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If someone were to tell you that something was a “malignant delusion,” what would you think they were talking about? Well according to Dr. Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, it is something that most of those reading this article would disagree with wholeheartedly.
So who is Dr. Pinker? Well, he has actually become rather popular in many circles in recent times. In spite of the fact that today’s news media would never promote his economic observations, Pinker asserts that, based on objective measurements seeking to quantify quality of life throughout the world, life for most people is getting better and better. In fact, his research shows that life for most people in the world is now better than it has ever been in history. But in spite of the fact that his observations run contrary to the narrative most in mainstream media promote, he is actually more on their side. You see, Pinker is a committed Atheist, and an evolutionary psychologist.
This brings us to what he considers to be the “malignant delusion.” He believes that label belongs to those who believe in an afterlife, because that kind of thinking “devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier.”
Of course, knowing that he is a committed Naturalist helps us see why his beliefs make perfect sense to him. Naturalists believe the only thing that exists is the natural universe. So according to their philosophy, there is no such thing as an afterlife at all.
However, there are a couple of serious problems with the good doctor’s assertion. As we deal with this topic, though, we are going to set aside, just for a moment, the discussion about whether or not an actual afterlife exists. We will get to that in a bit. But what about the other part? Is belief in an afterlife actually harmful in any way, even if it is not true?
Interestingly, years of research and statistical reporting show that religious people (you know, the ones who believe in an afterlife) are, in fact, happier and more civic-minded than non-religious people. They are the ones who believe mankind was created in the image of God, and that this life has purpose.
On the other side, it is non-religious people who have more of a tendency to devalue life. That is the side that sees humans as nothing more than one species of animal that just happens to have the most highly evolved brain – but with no more intrinsic value than any other animal. They see no special value to human life.
So, if Pinker’s beliefs are true, what are the implications? Well, for one, abortion is no big deal. It is merely the excising of unwanted tissue from a woman’s body – tissue that might keep the woman from achieving other, more important, goals for her life. The same case could be made for euthanasia. After all, when society deems that old people are no longer able to significantly contribute, they are of no use, and killing them is actually a helpful thing. In fact, we could logically take it one step further and say that what Hitler did to the Jews was not such a bad thing. After all, he deemed them to be an inferior race that was contributing to the degradation of the human race. And even Stalin’s and Mao Zedong’s purges could be justified since those who were against them were inhibiting the progress of mankind’s drive to create utopia on earth. Well the truth is, Pinker’s belief does not lead to the kind of utopia that he and other Naturalists dream of – in fact, just the opposite.
But what about the other part of his assertion – the part that says belief in an afterlife is a “malignant delusion.” Is it really? No, he is wrong on that point, too. While spiritual reality cannot be proven based on empirical research (which seems to be Pinker’s requirement), that is really not a valid prerequisite for making the determination. The truth is, Pinker’s own naturalistic beliefs also cannot meet that standard. His belief that the afterlife does not exist is fully as much of a faith position as a Christian’s belief that it does exist. And if God and a transcendent reality actually does exist, then interacting with that reality cannot be done, or even be conceived of, based on the kind of natural means that Pinker requires.
The reality is, God does exist, and has revealed himself to mankind in a way that is personal and objectively real. It is not just a matter of human imagination, but human beings are spiritual persons who have an objectively real capacity to interact with God using spiritual means. We can actually know him in a personal relationship. In fact, if a malignant delusion truly does exist, it is in the mind of Stephen Pinker.
Freddy Davis is the president of MarketFaith Ministries. He is the author of numerous books and has a background as an international missionary, pastor, radio host, worldview trainer, and entrepreneur. Freddy is a graduate of Florida State University with a BS in Communication, and holds MDiv and DMin degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a popular speaker, particularly on the topic of worldview and its practical implications for the Christian life. He lives in Tallahassee, FL, with his wife Deborah.
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