Actually, Christians Do Value Time on Earth. That's Precisely Why We Want Normal Life Back | Opinion

I don't know you well, Dr. Steven Pinker, though I probably should. Your résumé is impressive: You're a professor of psychology at Harvard University, with specialties including visual cognition and psycholinguistics. You've also written some best-selling books, the latest of which I've read: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. I read it because I'd stumbled upon a TED talk you gave in 2018 called "Is the World Getting Better or Worse?" You argued that it is indeed getting better and went about proving it.

"What does the trajectory of the world look like when we measure well-being over time using a constant yardstick?" you asked the crowd. Good news was everywhere, you explained, and you then raced through a series of charts and graphs that proved your thesis.

About 30 years ago, there were 23 wars, 85 autocracies and an extreme poverty rate of 37 percent around the world. In 2017, those numbers had declined to 12 wars, 60 autocracies and a 10 percent extreme poverty rate. Deaths on battlefields had fallen from about 22 per 100,000 per year in the early 1950s to about 1.2 per 100,000. Fewer people die in homicides, car accidents and plane crashes. And over the last century, we've become 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job. We also spend less time working on the job and even less time doing tedious household chores, thanks to vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines and dryers.

Do all of these gains in health, wealth, safety, knowledge and leisure make us happier? The answer, you said, is yes. In 86 percent of the world's countries, happiness has increased in recent decades.

All of this progress, you claimed, is the greatest fact of human history. And how has it been covered by the news? "A tabulation of positive and negative emotion words in news stories has shown that during the decades in which humanity has grown healthier, wealthier, wiser and happier, The New York Times has become increasingly morose," you said. "The world's broadcasts, too, have gotten steadily glummer."

You even posted a headline by satirical website The Onion: "CNN Holds Morning Meeting to Decide What Viewers Should Panic About for the Rest of the Day." The audience burst into laughter.

You went on to attribute all the progress of the past few centuries to enlightenment thinkers—and to science and reason, and their proper applications.

It was a terrific talk. But there was one gaping omission: the role of religion in human progress and happiness. I ascribed that omission to the fields of study you pursue and the tribes you surround yourself with (Cambridge, Massachusetts, is not exactly the epicenter of religious observance, nor is Harvard's liberal arts college), and not to any antipathy to religion. Or people of faith.

Then came your response to a Washington Post column by Gary Abernathy entitled "What's really behind Republicans wanting a swift reopening? Evangelicals." The column prompted this ugly message from you on Twitter:

"Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier."

I was surprised by your comment, because it was wrong on so many factual levels. Indeed, it had the feel of rank bigotry, which I didn't expect from someone as smart as you.

Steven Pinker
Author and psychologist Steven Pinker poses for a portrait at the Cheltenham Literature Festival held at Cheltenham Town Hall on October 13, 2007, in Cheltenham, England. David Levenson/Getty

As you know, it's impossible to paint a group of Americans as broad as evangelical Christians with one stroke. Although estimates vary, Evangelical Protestants represent about 25 percent of America's population, according to the Pew Research Center. Many of us live in places vastly different from Cambridge or the COVID-19 epicenter of New York City. Our wish to return to a more normal life several months into this pandemic isn't predicated on some kind of religious objection to facts and data. Or a rush to meet our maker in heaven. It is because of facts and data that we believe what we believe.

A glimpse at the data tells the story. According to Statista, as of May 29, in all of New York state, the death rate is 152 per 100,000 people. In Montana, it's 2. In Utah it's 3. In Arkansas, West Virginia and Oregon it's 4. Tennessee is at 5, and Texas is at 6. Of the nation's 50 states, about 30 have rates of 15 deaths per 100,000 people or less. Many Evangelical Christians live in places with low population densities and low death rates. We live in spaces where socially distancing is easy and a normal part of everyday life. We get around in SUVs, not mass transit, and many of us don't have large influxes of travelers coming to our towns and neighborhoods.

