The Enlightenment myth of progress

April 26, 2020 by Rev. Jacques Nel

The new atheists simply assert that once we emerged from the proverbial medieval dark ages, we were now firmly placed on a path to enlightenment.


That is provided we stay the course. Is learning the lessons of history a guarantee for success, or is history simply telling us who we were at a certain point in time? Certainly, the Enlightenment brought us progress on many levels. Pestilence, famine, and natural catastrophe are no longer just seen as the work of an angry deity. These are now well understood enemies. Understanding is the first step towards defeating humanity's common enemies.

Science took us to the moon and the bottom of the ocean. Hopefully soon we will be sailing to worlds far beyond that. This urge to explore the cosmos is as much a part of what we are, as it should be to find the author of it all. The psalmist says: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is humankind that you are mindful of them?” Science, as an offshoot of the Enlightenment, is a noble pursuit. It gave us far more light than darkness. I have absolutely no quarrel with science.

Dark side?

Unfortunately the Enlightenment also had a darker side which is often overlooked. It led to the belief that certain truths are established beyond any reasonable doubt. That is an article of faith, built on the belief in the human ability to always find the right answer by way of reason. This led to a utopian idealism, that given enough time and effort, we ourselves can successfully shape the future.

If this was true, we certainly would no longer need what was revealed by prophets and recorded in ancient manuscripts. In reality what did we get from these prophets of the Enlightenment and the hubris they helped to create? We got Stalinism, Nazism, Maoism, and arrogant Nationalism, leading us into an endless series of wars and unimaginable cruelty. In another form, it instilled a naive faith that democratic institutions will never fail us, because the majority must always be right, by way of their own reason. Any honest student of human history will not call this progress.

Human reason is limited

Daniel in Babylon and John on the island of Patmos, saw visions of beasts rising from the sea, trampling the earth underfoot. The beasts, we are told, will be an almost endless succession of worldly kingdoms. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans have left their marks on world history. Into our own times, we saw this march of power and empire. Inspired by the Enlightenment's trust in human reason, Rousseau, Marx, and many others prophesied a new and a better world. They imagined a world made in our own likeness.

Can these prophets of the Enlightenment be trusted, or are we dealing here with the one who has horns like a lamb but speaks like a dragon? What did John really see on the island of Patmos? The manifestations of our ideology and pride appear benign. They have horns like a lamb. They promise us security and progress. Listen again carefully, and you will hear the voice of the one who wants to be God. Do not blindly buy into the Enlightenment myth of human progress. That is the path to ruin and calamity.

We can eat from all the trees in the garden. The whole world is given to us. Hopefully soon, we will even be on our way to the stars. Nevertheless, of the tree in the middle of the garden, you may not eat. Wanting to be like God, and having the knowledge of Good and Evil, that remains forbidden. There is an angel with a flickering flaming sword, guarding the gate to paradise. History will not disclose the Übermensch as Nietzsche claimed. Instead, the relentless, ruthless march of human history continues to be dominated by our dark side and our progress from the slingshot to the atom bomb. What Enlightenment!

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