The Religion of Progress
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Last week I recorded the Freedom of Religion Episode and wrote the post about How to Save Humanity, and in both cases I mentioned the religion of progress. This made me realize that outside of a mention here and there I’d never really done a complete post on the subject, which it certainly deserves. In other words this post is long overdue.
In discussing this subject I’m indebted to John Michael Greer, the Archdruid, and I’ll start off by borrowing/stealing from his own writing on the topic. In addition to the two blog posts of my own I just mentioned, one of Greer’s recent posts, which made reference to the religion of progress, was also a factor in selecting the subject for this post. In particular he clarified something which I had also noticed, though not to the same degree that he had. Recently there’s been something of a spiritual cast to certain elements of the left. With one of the recurring terms being the evolution of consciousness. He and I both were somewhat confused by what that was supposed to mean, but Greer actually did the legwork:
Among a good-sized fraction of American leftist circles these days, it turns out it’s become a standard credo that what drives the kind of social changes supported by the left—the abolition of slavery and segregation, the extension of equal (or more than equal) rights to an assortment of disadvantaged groups, and so on—is an ongoing evolution of consciousness, in which people wake up to the fact that things they’ve considered normal and harmless are actually intolerable injustices, and so decide to stop.
Those of my readers who followed the late US presidential election may remember Hillary Clinton’s furious response to a heckler at one of her few speaking gigs: “We aren’t going back. We’re going forward.” Underlying that outburst is the belief system I’ve just sketched out: the claim that history has a direction, that it moves in a linear fashion from worse to better, and that any given political choice—for example, which of the two most detested people in American public life is going to become the nominal head of a nation in freefall ten days from now—not only can but must be flattened out into a rigidly binary decision between “forward” and “back.”
As he points out, when people speak of consciousness evolving they’re not talking about evolution in the normal scientific sense of being subject to pressure from natural selection, or of certain organisms being better adapted to survival than others. They’re talking about the process of evolution making things better period. This is just one example of the theology of the religion of progress. Of course in using the word theology I’m jumping right past what many people might consider to be the most important question. Why should we consider it a religion? And perhaps I should deal with that first.
For the purposes of this discussion I’ll be focusing on the most extreme adherents to the religion of progress, and while I understand that this is like using ISIS to define Islam, there’s a reason for that. People use ISIS when they want to illustrate the worst case scenario, I am similarly interested in the worst case scenario. So who are these extreme adherents to the religion of progress? Their enemies call them Social Justice Warriors or SJWs, and while I understand that it’s annoying to end up with the label your enemies chose for you, it does seem to be the simplest way of identifying the group I’m talking about. Also while I am not trying to fall into the enemy camp myself, I think it’s only fair to say that I am probably not their ally either. Finally, they’re not the only adherents (we’ll be talking about others), but they are the most visible.
Having identified our subjects, how does this group of people compare to a traditional religion? Well to begin with they are a group, which is a bigger part of what makes a religion than I think most people want to admit. Beyond that one of the big factors in defining a religion is the presence of things both sacred and profane, with commandments built to encourage the sacred and punish the profane. Obviously much of what they put into these categories has to be unique to the group, different than the traditional commandments and beliefs of the culture from which they spring. In other words this is not just Christianity-lite, these are not just lapsed believers in another religion, this is a new religion. Should you doubt the existence of commandments and the categorization of certain things as sacred, and certain things profane, try walking around your local university campus in a Nazi Uniform or a KKK robe (or even just try waving an Isreali flag). And what is a safe space other than a sacred site? In fact given the intolerance for certain speakers and opinions you might make the case that entire campuses are considered sacred spaces by SJWs.
Another element, important to classifying something as a religion, is belief in the supernatural. This is where the idea of an evolving consciousness comes in. Though it takes several other forms as well. You might have heard the term the right side of history (along with the inverse wrong side of history) or the arc of history. These terms are beloved of former president Obama, who may actually be something of a prophet for the religion of progress. Perhaps you feel that describing him as a prophet is over the top, but there are certainly people who feel or at least felt that way. One of my favorite articles from just before the 2008 election describes how Obama is a “Lightworker” who will usher in in a new way of being on this planet.
In Better Angels of Our Nature, which I keep coming back to, Pinker was trying to describe the same arc of history, though as a declared atheist he tried to rob it of its supernatural overtones by ascribing it to game theory (specifically what he calls the pacifist’s dilemma). Of course it’s also present in a group I talk about often, the transhumanists, who add in another common religious element, eternal rewards. Which in their case takes the form of uploading themselves into a computer or something similar.
At this point we have everyone from SJWs, to Obama, to Pinker, to Leftist, to transhumanists believing in the inevitability of progress and the arc of history, and, in the end, it’s probably not important if you’re 100% on board with describing it as a religion as opposed to a movement, or a memeplex, or what have you, at this point it’s mostly just important that we’re on the same page in agreeing that the ideology exists and it’s pervasive. From there the next step would be to ask if it’s a useful ideology. And here, my answer may surprise you. In the short term it might in fact be useful for certain people and for certain things. But, as always, we’re not interested in the next few years, we’re interested in the next few centuries. And in my experience the longer your time horizon the more the utility of something converges with the truth of something. There are useful lies, and convenient delusions, but their utility and convenience are always short term. All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the real question I want to ask. Is the religion of progress true?
