The predominant superstition of our times is Progress. Belief in lower-case progress is reasonable, for progress can be made toward definable goals in specific fields, such as electrical engineering, plumbing or surgery. But people often believe in upper-case Progress, as in “The Progress of Humanity.” This is a superstition. Upper-case Progress implies moving toward an undefined capital-G Goal. Without a defined goal, you cannot have progress.
If you set out for Seattle, then every minute you are closer to Seattle, you are closer to your goal. But if Seattle is not your goal, every minute you are closer to Seattle is pointless and no progress at all.
What, then, is the capital-G Goal of upper-case Progress? Enlightenment progressives such as Washington and Jefferson maintained that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were self-evident human rights, yet they did not apply them to slaves. And in many societies, these goals have not seemed self evident at all.
The frightening question about the Progress of humanity is, who decides what it is? Hitler and Lenin believed in “Progress.” So do a number of contemporary intellectuals. Here’s one current example: “The direction of history, as set by basic dynamics of cultural evolution, pragmatically pushes people toward useful doctrines that, wonderfully enough, contain elements of moral truth.” That would be wonderful indeed, if there were anything meaningful in the sentence. Of course, the author assumes he knows what “moral truth” is and, unsurprisingly, it looks like the currently fashionable “correct” worldview.
Terry Eagleton challenges the idea of Progress: “At the peak of his assurance, Enlightenment man finds himself frighteningly alone in the universe, with nothing to authenticate himself but himself. His dominion is accordingly shot through with a sickening sense of arbitrariness and contingency, which will grow more acute as the modern age unfolds.” Eagleton discredits “the ideology of Progress, for which the past is so much puerile stuff to be banished to the primeval forests of prehistory. … Those who hope to sail into that future by erasing the past will simply find it returning with a vengeance.” The natural goodness of humanity is an illusion based neither in history nor biology, and the empty center of most Progressivism is the delusion that radical evil does not exist. Progressivism can become utopianism, which always sacrifices liberty for its ends, as Stalin did. Those who deny evil will be overtaken by it.
Secularists seeking a rational future have replaced the Christian view of the kingdom of God at the end of the world with the idea of the perfect society at the end of the world. The idea of Progress has produced countless hideous cruelties by those who, like Lenin and Mao and today’s ideologues, are eager to force others to accept their definition of the good society. These definitions are in constant flux, owing to the fact that they rest on power exerted by pressure groups, instead of being based on universal principles, such as truths we hold to be self-evident. On the many occasions when Christians themselves have used violence for what they felt were good ends, they were not behaving as Christians. In Christianity, the end does not justify the means.
One of the lesser faults of Progress is that we assume previous civilizations didn’t know anything more than what we happen to have discovered about them. It might be worth pondering the fact that ancient Egyptian civilization lasted more than 3,000 years, whereas the United States is still working on 250.
A few of the specific charges against Christianity currently being bandied about are that it keeps people down and submissive (Nelson Mandela), it’s fascistic (Mother Teresa), and it opposes political pluralism (John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter). Christianity does sometimes breed tyranny, but it also can give rise to democracy: The ideals of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) descend in a direct line from those of John Locke (1632-1704), Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342), John of Salisbury (1115-1180), and Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085).
Change is not necessarily change for the better. Germany changed from a democratic republic in 1932 to a racist tyranny in 1934. Those who espouse Progress today might recall that belief in Progress was at its height 100 years ago, just at the beginning of the century that produced the most horrible events of history. For an exhaustive list of the people killed (not including those maimed, tortured, imprisoned, and bereaved) between 1910 and the present, see the tally of David Berlinski, who concludes that the “excess of stupidity” over the past century hardly inclines one to believe in overall Progress.
Even so, Christians have a notable record of social constructiveness, including the creation of orphanages and universities; abolition of slavery; developments in science, natural law, women’s rights, and civil rights; advocacy for the rights of the poor; growth of democracy; and the struggle against poverty and oppression. Many humanists and other nonreligious people have worked for the same ends without recognizing that their basis is the Christian idea that the world ought to look as much like the kingdom of God as possible. Even the secular “Economist” magazine occasionally admits that religious people play major roles in alleviating suffering. Charity is the fulfillment of the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves, and Christians have always expressed that charity in hospitals, schools, famine relief, and many other ways.
This post is an excerpt from the book Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell (IVP Books, 2012). It is used with permission. You can purchase this resource in its entirety here.
Published December 11, 2017