Download Free Bonus Content
Sign up for the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter and be the first to see updates for newly released episodes. Plus you’ll also gain access to our bonus content archive packed with exclusive content and show updates.
About this episode:
Are science, humanism and ongoing moral progress the result of an atheistic Enlightenment philosophy, or the product of a Judaeo-Christian worldview?
Steven Pinker is professor of psychology at Harvard University whose work spans, sociology, evolution, language and philosophy. His latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress makes the case that human progress has never been greater and we need to guard against unscientific ways of thinking, including religion, to see it continue.
Nick Spencer is research director at Theos and the author of books such as The evolution of the West: How Christianity has shaped our Values. He believes that while the story of progress may be true, modern thinkers fail to realise how indebted western values of equality, democracy and science are to Christianity.
Share this episode:
More from this season:
- Episode 1: The psychology of belief: Do we need God to make sense of life?
- Episode 3: The search for happiness: Can we have meaning without God?
- Episode 4: Science, faith and the evidence for God
- Episode 5: Mind, consciousness and freewill: Are we more than matter?
- Episode 6: Evolution, morality and being human: Do we need God to be good?
Audio Transcript for Premier On Demand
Justin Brierley (JB), Steven Pinker (SP) & Nick Spencer (NS)
JB: Welcome to The Big Conversation here on Unbelievable with me, Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation is a series of shows exploring faith, science, philosophy, and what it means to be human, in association with the Templeton Religion Trust.
Today, our conversation topic is the future of humanity. Has science, reason and humanism replaced faith?
Well, The Big Conversation partners I’m sitting down with today are Steven Pinker and Nick Spencer.
Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, whose work spans sociology, evolution, language and philosophy. His latest book, ‘Enlightenment Now: The Case of Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress’, makes the case that human progress has never been greater, and we need to guard against unscientific ways of thinking, including religion, to see it continue. Bill Gates has described ‘Enlightenment Now’ as his new favourite book of all time.
Nick Spencer is the research director at Theos and the author of ‘The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values’. He believes that, while the story of progress may be true, modern thinkers often fail to realise how indebted Western values of equality, democracy and science are to Christianity.
Stephen and Nick, thank you very much for joining me on the programme today.
Stephen, ‘Enlightenment Now’; you use a huge wealth of data to show that the world is in a better place essentially than it ever has been, yet looking at our news feeds, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re in a worse place.
Why do you think generally people adopt a more pessimistic attitude than perhaps the data suggests?
SP: Well, as long as bad things haven’t fallen to zero, there will always be enough of them to fill the news. And since our intuitions about risk and danger and probability are driven by available images and narratives and anecdotes, as long as the news feed contains enough of them… Indeed, if the news becomes more thorough, covers more of the planet, we can fall under an illusion that things are getting worse simply because we’re more aware of the events that take place, and we don’t have a background of all of these things that are going well which never make the news.
You don’t see a reporter in front of a High School, saying, here I am reporting live from a school that has not been shot up, or a country that’s not at war, or a city that hasn’t suffered a terrorist attack, or a village where the inhabitants have escaped from extreme poverty over the last ten years.
JB: And that’s because often the advances are incremental rather than sudden?
SP: They’re incremental and they often consist of bad things that don’t happen, which by definition, are not news. People living in peace. People living in peace is just not news because it’s not an event of any kind.
JB: And, obviously, in the book you make the case that science, reason, and humanism are largely responsible for this progress. To what extent, though, do you see Christianity, religion in general, as being a help or a hindrance in the progress?
SP: Well, it depends on whether you are 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 as 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 plant, so we don’t have to worry about manmade 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, and they’re a public health menace, they ought to be neutralised for the greater good of all. So, I think there’s a large set of supernatural beliefs that we’re much better off abandoning.