Of course, you already know that I’m going to say that it’s not true, but how do you convince its believers of this fact? Assuming they would listen. At this point it’s useful to divide those believers up into two camps: those who favor a supernatural basis, like those who believe that Obama is a Lightworker or in the evolution of consciousness, and those who eschew any kind of supernatural explanation like Pinker and most of the transhumanists. I’ll address the non-supernatural contingent first.
If you look back through the history of the Earth, and the even more recent history of humanity you will see several external cataclysms which almost wiped out any potential for progress or intelligence. Whether it was the two times that the Earth was basically completely encased in ice, any of the 190 times (that we know about) when a large asteroid or comet has hit the earth, or the various super volcanos, one of which, the Toba Supervolcano, took humanity down to around 5,000 individuals (with some people saying there were only 40 breeding pairs.) There have been plenty of occasions where the inevitable march of progress was anything but, and a stiff breeze one way or the other could have ended it all.
Obviously if you’re an atheist like Pinker you may quibble with the impact of some of the items above, but you’re not going to deny that catastrophes take place. The question only becomes at what point did we become immune to catastrophes? What was the innovation that protected us from unrecoverable setbacks and made progress inevitable? As I pointed out in my Review of Better Angels, a lot depends on when the inflection point was, and to be fair Pinker is probably on the conservative end of this. I doubt he thinks that progress is irreversible, he probably just thinks it’s tenacious. But let’s turn to the transhumanists, who would also probably grant that all or most of the disasters I mentioned did in fact happen, but that they, personally, expect to live forever. Which takes us back to the question when, exactly, did we go from being susceptible to being wiped out by global catastrophes to not?
Did it happen with the dawn of modern man and the creation of human-level intelligence 200,000 years ago? I don’t think so, particularly since we had Neanderthals alive around the same time and by all accounts they were at least as smart if not smarter, and look at what happened to them. Did it happen with the creation of writing? I assume that was important, but I don’t think it would have saved the Sumerians there had been another supervolcano, or if a comet had smacked into the Earth. What about the enlightenment, was that the inflection point? Well I renew my point about the Sumerians, but let’s assume that at some point you’re close enough to the finish line to not have to worry about supervolcanoes and comets. The period since the enlightenment has been pretty incredible, but it also brought us a lot closer to nuclear annihilation than it did to a permanent extraterrestrial colony, which, as I argued in the last post might be the first credible point to start arguing that progress is unstoppable. Which is to say that if there is an inflection point we haven’t even reached it and it’s not clear that we will.
Turning to those who believe that progress is being powered by something supernatural, all of the above arguments still apply. Where was the mystical force of progress, and the evolving consciousness during the Great Permian Extinction, or the aforementioned Toba Supervolcano or the various near misses with World War III? And even if those were somehow “ordained” or otherwise all part of the plan, why did this force, which seems specific to humanity by the way (just ask the dodo and the Neanderthal) spend tens of thousands of years not acting while modern humans, as hunter gatherers, engaged in an unending cycle of insane violence (if Pinker is to be believed) before finally swooping in sometime in the recent past and deciding that enough was enough, it would be onward and upward from here on out.
You might argue that all of the above arguments could be applied with equal force to traditional religions. But in traditional religions God has a plan, one which we may not even understand, but if suffering is part of the plan (as it is with most traditional religions) then I see no reason that the Toba Supervolcano is not also part of the plan. This is not to say that the supernatural branch of the religion of progress doesn’t also have a plan. It’s just kind of childish. Their plan is that a tiny percent of the hundred (plus) billion people who have ever lived will get to play World of Warcraft (or perhaps the Sims) for the rest of eternity. Yes, this is a caricature, but not as much of one as they might claim.
This illustrates one of the problems. Even under the most draconian of traditional theologies, uncivilized pagans from the Fifth Century are still part of the plan. They may be participating in the plan through eternal torment, but at least they’re considered. If Ray Kurzweil, a futurist, and one of the greatest prophets of the religion of progress dies tomorrow then he is almost certainly not going to be one of those saved by the religion of progress. Which is to say that the religion of progress is a religion which mostly offers salvation to those who haven’t even been born yet. In fact the entire thing, to borrow again from Greer, is remarkably chronocentric, i.e. biased towards a specific time. In this case the chronocentrism does not claim that the current era is best, or that there is some edenic past, two claims which you can actually marshall evidence for. Their chronocentrism claims that 50 years into the unknown future is obviously the best time of all.
