Is There Progress in Religion?

I wanted to pull this exchange out of the comments, because I thought it was worth highlighting:

“Science is constantly evolving and improving on itself”.

I AGREE. The same as our understanding of God is constantly evolving and improving.

In response, I came back with what I thought was a perfectly reasonable request:

If that’s really the case, then please list some of the new things we’ve learned about God in the past few hundred years.

Unsurprisingly, this occasioned much stumbling and fumbling. Ultimately, the best this commenter could come up with were some vague and mystical deepities about how “God and heaven exist within each of us,” and an insistence that “the primary path to building a personal relationship with God is Prayer, Meditation, Silence”. As I pointed out, this is essentially identical to the beliefs of the desert hermits of the first century. Some progress!

If all that scientists had accomplished since the Enlightenment was a continual stream of reiterated assertions that skepticism and peer review are necessary to gain knowledge, we’d be right to disregard them. Instead, science has proved its worth with a tangible record of accomplishment. In just a few hundred years of empirical investigation of the natural world, we’ve gone from wooden sailing ships to orbiting space stations; from carrier pigeons to fiber-optic cables; from water clocks to supercomputing clusters. We’ve learned to modify the human body through organ transplants, tissue engineering, genetic manipulation. We’ve unraveled the roots of heredity, peered down to the roots of matter, enumerated the principles that bind the universe together at all scales from the fall of an apple to the whirl of a galaxy, and made many more breakthroughs as well. Science wins because it works.

And where is religion after all this – what comparable progress have the theologians made in this time? The answer is that they’re still standing exactly where they’ve always been, reciting the same empty proverbs they’ve been handing down for thousands of years. In fact, some of them are determinedly marching backwards, based on the assumption that only old beliefs can be true and human knowledge can only decay, not increase, over time – therefore, the best thing we can possibly do is look to our most distant and superstitious ancestors.

If there had ever been any genuine progress in religion, we would see concrete evidence of it. As I wrote in 2008, in “The View from the Ground“:

What advances have come about in two millennia and more of prayer and theology? More potent faith healing? More effective prayers, with a markedly improved response rate? More and better prophets who can do more and better miracles? Forgiveness for sins that could not previously be forgiven? No, religion is in the same place it always was…

Let me emphasize again, that if you really believe “our understanding of God is constantly improving”, these aren’t unreasonable expectations! Improved knowledge and understanding always brings practical benefits. But although believers tout articles like “Seven Keys to More Effective Prayers“, they notably fail to explain just what this “effectiveness” consists of.

To again quote myself:

An atheist like myself, of course, would say that that’s because God doesn’t exist and religious believers are just squabbling over a fiction. Science undeniably is based on something real about which we can reach consensus, namely the physical world, which is why our understanding of it continues to grow and improve, bringing about enormous material gain and tangible progress as a side benefit. If religion were based on anything real, it would be able to show the same improvement. It isn’t, and it can’t.

The obvious apologetic defense is that religion doesn’t progress in this way, nor should we expect it to, because God is mysterious and inscrutable. But I always notice that this claim is deployed very selectively. Religious apologists don’t hesitate to claim knowledge of God and his motives when it’s rhetorically convenient. It’s only when the internal logic or the historical record of religion is questioned that they resort to the ineffability defense. As I’ve pointed out many times before, if it were really true that theists couldn’t understand God’s motives, they’d have no grounds to praise him as good, loving, merciful, or just. The most you could say would be that God is amoral and random from our perspective, like a force of nature – and hardly any of them are willing to do that.

Image: Public domain illustration from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, via Open Library

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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.