The Grim Pill of ProgressThe Grim Pill of Progress

The Grim Pill of Progress

Christians invented progress, writes Richard Bastien, but it took modern progessives to separate reason from faith and substitute ideology

Richard Bastien
9 minute read
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The recent adoption in France, England and in several parts of the United States of legislation authorizing same-sex marriage, the likely adoption of such legislation in other parts of the European Union, as well as the implementation in most Western countries of policies supportive of gay rights are generally seen by left-wing pundits as so many stages in the ineluctable march of progress. In their perception, only religious bigots and reactionary minds remain adamantly opposed to the legitimization of the homosexual lifestyle.

The question therefore arises as to whether this notion of progress, consistently promoted by the media and academia, is something all sensible people should resign themselves to, failing which they risk finding themselves athwart of the great epic of human freedom. In answering the question, it may be useful to first distinguish between the idea of progress and the ideology of progress.

The idea of progress is closely linked to that of modernity, itself developed by 14th century Christian thinkers who invented the word modernitas (from the Latin modo, meaning now, and the Greek modos, meaning today), which they opposed to antiquitas, a word referring to a period they sought to surpass. The 14th century also witnessed the appearance of ars nova, a musical style perceived as progress vis-à-vis the ars antiqua of the 13th century. So progress and modernity can be understood roughly as designating an attitude of openness to the future that arose in the late Middle Ages. What led medieval thinkers to use those words was the notion that man is no captive of the past and that, indeed, the future can be a real improvement over the past.

Contrary to what modern philosophers have assumed, this positive attitude toward progress and the future was rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition and absent from all other religions. According to this tradition, the world created by God is fundamentally good and, therefore, worthy of being explored and dominated by man through his rationality and creativity. These specifically human features enable him to participate in the wisdom and omnipotence of a God who is both logos (i.e. creative Reason and infinite Goodness) and who, having created the universe through an act of pure Love, entrusted it to man for him to develop. Thus, according to the Judeo-Christian worldview, progress, both material and moral, is required by God's plan for humanity.

This idea of progress, however, has very little to do with the ideology of progress. The latter emanates not from the Judeo-Christian tradition but rather from an 18th century philosophical movement that proudly called itself the Enlightenment. The name points to its ambition, which is to be a new Light for a humanity allegedly maintained in a state of cultural darkness by religions in general, and by Christianity in particular. The Enlightenment promised to bring peace and prosperity to the world through human means only (i.e. through science and democracy) and without any reference to a transcendent Being. More specifically, it sought to substitute itself for another Light—that which emerged from the proclamation of Jesus Christ to be "the Light" (John 20:1)—a light Christians of all ages and societies understand as freeing them from the darkness of sin and evil and as ushering in a new world of love and goodness. The Fathers of the secular Enlightenment declared this Christian Light to be either superstition (Hume, Diderot, Feuerbach, Comte, Mill) or a private belief devoid of any rationality (Kant).

The story of the past 300 years is largely the story of a struggle between these two cultures—that of the secular-progressive Enlightenment, today upheld by progressive liberalism, and that of the Judeo-Christian Enlightenment, embodied in classical liberalism and social conservatism.

The two cultures are theoretically irreconcilable because they rest on incompatible philosophical assumptions. One assumes that either there is no God or that He cannot be known and must therefore remain irrelevant to the way we conduct our lives; the other, that God revealed Himself to mankind and speaks to each of us through conscience. One assumes that man is "a mere arrangement of matter and energy" devoid of any spiritual faculty; the other, that he "is made in God's image and reflects God's glory." One says that man is alone in the cosmos and that human progress consists in scientific and technological progress achieved through reason alone; the other, that human progress must include a moral component requiring the collaboration of both faith and reason.

In short, the salient feature of the conflict between these two cultures is their understanding of the source and nature of progress. One says that progress resides solely in science and leads ineluctably to a perfect earthly state from which all religions will be eliminated. The other believes that Jesus Christ is sole saviour of the world and that for any kind of scientific-technological progress to be sustainable, it must be consistent with objective standards of morality grounded in reason. How the two cultures can coexist peacefully is the question we face today.

The culture of the Enlightenment, which underpins the ideology of progress, is based on two major claims. First, it affirms that, because it appeals solely to a reason common to all human beings, it is the only culture that is truly universal and should therefore be accepted in all societies irrespective of their particular religious or moral traditions. Second, it views itself as being entirely self-sufficient (i.e. as not having to resort to any religious or metaphysical system external to itself to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number).

As regards the universalist claim of the Enlightenment, it is based on a positivist view of reason, which says that the only thing that counts as real is what is experimentally tested. But that criterion is itself not susceptible of being tested. It is grounded in an act of human faith, not of reason. By denying that anything other than what is scientifically tested is real, positivism denies itself. Put another way, positivism decrees that we can only be sure of one thing, which is that we can't know anything for sure. But if that is the case, how can we hold that little to be true? Positivism thus involves a radical skepticism that is self-contradictory. It cannot meet its own criterion for validity. The recognition of this is what led Nietzsche to conclude: "There is no truth, only interpretations."

