How are we doing?
“Not too bad.” That’s the common reply on the prairies to a friendly “How are you?” It’s also common out here in my new home in the Maritimes.
I had to laugh when a friend of mine, born and raised in agricultural country, explained its popularity.
“When you farm, every day is bad. But today? Not too bad.”
How are we all doing nowadays?
It’s easy to watch the evening news, or scan the news feed on the Web, and feel that every day is bad and that all trends are downward.
Some of that feeling can be the crankiness and selective memory of older people, to be sure. One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons has a grandpa out walking with his son and grandson and grumpily exclaiming, “Everything was better when everything was worse!”
But some of what we’re feeling is a result of what psychologists call the “availability heuristic.”That is our tendency to estimate the probability of an event occurring by how readily we can call to mind examples of such an event.
If our news is full of school shootings, we believe that schools everywhere are in imminent danger. A couple of decades ago, parents (like us) were terrified of stories about child abductions by horrible strangers, and we took extreme measures to protect our kids. Years later we learned that the vast majority of snatchings were by an aggrieved divorced parent and we shouldn’t have fretted so much.
How are you doing? Well, it depends on what you think is going on, doesn’t it?
Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s recent book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, released last month in paperback, tells us that majorities in polls taken in fourteen countries—from the United States to Thailand—believe the world has gotten worse and is heading ever downward. And it’s easy to agree, isn’t it?
Health care around the globe, however, has reduced infant and maternal mortality and increased life expectancy. Children generally are better fed, housed, and educated.
Workers make more money, are injured less often, and retire earlier. Billions fewer live in abject poverty. There is less pollution and less “carbon intensity” (the amount of carbon released per dollar of G.D.P.), with more parks and protected wilderness.
Violent crimes are down, and so are hate crimes, and so are accidental deaths. And despite our widespread sense of being overworked, men and women both have more leisure time than their parents did (ten and six more hours per week, respectively).
Pinker, true to his secular humanist convictions, chalks up this remarkable positive trend to the spread of modernity in its secular humanist mode. Technology, liberal democracy, capitalism, the welfare state—these are all the fruit of the (secular) Enlightenment, he contends.
The Christian sociologist Rodney Stark, by contrast, has been writing book after book for two decades crediting these same vehicles of progress to an earlier, greater cultural force: Christianity—a Christianity that provided the Enlightenment with its worldview, its values, and the very science by which it has changed the world, however dim Christianity may now appear to many moderns still indebted to it.
A column is no place to adjudicate that gigantic debate. But it is an opportunity to pause, silence the din of alarmist media, and gladly receive some good news. Even Steven Pinker thinks we are guilty of what he calls the “sin of ingratitude,” and while he may not know Whom to thank—he thinks all this progress is due entirely to human effort—it’s impressive that he commends the response of thanksgiving.
To be sure, there is so much more to do to repair the world. So much is still so terribly wrong. And Christians are convinced that until Jesus returns to set things straight once and for all, we aren’t going to solve every problem and get it all right.
But Christians also believe that Jesus hasn’t been sitting idle in heaven, waiting to help. He has been Lord all along, since he ascended from Israel’s Mount of Olives to the throne room of heaven two thousand years ago (Acts 1:6-11). He has been exercising his great power through all sorts of means to help the world he loves, and to bring it good news.
Even through governments and universities and NGOs and corporations that do not acknowledge him.
Even through brilliant scientists and authors, like Steven Pinker, who don’t, either.