The Secular Pope of the Neo-Enlightenment: Steven Pinker and His Contradictions

The 19th century Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, is known for his “great man theory.” This basically refers to the idea that history is shaped by men who transcend their times and leave behind a definitive imprint through intellect, strategy, etc.

In more or less the same way, some men just represent the current times, and studying them often leads to wider conclusions regarding not only them as individuals but society as a whole.

Let us examine one such case.

The Modernist Lost in Postmodern Times

Steven Pinker is a kind of intellectual animal that faces the danger of going extinct. Indeed, within our postmodern era⁠—where things such as “truth,” “rationality,” etc., no longer have any tangible value⁠—he is a self-proclaimed disciple of the 18th century “Enlightenment,” which he makes a case for in his 2018-book, explicitly titled as Enlightenment Now.

Pinker can be viewed as being representative of an entire movement of thought, one which can be described as promoting modernism in order to tackle postmodernism (Jordan Peterson does the same in his own way).

RELATED: Is Jordan Peterson a Postmodernist? Only When He’s Asked about God

Pinker’s areas of specialization are the cognitive sciences, linguistics, and evolutionary psychology. A while back, he gave an interview to UnHerd, a right-wing oriented British political website where he discussed his latest book, Rationality.

He actually discusses a few subjects including rationality of course, but he also talks about “conspiracy theories.” Here, we will be analyzing some of these under a critical lens in sha’ Allah.

Both of the videos can be watched here, where you can also read the extracts quoted below.

Is Reason Rational?

I define it as ‘the use of knowledge to attain a goal’, where knowledge, according to the philosopher’s standard definition, is justified true belief. That means that rationality is always relative to a goal, and what might seem irrational with respect to one goal might, in fact, be the rational pursuit of some other goal.

The use of reason in any given discourse (which can even be a religious one) is not the same as using reason in rationalism as a wider philosophy. In the first case, reason is one of many arguments, whereas in rationalism⁠ (an ideology used by the Enlightenment thinkers and Pinker), reason holds a sort of “sovereignty” (a word that Muslims would typically use for Allah).

For them, reason is essentially al-furqan (the criterion) of “Absolute Truth.”

Reason is thus a legitimate tool for the acquisition of knowledge, and it can be used in the service of religion. This has been demonstrated in the 10-volume work, Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa ‘l-naql, authored by Imam Ibn Taymiyyah. The work was studied by Carl Sharif El-Tobgui in a monograph where, after having analyzed the extent to which the Islamic scriptures push for the use of reason (when utilized with the correct purpose), he wrote:

“The Qurʾān and the prophetic Sunna, therefore, appear to urge man to deploy his rational faculties within their proper scope and domain.”[1]

The West, which is based on Christianity and its circus of Shirk (with beliefs such as the Incarnation and the Trinity), had a more schizophrenic attitude towards reason. This of course created an adverse reaction.

RELATED: How the Idea of “Progress” Began as a Christian Heresy

Jonathan Israel⁠, a British-Jewish historian, is someone who places the Enlightenment not in 18th century France but instead in 17th century Netherlands and more specifically within the works of Jewish materialist philosopher, Spinoza⁠. Israel says says that these “radical” thinkers granted sovereignty to reason (rather than Allah) because, “it was a dogma of the radical thinkers that reason, and only reason, can raise man’s dignity from the depths of degradation, error, and ignorance,”[2] thus ultimately separating reason from theology and summoning “the need to base institutions, politics, and legislation on pure reason alone.”[3]

Of course this was in reality a mere tactical ploy aimed at legitimizing the anti-religious, Kufri ideologies that were to come, such as democratism. Thus for us, as Muslims, this insistence on “reason alone” should be an instant red flag, and the supposed “irrationality” he refers to is basically just the conclusion of using reason as a weapon against Allah and His order.

The Enlightenment Thinkers: The First SJWs?