But the institutions though; institutions evolve, including religious institutions, including some but not all Christian denominations. And if institutions – I think, largely, under the influence of Enlightenment values – back off from the literal supernatural beliefs, back off from the Iron Age morality in a lot of the Old Testament, such as capital punishment for homosexuals, and begin to align their goals with humanistic ones, then they can be a force for tremendous good, by mobilising communities, by encouraging altruism. But it depends very much of the extent to which each institution commits itself to humanistic values.
JB: I mean, obviously you’re an atheist yourself, and at the end of the book you do quite strongly critique religion and cite, I think, quite approvingly, the fact that atheism or non-religion is on the rise compared to Christianity, in the USA for instance.
I mean, overall, do you think that less religion, more progress essentially is what we are looking at?
SP: I wouldn’t put it that way. I’d say more humanism, more progress. But the absence of any particular belief is not a positive or a progressive force for anything. I think it is good not to be misled by false beliefs, but one also has to have positive values.
So, in the case of humanism, these would be human flourishing life, health, education, richness of experience, happiness for as many people as possible. Without that then atheism, by itself, is just nothing. It’s just the absence of a particular belief.
JB: Nick, it’s great to have you joining us on the programme today as well, and I’m really looking forward to how you engage with the particular viewpoint that Steven has. You’ve read the book, and by and large, do you agree with the fact of, if you like, moral, well, scientific progress, and moral progress I suppose at the same time?
NS: Yes, I do. And I have to begin by saying I’m not temperamentally disposed in that direction. I – having worked in social research for a while – I was aware of a number of the kind of the upward trends with regards health, life expectancy and so on and so forth. But one of the many strengths of the book is the fact that there are 70, 80 charts in there, there’s 250 pages going through the obvious such as health and life expectancy, to eccentric but rather wonderful ones like the likelihood of being struck by lightning is less now than it was a hundred years ago.
So, given the face I’m temperamentally I am not inclined towards a progress, I think Steven’s done a brilliant job in making the case. And I think there are some chapters there that should almost be compulsory reading. I think the one on terrorism, for example, which you place the scale of the problem within a wider context is a very great example of, as it were, talking us down from the ledge of panic that we have got ourselves into.
So, in that regard, I think it’s, I mean, I do think it is a wonderful book anyway, and I’m kind of entirely in lockstep with Steven on that.
JB: So you agree, in a sense, with the story of progress. What about the reasons obviously that Steven brings to bear though; science, reason, humanism as the defining things that are responsible?
NS: Well, this is where Steven and I would part company, in a sense. So, science, reason, humanism I am entirely pro. But, societies developed through what political scientists called the development of inclusive institutions. These are institutions that incorporate people and give them freedom, equality and a degree of stable self-interest, in order to develop.
Now, a lot of these came to fruition in the 18th century, largely because of what happened in England in 1688, which we might come on to. But my, I suppose, critique of it, is that the vast number of those inclusive institutions existed, certainly in theory, and very often in practice, long before the Enlightenment.
So let me give one really kind of eccentric example: In 1623, the English Parliament published the statute of monopolies. It’s a completely insignificant historical event, except for the fact that it puts patents on a secure legal basis. If you have patents on a secure legal basis it makes it worth your while to invest money to develop things that you know you’re going to get a return from. Property rights is another. Rule of law is a third. Some form of political accountability, even to the extent of democratic accountability; these are inclusive institutions. And almost all of them predate the 18th century. And even those that are of the cusp, say something like John Locke’s articulation for political toleration and political equality; both of those could, I think, rightly come under the rubric of the Enlightenment. But, it’s very telling that Locke justifies his letter concerning toleration and his essays on government on theological grounds.
JB: So, essentially, the Enlightenment and its focus on science and reason and political equality and everything else, in a sense didn’t come out of a vacuum. It was preceded by important…
NS: Yes, I think that’s precisely my point. So, I don’t want to, as it were, downgrade the 18th century, because what happened there was very important. I think, actually, it was more due to the historical circumstances of what happened in England.
