The Myth of Progress

Thomas

So it goes ...
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Drawn from from Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray,
(Chapter 2: "Secular Humanism: A Sacred Relic", Penguin, 2019, p23-27)
My comments in blue

"While rejecting monotheism, the belief that humans are gradually improving, a central article of faith of modern humanism, is founded on pseudo-Christian monotheistic idealism."

For the ancient world, time was seen as cyclic, and the rhythms of humanity were not essentially different from those found in the rest of the natural world – in none of its literature is any prospect of indefinite improvement. Civilizations flourish, but they will eventually decline, such is the natural order of things; cycles cannot be overcome, and if and when the gods intervene, often the result is a world more unpredictable and treacherous.

In the fifth century BC, Herodotus has the gods acting to punish wrongdoing, but there is no suggestion that they were interested in shaping the course of history. Thucydides has been called the father of ‘scientific history’. But for him there were no laws of history, only the fact of recurring human folly – a succession of mishaps in which human will and reason are confounded by human flaws.

In the Abrahamic monotheisms, and Christianity in particular, a definite end of the passage of time was in sight – Christ would return in glory and establish a New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God on earth, but this speaks of the end of one cycle and the start of another, and furthermore never presupposed any idea of human progress towards the parousia, rather if anything it is the other way round, it would seem at the moment of humanity’s lowest ebb that this end will come about.

When in Europe religion began to be replaced by secular creeds, the Christian myth of history as a redemptive drama was not abandoned, but renewed in another guise. A story of redemption was replaced by one of progress through the collective efforts of humanity.

Apocalyptic mythologising fuelled the millenarian movements of medieval times, and emerged again in the millenarian movements in America, and is still around today with the idea of The Rapture. The country that put a man on the moon is also the place of origin of such materialist revisions of mystical ideas as Creationism and the Flat Earth Theory.

That sense of foreboding that gave rise to 'superstition' in the ancient world is present in secular 'conspiracy theory' today – it's the same impulse.


Seventeenth century Protestantism recast this myth as human-centred. The belief that evil would be destroyed in an apocalyptic endtime was supplanted by the conviction of the march of Enlightenment that would diminish the darkness of history and the darkness seemingly inherent in human nature.

Indeed, the Enlightenment saw itself as the triumph of the rational (masculine) mind over reckless (feminine) nature – a creature to be tamed by science and put to work for the greater good (of the same class of entitled and privileged ol white men).

Emptied of its mystical and transcendental content, this myth is the source of modern meliorism – the idea that human life can is is gradually improved. It underpinned The Prosperity Gospel, the American Dream, and was the engine that drove colonialism.

Another element derived from Gnosticism – the belief that salvation was achieved by acquiring a special kind of knowledge.

In the classical philosophies of the ancient world this knowledge was a type of insight acquired through the practice of contemplation. In modern times it was knowledge gained through science. In each case it was believed that knowledge could bring deliverance from evil/darkness.

The modern myth of progress is a fusion of pseudoChristian faith and Gnostic thinking. Progress is linear, and science was the knowledge that would unlock the shackles of ignorance, open the doors to utopia, and set us free.

The idea of linear progress has never been examined as a possible falsifiable hypothesis. There just seems too much evidence. Evolution, as it still generally and mistakenly understood, means that everything is moving inexorably towards its own perfection. Likewise our technologies – agriculture, biology, cosmology, and so on march on apace.

For those who believe in progress, any regression is only a temporary halt in an onward march to a better world.

Yet if one looks at the historical record of the human species – as human – outside of the chimera of its technological achievements – it is hard to detect any continuing strand of improvement.

While there was nothing in the pagan world of the liberal concern for individual freedom, pluralism in ways of life was accepted as a matter of course. If heresy was introduced by monotheism, that mantle has been taken up by social media, by ‘cancel culture’ where threat and persecution abounds.

The secular world is forever reminding us, the medieval and early modern world was wracked by wars of religion. But faith-based violence has not faded away with the arrival of modernity. From the French Revolution on, Europe and much of the world has been caught up in revolutions and wars fuelled by secular creeds such as Jacobinism and communism, Nazism and fascism, and today a belligerently evangelical type of liberalism.

It is true that slavery and torture were flaws of premodern societies. But these practices have not disappeared. Slavery was reintroduced in the twentieth century on a vast scale in Nazi Germany and the Soviet and Maoist gulags. Slavery was outlawed after a civil war America, only to be replaced by the penal system in which the ‘underclass’ works for nothing to underpin the economy. Whole nations are enslaved to western economies to cater to the fad, fashions and fancies of the privileged few.

