This post is part of a series summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.
Governments always tell us about the progress they have achieved. We’ve sorted this and this, they tell us, while ignoring the things that have got worse.
We are used to the idea. We like to think we have progressed further than the Middle Ages, further than ‘undeveloped’ countries, further than people who haven’t got the Internet.
But as real incomes fall and public services get cut, year after year with no end in sight, people are questioning it. What are we progressing towards? Do we really want to go there?
Progress means change for the better. Who decides what counts as better? Whose values are we borrowing? What if we are getting better at one thing and worse at another? Better, say, at finding cures for cancer but worse at pumping carcinogens into the air? Better at widening roads and travelling faster, worse at having everything we need in our local area?
The past of progress
Progress has a history. Hopes for a better future first appear in the Axial Age changes of the mid-first millennium BCE. Individuals and communities could reflect on their past, observe gradual changes and hope for a better future.
On a local level this can be a zero sum game: progress for some may mean regress for others. This was the dominant assumption in the ancient world. They knew that one family or community might do well for a while, but it was probably at the expense of someone else, and they did not expect the future to be any better overall.
Continuous progress for humanity as a whole is difficult enough to establish for past history, let alone to predict for the future. Yet faith in future universal progress has become a dominant feature of modern western culture. Some historians describe it as the dominant theme of nineteenth century thought. Today its echoes are all around us.
Where does it come from? It is a product of Christianity, or more specifically monotheism. Its essential components are:
- a single transcendent purpose, giving us a sense of direction towards a goal we ought to desire,
- systemic unity, of the world and humanity, designed to work well together; and
- linear time, continually moving from a past full of potential to a future where it will blossom.
When a society believes there are right answers about progress, that transcend the desires of any one group of people, it has reason to believe that those answers are worth looking for. In the process a consensus may develop about some of the wrong answers: torture, or slavery, or genocide. Progress becomes possible.
In a secular society this no longer makes sense. We are different from each other and want different things. If there are no answers except the ones we think up for ourselves, there is no reason for supposing we shall ever agree on what should be done. Endless conflict then looks like our inevitable condition.
Ironically, belief in progress reached its apotheosis among people who stripped it of its justification. Nineteenth century atheists based it on some kind of determinism instead of God. Progress, they said, was inevitable. For Herbert Spencer the inevitability was based on evolution:
Progress… is not an accident, but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial it is a part of nature; all of a piece with the development of an embryo or the unfolding of a flower. The modifications mankind have undergone, and are still undergoing, result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; and provided the human race continues, and the constitution of things remains the same, those modifications must end in completeness. As surely as the tree becomes bulky when it stands alone, and slender if one of a group… so surely must the human faculties be moulded into complete fitness for the social state; so surely must evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect.
Of course there is no such inevitability. Once God was out of the picture, the idea of progress mutated to applaud whatever the speaker’s society was good at. In the nineteenth century it included racial progress, as white Europeans spread round the world and killed off people they considered inferior. Now it is all about economic growth and new technologies.
But progress means change for the better. Who says we are changing for the better? Some atheist commentators reject the very idea of progress, blaming Christianity. Instead they tell us that we are going nowhere and human history has no meaning. According to John Gray,
Anyone who dares question the idea of progress is at once accused of wishing to return to the Dark Ages. Yet it is a fact that the largest mass murders in history were perpetrated by progressive regimes. Old-fashioned tyrants may have murdered on a large scale – though nowhere near that of recent times; but it is not the scale of modern mass murder that is its most distinctive feature. It is the fact that is was done to elevate the human condition.
Today, the idea of world progress has degenerated to obsessions with economic growth and new technologies. Neither of these in any sense make us better; on the contrary, their purpose is to indulge our self-centredness without accepting responsibility for the effects.
Otherwise, talk of progress is reduced to narrow interests in a zero sum game: British interests at the expense of another country, my tax reduction at the expense of someone else’s salary. No wonder we have grown so cynical.