The Myth of Progress

Is civilization a linear, cumulative, and irreversible progression? How does this fit in the liberal versus conservative spectrum? And what role, if any, does Christianity have in this idea?

Despite its shortcomings, technology has allowed us to face this pandemic like no other. It progresses incrementally, but relentlessly. How does this compare to societal progress? Can we make a similar claim? I explore John Gray’s “myth of progress”, its contrast with progressive liberalism, and how I think the Bible provides a more accurate assessment.

Scientific and Technological Progress

If you’re a baseball fan, I can understand if you’ve neglected philosophy a bit over the last few days. It’s definitely affected me! I don’t have the time or stamina to watch a whole season anymore, but the American League wildcard race was fun to follow, even if it ended in heartbreak for our Toronto Blue Jays.

Baseball, and sports in general, was one of the things that helped us to keep a sense of normalcy during last year’s lockdowns. We couldn’t go to the park, but technology allowed us to enjoy some distraction during those difficult days. For that matter, technology allowed us to continue to work and remain in touch with relatives. Despite some shortcomings, the current state of technology allowed us to face this pandemic like no other.

That’s just how science and technology work. They progress incrementally, but relentlessly. Every once in a while, they’ll need to take a step back. Maybe a scientific paradigm needs an adjustment, or to be replaced altogether; or a technological trend never goes mainstream or needs a few decades to become truly viable. But in the aggregate, scientific and technological progress are generally cumulative and irreversible. We suffer no loss or setback when it comes to this kind of knowledge.

What About Social Progress?

How does this compare to social progress? Can we make a similar claim? Can we pick any period in time, compare it to our present days, and conclude that things are better today? The definition, measurement, and comparison of this kind of progress is a hotly debated topic.

To an extent, this concept is central to the divide between conservative and liberal ideologies – both lowercase; I’m not referring to the major Canadian political parties. The conservative worldview believes that society is better able to flourish by preserving its foundational institutions and mechanisms, like family and individual freedoms. By contrast, liberals think that in changing the status quo, whether incremental or dramatically, society improves. Faith in a better future, and in humanity’s intrinsic ability to sort out any situation, drive a spirit of social innovation and experimentation – and with it, a hope of progress. Thus, the very definition of what is progress on a social scale, how to measure it, and of course, how to achieve it, drives the fundamental difference between these worldviews.

In the liberal camp, a key debate is incremental improvement versus dramatic change. On one hand, meliorism advocates for incremental improvements. It presupposes that the future will be better, and it banks on humanist ideals to conjure it through incremental progress. On the other hand, utopianism is more perfectionist. As the name implies, it demands the equivalent of heaven on earth. Utopians tend to be more revolutionary. Temporary nefarious states may be necessary stepping stones en route to an uncompromisingly good future.

The current political climate in the United States echoes this debate, in the tension between radical Democratic politicians and their more tempered peers on topics like the social spending and infrastructure bills currently in Congress. I think we also see a softer version of this debate between followers of Canada’s various progressive parties. In any case, this is just a difference of method; progressives across the spectrum believe that a better future is achievable through human means, and are committed to fighting for that future.

The Myth of Progress

Not everyone fits within this liberal conservative continuum, despite how tempting stereotypes make this. What if I told you that some philosophers check some of these boxes – being atheists or agnostics, for example – but also reject humanism and think that social progress is a myth? Let me introduce you to English political philosopher John Gray, an Exeter graduate who has taught at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and the LSE. His 2013 book, The Silence of Animals, has the provocative subtitle, Of Progress and Other Modern Myths –and the book’s contents are fittingly contrarian.

Gray’s main ideas are that rationality isn’t humanity’s overriding attribute. Civilization is a tenuous construct, held together by rules and routine, and happening only during pauses between crises. History actually repeats, like seasons, and has no clear direction. The idea of progress as cumulative and irreversible betterment, as it applies to science and technology, simply does not apply to society and political systems.

In line with the traditional school of philosophical pessimism, Gray enlists Arthur Schopenhauer, Sigmund Freud, and other notable pessimists, to argue that our very nature is chaotic and amoral; that there is no solution but to accept the lack of one; and that the notion of progress is a myth to appease our inherent need for meaning. More specifically, Gray thinks that the Enlightenment, so concerned with removing the influence of God and philosophy in society, merely replaced religious beliefs with, in his view, equally unjustified faith on things like scientific progress, rationality, and utopian revolution. In fact, Gray is more charitable to religion than to humanism. He thinks religion is more forthcoming in its need of what he deems scientifically impossible miracles, compared to the pseudoscience he sees in trends like humanism and Social Darwinism.

Lots to unpack here. Gray is not particularly popular on either side of the aisle!

Let me begin with what I think he gets right. I broadly agree with four of Gray’s ideas. I agree that social progress isn’t at all like, scientific or technological progress. It’s easy to believe that our contemporary social and economic setup is objectively better than any past time. But before we even look at the rest of the world, Gray reminds us that “according to some historians, inequality in North America at the start of the 21st century is greater than in slave-based economy of Imperial Rome in the second century.” 1

I also think that social evolution doesn’t make much sense. I’ve explained why before. But this conflation of science, technology, and economic development as fail-proof bringers of social welfare is really common. As I’ve also said before, science fiction is a great example of this.

Another idea I think Gray gets right is humanity’s evil disposition. We do seem to need a system of consequences to rein in our worst impulses. From a biblical perspective, this is a natural result of the fall. Left to ourselves, we are predisposed to misbehave.

A final idea that I think Gray gets right is that humanity has an inherent desire for meaning, purpose and transcendence. It’s one of our most basic philosophical needs, along with the issues of origin, destiny and morality.