JB: And is your argument that it was specifically a Judaeo-Christian heritage that informed the way that the Enlightenment was able to take place?
NS: Primarily, not exclusively. So, I think, you know, Europe is Christian for a thousand years. You are going to get examples of horrendous crimes and wonderful virtues in that period. And it, Steven is right, that one of the legacies – and I say this as a Christian myself – one of the legacies of Christianity are things like the Inquisition or the Wars of Religion, although they were slightly more complex than simply one religion versus another.
But another legacy of Christianity is, one specific example, 1215 Magna Carta; the first proper articulation of the Rule of Law in Latin Christendom. It is not drafted by, but influenced massively by Stephen Langton, who’s an Archbishop of Canterbury, who, whilst he was at the University of Paris a few years earlier, glosses on Deuteronomy, which talks about how the law has to be above the king.
So, this principle of the Rule of Law – which of course takes many, many centuries to fully bed down – is developed in a distinctively Christian culture. I don’t want to claim all the positives for Christianity by any means, but there are plenty of, as it were, institutions – inclusive institutions – or at least ideas behind inclusive institutions, that are developed long before the Enlightenment.
JB: What to do say to that, Steven?
SP: I don’t disagree with that. And I used the Enlightenment just as a convenient label for a set of ideas that are historically concentrated in the second half of the 18th century. But, as I noted, they certainly have precedence in the age of reason in the Scientific Revolution, which are conventionally located in the 17th century, and the era of classical liberalism conventionally located in the first half of the 19th. So these – as with any historical development, nothing comes out of the blue, out of nothing – and the Enlightenment is just where I think a lot of it was concentrated. But, absolutely, there were precedents.
I mean, it’s hard to attribute things like the law of patents to Christianity, although it did, everything has to take place somewhere, and Europe was Christian, and so in that sense, it’s birthplace was a Christian civilisation. But there’s nothing in Christianity itself that justifies the Law of Patents.
NS: I think that’s a very important point, that as a historian you would want to disambiguate things that originated in a Christian culture and those that originate for a Christian reason. And patents, I think, are an example of the former, but a very important example of the later, I think, is the Scientific Revolution itself.
Now, you know, the world had seen many scientific revolutions; you know, in Ancient Greece, in Ancient Rome, in China famously, in 9th century, 10th century Baghdad, 13th, 14th century Paris and Oxford. All of them are kind of nascent scientific revolutions that could have transformed the world and none of them did. Now, the one that happened in the 17th century emphatically did. And it’s very telling that the reason it did was because it was justified on explicitly theological grounds. If you go back to someone like Francis Bacon, writing at the beginning of the 17th century, he justifies science – which of course is called natural theology – on specifically biblical grounds.
So, I think one of the push backs I would have is that the book doesn’t quite sufficiently acknowledge that as a development in Christendom, which is not simply a cultural development, but is actually a theological development.
SP: Well, it’s a – that was the water that everyone swam in. That was the air that they breathed. So everything had to be justified in terms of the belief systems that were common ground among the people of the era. And since it only happened once, we can’t compare.
Look at the full range of civilisations that had scientific revolutions, at least ones that were persistent, verses ones that don’t, to test the hypothesis that specifically Christian ideas were a prerequisite to the scientific revolution.
NS: To push back on that, I think you can, because you have the counter examples of China, which, famously, Joseph Needham spent a lifetime studying, why China, this amazingly technologically developed nation, or state for the sake of arguments, much more so than Europe, didn’t translate that technological development into a full-scale scientific revolution. And he comes to the conclusion, and others following have agreed, that it was a lack of what Christians would call a doctrine of creation, and we needn’t go into that now, that, as it were, didn’t provide the soil for the scientific revolution to happen.
So, actually, I think there are counterfactuals that you can cross compare. And one of the distinctive factors is the Christian doctrine of creation that legitimised and encouraged the study of the natural world as a way of understanding and glorifying God.
