This topic has been on my mind for a while now and I had the chance to discuss it with some willing sparring partners on Reddit. It brought me a few new perspectives, however, my former opinion remained. And yet after I started writing my arguments down I realized this is a more complicated issue than I thought at first and it does not have an entirely straightforward answer. That is why I decided to give it a fair discussion representing both perspectives rather than arguing for one side, although my leaning will become apparent.
My take on the question of whether Christianity is bad for progress will rest on three grounds, the first being the nature of revelation, the second being Christian pessimism about the future and the third being Christian attitude towards the world. Not to get bogged down in technicalities let us agree on the definition of bad and progress at the outset. By bad I understand not conducive to, and by progress, I understand intellectual, cultural, social, technological and political movement towards an improved state. I am well aware that this opens up another problem, that being, people disagree on what constitutes progress. What is an improved state? To a Muslim, the movement towards the establishment of a global Sharia law constitutes progress whereas this is the exact opposite of what the rest of the non-muslim world would see as progress. For some liberals ensuring that all women have the right to abort constitutes progress, whereas for many Christians this is the exact opposite.
Because of this serious complication, I will specify progress to mean a movement towards an improved state that the vast majority of reasonable people, freed from dogma would consider being an improved state. With that out of the way let us start with the first area.
Let us start with the nature of revelation. When we look back to the time of the patristic period in the first and second century AD there was a strong disagreement among the proponents of a faith-based approach to truth, represented by the “Church Fathers” and a reason-based approach of the Greek philosophers. The difference between these two approaches lies in their source. The reason-based approach relies on the human ability to attain both physical and metaphysical truths either through the usage of the brain alone or in complement to empirical experience. The philosophers believed the human reason to be sufficient for understanding and in fact, a desirable source for our views of the world. The revelation-based approach relies on revealed truth, in Christianity, that being the truth revealed in the Bible. For a number of external and internal reasons, Christians came to believe that the Bible is a reliable source of information about the world. According to Christian revelation, the Bible accurately describes what is important to know for humans, mostly in the metaphysical arena.
Not to get bogged down in particular claims, the reason why the revelation-based approach can be problematic when progress is desired is the following. Revelation is complete, it does not allow for improvement. Christian views on homosexuality are set in stone both by Moses in the Old Testament and Paul in the New Testament. (see Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 & Romans 1:26-27)
As the modern countries of today are moving closer to completely normalizing homosexuality Christian LGBT apologists have to perform word-gymnastics and exegetical acrobatics in order to undermine the obvious interpretation of the text, unknowingly undermining trust in the interpretation of the Bible itself, as can be seen in this HuffPost article. Revelation does not possess the ability to undergo a change of mind, to improve, to undergo progress. Revelation, although possibly not describing all the important truths, nonetheless boldly asserts its claims as divinely inspired, and thus true regardless of the time period they are encountered.
However, one might object that the truthfulness of the revelation is limited to the claims pertaining to redemptive and spiritual themes, not to historical and scientific claims. This is an attitude expressed by some denominations when they are pressed on the issue of inerrancy, however in number they constitute the majority of Christan population.
Being heavily influenced by American Protestantism and reformed theology it took me a while to realize that the majority of self-proclaimed Christians in America, for example, believe in evolution and do not see the Bible as the literal Word of God. (As a caveat, God is thought to be involved in the evolutionary process, and the Bible is thought to be inspired by God, see 1, 2) The reason why is this an important realization is that Christianity will be able to morph with the ongoing global progress because of its exegetical plasticity if Biblical literalism diminishes. Thus, as time will go and the fact that you do not have to be a Biblical literalist and scientific ignoramus in order to be a Christian will be preached from the pulpits, Christian attitudes to the current moral issues might shift, as well as the attitudes towards science and its findings. This is very important because Christian revelation will drop its status of a theory of everything and thus Christians might become motivated to join the global pursuit of yet better ideas of the best ethical theory, of the origin of life, of life on other planets, of genetic enhancement, of fighting aging as a disease. Or maybe I am getting carried away.
Your experience might be different but mine has been that immersing oneself deeply into Christian thinking negatively correlates with enthusiasm towards science at all its fronts, in the sense that not all fronts are seen as appropriate to be of interest to a Chrisitan. Outright hostility or mockery is unnecessary because a plain indifference is enough. The state of indifference leads to the second subject I will now turn to, that being Christian outlook on the future of humanity.
