by Duncan Dormor
from Signs of the Times No. 70 - Jul 2018

Does progress have a future?

In a world dominated by such powerful demi-gods as Trump, Putin, Jinping Xi, Kim Jong-Un, Duterte, Erdogan (reminiscent of the Graeco-Roman pantheon but with less gender balance), is belief in the unity of humanity, human rights, equality or freedom sustainable? Or are we condemned to slide into a chaotic world where nativism and emotivist rhetoric dominate and ‘might’ simply ‘is right’? Is hope for a better world misplaced and naïve?

This is the issue that lies at the heart of this wide-ranging and ambitious book - as much a critique of secular culture and thinking as a defense of monotheism. In a nutshell, Clatworthy argues that those who believe it is possible to build a better society and who wish to work towards that actively should take another look at monotheism. For, he argues, progressive beliefs find both their historic provenance and most coherent expression in monotheism or, at least, in the version of Christianity for which Clatworthy makes a compelling case.

Clatworthy’s analysis of contemporary progressive secular thinking, that it is parasitic on Christianity, is a familiar one. Secularity has ditched the dogma, yet doesn’t just cling to Christian values, but rather relies on them to undergird the foundations of progressive liberal thought; to pin together the increasingly shaky house that is ‘Western values’ in the face of those with the power to assert their wills and agendas.

Why progressives need God is then a work of natural theology that builds a defense of theism on the grounds that ethics, or the sort of ethical account progressives seek, requires a transcendent anchorage. Much of the book is thus given over to a discussion of the historical relationship between polytheism, monotheism and atheism, and a rehearsal of familiar arguments about the problem of evil. Following an historical account of the breakthrough to monotheism within exilic Judaism firmly located ‘in a situation of absolute political hopelessness’, Clatworthy argues that monotheism with its ideas of systemic unity and linear time makes the scientific enterprise possible and ‘produces a distinctive ethical agenda’ tied to egalitarianism and the idea of universal progress.

Such arguments, and the idea that secularism is living off inherited moral capital, have been made repeatedly. What is perhaps more distinctive is the idea that, as these values become further eroded, there is simply no defense against the assertion of raw power, and that as a consequence, as the ruling powers move into the resultant vacuum, the secular space will increasingly mimic many of the features of polytheism.

However sympathetic one is to the core arguments, it is difficult to ignore the fact that this book over-reaches. The quality of support for the argument is patchy. There are a number of places where the arguments of scholars are introduced with insufficient regard for intellectual context or provenance; a number of key concepts are insufficiently explained (e.g. the Axial Age); in certain areas the scholarship is dated; and, there are some obvious omissions. For example, Clatworthy draws on the work of the sociologist Rodney Stark yet ignores that of David Martin whose contributions to the area under discussion are highly pertinent.

Perhaps the greatest challenge lies with Clatworthy’s approach to the history of monotheism: this is very broad-brush and as such endangers the core arguments. First of all, in reality, he actually means Christianity - there is, for example, no account of Islam here. Second, his historic reading of Christianity is framed by a simple binary: monotheism ‘from below’ and ‘from above’ denoting respectively an acceptable and authentic Christianity and an imperialist perversion. Yet little rationale is offered for this under-worked categorization or its validity. In a similar vein, summary historical judgments about a pessimistic medieval Christianity ruled by a ‘cruel God’ render this book’s broader arguments vulnerable to critique. The text is crying out for a deeper analysis of the relationship between Christianity and power.

Nevertheless, Clatworthy presents a reasoned and reasonable case for traditional Christianity and raises important questions about the myopic quality of much contemporary secularity.

One would sincerely hope that a secular progressive person ‘of good faith’ would want to explore the important central claim of this volume - that secular ethics are primarily derivative and in need of divine assistance.

The Revd Duncan Dormor is the General Secretary of USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).