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essays

Mar 1, 1979

Progress, Naturalism, and Religion

“Rather than being an outgrowth of Christianity, progress can be seen as its logical substitute.”

“Notes on Progress and Historical Recurrence.” The Intercollegiate Review 13 (1978): 67–78.

Substantial evidence undermines the notion that progress is strictly a modern phenomenon. The idea of progress is ancient. Antedating the eighteenth century’s Enlightenment, it reappears throughout history. Also erroneous is the notion that Christianity emancipated man from the imprisonment of historical cycles to the freedom of linear progress. This faulty view has persisted down to the present day, but is now receiving sober criticism and challenge.

Ludwig Edelstein’s impeccable documentation of progress’s presence in Greek and Roman times has refuted past contradictory claims. Edelstein’s parallelisms in The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity conclusively show that the ancient world entertained the idea of progress in much the same way as did Renaissance Europe (demonstrated by J.B. Bury). We may see progress more accurately as “the overview characteristic of a recurrent type of mind or culture … that will not abide the sense of human limits instilled by traditional piety.”

Rather than being an outgrowth of Christianity, progress can be seen as its logical substitute. Progress, by its nature, displaces traditional theism. During its periods of dominance, progress effectively becomes the reigning “religion” in every sense of the term. At such times the state replaces the church, and political conviction replaces religious feeling. This other “religion” of progress, then, operates from a naturalistic world view in which the vision of a better world supplants traditional theism’s promise of personal salvation.

Yet naturalism, dependent as it is upon empiricist knowledge, has been dealt shattering blows by such modern-day thinkers as Leibniz, Hume, Popper, and Kuhn. Utilizing empiricist principle itself, Kuhn has authoritatively invalidated the very possibility of knowledge, rendering naturalism’s base somewhat, if not completely, unsound. By consequence, one is faced with the seemingly absurd conclusion that “only by recourse to a theism” can human knowledge escape the skeptic’s verdict and “lay claim to thinking men’s acceptance.” So also, “only by recourse to theism can morality be made intelligible.”

With human history oscillating between the two extremes of theism and naturalism, both of uncertain truth, surely our idea of linear progress must give place to the more realistic ebb and flow of human achievement.