SP: But, I mean, there’s the same counterfactual that have to ask, why didn’t – since that was imminent in Christianity from the start – why did it take a mere 1200 years if those ideas were there all along? So it’s very hard for things that happened only once, I mean, you can try to come up with the counterfactuals. And, of course, every idea has numerous, you know, tendrils and roots and influences and tributaries.
So, it’s certainly possible that Christianity was part – I mean, it was undoubtedly part of the context – whether it was causal, I think is harder to establish.
NS: Of course, causality in history is really tough. But I think the Scientific Revolution is a fascinating example of Christianity both being kind of a catalyst and also a foe. So, the catalyst was for, was as I’ve said, for the theological argument. But the reason it happened in, say 1600 or slightly later, as opposed to 1500, was because Europe had dragged itself into this massive epistemological crisis in the Reformation, where Catholics and Protestants, they undermined one another, and in the end, the arguments that had been thoroughly strong in 1500 were much weaker in 1600.
So, as it were, Christianity created the problem for which it also created the solution. History is a real mess like that.
JB: I mean, do you personally think that science, scientific progress has, if you like, validated a secular or even atheistic view of reality, as opposed to a religious one?
SP: Yes, it certainly, just in terms of literal factual beliefs like the age of the earth, the origin of humans, the nature of life, the size of the universe, has undermined the actual factual claims of Scripture. It has also presented a picture of the laws of nature that allow no place for any kind of goal, purpose, teleology or a concern with human affairs of the laws of the universe.
The origin of life, which used to be one of the great holdouts, that the idea that even if the physical world could be explained by purely mechanistic processes, life required some divine spark, was undermined first by Darwin and then by Watson and Crick.
And I think we’re seeing that happen with the mind as well, the idea that there’s an immaterial soul is becoming less and less tenable.
JB: You think that ultimately a naturalist explanation will give us everything we need in terms of explanations of who we are and where we came from?
SP: I mean, it will certainly crowd out supernatural explanations.
JB: What’s your view on that, Nicky, I mean, if we’re going into, sort of, deep waters. Just one comment I suppose before we move on?
NS: I suppose my one comment – obviously, self-evidently, I disagree with Steven in much of that, perhaps not all of it – my one comment would be a caution in this particular debate. I am reminded of a debate by two thinkers, even greater than those gathered around the table, and Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston were debating this subject just after the war. And they almost argue each other to a standstill, because Copleston argued that the universe had a creator and Bertrand Russell argued, no we can justify, we say it’s been there forever.
And, of course, what happened was the 20 or so years later, the idea of a big bang and some kind of origins of the universe became accepted scientific norm. Now, in that instance, in that particular debate, that would have swung the pendulum away from Russell and towards Copleston. But, of course, you never know what’s going to be around the corner. So, if you bank all of your kind of arguments on the latest scientific or indeed kind of historical wisdom, you’ve got to do so cautiously.
JB: Let’s move on to talk about progress a bit because in a sense, scientific progress doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as moral progress. Some, I know, have accused you, Steven, of being too optimistic when it comes to our moral progress and that it is not the same thing as technological and scientific and…
SP: It’s clearly not the same thing.
JB: But you think that actually, science and humanism and reason also engender a kind of a moral progress themselves?
SP: It’s not just science and technology that propels moral progress, but moral progress has taken place in parallel with scientific progress, the two feeding each other; they’re not the same thing.
But, yes, moral progress has taken place in the abolition of slavery, abolition of torture, of capital punishment for frivolous crimes, then capital punishment itself, subjugation of woman and racial minorities, in oppression of homosexuals, in autocracy, in frivolous wars, in pretty much any dimension that you’d want to call moral, you could.
And to the extent that you can even pose the question; have we made progress or not? Well, you’ve got to measure what it used to be like in the past compared to what it’s like in the present to see if there’s a difference and if it’s gone in the right direction.
