On Progress and Human Goodness

A core feature of the Enlightenment project was the twin concepts of optimism and progress. Modernism’s infatuation with science led to the idea that human and social perfectibility could eventually be achieved. Education and knowledge were viewed as the keys to such progress and perfection.

‘Every day and in every way things are getting better and better’ was the underlying assumption here. Science and technology would eventually solve all our problems, and soon heaven on earth would be achieved. There are plenty of thinkers that can be cited in this regard.

Enlightenment essayist Alexander Pope (1688 –1744) put it, “Nature and nature’s laws lay wrapped in night. God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” Or as Francis Bacon (1561–1626) put it, “Conquer nature, relieve man’s estate”.

The French Enlightenment humanist Condorcet (1743 – 1794), put it this way: “No bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human race. The perfectibility of man is absolutely infinite.”

More recently atheists and scientists have said similar sorts of things. For example, atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell said this: “What science cannot tell us, mankind cannot know.” And the atheist chemist and science writer Peter Atkins remarked “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.”

So science began to be seen as saviour, and all manner of progress was expected to occur as education advanced and human reason unfolded. Optimism was at a high point, and it seemed like there was nothing mankind – without any external help – could not do.

Of course one can ask just how successful we have actually been in making a better world. If the previous century is anything to go on, the scorecard is not looking very good. Two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the spectre of nuclear Armageddon, the possibility of ecological catastrophe, and so on, are not exactly signs of utopia on earth.

Of course Christianity offers a much different take on all this. Yes, we are to develop our world, set up civilisation, subdue the earth and work for human betterment. This is all part of the Cultural Mandate outlined in Genesis 1:27-28.

But this call to be co-regents with God on planet earth has to be balanced by another truth found in Genesis 3: the Fall. With the entrance of sin into the world, we are all now fallen and corrupted. Yes, we still bear the image of God, but that is greatly tainted.

The Cultural Mandate still is in effect, but now a cursed earth will make that task much more difficult. Indeed, any sort of perfectibility – whether social, personal, political or intellectual – is now no longer possible this side of eternity.

We await the return of Christ to finish the job originally begun with our first parents. Until then life will always be a mix of goodness and evil, progress and regress, hope and despair. And according to the Christian understanding, any real progress in this life will always have to be achieved with divine aid. We are just not up to the job ourselves.

Today nearly all atheists and secularists are into this optimistic view of human progress big time – and for good reason. If this is the only world there is, then it is entirely up to us to make of it what we will. If there is no afterlife and no divine assistance in getting things right, then we are left completely to our own devices.

I recently spoke to a group of intellectuals who were heavily steeped in this line of thought. One got into a conversation with me after my talk. As an atheist he was a card-carrying believer in progress. He asked me, ‘Don’t you think things have gotten much better in the last 100 years?’

I replied, ‘Well it all depends on what you mean by “better”.’ I said that we are certainly living longer and healthier lives, at least in the West. But is that the only way we can measure progress? Surely other indicators have to be taken into account.

Indeed, what value is it to simply elongate human existence if we are in fact living lives which are not better in so many other ways? While affluence and comfort are hallmarks of the West, so too are various indicators of social pathology and lack of wellness and wholeness.

One only has to look at our youth suicide rates, problems with drug abuse, criminal activity, marriage and family breakdown, and other signs to see that simply having lots of money and a lot of time to spend it is not the sole measure of how well we are doing as a society.

Indeed, what is regarded as progress by some is a clear sign of regress for others. Consider all the dangers of political correctness, social engineering, disrespect for human life, the erosion of morality, the decline of truth, and the coarsening of society.

The truth is, human development over the centuries has been a real mixed bag. We have managed to produce both Hitlers and Mother Teresas. Again, the biblical worldview fully accords with what we find happening here. Being made in God’s image and living as moral beings in a moral world created by a personal, moral God explains the greatness we see in mankind.

But the doctrine of the Fall, and the fact that we are all corrupted by sin and all tend to veer toward selfishness and arrogance explains the evil we see all around us. And the biblical doctrine of common grace explains why even non-believers can do good things or aspire to be good.

But the only genuine means of progress is to return to our creator and recognise that autonomous man has basically messed things up to a very real degree, and without his help we are on a self-centred trajectory that can only result in more misery and decline.

That is why the Christian gospel is so radically different from all humanistic schemes and other religious traditions. The biblical gospel says we are fallen sinners in need of a saviour. Indeed, it says we are rebels who need to lay down our arms, as C.S. Lewis said.

The truth is, all the attempts to build heaven on earth without recourse to God and his blueprints for the good society have ended up in failure – and often in bloodbaths. Marx tried to create the New Man and failed miserably. Hitler tried to establish the Third Reich and simply enslaved much of the world.

As G.K. Chesterton once noted, “The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. The Titans did not scale heaven; but they laid waste the world.”

