Progress? What progress?

I threw a party last night to welcome a new colleague to our physics department, and later in the night, I found myself talking about science and religion with him. (Not entirely uncommon when you get some food and wine into a bunch of science-types.)

If I understood correctly (keep in mind the wine), he was arguing that questions about origins (the universe, life etc.) were especially profound, and that how we answer such questions were bound to have significant societal consequences. As science made progress, answers that invoked the supernatural lost ground. Indeed, my impression was that he thought that with the advance of science, more fundamentalist religiosity retreated. He gave the example of India, where he comes from. As an older, mature civilization, he thought that India did not resist science the way many American creationists do. Compared to hundreds of years ago when Indian people were much more inclined to take their supernatural creation myths literally, they are, he suggested, at least more ambiguous about such matters now.

Perhaps. I don’t know enough about India, certainly. But I’m inclined to be more skeptical about such narratives of progress. And I’m especially cautious about attributing declines in fundamentalist attitudes (when such a decline exists) to the advancement of science. It doesn’t ring true according to what I know about the history and sociology relevant to science and religion questions. For example, even sociologists who continue to defend versions of the classic secularization thesis in regard to Western Europe say that science is way down in the list of factors contributing to the erosion of organized religiosity. Furthermore, I’m dubious that people used to be more fundamentalist. India, for one thing, has seen a flourishing Hindu fundamentalist movement in the last generation. And it’s very difficult to look at a long sweep of history and discern a overall trend away from strong religiosity behind the ups and downs of events.

This, though, brings up another question for me. How much are secular people, particularly those of us who are impressed with the undeniable progress within modern science, committed to notions of accompanying social progress?

The notion of social and moral progress as part of an Enlightenment package together with advancing knowledge seems pretty common. It’s my political heritage, even though I have grown more cynical with age. Many of the best-known critics of religion take such a view. Richard Dawkins, for example, argues that the current zeitgeist supports a more humane morality compared to times when religious faith was stronger. He doesn’t try to explain why in detail, but it seems pretty clear that he thinks there’s a line of moral progress that goes back at least to the European Enlightenment. Sentiments like those of my Indian colleague, that scientific progress is inevitably linked to social progress, are very common, I would guess, among nonbelievers of all stripes.

But then, there is also a thoroughly secular tradition of skepticism about claims of progress. For example, one of my favorite political thinkers is John Gray, whom I always enjoy reading even if I don’t always agree. In his latest book, Black Mass: Apocalytic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Gray forcefully argues against Enlightenment notions of political progress. He charges these with being secular versions of messianic monotheism, and with being associated with utopian political schemes that have imposed vast devastation on humanity. Gray sees communism, Nazism, and the recent bout of free-market fundamentalism we have been suffering through, as genuine expressions of Enlightenment ideas of progress and utopia, rather than as distortions of the Enlightenment. He makes an interesting case, well worth reading for secularists.

If such critiques have substance, and I am inclined to think that at least in part they do, there is a serious challenge here to nonbelievers and critics of religion. If we think of ourselves as not just indulging in an intellectual exercise of trying to figure out what is true, but also trying to offer a better alternative for living our lives together, we might want to be more careful about the utopian tendencies in our own Enlightenment tradition. We might, especially if we see supernatural beliefs as a deeply ingrained part of human nature, concentrate more on figuring out how to live with that and sustain a naturalist subculture, rather than indulging in what might be a dangerous fantasy of eliminating superstition.

Political thought is not my strongest suit, and I feel myself pulled in many directions when I try and understand the debate over progress. I think, however, that it’s important. Even people such as myself, who like to emphasize scientific matters and prefer not to make sweeping claims about social progress, cannot escape the debate. After all, science as an institution is not isolated from wider social concerns; at the least, we have to justify our existence. I’d like to say that scientific and social progress are closely linked, and that criticizing religion has a role in improving our world. But I’m also not entirely sure I can defend this as part of a serious argument. I suspect myself of wishful thinking. But then, maybe that is also an after-effect of the wine.