Not in everything, but in a vast majority of dimensions of human wellbeing, health, freedom, knowledge, access to culture, I think we have made more progress…
JB: Obviously, this is the core of the book, but in a sense, your worldview as an atheist, isn’t that there is any overall meta-narrative or dialectic or grand purpose in the universe and yet, when I hear the word ‘progress’, I always think, well, there’s some objective standard to which you are progressing. That suggests there is something external to us which we’re measuring ourselves by.
So, how do you square that circle?
SP: Oh, the fact that the laws of the universe don’t define any arc of progress, doesn’t mean that human interests don’t define an arc of progress. There’s certain dimensions of human existence that we can say are inherently good. For one thing, there are prerequisites to us being here and having this conversation, like; we’re alive, we’re well fed enough to be alive and to have the wherewithal to have this conversation, that we’re literate and educated enough to be able to exchange these ideas, that we’re not constantly looking over our shoulder if someone’s going to blow us up or machine gun us, that we aren’t living in an authoritarian regime that’ll throw us in jail if it doesn’t like one of the opinions expressed. So, all of these prerequisites to rational discussion identify certain values as inherently worthy; like life and health and freedom and so on.
Once those are defined as goods, they give us a morality that is universal. It just comes with being alive and with not enshrining oneself as the only entity in the universe. It’s like, if I value something for myself, and there’s no basis for me to deny it to you and to everyone else. And then that gives us a metric as to whether progress has taken place.
JB: And this, for you, would be how, what humanism would essentially be contained within?
SP: Yes, that would be the characterisation.
JB: Of having that sense of progress, defined by the characteristics of what make for human flourishing?
SP: That sets the benchmarks for what progress would be, and it’s not logically necessary that progress takes place and, of course, in many parts of the world, in many times in history, there’s been regression. There’s been a move backward.
So, but that allows us to pose the question intelligently and then to use the facts to answer it.
JB: Now, Nick, you co-wrote a book rather cheekily titled, ‘The Case for Christian Humanism: Why Christians should believe in humanism, and humanists in Christianity’. So, you actually believe that humanism, at some level, is also rather like the Enlightenment, dependent on a Judaeo-Christian worldview?
NS: Well, humanism is a slippery term, of course. And I think as Steven would agree, it’s not owned by atheists, it’s not owned by any particular ideology, religious or otherwise. It is a commitment to the human. And then you can unpack what that means.
I would absolutely count myself as a Christian humanist and I would encourage when I go talking about this to audiences for them to do so, because the values resonant in humanism – and it’s a little unclear how you define those exactly – resonate with a great deal of Christian thought and reflection.
I would argue – I know this is obviously where Steven and I would part company – that there is a securer basis for humanism within Christian though than there is within atheist thought. So, for example, I would say that a commitment of humanism is an ineradicable human dignity and fundamental human equality. Now, you can understand that and you can trace, you can historically trace that, through European thought, certainly. And you can, as it were, justify it on theological grounds if you do that kind of thing.
I don’t doubt that many, many of my atheist friends are committed to human dignity or human equality. I can’t see, as it were, where the deep foundations for that are. I don’t think reason, in and of itself, let alone science, acts as a sufficiently robust foundation for that commitment.
And I was struck that a couple of times in the book, you refer to human life as being sacred. And it strikes me as kind of an importing of a very kind of religious word to justify a non-religious worldview. So, it’s not that I want to say that atheist humanists are not committed to human dignity at all, its just that I don’t think their foundations are quite stable enough.
SP: Well, I think they’re stable enough to result, for example, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has not a shred of Christianity in it.
NS: Let me push back on that. The Universal Declaration was drafted by Charles Malik, who was a Lebanese Christian. And it’s very telling that the word ‘person’ appears in the UN Declaration six times. That person is rooted in the personalism which was mainstreamed by Catholic social teaching in the 30s and 40s. So, UDHR, absolutely right, as Malik (?) said, and as you rightly quote, it deliberately doesn’t draw on any metaphysical foundations because we want people to agree. But you can see the fingerprints of personalism in the drafting.
