David A. Bell at The Nation:
Pinker might also have to concede that, especially outside of France, most Enlightenment thinkers did not oppose reason to religious faith, as his book implies. They certainly did not consider forms of belief “generators of delusions” or consider a belief in the existence of the soul dangerous. He might have to admit that it was not just brave atheists, but devout Christians, above all Quakers, who were among the first who organized to fight the most barbaric European practice of all, namely slavery.
Historians know that there was in fact no single, monolithic “Enlightenment project,” and that the Enlightenment can be generalized about only with great caution. Throwing this caution to the wind, Pinker has taken his own 21st-century values and projected them back onto the intellectual scene of the 18th century. He has described his work as an “evidence-based take on history,” but by “evidence” he clearly means numerical data. Aren’t books evidence as well?
Meanwhile, Pinker fails to acknowledge how very closely his own radical optimism echoes some of the wilder—and more misguided—pronouncements about the human future from the Enlightenment itself. “The human species…is capable of…unbounded improvement…mankind in a later age are greatly superior to mankind in a former age.”