I think Gray is right on all these counts. I won’t go into detailed arguments. I’ll just say I think orthodox Christian doctrine upholds all of this. You can search past posts or other sources for details.

Christianity in Gray’s Thesis

Interestingly, Gray has a key idea involving Christianity’s role in his paradigm, and this is where we part ways. He says that “[b]y creating the expectation of a radical alteration of human affairs, Christianity – the religion that Saint Paul invented from Jesus’s life and sayings – founded the modern world.”2 He claims that before Christianity, all world religions accepted that there was no obvious arc of improvement in history. Feast followed famine; chaos followed peace… It all repeated in cycles, more or less like seasons. Everything under the sun is vanity, and nothing is new.

Gray claims that Christianity reinterpreted history into a story of redemption and salvation, and ignited the myth of progress. In his view, the Enlightenment simply replaced the role of divine faith in this myth with rationality or science.

But here, I think Gray is wrong. The Bible is outstandingly clear in that ultimate fulfillment and purpose is not to be found in this world. From the wisdom books of the Old Testament, to the gospels and letters in the New Testament, our faith proclaims that this world is tainted by sin. No joy is perfect. No beauty is stainless. Even those things that look and feel and seem good are marred by the fall.

A solution to this won’t be found in ourselves. Humanity doesn’t hold the keys to self-improvement, neither as individuals nor as a collective. Science and technology will continue to advance and improve our standard of living. But they won’t solve what’s wrong with the human heart. That solution is found only in Jesus Christ. Through Him, we are redeemed and reborn. We get a second chance to do better, empowered by the Holy Spirit. We seek to cast this influence in all spheres in which we operate, but we understand that a final utopia, a definitive vanishing of evil, complete progress, won’t happen on this earth.

I don’t mean to say that we partake in the gloomy outcomes of pessimist philosophy. Quite the opposite. There is a solution, and it has a material impact in this world. You just need to look at the so-called Western civilization: the protection of human rights and freedoms, the importance of education, the prevalence of science, the value of democracy – all trace back directly to the influence of Christianity in society. Gray gets this right too – Christianity founded the modern world, indeed. But we also acknowledge that these things aren’t perfect, that we will continue in this struggle until the very end, and that God’s plan to solve that transcends this world and what it cares about.

Some Practical Implications

Here are some practical implications of all this. First, it’s obvious that the logic of Gray’s argument that Christianity begot the myth of progress hinges on Christianity’s epistemic truth value. If you think Christianity is a benevolent myth, a way in which people delude themselves out of the depressing drudgery of the cosmos, Gray’s argument is logical.

The question I would ask is: why is human myth making pervasive? It isn’t needed for pure physiological survival. Evolution, or “nature in the raw”, can’t explain this craving. Why, then, would we exhibit this need? My favorite explanation is that we were created and designed by a supernatural Being to relate with Him. To find in Him answers, the satisfaction of this deep yearning.

If we don’t have that relationship – yes, we will invent myths to fulfill this need. Or, we can claim to abhor myth. What I’ve found in that case is that, inevitably, we will impose our philosophical presuppositions on things we consider objective and unquestionable. Like I said all the way back in Episode 3, we will put our faith in science’s ability to, one day, explain it and fix it all. Or we will put our faith in the ability of some ideology or political system to bring about irreversible progress. But make no mistake – it is faith we will be putting in these things, for there is no guarantee that they’ll ever play out the way we think they will.

I find that the most logical explanation for our need of meaning, for our willingness to put faith in something outside ourselves, is that we were created that way. And if Christianity is true, Gray is wrong in crediting it with the myth of progress in absolute terms.

But then you may wonder – how can John Gray be right on anything if he doesn’t uphold the Bible as source of truth? Or perhaps more cynically: how convenient is it that I agree with Gray where he agrees with Christianity? The answer to this is simple: the truth condition of a statement is independent from the source of the statement. To think otherwise is to incur a genetic fallacy. The history, or origin, or source of a claim, isn’t necessarily relevant or conclusive in assessing the logical entailment of the claim. I want to be careful not to commit a genetic fallacy assessing Gray’s claims.

It’s a bit like gravity. Newton formulated it, and Einstein refined the formulation, but gravity simply is – whether you know how to formally explain it, whether you claim to believe in it or not, gravity exists, and we’re all subjected to it. Likewise, I think that the Bible explains reality better than anything else, and that it actually has originality claims to its explanations. We can debate this. Ultimately, truth has a way to assert itself, even when using different words and different paths than its origins.

Finally, I find that the myth of progress explains well the never-ending nature of the progressive struggle. Most progressives actually understand that what they define as progress is frail; that it isn’t irreversible. That their victories and gains can easily be lost. This partly explains the acrimony of the fight between lowercase liberals and conservatives. Why, at times, it feels like total elimination of the opposite viewpoint is the only way to secure progress – which is a terribly dangerous way to think, for the sake of a peaceful and functional society.

I’ll just point out the angst and the struggle around abortion rights to illustrate this. Almost 50 years after Roe vs Wade, and over 30 years after R v Morgentaler, the issue is far from settled.

Social progress achieved by human means alone is a myth. If all religion is myth, then any semblance of social progress from any source is just an illusion. But if Christianity is true, one of the consequences is that it’ll give us a much more balanced, nuanced, and truthful definition of social progress. I invite you to find out. May you relentlessly seek the truth. And may you find it.

  1. Gray, John, “The Silence of Animals”, p68 ↩︎

  2. Ibid, p8 ↩︎

Published: October 5, 2021