In my Monday post The Failures Of Progress — What Has Been Lost, I concluded by asking the reader whether he agreed with the following statements.
Specifically, I want you to think about these propositions concerning what characterizes a Good Society. Do you disagree with any of the following?
- Tradition has great value
- Continuity has great value
- Conservation has great value
- Stability has great value
- Constraints (on behavior) have great value
All these things, these great values, have been lost in America, a society which more than any other was founded on (or at least taken over by) the ideology of progress. All these things have been effectively lost in the name of progress.
Tradition, continuity and the rest are not pure, unalloyed virtues. They must be tempered with progressive values. Humans need to keep the good and throw out the bad. You don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Religion affords a good example.
Religious belief is a source of stability in most people's lives. It provides an ethical (or moral) framework which guides their actions. The notion that there is a final arbiter, a Higher Power, judging people's actions forms a valuable constraint on human behavior. As it is, more than 9 in 10 Americans continue to believe in God, despite all this progress. That may constitute a state of ignorance to some, but that's not how ordinary human beings function. That's simply the Human Reality.
Asking people to "get over it" in this context is like trying to stop a glacier from moving forward by standing in front of it and pushing back. Radical atheists (or whatever they call themselves) like comedian Bill Maher and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who have decided to wage a war on religion, are wholly misguided. Hyper-rationalism itself is irrational, an overreach. It's a lot like scientism, in which an absolute, unquestioning faith in science and technology becomes religious in nature.
Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful.
In the weak sense, scientism is the view that the methods of the natural sciences should be applied to any subject matter.
As a corollary to the weak sense, we might add that the blind faith that only technological solutions following from scientific knowledge are valid (have value) is itself a religious belief, and a very dangerous one, too. It's only a very short step from this belief to geoengineering to "fix" the climate problem. Instead of consuming less oil to mitigate the economic effects of future shortfalls, we will convert our arable land to "grow energy" instead, liquify coal, mine Alberta's tar sands, or do God Knows What to keep the economy growing. This kind of "rational thinking" will lead to our demise.
The problem with science is that it has virtually nothing to say about morality or ethics, or value generally, whereas traditional religion often does have something useful to say about values. A society which looks down its nose at such traditions, as "liberals" tend to do, will quickly become a society which can't distinguish What is Good from What is Not. And that's precisely the kind of society America has become. I am using the term "liberals" in the sense I described in my original post.
Despite the virtues of religious traditions, we can't imagine doing without rigorous enforcement of religious tolerance, nor should we. Down that road lies disaster, even as we try to maintain a viable moral framework to guide human action. No one can doubt the value of this progressive reform. Thus we keep the good and throw out the bad. It is a matter of balance. And when science does have something important to tell us, as it does with respect to anthropogenic climate change, we must all learn, even the religious people who think God will take care of things, to listen. When marine scientists tell us the oceans are dying, we need to listen. That's called Wisdom, a quality which is nowhere to be found in American society.
But even as we talk about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it appears that we will lose the baby anyway, if we have not already done so. Let's unpeel the progress onion, to wit—
Wealth and income inequality in the United States are greater than at any time since the 1920s. That situation is only getting worse. This is progress? The United States is generally falling apart at the seams. I document that every day on DOTE. This is progress?
All of this progress is rapidly undoing itself. If America does become a "failed state" in some sense, as so many observers now expect, and we enter a new "Dark Age" sometime in the next 20 years, where will the precious progress of the liberals be then? If you think traditional religious belief is a threat to progress now, just wait.
It is high time to acknowledge the failures of progress. As I said in part I, progress is based on the view that the Human Condition can be continually "improved" in some sense, whereas the bulk of the evidence in the wake of all this progress points to no lasting improvement at all. We would like to keep the important improvements we have achieved, things like religious tolerance and other provisions the Founding Fathers put in the Bill of Rights, but it now seems more and more likely that we will lose all of them if we keep "progressing" down our current path.
The "improvement" doctrine rests upon the assumption that humans are rational beings. I just briefly demonstrated to you that they are not. Worshiping God is not rational. Worshiping technology is not rational. Worshiping anything is not rational. It's not an accident that economists base their views on Homo economicus, who is a rational accounting machine. Humans are not rational about money. They've never been rational about money, which they equate with personal survival itself. They're not rational about crude oil either, because it's so precious. That's just the way it is. It doesn't matter what I think, or what you think. I'm merely pointing this Great Truth out to you. I'm merely the messenger bringing you the Bad News. So don't shoot the messenger.
America is a society which badly needs some respect for tradition, continuity, conservation, stability, and constraints on behavior. We need these things to counterbalance all the economic and political rape & pillage which is going on now, and has been going on for years. And I would say that's also true of all the countries in the developed world, and in emerging economies like China as well.
As things stand, the Earth's longer-term habitability is now in question. That's largely due to our irrational, unquestioning faith in free markets, democratic governments and technology to make our lives better and better. Our "democratic" government so many people place so much faith in is becoming a greater and greater threat to our liberty. Power and reason are like oil and water. Those free markets so many people worship blew up the global economy, and will do so again. Technology, the handmaiden of economic growth, is making the Earth unlivable.
Although there is much more I could say here, I'm going to leave it that. I could write a book about the failures of progress. If it is indeed the noble goal of some of us to live gently on the Earth, the only way to accomplish that goal is to reconcile ourselves to our Human Nature, and stop telling ourselves fairy tales about the future. A good starting point would be to consider the things we have lost due to all this progress, and try to embrace those things, at least in part, before we lose everything.