SP: Again, historically, you can see fingerprints of many things and Malik convened a council of multi-confessional intellectuals and more or less Hindus and Confucians and Muslims and indeed was pleasantly surprised that there was so much agreement. It, you know, I think there’s a perfectly robust justification for humanism.
Atheism is not itself a belief system, it’s the absence of one particular belief, namely, in supernatural entities. But aside from that, there isn’t any such belief as atheism. But humanism is grounded in our universal humanity. The fact we’re made of the same stuff, we’re the same species, we all are sentient, we all have the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, we all have the capacity to reason. And that is a pretty rock-solid foundation for universal human rights and universal human dignity, whereas parochial beliefs such as that only by accepting Jesus Christ as our Saviour can we can be saved, that does open up a space for the persecution of people who don’t accept Jesus because they’re a public health menace, they’re going to cause people to go to hell.
And, in fact, that’s a counter to universalism if the path to salvation is accepting this particular parochial Messiah.
NS: Yeah, so, I mean, in one sense I’ve already said, and I entirely agree, that there are perils within the particularism of Christianity. And, you know, we have plenty of examples of history to show that. So, I certainly wouldn’t argue against that.
I would push back on the idea that simply being rational or being made of the same stuff is enough to justify our humanism. I mean, you know, really Darwinian evolution is a pretty solid foundation – you and I would be, I’m sure, absolutely full paid-up Darwinians – I don’t buy into the idea that Darwinism is entirely about competition, but there is nothing in it that dictates that I have any moral responsibility to those other than my kin or from whom I might get some reciprocal good.
SP: Yes. No, it’s the wrong place to look for a sound grounding for morality.
NS: I don’t think it’s coincidental that so many kind of very, very public atheists today are also public Darwinians, who then try to distance themselves from the alleged ethical implications of Darwinism.
SP: Well, Darwinism is the wrong place to look for a grounding of morality. It comes from the interchangeability of perspectives and the universality of interests. Darwinism provides some of the facts that we have to acknowledge; facts about human nature, facts about the origin of life. But no, that’s not what it’s a theory of.
NS: But it’d be pretty hard to sweep away, you know, 300 million years of evolution. I guess that’s the point. It might not be the place to look, but from an atheist materialist point of view, it’s certainly the place we start.
SP: Well, it’s the place that we start in asking the question of how we came to be. Why we have brains, why we have eyes, what life consists of. But it is not, and doesn’t claim to be, a justification for morality.
NS: Well, it doesn’t now. I think, again, that’s important to emphasise. In the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th century, there were those who did explicitly try and ground morality and indeed polity on an evolution. And it’s only through the disaster of social Darwinism and the disaster of eugenics, that we have pushed beyond that to realise, some of us at least, evolution – absolutely right as a factual explanation for all our material origins if you like – but we’ve seen what happens when we try and turn it into ethics and politics. I mean, it’s a catastrophe.
SP: Yes, and of course, social Darwinism had very little to do with Darwin. It originated from Herbert Spencer ten years before ‘The Origin of Species’ was even published. So, it was kind of retroactively named social Darwinism.
And it must also be said that the disaster that you spoke of, it’s actually historically not accurate to say that Nazism, for example, was influenced by Darwin. Robert Richards just published a book, ‘Was Hitler a Darwinian’?, where he combed through Hitler’s intellectual influences and found that actually Hitler despised Darwin, for a number of reasons.
NS: Again, we just need to pull apart Hitler, who I think, his intellectual influences were pretty poor and his own thinking processes were pretty thin. With Nazism which, disgusting as it was, had influences, one of which, only one of which, I think, was Darwinian. There was nationalism, there was paganism and there was complicity by German Christians, but one of which was Darwinism.
JB: The overall picture I’m getting here though is that for you, Nick, scientific progress, it also needs to be married with some kind of an ethical view of how we use that science. We can’t simply say, great, we’ve got science.
