We are at a pessimistic moment as the world faces the challenges and uncertainties posed by climate change and the coronavirus. The current crisis seems to provide a field day for purveyors of all types of irrationality, quackery, and superstition. With most places of religious worship in lockdown worldwide, the location for such ideas to flourish is now concentrated on the internet. Previous generations threatened by forces of nature they could not control or predict created a wealth of scenarios and vocabularies of desolation and destruction—the Apocalypse, Götterdämmerung, the End Times, Doomsday. The Abrahamic religions, especially in the Bible, found an explanation and cause for any specific generation’s trying predicament in divine punishment for their sinful behavior and lack of faith. The solution offered was repentance in the hope of external transcendent assistance via a messiah.
In the Middle Ages, life was as Hobbes described it, “nasty, brutish and short.” Unexplained external forces—rainstorms, thunder and lightning, wind gusts, cold snaps, heat waves, droughts, and of course plagues—contributed to collective paranoia because they were perceived as signs and signals of God’s displeasure. Fear inhabited every realm of life, so superstition and belief in mythical forces and magic flourished. The search for safety and security against demonic forces buttressed the power and influence of religion in societies.
However, in more recent times, pessimistic predictions of humanity’s breakdown and decline have had a nonreligious and apparently rational origin. One can recall Malthus, the Luddites, and Paul Ehrlich, whose predictions were unrealized as a result of human ingenuity and creativity. As John Tierney and Roy Bannister have pointed out in their recent book The Power of Bad, the psychological tendency is for “negative events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones.” Thus, the current atmosphere in the media is to see dangers lurking everywhere, requiring ever more urgent warnings about how we eat, travel, breathe, and live. Apparently, things are terrible and getting worse—despite the fact that until this year, people worldwide were more numerous than ever and were “getting richer, healthier, freer, and safer than our ancestors could ever have hoped to be,” according to Tierney and Bannister. This optimistic, and I believe accurate, assessment that we live in good times has also been propounded by Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now) and Michael Shermer (Heaven on Earth).
It is very important at this time that we as secular humanists do not encourage people to fall into despondency, hopelessness, powerlessness, and fear. Belief in optimism and progress lie at the core of our Enlightenment thinking. We must emphasize that over the centuries human beings have always overcome crises through ingenuity and their own efforts. Our goal must be to valorize humanism and science.
Changing circumstances are and have always been a given in this world. So, we must avoid thinking that change is loss, because in social thought this leads to nostalgia for an idyllic past that inevitably buttresses the claims and power of religion and tradition. At best, it gives rise to fruitless Confucian-style searches for harmony and stability. This danger arises even more problematically when the real challenges of climate change and environmental degradation are framed in terms of apocalyptic predictions. Climate deniers are obviously a real political problem, but at the other extreme there is also a problem. My experience is that many young people today naively believe that nature is always good and benevolent and that the natural is always superior and better than the manufactured or doctored. They believe in a type of original sin with its origins in Gaia and pantheistic pagan nature worship. This view projects goals onto the workings of nature and envisages a Garden of Eden spoiled by humans. This thinking contradicts evolution, because that process guarantees a lot of malevolence in nature, such as competition, dominance, and selfish genes. The solution to serious public policy measures to deal with climate change is education in ways that purge human errors. This approach has worked successfully to improve the human condition for the past three centuries. It is impelled by optimism based on the Enlightenment belief in our collective ability to increase knowledge on the basis of science and reason.