Human trafficking flourishes throughout much of the world and finds its outlet in the supposedly civilised West. Torture was sanctioned in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in the face of every reasoned, rational and logical argument against it. The rendition flight are still in the air, and black sites exist in the most civilised states.

The cumulative increase of knowledge in science has no parallel in human ethics or politics, philosophy or the arts. Knowledge increases at an accelerating rate, but human beings are no more reasonable than they have ever been. Gains occur from time to time, but they are lost after a few generations.

What progress believers cannot digest is the fact that gains in ethics and politics come and go according to expedience. They are not given. They are not embedded in, or even intrinsic to, human nature. Altruism is a secular invention to replace Christian agape.

When secular thinkers tell the history of humankind as a story of progress they point at technology and flatter themselves that they embody the progress of which that speaks. As if agriculture, or medicines or flying machines means the human person is covering a similar distance in the development and evolution of being – heading into a future that is morally and ethically as bright as it is technologically, that somehow technology is the proof of that, as if meaning and value and morality and ethics is derived from the lens, the lever or the wheel.

They forget that science and technology are void of ethics and morals – and will happily produce toxic nerve agents as it will vaccines; it will invent weapons of unimaginable, world-ending destructive power, without batting an eye or question for whom this weapon is being developed, or why.


Meanwhile, we live in a world of social media that evidences an ever-increasing militant intolerance.

Instead of being left behind, old evils return under new names. Nothing changes. So it goes.
 
If we were to accept that there is One God, and all major world faiths are from the One God, that humanity is one.

Then that could be seen as solid progress, especially if it brings the Most Great Peace with humanity living in harmony as one soul in one body in harmony with nature and living with all morals and virtues.

Man's rule and a code of laws will always be part of this matrix, but we can choose to implement God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, the light of God our guide, life and.purppse.

Regards Tony
 
If we were to accept that there is One God, and all major world faiths are from the One God, that humanity is one.
As this is the philosophy board, I can see this as a desired outcome for the believer, but the actuality seems highly unlikely – and the secular will of course ask, who's God did you have in mind?

Then that could be seen as solid progress, especially if it brings the Most Great Peace with humanity living in harmony as one soul in one body in harmony with nature and living with all morals and virtues.
I'm not so sure. It would be 'progress' in the sense that we arrive at a better situation than we were – and here I'm a theist talking, the atheist would no doubt be horrified at the prospect – The point being, as this thread argues, that coming-about does not itself say that humanity has substantially improved or progressed – the idea, after all, is not new.

But you are talking a utopia.

The idea of humanity's spiritual progress marches on, is modern, founded on misinterpreted religious texts. There's nothing in the Abrahamics, as far as I know, that hints of this spiritual 'progress'.

Likewise the flawed belief in reincarnation as an ongoing quantitative and cumulative process, each round of existence a little more perfect to the one before, is equally erroneous.
 
But you are talking a utopia.

The idea of humanity's spiritual progress marches on, is modern, founded on misinterpreted religious texts. There's nothing in the Abrahamics, as far as I know, that hints of this spiritual 'progress'.
I am talking about the evolution of the mind of humanity into embracing the Oneness of God and thus the oneness of humanity, through the many cycles of the God given Faiths.

Matthew 5 is a guide and it finishes with the aim God has given us in our evolution.

48 "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect".

(I have previously offered that there was an example given to us of what that human perfection is demonstrated as in the life of Abdul-Baha, I understand you acknowledge many Saints)

Regards Tony
 
We're on the secular philosophy board here, so I'm loathe to go too deep into comparative religious debates.

I'll answer briefly, but I suggest if we want to pursue it, we go to the Baha'i board ...

I am talking about the evolution of the mind of humanity into embracing the Oneness of God ...
The mind has embraced the Oneness of God and the oneness of humanity for millennia – so I don't see how that can be seen as evolutionary?

What you're talking about is every mind accepting that – which is not evolution as such.

The idea of all humanity embracing the Oneness of God is, from a secular philosophical point of view, dubious.
 
What you're talking about is every mind accepting that – which is not evolution as such.

The idea of all humanity embracing the Oneness of God is, from a secular philosophical point of view, dubious.
It's certainly dubious at this moment in time! 😐

However, when Jesus the son of Mary returns to this universe, I understand
there will be a "golden age", where exactly that will happen. :D

..not so much evolution of the mind, as it is what G-d has planned for us.
 