The assumption that every difference between groups must be attributed to bigotry is a kind of irrationality, in that it rules out a whole set of alternatives rather than testing them. And among the people who use racism as the explanation for all ethnic outcomes or sexism, there is a rather explicit disavowal of the possibility that these ought to be treated as empirical questions. It’s, you know, ‘your data can go to Hell’…This is not about data.’ But of course it is. Ultimately, if there’s a factual assumption, then it ought to be supported.

Well, as Mark Mitchell points out in The Limits of Liberalism, the inaugural SJWs were none other than the Enlightenment thinkers themselves. This includes the likes of Rousseau, who proposed a “civil religion” in order to “overturn Christianity.” And this secular religion, which would go on to represent the will of the State (which is itself meant to represent the will of the masses), would then leave space for what Mitchell describes as “principled disagreement at a fundamental level.” He writes in this regard:

“Those who are paying attention to the American social and political scene will undoubtedly hear echoes of Rousseau in the words of the social justice warriors who are, with great self-righteousness and energy, set on compelling their opponents to be sociable.”[4]

After all, what’s the difference between “cancelling” in the name of race or sexuality and cancelling in the name of the “sovereign reason”? Didn’t they, as modernist disbelievers, set the example for their later successors, the postmodernist disbelievers?

“Have you not seen, [O humanity,] those who substitute the blessings of God with unbelief, and who [thereby] lead their people into the abode of ruin? [It is] Hell, in which they shall roast — and a most woeful residence it is!” (Qur’an 14:28-29) 

The Oppression of a Scientific Bureaucracy

Policy should be driven by the best data on the state of the country, and better still by outcome studies of what works and what doesn’t. But the idea that we should trust the scientists, or trust the public health officials because they’re a kind priesthood, an oracle, should be rejected. Because scientists are necessarily fallible, and if they are treated as infallible oracles, then as soon as they make a wrong recommendation, which is inevitable (because we start out ignorant of everything) then they’ll be dismissed across the board as an unreliable oracle. The only reason we should trust scientists and the only extent to which we should trust scientists, is that they deploy the methods that will get to the bottom of the truth of something.

Science is of course eminently criticizable, and at The Muslim Skeptic we have a number of resources listed on this very subject within our reading list (in the philosophy of science subcategory). However, what Pinker describes here as a “priesthood,” or some sort of scientific bureaucracy, is also a by-product of the Enlightenment.

Alasdair MacIntyre has argued in his now classic, After Virtue (a book dedicated entirely to what he deems to be the moral failure of the Enlightenment project), how, when applied to human behavior, the transition from an Aristotelian to a mechanistic understanding of nature meant that we could somehow “rationalize” the causes of human action and therefore establish “regular laws” (as in physics). Thus it was quite natural that there were “specialists” dedicated to understanding them, and this in turn gave us a modern managerial practice, including the phenomenon of a scientific bureaucracy.[5]

When you relinquish “sovereignty” to “reason-alone,” you’re bound to end up with “specialists” (or “priests” as he describes them). This is especially the case when you consider that reason is, by its very nature, a tool to be manipulated by the select few.

RELATED: The Evil Spawn of Liberalism: Identity Politics


[1] Carl Sharif El-Tobgui, “Ibn Taymiyya on Reason and Revelation: A Study of Darʾ taʿāruḍ al-ʿaql wa-l-naql,” BRILL, 2020, p. 27.

[2] Jonathan Israel, “A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy,” Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 100.

[3] Ibid, p. 157.

[4] Mark T. Mitchell, “The Limits of Liberalism: Tradition, Individualism, and the Crisis of Freedom,” University of Notre Dame Pess, 2018, p. 209.

[5] Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory” (Third Edition), University of Notre Dame Pess, 2007, pp. 82-87.

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Interesting to learnt that the right wing and alt right are products of SWJ and the Original SWJ were the enlightenment philosophers. Yet we won’t see people like Matt Walsh Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson denounce them because they themselves are liberals.