealth inequality in America – which justifiably causes some unhappiness. But the paradox remains. Most Americans don’t seem to recognize ways they are better off than their ancestors – due primarily to the psychology of availability bias.
In this way, Pinker supports something I often talk about and believe. Life does not happen at the extremes. Proverbially, things are never all black or all white. They are grey. We live in a world where almost everything is nuanced. We must therefore encourage balance, cooperation and compromise in how we live and think. As I’ve said in several past messages, we cannot make perfect the enemy of good or, as the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “Better a diamond with a flaw, than a pebble without.”
A balanced view of the human condition sees most areas of life as imperfect but also recognizes the reality that they have consistently improved. And Pinker has the data and quantitative analysis to prove it. Liberalism, science and Humanism have built human progress. Conservatism and religious theism have not. That is not just a matter of opinion – but proven fact. Numbers do not lie.
Theistic spirituality, in this case, is reactionary. It has an inherent availability bias built into it. The world is full of sin, death and evil, religious theists believe. They use anecdotal examples to support that bias. The solution, any theist will tell you, is to turn to an all-powerful but unseen deity to save humanity. We must worship him or her and follow his or her rules, all in order to escape eternal punishment.
The greatness of Humanism, however, is that it believes in the one and only verifiable means of improving the well-being of people. Themselves. My foundational spiritual belief is that it was not some god or goddess that has saved us from past calamity – or will save us from a future one. The world’s gods and goddesses have instead been scientists working to improve the world, it’s been activists who push for laws to create better living conditions, and it’s been all of us who demand basic rights of life, liberty and happiness. Humanity is still building a form of heaven on earth. It’s not finished yet and may never be – but life today is still a glorious thing – especially if we compare it to a thousand years ago when the average life expectancy was thirty years, when two out of three children died before age two, when almost nobody ever travelled beyond a few miles of their birthplace, and when most people were uneducated and lived a life of constant hard work – just to be able to barely survive. Today, even the poorest and most oppressed live many times better than the poor and oppressed of 1019.
And that’s a paradox everybody should understand – especially Humanists. Life is still often unfair. People still hate, discriminate and kill. Diseases still kill many. The premature infant that is our human society waits to become self-functioning and fully good. But we have abundant reason to celebrate the progress the infant has made, and countless reasons to believe more amazing progress is yet to come. We must still work hard to make things even better – but we, beginning with me, must banish negativity.
In that regard, let’s look to the new year with hope and optimism!