When you look into the book of revelation, the last book of the Bible, mostly in metaphors describing the future of humanity, you will be hard-pressed to find anything about people becoming more moral, rational, egalitarian, globally united, scientifically and technologically advanced, or much of anything we would deem desirable and possible. Rather you find a depiction of moral decadency, division, conflicts, wars, death, misery, fear, and catastrophes. The future depicted in the book of Revelation that is to come before the second coming of Christ is, of course, possible even with our two thousand year hindsight. The danger of a global nuclear conflict combined with the dangers of global warming propagated by human greed and stupidity are not to be taken lightly. However, we are not forced to have this outlook, we can shape our future, we can hope for better and work towards it, hand in hand. The same cannot be said about Christianity unless we ignore the Book of Revelation and some Jesus’ remarks about His second coming. The Book of Revelation is a bleak, pessimistic picture that inspires hope only in devout believers because of the coming of Jesus itself.
Apart from the psychological consequences, the danger in internalizing this view of the future of humanity lies in its ability to make one oblivious to the future of the world, which results in a lack of involvement, stumping progress. Progress looses much of its importance because it is set on a path towards failure from the start. We already know how it will end, and it is not good, so why bother? Why would I get involved in politics, why should I care whether we colonize Mars, cure aging, stop global warming, achieve world peace?
These are only important if they posit an immediate danger to a person, not as a possibility for future generations that should be our top priority.
One might comment that the future of the universe is nowhere less bleak, than the future of the Book of Revelation. The Sun will die out, we will die out, the universe will end as a dark, cold void, ever-expanding. No positivity in there either, so no difference. I have to disagree. First of all, there is the obvious difference that the show goes on for eternity in the Christian outlook. It ends terribly only for the unbelievers and the fallen angels, however, focusing only on the end of human civilization the problem is not necessarily that it ends rather in what way does it end. We already discussed in what style humans depart in Revelation, however, we have no idea how humanity might fare in the future if Revelation will not take place. There are so many possibilities. It is possible we will leave our solar system and begin intergalactic colonization avoiding the problem of the burned-out Sun. Maybe we develop a superintelligent A.I. that will help us break the mysteries of the universe, for example, that our universe is one of many with different properties, solving our issue of an ever-expanding universe. And this all can be done all the while the people of Earth live in peace and harmony among each other, unthreatened by diseases, global conflicts, global warming. There really is not much of a limit to how good the future can be. Of course, if there is a God and He changes His mind about the vast majority of the human population that lived up to the point when He chooses to intervene, and he does not throw them to hell for their deeds and unbelief, the future of humanity can be marvelous as well. The difference is that revelation restricts this positive outlook. The Book of Revelation stops wonder because the “wonder-ful” is already known and written down. This consequently limits the human drive to make the wonderful possibilities of the future happen. In other words, not only revelation but also Revelation is bad for progress.
The last area I would like to touch on is the Christian attitude towards “the world”. “Love not the world” (I John 2:15). “The world passeth away, and the lust thereof” (I John 2:17). “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). “Come out from among them; and be ye separate” (2 Cor. 6:17). These are some of the verses that illustrate another roadblock Christianity brings to progress. It is that Christians should see and make themselves separate from the world around them. In words of one preacher, not to conform: “to its wicked ways, customs or fashions”. The logic is crystal clear. Christians who have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb have no business messing with the filth of this evil world. Apart from the fact that this belief fosters a smug feeling of superiority, I understand this attitude because it strikes some of my non-conformist chords, in the sense of not conforming to the moral attitudes of the modern Westen culture. However, it is a terrible idea to internalize if we people of the Earth desire to work in common towards a better future. This supposed moral separateness of Christians creates a wall between them and the problems of the world. It is yet another thing that distances a group of people from the issues that concern the whole of humanity. Religion in itself creates enough strife between groups, that adding a contempt for the world as a whole is unwise if cooperation is desired, to say the least.
But does this mean that because of this teaching fewer Christians decide to study science? Go into politics? Start a tech business? Be a humanitarian help, not just a preacher? Get involved in the intellectual discussions of today?
I do not know. From personal experience, I know it does, however, there is no data to show a correlation. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to suppose that it could be a roadblock.
This a much more complex issue than I thought at first. I thought it will be a breeze writing down my points and then reaping the benefit of feeling accomplished after finishing the text. A day later and I am still writing and thinking about this.
Humanity will undergo progress whether the individual groups making up global society like the changes or not. Unless we mess up in a spectacular manner such as detonating unsafe version of a seed A.I. or starting a nuclear war, we will improve. Our question was whether Christianity is bad for progress. So what can we say?
The problem when arguing for either side is that it is not clear how the aforementioned factors actually influence people’s attitudes. It not clear whether Christian participation in public affairs is negatively affected by Christian eschatology, or whether a decrease in proponents of biblical literalism will positively correlate with Christian participation in and support of science. It seems like that it is and that it will, however, seems is not a wholly satisfying answer. For that reason, I hope you appreciated this more discursive format, will draw your own conclusions and will further engage with the topic down in the comments. That is how progress is made. Cheers, Andrej.