Agreed, but I'm trying to keep myself within a secular world here!
 
Agreed, but I'm trying to keep myself within a secular world here!
I personally see that path as a corruption of philosophy, it is impossible to remove God from our understanding of creation.

It's like moving all the ingredients from bread, to understand bread.

Of course, I have never studied philosophy, so what is my opinion worth. ;)

Regards Tony
 
Put our technologies and scientific knowledge to one side ... are we better people now than previous centuries?
 
Put our technologies and scientific knowledge to one side ... are we better people now than previous centuries?
I can't put them aside.

I like flying, flush toilets, govts that attempt to create equitable laws etc.

Like I said...pick any past decade or century and tell me you wanna give up the progress achieved.

Note, any other century I would not have lived this long.

Ya wanna be a peasant during king James time?

Progress is a whole package.

I would go forward a hundred years before I would go back...and this is a guy who relishes the time he spends in the woods camping every year. 2022 over 3 months... I would like to surpass that before I die.
 
I can't put them aside.

I like flying, flush toilets, govts that attempt to create equitable laws etc.

Like I said...pick any past decade or century and tell me you wanna give up the progress achieved.

Note, any other century I would not have lived this long.

Ya wanna be a peasant during king James time?

Progress is a whole package.

I would go forward a hundred years before I would go back...and this is a guy who relishes the time he spends in the woods camping every year. 2022 over 3 months... I would like to surpass that before I die.
You miss my point – the question is whether we, as people, are intrinsically superior to our forebears.

I'd say not. Materially better off, yes, but that's a different discussion.

I think someone worked out it was one day's expenditure by the US in fighting a recent war would provide mosquito nets to every child living in Africa. That kind of thing. America fought a war over slavery, then re-instated it under a more discreet process...

Look at us – we're as inclined to follow idiots as we ever were. We still look up to those who live flagrant displays of their wealth as someone to aspire to. Some social media platforms have become the most psychologically toxic environments on the planet. America, possibly the most technologically advanced country on the planet, had given rise to Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Theorists, Creationists, etc.
 
Put our technologies and scientific knowledge to one side ... are we better people now than previous centuries?
I think there are good and bad people in every age.

One would hope as our capacity for knowledge increases, that likewise our spiritual capacity of Morals and Virtues would also increase.

So yes, I think we are more open in this age to a global unity based on the oneness of humanity, a principle that would have been difficult to grasping more ancient times.

Regards Tony
 
You miss my point – the question is whether we, as people, are intrinsically superior to our forebears.
You are correct I have no cle of the metrics which to discern intrinsically superior.

I know in my 67 years I have lived a life of luxury and ease compared to 90% of the people that came before me, and 99.9% of the people until say a hundred years ago....

I mean just look at the hours I have spent reading and posting to this site alone. Any King would have loved that much free time.
 
I think there are good and bad people in every age.
That rather argues the point, doesn't it?

The last century witnessed some of the worst crimes against humanity ever committed, looking at the numbers, various genocides, purges, and as science makes fantastic advances, says he who has a titanium and cobalt hip, having had an operation that was absolutely painless, sitting here at his computer, sipping coffee from the other side of the planet ...

One would hope as our capacity for knowledge increases, that likewise our spiritual capacity of Morals and Virtues would also increase.
It's a hope I share, but so far the evidence to to the contrary.

So yes, I think we are more open in this age to a global unity based on the oneness of humanity ...
And yet, in the 'civilised world' where such an idea has any currency, the opposite is on the rise, reactionary politics based on tribalism.

I say 'civilised' as a qualified statement. Take a village on the edge of the rainforest in Borneo, or in the Amazon ... a p[lace with no real sense of the world as we know it, no ideology about 'the oneness of humanity' – they live apart, in near isolation. A stranger appears, strange clothes, strange colour, strange tongue, strange manners. What do they do? They take him in, provide warmth, food and shelter.

And here, in London, Chicago and elsewhere, we have tribalism writ large, a tribalism that governs our political debate, people dying in the streets for want of care and comfort.
 
The last century witnessed some of the worst crimes against humanity ever committed, looking at the numbers, various genocides
Really? Which list of genocides are you looking at?

Does anyone find it funny we judge the growth of society based on its worst people?

Would hate to see the blue ribbons at the county fair.
 
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