Moreover, an overwhelming number of Americans lost their lives to this awful virus in nursing homes and assisted living centers. A mere 0.62 percent of Americans live in such facilities, but they account for 42 percent of the COVID-19 deaths, according to an analysis for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. In Minnesota, it's 81 percent. It's 69 percent in Pennsylvania, 63 percent in North Carolina, and 61 percent in Washington.

Age also matters with this disease. In Pennsylvania, more people died over the age of 95 than under the age of 60. Only 4.5 percent of all deaths related to COVID-19 have happened to adults under the age of 44. And most of those who died had one or more comorbidities.

Dr. Pinker, you called out the media for its fear-mongering in your TED talk. Rather than attack Christians, why not turn your wrath on the CNNs of this world, which seem hellbent on keeping Americans sheltering in place in our basements indefinitely?

Most evangelicals I know are smart people. And while it's true we believe in an afterlife and look forward to our time in heaven, we are not rushing to life's exit ramp. We go to doctors. We seek treatment for cancer. We get our hearts checked by cardiologists and do our best to live good and healthy lives. Many of us believe we can and must return to life—and do it safely. And responsibly.

On the subject of life, evangelicals believe that the Bible is an instructive moral code for life. That the 10 Commandments and much of the Bible itself, whether you are a believer or not, contain deep and enduring principles for a happy life. And even a longer life.

The data backs me up. Researchers at Ohio University analyzed over 1,500 obituaries across the country to see how religious belief and observance affects life expectancy. The study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2018, found that people across 42 U.S. cities whose obituaries mentioned a religious affiliation lived an extra 5.64 years.

You also failed to mention data from the Pew Research Center on the subject of happiness in your talk, Dr. Pinker. "People who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier and more civically engaged than either religiously unaffiliated adults or inactive members of religious groups," according to Pew in 2019. It generated headlines around the world. Maybe you missed them.

My church—Pinelake Church, led by Pastor Chip Henderson—does great work on the civic front, from feeding the needy to working with prisoners across our state. We do it not because it's a burden, or because we feel guilty, or because we're afraid we'll go to hell if we don't. We do it because our God tells us to. Because giving our money—and our time—is something God wants us to do. In that pursuit, we find Him everywhere. When we turn from ourselves and our own desires, and serve others, we see His mercy, grace and love everywhere. And we discover our truest selves. Our best selves.

Indeed, a colleague of yours at Harvard, Arthur Brooks, showed in his book Who Really Cares that religious people in America are far more charitable than their secular counterparts. And with not just our money, but our time.

Families in San Francisco and South Dakota, for example, gave away about the same amount of money: $1,300 per year. But San Franciscans made nearly 80 percent more, which meant the average South Dakotan family gave away 75 percent more of its household income. What might explain the difference? "Fifty percent of South Dakotans attend their houses of worship every week, versus 14 percent of San Franciscans," Brooks wrote.

Church reopen
Two women great each other with an elbow bump as they attend Potential Church after it opened on May 24 in Cooper City, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty

You ran through a long list of things that constitute a good life and happiness in your TED Talk, Dr. Pinker, but you failed to mention any of these data points related to religion. And the fact—not theory—that many millions of us derive great meaning, purpose and happiness from our faith. Indeed, we can't imagine life without it.

During your presentation on human progress, you noted that slavery was all but eradicated in much of the civilized world. But you failed to describe how people of faith helped bring about its demise in England and the United States—people like William Wilberforce in Great Britain and abolitionists across America. And it was a reverend named Martin Luther King who helped challenge racial segregation in the South back in the 1960s. The Bible was not some abstract book to King: It was a deeply relevant moral text, and he quoted from it often in sermons and speeches.

I can only hope that in your next talk about human progress, you'll include the role that people of faith played in the fight to end slavery and legal discrimination in this country. And that you'll include the health, generosity and happiness data that's attributed to religious faith in your next talk about such things, too.

I also hope you meet more evangelical Christians in the months and years to come. You'll find that we're great defenders of Western civilization, and things like property rights, rule of law, the sanctity of the individual—and reason and science, too. Knowing us better might also make you think twice about your next tweet. I'd be happy to fly up from Memphis International Airport—not far from my home—and grab a lunch. And maybe even talk to some students of yours. I'm buying.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.