NS: I’m sure Steven would agree entirely.
SP: Oh, absolutely, I mean, they’re just different categories.
JB: But the moral progress is not in any sense inevitable, I think Nick is saying, that we’ve gone off the rails in the 20th century in a big way, why would we assume it’s necessarily going to continue in that fashion?
SP: We don’t. The claim that there has been progress is not the claim that progress is inevitable. In fact, the point of enlightenment now is that progress is a gift of Enlightenment ideals, to the extent that they’re implemented; progress can happen. To the extent that counter enlightenment ideals push back; they won’t.
NS: I’m going to, as it were, put in a shout out, because my 13 year old daughter would say for Steven on this, he’s very, very clear right from the beginning that this book shouldn’t be read as an excuse for moral laziness or where we’ve achieved so much we can rest back on our laurels. It’s actually a clarion call and – correct me if I read it wrong – it’s a clarion call to pursue moral progress on the basis that we’ve done very well, as opposed to pursue moral progress on the basis we’re facing a crisis. And I think that’s a very helpful corrective.
JB: Why don’t we go to a specific; so, one of the graphs in your book is about slavery and essentially emancipation and the way in which slavery today, you know, if you’re going back a few hundred years, it’s almost non-existent in the way that it was legally sanctioned in previous centuries.
And for you, obviously, that is a marker of moral progress. I think everyone around this table agrees with that. We might have different opinions though, as to whether science, humanism and reason are responsible or whether there has been some kind of a religious impulse as well in seeing that progress happen.
I mean, for you, in what sense is the science, the reason, and the humanism the responsible factor for the abolition of slavery?
SP: Well, certainly humanism is. Science helped much later in establishing that all humans are members of a single species; closely related, trivial differences among them. And so ancient beliefs that the races were separate creations or the Africans were inherently fit for servitude were shown to be scientifically completely indefensible.
But it was mainly humanistic arguments that began the abolition movement.
JB: Was this a secular humanism? Because, as Nick has said, humanism has had many flavours over…
SP: It has, I mean, I’m not an expert in the history of the abolitionist movement. My understanding is that the first fully articulate argument against slavery came from Jean Bodin in the 17th century, and it was on secular grounds. Then Locke and Montesquieu both made arguments that were again primarily secular, although both of them, like everyone at the time, had religious influences. There were particular religious denominations that carried the movement forward; Quakers being the most prominent, but also American Methodists.
But on the other Christianity and Judaism coexisted with slavery perfectly well for millennia. The bible has no problem with slavery. It says you can’t beat your slave to death, but you can beat your slave. And you’re allowed to have a slave. Christianity for all of those centuries didn’t seem to have any problem with it. And, of course, the slaveholders themselves were mostly devout Christians.
So, in crediting the Quakers for the abolition movement, and they absolutely deserve credit, we can’t call that ‘religion’ because it was one particular denomination in a sea of religious denominations that were all over the map.
JB: And, as far as you’re concerned, whatever they did do was more in concert with the humanism rather than the religious tenets necessarily?
SP: Yes, and it’s, I mean, it’s really not a terribly abstruse argument. Africans are human beings, they can suffer. The institution of slavery causes tremendous suffering, violates any set of principles that we ourselves would be willing to submit to, such as that one person can own another. It isn’t hard to come up with arguments against slavery that don’t involve invoking a deity or a messiah.
JB: What’s your response on this, because frequently the slavery issue is raised as well, you know, the bible doesn’t seem to speak out against it throughout the scripture and so on. Yet, at the same time, there were, of course, abolitionists, strong abolitionists in the Christian movement and so on. Nick, where do you come down on this?
NS: As is always the case, history is messy. So, the abolitionist movement, was staffed by evangelicals who argued from Scripture. They, however, were almost certainly turned towards the abolitionist cause from the more humanitarian culture in which they live in the back half of the 18th century.
