Browsing through the August 15th issue of Time, I came across an insightful quotation from the brilliant Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker. Pinker is quoted in Time’s cover story on the role of religion in schools. Pinker says, defending the theory of natural selection against the idea of "intelligent design," that
Overcoming naive impressions to figure out how things really work is one of humanity’s highest callings.
I don’t here write to enter my two-cents in the debate between Darwinians and creationists (although, for the record, I am solidly in the Darwinian camp). I write to record that Pinker’s insight applies to society no less than to biological beings.
Naive minds believe that social order must be created, planned, the result of intention. These minds worry that without such conscious guidance, the result will be either chaos or an order that is inferior to one that is planned and consciously crafted. In contrast, sophisticated minds understand that social order is largely "the result of human action but not of human design" – and that highly complex, productive orders that offer maximum prospect for widespread human flourishing are those that are least infected with efforts to centrally craft social order.
Most people who understand and accept this Smith-Hayek insight become what we might call "social deists."
A social deist assumes that sovereign power is necessary to design and maintain the foundation, but not the superstructure, of society. That is, a social deist regards conscious design and maintenance of the ‘constitutional’ level as necessary. Upon this foundation, social order grows unplanned.
Social deists are contrasted, on one hand, with "social creationists." Social creationists are members of that species of juvenile thinkers who regard conscious, central direction by a wise and caring higher human authority as necessary for all social order – not only for the foundation, but for all, or much, of what the foundation supports.
Economic central planners are prime examples of social creationists. In their view, government must not only create and enforce law (society’s foundation), it also must plan the course of the economy (society’s superstructure) – for example, which good and services to produce, and how to produce these.
Social deists are contrasted, on the other hand, with "social atheists." What is a social atheist?
A social atheist regards even the institutional foundation of a free and complex society as uncreated – as being just as much an unplanned, spontaneous development as is the superstructure of society that builds itself upon this foundation.
Social atheism is difficult to grasp – as difficult to grasp as atheism itself. How does it all start? How can it all hang together without some prime mover, some intent-laden authority or mind imparting logic to its processes?
Unlike questions involving the material universe – where the existence or non-existence of god is a fact that disputants can only hope to discover but not control – people can at least attempt to make society one in which social creationism, social deism, or social atheism is descriptive.
But human society seems to progress the further along the spectrum it moves from social creationism toward social deism toward social atheism. How far in this direction can we move profitably?