In Defense of Optimism

Among the writers who oppose the New Atheists, one common theme in their criticism is that we’re too optimistic about the possibility of human progress. For example, take this essay by Terry Eagleton attacking Richard Dawkins, in which the sneering condescension drips from every word:

It thus comes as no surprise that Dawkins turns out to be an old-fashioned Hegelian when it comes to global politics, believing in a zeitgeist (his own term) involving ever increasing progress, with just the occasional ‘reversal’. ‘The whole wave,’ he rhapsodises in the finest Whiggish manner, ‘keeps moving.’ There are, he generously concedes, ‘local and temporary setbacks’ like the present US government – as though that regime were an electoral aberration, rather than the harbinger of a drastic transformation of the world order that we will probably have to live with for as long as we can foresee [ed.note: this was written during the Bush administration]. Dawkins, by contrast, believes, in his Herbert Spencerish way, that ‘the progressive trend is unmistakable and it will continue.’ So there we are, then: we have it from the mouth of Mr Public Science himself that aside from a few local, temporary hiccups like ecological disasters, famine, ethnic wars and nuclear wastelands, History is perpetually on the up.

The venom is even more apparent in another essay by Chris Hedges, which fulminates against atheists for not all being nihilists like himself:

There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression, and economic exploitation and to accelerate environmental degradation as well as to nurture and sustain life. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving toward a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.

…the New Atheists, like all believers in myth, refuse to listen. They peddle the alluring and enticing fantasy of inevitable moral and material progress. This vision is not based on science, history or reason. It is an act of faith. It is a form of the occult. It is no more scientifically legitimate than alchemy.

Despite the flippancy and the anger of those who issue it, this is a challenge worth meeting on its own ground. Are we New Atheists unjustifiably optimistic? Do we too readily discount the potential for evil in mankind? Have we, as some of these critics would surely charge, replaced the unfounded faith in Heaven with an equally unfounded faith in human progress?

These are legitimate questions. To answer them, I’ll begin by citing a few statistics.

If you lived in a hunter-gatherer society prior to the advent of modern civilization, what were your chances of dying by violence? The anthropologist Steven LeBlanc, in his book Constant Battles, estimates that in some primitive societies it was as high as fifty percent. And that’s solely from deliberately waged warfare between competing tribes, without counting additional deaths from disease, accident, or starvation. As Steven Pinker puts it in What Are You Optimistic About?:

Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries… has shown that the overall trend is downward [p.4].

The wars of the 20th century caused untold devastation and suffering, but part of the reason for the great loss of life was simply that, due to industrialization and population growth, there were more people around to kill. Yet as a percentage of the total population, the number of people who lose their lives to violence has been declining for centuries. The 17th century’s Thirty Years’ War, for instance, may have killed as many as two-thirds of the population in some areas, whereas in World War II, even the countries that suffered the most generally lost no more than about 5% of their population.

John Horgan, in another chapter from the same book, puts the comparison vividly:

In War Before Civilization, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that in the blood-soaked 20th century 100 million men, women and children died from war-related causes… The total would have been 2 billion, Keeley notes, if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society. [p.7]

By Keeley’s numbers, violence in primitive societies was twenty times as high as in ours. And the trend of decreasing violence is on a path to continue. It’s widely agreed that the wars of the future, rather than conventional conflicts between great powers, will be what Charles Kurzman and Neil Englehart call “the remnants of war”, asymmetric conflicts between states and non-state actors like terrorist and guerrilla groups. For all their power to grab the headlines with lurid acts of violence, these types of conflicts will incur still lower death tolls than the wars of eras past.

In areas aside from warfare, the statistics still paint an optimistic picture. Over the last few decades, global poverty rates, infant mortality and other negative indicators have steadily fallen, while literacy, life expectancy, per capita income, and other positive indicators continue to rise. One of the more underappreciated factors contributing to this trend may be the ongoing urbanization of the world’s population. As Stewart Brand puts it, “cities cure poverty” – consistently producing a drop in birthrate and a rise in economic prosperity among those who migrate to urban centers.

We have completely cured smallpox, and stand on the brink of wiping out several other contagious diseases, like polio, through worldwide campaigns of vaccination. “Soft” indicators of progress, like democracy, transparency in government and protection for human rights, are harder to measure, but in these areas as well, there are significant signs of progress globally (with, of course, many exceptions and local reversals).

None of this, of course, is to say that the world is on a smooth and inevitable trajectory towards utopia. A terrible, genocidal war might begin tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade. There will still be natural disasters, crime and terrorism for the foreseeable future. Human rights, in all places and times, must be vigilantly defended against those who try to take them away. The looming crisis of global climate change still demands swift and decisive action if we are to avert the worst of its effects. And there will most likely be new challenges we must face in the future that we have not yet thought of or foreseen.

But these events, terrible as they are for those who experience them, should still be viewed against the appropriate background: as frustratingly slow as it is, as halting and zigzag as it is, progress is happening. The world is becoming a better place. The world we live in today is a far better place than the world a hundred years ago, and the world a hundred years from now will in all likelihood be better still. If your eyes are always riveted on the latest sensationalistic news report, moral progress is easy to miss – but it’s happening regardless. On the grand scale of history, the human species is rising. (And as an atheist, I might add one more hopeful sign: the ongoing rise in the numbers of nonbelievers throughout the industrialized world!)

One wonders at the motivation of those who insist that moral progress is impossible. There’s one causal factor that can’t be overlooked. Namely, the evidence is unequivocal that happy, contented, economically secure people see less need for religion. Religion always flourishes among the poor, the downtrodden, the underclass – people who console themselves over their lack of power and prosperity in this world by believing that they’ll get their just desserts in the next – and understandably so.

But the corollary is that the evangelists of religion have something to lose from moral progress. In a very real sense, they need the world to contain its measure of pain and misery, because the promise of relief from same is one of their selling points. The more peaceful, the more prosperous human society becomes, the less receptive people will be to their message. Small wonder, then, that they insist progress is a fool’s dream. Their worldview depends on people believing this to be true!

Granted, it would be too harsh to attribute these sinister motives to every religious apologist. Some of them may just be irrefragable pessimists. But whether their pessimism is a personality trait or whether it’s strategic, in either case, there are good reasons to think it’s unfounded.

New on the Guardian: Non-Religious Theists
On Moral Superheroism
Are Atheist Kids More Altruistic?
Weekend Coffee: November 8
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.