Steven Pinker on the American culture war

May 7, 2010 | By | Reply More

Marilyn Westfall of the Humanist Network News recently had an engaging chat with cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. The conversation first focused on why the north and the south differ so strongly on thing such as textbooks:

HNN: You’ve written a great deal on the impact of the political left and right in the United States. How does the political division figure into the debate over textbooks and especially the teaching of evolution?

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SP: Partly it really is a culture war. The country does have two cultures: the European Enlightenment and the Culture of Honor. The Scots-Irish settled into a lot of the South and West. What came of this was two different paths to civilization. One path was civilized by the law and government and the king, and the other by self-help justice, avenging wrongs and insults with the help of your own manly honor. They co-exist in one country, but they are different cultures. The civilizing force in the West came first from the church. A lot of the Western cowboy towns were first civilized by the women and the church–in cahoots. Churches have the talismanic role as the source of morals and decency and civilization. But part of the division is just sheer oppositionalism: if the liberals say x, we’ll say y. Part of it is also an emotional affiliation with the church, and some of it is a disengagement from the wider world.

The conversation eventually turned to atheism. Why do so many people despise “atheists”?

[Atheism evokes] a very primitive emotional reaction in the minds of many people. Many people simply equate it with immorality, which is why I think they tell pollsters that atheists are people they distrust the most. Often when there is a disliked word–a word with a negative connotation–people find a euphemism, that’s why what used to [be called] garbage then became sanitation and now its environmental services. And likewise atheism is constantly reaching for the untainted euphemism. Secularist, freethinker, humanist, bright and so on. I think each one is going to get infected in turn until the societal attitude changes. Atheism is merely absence of belief.


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Category: American Culture, Religion, Science

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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