A second problem raised by a positivist understanding of reason is its atheism. It claims that the existence of God is a matter of emotion, not of reason. But positivism fails to distinguish between two different issues: the existence of God and the identity of God. The former is a philosophical problem, one that has to do with the question: what is? An sit? The latter is a specifically religious problem, one that has to do with the question: who is He? Quid sit? The notion that there is no God runs in the face of common sense, which tells us that there has to be some good reason for everything. This corresponds to what philosophers call the principle of sufficient reason, according to which there must be a sufficient reason accounting for why any contingent being exists. Since the universe is contingent—it exists, although there is no necessity for its existence—it follows that God exists.

As to the specifically religious question of who God is, positivists like to describe him as a "kind of senile benevolence, not a Father in Heaven, but a grandfather" (C.S. Lewis) providing solace to weak-minded, unenlightened people. This caricature of God is very self-serving: it enables the positivists/ atheists to ignore the true God of Jesus Christ, who requires of each of us that we struggle with our own evil inclinations, that we try to grow in virtue, that we accept gladly the vital tension that makes Christian living both challenging and exciting.

A third problem with the positivism derived from the Enlightenment is that it cannot explain the emergence of rationality. It assumes that rational thinking is a process entirely determined by electrochemical activity—a by-product of non-rational forces. Thus, positivist thinkers are compelled to conclude that all belief systems, including atheism, derive from non-rational forces and that, indeed, the very process of rational thinking is a mere by-product of chance or biological evolution, the implication being that rationality grew out of non-rationality!

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We must therefore conclude that the claim of the Enlightenment culture to be both universal and self-sufficient is groundless. Enlightenment culture reduces reason to an instrument suited to measuring things, but entirely unsuited to grasping the nature of man and of reality in general. It can tell us how to go from A to B or from A to C, but cannot tell us which of B or C is best suited to human nature. Outside the domain of empirical sciences and mathematics, it is powerless and useless because it assumes, arbitrarily, that there is nothing outside these domains, or that, if there is, it cannot be known. Therefore, it is neither rational, nor universal, nor self-sufficient. The Enlightenment culture that informs the ideology of progress is, at its core, irrational.

Are we doomed, then, to give up on reason and join the postmodernist worldview, described by some as "the death of reason"? Not necessarily. Christianity has always understood itself as the religion of the Logos (i.e. of creative reason). In claiming to be a religion in accord with reason, it distinguishes itself from other religions, and calls on philosophy. Reason, it says, raises questions that it cannot answer on its own and faith provides answers that become intelligible only with the help of reason. Conversely, faith requires reason to avoid falling into various forms of fanaticism. Thus, faith and reason are symbiotically… related. Faith without reason is not faith, or rather it is a pathological kind of faith called fideism. This explains why the Catholic Church has sought a genuine reconciliation of Christianity with modernity. Far from advocating a wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment, it has sought to remedy its shortcomings.

Certainly there have been periods in history in which Christianity was overbearing. I experienced this myself as a youth in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution, where the separation of Church and State was far from ideal. This helps to explain why Quebecers threw out the baby of faith with the bathwater of clericalism. Today, however, in Quebec as in the rest of the Western world, it is not the Church that is over-bearing but the State, and the danger lies not in clericalism but in secularism. Not only is the faith repudiated, but the very idea that man is subject to certain laws of nature, particularly of his own nature, appears intolerable. Gender theory, same-sex marriage, the legitimization of euthanasia, gestational surrogacy, all attest to man's claim to recreate himself according to his own will, a will disconnected from knowledge of the good. Freedom is redefined as a right to make oneself what one wants and thus becomes a rebellion against human nature. Some call this progress, but it is progress gone wild. It smacks of the old human hubris, the one that underpinned other experiments that, in their own time, were deemed "progressive": the French Revolution, communism, National Socialism.

Most progressive thinkers view atheism as a sign of human maturity. The problem, however, is that if man does not worship God, he worships idols. As Eric Voegelin put it, "men can let the contents of the world grow to such an extent that the world and God disappear behind them, but… the contents of the world will [then] become new gods." And if the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, he adds, "new symbols develop from the innerworldly language of science to take their place." In short, abolitionists of the old religion rarely resist replacing it with a religion of their own. As G.K. Chesterton is reported to have said, "when men stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing; they believe in anything."

Raymond Aron arrived at a similar conclusion through his critique of philosophies of history, especially Marxism. He lamented recourse to a "single principle from which every way of living and thinking could be said to derive" and concluded that any theory claiming to provide some overall explanation, if adopted by a group in control of the State apparatus, led to the establishment of secular religions.

Thus, while approaching the issue from different perspectives, Voegelin and Aron arrive at the same conclusion, namely that radical forms of secularism end up taking a religious role of sorts and become totalitarian. Reason alone is no less prone to pathologies than faith alone. The two must somehow be made to work together. For those concerned as to what that would entail for atheists and agnostics, who today constitute a cultural majority, it may be noted that the natural complementarity of faith and reason need not involve any kind of coercion of non-believers. Rather, it would require that they live their lives as if God did indeed exist. Such is the advice Pascal gave to his agnostic friends. Both believers and non-believers have a vested interest in containing the totalitarian risk of secular religions. History suggests that acknowledging the natural complementarity of faith and reason would constitute the best containment strategy.

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