As long as we think we can edit God out of the universe and pretend that we can make a go of this world, we will only see more bitter disappointment and failed utopias. Trying to achieve genuine and lasting progress while turning our backs on the only one who can make this all possible is a pipedream. As C.S. Lewis put it:

“And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that our civilization needs more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

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15 Replies to “On Progress and Human Goodness”

  1. Mankind has incrementally added to scientific and technological progress, through God-given intelligence. No doubt the first wheel, or flint ax was hailed as cutting edge technology at one time. As each age as passed, more and more knowledge has been accumulated, often accompanied by an attitude of sneering contempt for those who pioneered the first principles. Each generation of children has been taught that progress has been due to the human brain becoming smarter than that of the generation before, little realising that the opposite is probably true and all that is happening is an incremental building on the knowledge that went before.
    But when we come to human maturity, there is no incremental development; each individual has to start from scratch and carve out their own struggle to maturity. Is the present generation more responsible, self sacrificial, humble, more humane? I think not; we have become children in possession of dangerous toys.
    David Skinner, UK

  2. As long as parents abdicate their responsibility to raise Godly children with humble servant hearts there can be no lasting change in moral attitude or any real “progress” of a spiritual nature or any other kind. Without Christ in the centre and everywhere else, mankind can only continue on it’s moral decline into further lawlessness. What David Skinner has commented is challenging to every parent. What are we teaching our children and are we succeeding? Are we teaching our children or letting the world drag them up? Maybe the future is in our hands, one child at a time? Or maybe we are incapable unless we are prepared to grow up ourselves and accept responsibility? Great article Bill!
    Lynn Nerdal

  3. The French Enlightenment? Isn’t that the rationalist era that high-mindedly talked of Liberty, Equality and Reason but failed to release its slaves in the colonies? Some progress!
    John Snowden

  4. Thanks John

    Yes there is a big difference between the French Enlightenment and, say, the American or English Enlightenment. The former saw reason and religion as opposed to one another while the later saw them as united.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. It is interesting you bring up the French Revolution Bill. I think it is really interesting to contrast it with the American Revolution. They are such interesting comparisons, as the French Revolution embraced the concept of mans perfectibility and denied the Fall, as you noted, while the American revolution did exactly the opposite, rejecting the notion of mans perfectibility and building in assumptions about man’s falleness into the structure of the political system.

    History has shown which is the saner approach, even though a new collection of idiots try to keep reinventing and slipping in concepts from the French Revolution into all areas of Western Life today.

    Actually idiots is probably the wrong word, as calling them insane is probably much more appropriate, as they insist on trying the same failed ideas and assumptions over and over and expect a different set of outcomes from the last time they were tried. Even though they only variety they get in outcomes is that it generally results in larger body counts and more suffering than the previous time the idea was tried.

    You’d think if they were honest that they would just admit that the notion of the perfectibility of man was a bad idea and had been shown to be false by repeated bitter experience … oh I see the problem.

    Jason Rennie

  6. Thanks Jason

    Yes the two Revolutions make for an interesting study of contrasts. Many have written on this. Hannah Arendt’s 1963 volume, On Revolution, is worth looking at here. She contrasts revolution as restoration (eg., the American) with revolution as radical transformation (eg., the French).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Thank you, Bill, for your article, which is an antidote to mindless optimism.

    You quote Alexander Pope’s famous couplet:

    “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night.
    God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”

    English poet Sir John Squire (1884-1958) wrote a rejoinder:

    “It did not last; the Devil howling ‘Ho!
    Let Einstein be!’ restored the status quo.

    John Ballantyne, Melbourne, Victoria.

  8. One wonders if the French see the connection between the fact that they have the highest proportion of Muslims, 8%, living in their midst and their Voltarian philosophy? Would Voltaire really sacrifice his life in order to defend the right of Muslims to declare “Allahu Akbar” throughout France?
    David Skinner, UK

  9. Yes, “The line between good and evil goes through every human heart” (who first wrote that? I’d love to know); because of the Fall we cannot rely on our own increasing goodness, and thus, that of the world we build. Secularists have to believe in “Progess” and suchlike – despite 100 percent of the evidence being against them – because to think otherwise, for a moment, might bring the most dreadful of all things into possibility – there might be Something above/beyond/bigger than themselves, who they might ultimately be answerable to …
    John Thomas, UK

  10. To John Thomas in the UK and Bill,

    It was indeed Alexander Solzhenitsyn who first said it.

    The full quote goes: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (Collins/Fontana, 1976), Vol.2, pp.597-8).

    John Ballantyne, Melbourne, Victoria.

  11. A big reason for the fact that “Today nearly all atheists and secularists are into this optimistic view of human progress big time”, is due to their staunch faith in evolution. If their view of evolution is true, then why shouldn’t it also apply to all areas of human endeavour, they would think. But of course evolution is not true and entropy instead rules, which means things deteriorate unless we work to preserve them. So today’s secularists and atheists denial of reality in biology, leads them to deny it in sociology too.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  12. amazing piece again, heavens bless us to see the need to go back to God and say You alone are good we need you once again every day life. Man cannot and will never take God’s glory. God help us to remember we are dust, period. Bless you Bill
    Adelaide Ntim-Duodu

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