A Jewish Atheist Asks, “Is There Moral Progress?”

By Larry Constantine

Published March 12, 2015, issue of March 12, 2015.
Psychologist Steven Pinker addressed the Cambridge Roundtable at the Harvard Faculty Club.
Larry Constantine
Psychologist Steven Pinker addressed the Cambridge Roundtable at the Harvard Faculty Club.

Is the human race going downhill, or are we on an upward moral trajectory? Belief in moral progress can be hard to sustain in an era when modern barbarians of the self-styled Islamic State behead journalists in Syria, when Qaeda-inspired homegrown terrorists kill cartoonists and Jewish shoppers in France, and a far-right Islamophobe can mow down dozens of young people on an island in Norway. The case for moral improvement got fresh support from an unexpected quarter in the person of Steven Pinker, Harvard professor of psychology, who was raised as a Reform Jew and is an outspoken atheist.

Pinker was the featured speaker and principal provocateur at a unique forum on February 26. The Cambridge Roundtable, a group headquartered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, was established with the explicit purpose of fostering dialogue between science and religion. President and Coordinator, David Thom, an MIT Chaplain, has said that the function of the forum is to explore the intersection of current academic and Christian thinking, but the invitation-only events it sponsors — more than 30 over its eight-year history — have drawn participants across the religious spectrum and featured presenters with diverse positions on many sides of the dialogue.

Pinker’s specialty is psycholinguistics, but he has a scholar’s Renaissance mind that ranges widely without sacrificing depth or rigor. His list of publications spans hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers and seven books aimed at the general public, including “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (Viking Adult, 2011), a deeply documented account of gradual evolution toward a less violent world.

Sporting a lilac tie and a pin-stripe jacket over gray skinny jeans, Pinker spoke at the Harvard Faculty Club to a dining room filled to capacity plus an overflow crowd in an upstairs room linked by video. The topic for the evening was “Moral Progress: Does It Exist? If So, What Causes It?” and Pinker came down firmly on the affirmative side of the first question. In his view, moral values need to be grounded in universals that can be justified to humanity as a whole. These universals include that it is better to live longer, that being healthy is better than being sick, that freedom is better than servitude, and that alleviating pain is better than causing it.

Building the case from quantitative and historical data and selections from his writings, he started with the abolition of barbaric practices, such as human sacrifice, once commonplace in many cultures and long ago ended. Humankind, in his view, is not only getting less violent but is also making moral progress. Our values are changing to elevate those universals that can be broadly agreed upon. Although progress has been neither entirely uniform nor universal, as a whole, the world has moved away from despotism to democracy, has abandoned slavery, and no longer tortures people — with notable exceptions, such as, the Islamic State in the Levant or American intelligence agencies.

Not surprisingly, Pinker sees the dominant force for moral improvement to be the rise of scientific humanism. True to its charter, the Cambridge Roundtable participants were mostly Christians, including many clergy, plus a substantial number of secular scientists. In an interview the following day, Pinker acknowledged that Jewish audiences tend to be a little less defensive, in part because Jewish religious life — at least for mainstream American Jews — is often more compartmentalized, something that is centered at home and in the shul, more tribal rather than evangelical. He noted that Christianity, by its nature, is almost compelled to proselytize and defend itself.

Jews are not known for declaiming the “good news” on street corners or actively seeking converts. Historically, liberal Judaism has been more comfortable with modernity.

Outside of strict Orthodoxy, modern Judaism is more tolerant of the “cafeteria Jew” who picks and chooses how to observe and which mitzvoth hold sway in the contemporary world. With the longstanding Jewish tradition of argumentation and critical reexamination of practice and faith thrown in the mix, it is not surprising that Jewish thought and thinkers have played prominent roles in contributing to moral progress.

According to Pinker, the Diaspora and integration of Jews into the West most likely helped accelerate moral progress by confronting the dominant Christian community of Europe with more immediate contact with the “other,” in the process, liberalizing wider European society and pressuring it to become less parochial. At the same time, the Diaspora and separation from an historical homeland meant Jews did not have to continually confront all of the more conservative aspects of their own past. Modern Jews are still brought up with what Pinker referred to as “hair-raising passages in the Torah endorsing torture and killing,” yet that world has been left behind by dint of reason and argumentation.

Pinker’s own moral journey began in an English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal, Quebec. His Reform Jewish background included a bar mitzvah, attendance at Jewish summer camp, and teaching in Hebrew school. The humanistic epiphany came in his early teens when he learned that modern neuroscience could explain mental life in terms of brain activity. Out the window went the dualist perspective of a mind and soul as distinct from the body and brain. Thomas Nagle’s classic “The Possibility of Altruism” was influential in shaping his thinking as a humanist, as were countless conversations with his wife, philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, herself the author of books on Spinoza and Plato.

Pinker takes a both/and approach to his Jewish roots. While content in his status as a nonbeliever, he says he still participates in Pesach seders and generally attends High Holy Day services. He credits his Canadian background for a love of pageantry that values reminders of history. From that long-view perspective, he says we are making moral progress.

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