As part of this bias the religion of progress pays very little attention to the past. And certainly they seem blind to, or at least dismissive of, ancient history and prehistory, but beyond that even the recent past is largely opaque to them. To once more draw upon Greer, and a subject he’s more familiar with than me. Much of the current progressive agenda is very recent, and only a few decades ago the progressive viewpoint was the exact opposite. The example Greer gives is gay rights. As it turns out gays had it pretty good for the first few decades of the 19th century with their, “own bars, restaurants, periodicals, entertainment venues, and social events, right out there in public.” The vast majority (including myself) upon hearing this would assume that if this was the case then surely some furious attack by the right wing must have ended it. I’ll let Greer answer:
No, and that’s one of the more elegant ironies of this entire chapter of American cultural history. The crusade against the “lavender menace” (I’m not making that phrase up, by the way) was one of the pet causes of the same Progressive movement responsible for winning women the right to vote and breaking up the fabulously corrupt machine politics of late nineteenth century America. Unpalatable as that fact is in today’s political terms, gay men and lesbians weren’t forced into the closet in the 1930s by the right. They were driven there by the left.
The picture that emerges is not that of an unstoppable set of truths forever in the background of human affairs, but rather an ideology of very recent origin, which changes into whatever form makes people feel the best. Returning back to our original question, is the religion of progress true? I think we have assembled ample evidence that it’s not. Rather it seems more to be an ideology which captures the attitudes and events of a specific moment, and with the inauguration yesterday of the religion of progress’ antichrist, we could easily be seeing the end of that moment.
Having gotten this far you may be thinking, so what? Perhaps the religion of progress isn’t true, perhaps it’s just about reached the end of its useful life, perhaps it’s even silly and childish. Where’s the harm? This is another time where the biases brought on by chronocentrism once again manifest themselves. This is not the first time a progressive utopian vision of ever escalating progress has taken the stage, and if the adherents of the religion of progress were more aware of what had come before then perhaps they would be more worried. Also we’re not even talking about going that far back. This is all stuff that happened in the 20th century.
Our first example is eugenics. The full history of the early 20th century eugenics movement is beyond the scope of this post, but, trust me, it was a progressive issue. The mere mention of eugenics is horrible enough in most people’s estimation that you hardly have to go beyond the initial mention. But it was also responsible for lobotomies, forced sterilizations, and by some accounts much of what people find most appaling about the Nazis. Could I have written a similar post in 1932 talking about the religion of eugenics? Probably. And I assume that the people who now defend or excuse the religion of progress would be using the same arguments to excuse and defend the practice of eugenics.
The other example I want to draw to your attention is the example of communism. Communism may have been the first great example of a secular religion with things designated as sacred (the proletariat) and profane (capitalism), commandments (the Communist Manifesto) and of course the promise of secular salvation resulting in an unending paradise (The Worker’s Paradise). And of course even today you don’t have to look very deep to find communist ideology buried in the religion of progress, despite it being responsible for the deaths of 94 million people.
None of this means the religion of progress will fail as spectacularly, or even fail in a similar fashion as these first two examples. But unless you’re going to make the argument that something has changed dramatically in the last few decades, and I admit there is some evidence for that assertion, just not nearly as much as its supporters imagine, the religion of progress will be another utopian vision which will ultimately fail. And it’s reasonable to ask what if any damage it will cause on it’s way out. And is there anyway to limit that damage?
Of course as the dominant religion it’s very easy to point out the benefits progressive ideology is alleged to provide and much harder to point out it’s flaws. And in fact, perversely, flaws can be seen as benefits. In the early 20th centuries lobotomies and forced sterilizations were seen as good things. Just as some people now think that performing gender reassignment surgery on four year olds is a good thing. Pointing out the potential harms of the religion of progress can easily get you labeled as a hateful or racist. Despite that, in closing, I’ll take a stab at pointing out a couple:
Eugenics and communism are both blamed for a lot of deaths. Where are the deaths from the religion of progress? Well as I said it’s not necessarily going to fail as spectacularly or in the same way, but if you’re looking for a lot of deaths it’s hard to ignore abortion. Obviously there is a lot of disagreement about whether abortion is murder. Also to do any sort of real analysis you’d want to compare abortion rates before the “progress” of legalizing abortion, to rates after it was legalized. I spent a bit of time looking for this and honestly the subject is so heated it’s impossible get any unbiased numbers on the subject. That said, I have a very hard time believing that legalizing abortion did not increase the number of abortions by a significant amount. And even increasing it by a small amount yields a pretty big number. From 1970 (when legalization got going) through 2013 there were just shy of 52 million abortions. If we assume that legalization only increased things by 20% (which seems incredibly conservative) then that’s still 10 million additional abortions. Maybe that doesn’t bother you at all, but I suspect that it’s something we’ll eventually look back on with horror.
Finally, one of the things that is most alarming to me and carries with it the most potential for harm is the ideological intransigence of the religion of progress, which we have seen sprinkled all throughout this post, and on vivid and constant display since the election of Trump. Does this intransigence turn to violence? If so how violent? Will there just be scattered riots? Or are we looking at an eventual second Civil War? Obviously it takes more than just one violent faction to have a war, but as I said in a previous post, in the end there are only two ways to decide anything, the rule of law or application of violence and as I sit here on the weekend of the inauguration I see a lot of people who seem to prefer the violent option.