The Quakers, as Steven rightly says, deserve the greater respect for this because they are articulating arguments against slavery from the early 1700s. You have the 18th century being the period of Enlightenment and being the century where the number of slaves transported vastly exceeded any other century. There’s a paradox there.
Going back to the very good point about slavery and early Christianity; yes, on the one hand, you certainly get a willingness to countenance the institution of slavery in the early church. So 2nd, 3rd, 4th century. On the other hand, you have concerted manumission campaigns, you have very careful arguments against slavery – although not on the grounds that we understand them that have been unpacked by Carl Harper recently to do with sex – and then you have someone like, a Church Father like Gregory of Nyssa, in the end of the 4th century who stands up and effectively says, slavery is not permissible. That’s a quite extraordinary thing to do that early and it’s not accidental that slavery is unwound in the so-called Dark Ages, and the following 500 years or so. It’s a very slow process – and in retrospect, you can say, as Christians, we should have been much more attentive to it – but it was, nonetheless, the fact that before the slave trade began, actually before Europeans encountered other “races”, there was no slavery, as the ancient world had known it in Christendom.
JB: What do you say to that, Steven, because, at one level, I think your view is, well, if science can show us that we’re all essentially biologically the same, that should inform the way we treat each other. I get from Nick saying, actually, we kind of have to change the way we see each other at some kind of spiritual level almost, or social, cultural level before we necessarily say well, yes, we should treat others the same in that way.
SP: Well, I’m not so sure about what the spiritual level is. But certainly we have to go beyond the scientific demonstration that we all belong to a single species, and add that part of belonging to a single species is being sentient. We have brains that allow us to suffer and to flourish. All of us have those brains. And that is the right that we are respecting when we enshrine universal human rights.
NS: I think that’s an important point, but I want just to pull apart that idea of the scientific demonstration of all belonging to the same species or all having the same origin. I don’t disagree with that, of course, but famously, Darwin wrestled with it because when he published in 1859, he didn’t know that was the case. He was determined that it would be. Darwin vilified, loathed slavery, and came from a quasi-abolitionist stock, but his science, then, didn’t dictate one way or the other. It was his moral framework that carried him.
JB: And that was, as far as you’re concerned, more influenced by a Christian worldview?
NS: Well, this is a classic with Darwin; he did lose his faith. He lost it somewhere between returning from the Beagle and Anna’s death in 1851. But there’s correspondence between himself and Emma – who was very upset that he loses his faith – in which he basically says, I still hold to a Christian worldview, I just don’t hold the tenets. He’s a complicated man.
SP: And Darwin is also influenced, I don’t think this was in 1859, but certainly when he wrote, ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Animals and Man’, he gathered data on what we would now call human universals; from travellers, missionaries, explorers, traders, of facial expressions and customs in people all over the world, and wrote that since we have the same emotional reactions to life’s events, we showed them on the face the same way, whether we are Africans or Indians or Australians, that was a kind of empirical underpinning to the conviction that he probably had beforehand, that we all belong to a single species.
NS: I think that’s critical thing, you see, the conviction, the moral or the spiritual conviction often comes first, and it certainly came first with Darwin. And, according to that, the evidence gathering and the theorising, leads him to confirm or deny certain things. But, it’s not so much empirically led, as empirically informed.
JB: We’re going to finish with one final question which I’ll ask to both of you in turn. We’ve really been asking today has need for God essentially been eliminated by science, reason and humanism? So, your final answer to that, Steven?
SP: I would say, yes. Both logically; that there are not compelling reasons to believe in God. And empirically; that as societies become wealthier and better educated, belief in God declines.
NS: Not entirely surprising I’d say no. And I like Augustine’s quote, ‘Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you’. And I think that’s why, irrespective what happens to institutional religions around the world or in Western countries, there is this restless yearning for the transcendent deeply interwoven into Homo sapiens.
JB: Steven and Nick, thank you so much for joining me on the programme today.