As a transcript of the ubiquitous and intractable reality of human evil, the Christian doctrine of original sin seems convincing enough. Some awareness of it might at least have spared us the sadistic horrors of the social experiments of twentieth-century totalitarians, as it ought to give pause to their “progressive” progeny in the twenty-first.
While Christianity has appreciated and assimilated a plethora of ancient pagan myths, it has never been so soft-headed as to have credited the modern fable of socio-political progress. Neither has ancient paganism, by the way, which (as its own myth of the four metallic ages suggests) was soberly resigned to the fact that, socially and morally, things are usually getting worse.
This is no doubt one of the reasons why progressives return obsessively to religion as a pernicious impediment to social and political amelioration. In the immortal words of John Lennon, Chief Prophet of the Church of Progress, all we need to do is “imagine” a world without God, and an Eden of equality, justice, and peace will spring up spontaneously in the virgin soil of this benignant vision.
The imaginers of progress are thus always (and conveniently) invoking some permanently unrealized future. They do so even when the future they imagine has already been reified, as in the officially atheistic paradises of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, whose only contributions to the advancement of human civilization were in the sciences of penology and mass extermination. In one respect at least, the Marxist theory of historical determinism has been proven correct: the revolutionary project to build a paradise of equality and justice on earth inexorably results in the creation of a living hell.
Yet the faith of progressives in things unseen seems never to waver, while their contempt for man’s benighted religious past is apparently irrepressible. Thus, as Canada’s Governor-General, Julie Payette, lamented last October, “we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming (sic) out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.”
Payette’s condescension (scarcely mitigated by the fact that it was completely unconscious) towards those who (still!…oh my goodness) believe in the Divine (a truly ecumenical slur, dismissing Canadians of every creed from Unitarianism to Islam) is so familiar by now that one wonders whether as a species progressives aren’t born with a proprietary gland for sneering. When the forbears of modern progressivism began to exude their odium for religion in revolutionary France at the end of the eighteenth century, the physicians of the day must have contemplated adding a new humour to the canonical four.
I am hardly the first to notice that progressivism is not so much an ideology as an attitude. Like Gnosticism, it has never been incumbent upon its adherents to demonstrate, either rationally or empirically, that they are right, but merely to know that they are in possession of the secret saving knowledge, and to pity the uninitiated multitudes who are not.
Why, after all, should it be so galling to Payette that there remains a remnant of the population that refuses to accept the hypothesis of the random origin of life on earth? Since progressives are always preaching tolerance and diversity – racial diversity, cultural diversity, diversity of gender, diversity of life-style – one would think that they would be tolerant of a diversity of thought on a question as speculative and fathomless as this one. One begins to suspect, perhaps, that the belief that life arose randomly – dissent from which is so intolerable – must be a kind of religious orthodoxy.
Payette’s adverb “still” is the principal clue to her progressive posture. Religion, you see, is so very, very un-modern; and what is un-modern is reflexively dismissed by modernists, for that reason, as useless or wrong. It is an odd prejudice, which I have elsewhere described as a kind of chronological jingoism. And it is unique to the modern period. As G.K. Chesterton has observed of it, “it is the only period in all of history when people were proud of being modern. For though to-day is always to-day and the moment is always modern, we are the only men in all history who fell back upon bragging about the mere fact that to-day is not yesterday.”
In her gratuitous sneering, Payette offered no refutation of the supposedly contemptible belief that life originated through “divine intervention” – nor any argument to prove her hypothesis that it arose by chance – because, in her mind, she didn’t have to. It was enough to remind her audience that the religious explanation of life on earth is an ancient vestige (people still … oh my goodness … are persuaded by it). It is practically useless to point out to bien-pensants like Payette that the antiquity of a thing is not in itself invalidating. Payette is herself the titular head of Canada’s parliamentary democracy, a form of government that is positively medieval, and yet most Canadians are grateful that their rulers still obey its hoary precepts.
For progressives, religion is just one of those age-old institutions and moral norms (along with the traditional family, heterosexuality, binary gender, etc.) which is suspect because it has survived. The civilizational novelties (same-sex marriage, transgenderism, unrestricted abortion) with which they have succeeded in replacing them have never been justified by evidence—there isn’t any – that they are morally right or socially salubrious; it is enough for liberals to condemn those who disagree with them as “reactionaries.” Progressives always assure us that they are “on the side of History,” but are rarely chastened by the facts of history. They presume, of course, that History will be written by forward-thinking folks like them. It never occurs to them that their innovations are moral fads that will soon appear shopworn, as nature inevitably reasserts itself; or that future historians may look back upon them with bemusement.
Progressives have a dismal record as predictors of history. And the reactionaries who predicted that their experiments would be disastrous were scarcely pessimistic enough. They had no idea how slippery the slope would turn out to be. Not even free market apologists like F.A. Hayek knew at the time of the New Deal that within 30 years it would lead to a culture of chronic indolence and multi-generational welfare dependency. Even the most fervent opponents of socialism could hardly have imagined that by the end of the twentieth century the apparatchiks of international communism would have slaughtered 150 million of their own citizens.
And who, from the sunny uplands of the Sexual Revolution in the Sixties, prognosticated the epidemics of illegitimacy, abortion, fatherless households, crime, drug addiction, or AIDS that have since demoralized and depopulated the democracies of the West?
As Joe Sobran has remarked, “Never mind what history will say. We can’t even draw the right lessons from our own experience.”
Harley Price has taught courses on religion, philosophy, literature, and history at the University of Toronto, U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, and Tyndale University College. He blogs at Priceton.org.