I believe there is a certain amount of irreducible “irrationality” (not my preferred term, but borrowing Pinker's schema for a moment) in people, and it has to be “put somewhere,” into some doctrine or belief system. That is what makes the whole bundle sustainable. It also means that a move toward greater “Enlightenment” is never without its problematic side, and that a “Counterenlightenment” can be more progressive than it might at first appear. In contrast, I read Pinker as believing that Enlightenment simply can beat ignorance more and more over time.This is a common idea: that the decline of religion does not mean the decline of irrationality, but a shift of our irrational attachments from the church to the nation, the party, or even the local football team. Cowen's take seems to be that the success of science and democracy in the modern world was possible only because anti-Enlightenment ideas and institutions continued alongside it.
I suspect this is true. I get excited about science, democracy, and human rights and don't need anything else to keep my loyalty, but this does not seem to be true for most humans. The great danger of the post-Enlightenment world has been that with tradition banished our irrational attachments will become truly monstrous – Nazism, communism – leading to worlds worse that what the Enlightenment was supposed to free us from. In practice resistance to totalitarianism is always rooted as much in anti-Enlightenment ideas such as nationalism, love of tradition, religion, or plain cussedness as in devotion to freedom and human rights. We are creatures of emotion, and our politics must always be based there.