January 14, 2024
The Myth of Progress
Drawn from from Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray,
(Chapter 2: “Secular Humanism: A Sacred Relic”, Penguin, 2019, p23-27)
My comments in (bold)
“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.
Visit Thread: https://www.interfaith.org/community/threads/20980/