Secular MYTH of PROGRESS
Our meetup group recently tackled the topic “progress.” It was a fascinating discussion. In preparation for the topic, I found myself really helped by an atheist named John Gray and his article found here. I think he is right on one thing: if atheism is true, then the secular concept of “progress” and our human race progressing is an absolute MYTH!
Here’s some of my thoughts on this:
Progress. We all agree that we see progress in the realm of technology. Clearly computers are getting better, cars more efficient, and technology more advanced. Progress in this area is not contested. But what about progress morally? or progress as a society?
It seems that for us to speak intelligibly of progress there need to be at least three things: non-arbitrary standards by which to adjudicate movement (whether something is progressing or regressing); a narrative or story to fit the question into (a setting by which progress might take place); and a desirable destination or goal (going somewhere that is in fact better than where we were before). [I think we could add self-awareness too].
Granted that at least these things are necessary to speak about progress, how are we to think about those say our society or world is progressing? Is it possible to say we are progressing? I would argue that if atheism were true, if the universe and ourselves are merely a cosmic accident (no Designer and no goal for humanity), if there is no purpose for why we are here (outside of mere human opinions), if all of our standards are mere bias and ultimately arbitrary preferences due to chance and cultural setting (no non-arbitrary binding moral obligations), and if there is no destination for us as human race besides being forgotten and extinct along with our decaying universe (setting), then I think atheist John Gray is right when he says that progress is a secular MYTH—or an illusion if you hate the word myth—which we tell ourselves to makes us feel better about our impending death. We might FEEL passionately and emotionally and act in a way that strives for “progress” (progress which we define), but in reality there is no such thing as progress for our human race; we are going nowhere and will be forgotten, and to be believe in progress is to believe in a secular myth. Ultimately, all we have is movement (not regress or progress).
Yet I would say that there is such a thing as progress. I think we know there must be and we can’t help but want it and strive for it (I think even those that hold to a naturalistic understanding of reality do this too).
The Christian faith makes sense of progress rationally, emotionally, and culturally.
First, it gives us the pieces necessary for us to speak rationally: it gives objective, morally good standards that everyone is accountable to by which we might assess what progress is; it tells us the true and beautiful story we all fit into—both of these (objective standards by which to assess progress and a true story we are part of) are required if we want to have a non-mythical and non-arbitrary notion of progress. In addition to this, there is a goal: becoming more like Christ, who shows us what true goodness is. Interestingly, this goal also makes room for a non-ethnocentric concept of progress (one that is not-dominated by and does not seek to dominate others by culturally mandated preferences) since Christ is the eternal Son (the Creator who made everyone) who took on flesh and dwelt among us, creating a new humanity from all ethnicities and nations.
Second, it also makes sense of the notion of progress emotionally—we all want progress, we don’t want to be stuck or regress, we know some things are better now than they were before regardless of human opinion.
Third, it makes sense culturally—our culture loves progress and wants to progress forward. We want to live in a culture that is different from what it was—one that is moving somewhere, where we are less cruel and self-centered and malicious then we were before.
Now, I’m not arguing that those who are not Christians don’t desire or want progress, I’m simply presenting how the Christian Faith makes sense of how we already think about progress (it fits with what we experience) and how a naturalistic framework cannot do this coherently or logically, but can mythically.