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The Myth That the Human Race Is Making Moral Progress
by Max Aplin
11/12/2017 / Christian Apologetics
It seems clear that large numbers of people today think that the human race is, generally speaking, making moral progress. Many clearly believe that on balance human beings tend to behave better now than they did in the past, and that we should expect this trend to continue.
That is not to say that those who take this view think this progress is rapid or without bumps along the way. But they do believe that the human race is basically moving forwards morally.
In Western countries at least, this seems to be the majority view. For example, how often have you heard someone, referring to some evil act or other, say:
“How could this happen in the twenty-first century?”
People say things like this all the time. And when they do, they are implying that although we might have expected the evil thing in question to have happened in times gone by, it is unexpected in our time of greater moral progress.
Sadly, however, this idea that people are making moral progress is nothing more than a myth. It fails to take account of recent history or what goes on in the world today. And it fails to appreciate the corrupt state of the human condition.
Failure to take account of recent history
In some ways at least, it is really quite strange that anyone believes that people are progressing morally. Humans have been around for thousands of years, yet recent history provides us with numerous examples of terrible evils that have been committed.
Take murder as a key example. Is it really true that people in recent times have been less inclined to commit murder than they were some centuries or millennia ago? The Nazi Holocaust, for instance, that murdered six million Jews, is still within living memory. The slaughter of millions in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge took place as recently as the 1970s. And more recent still are the murder in Rwanda of almost one million people in one hundred days in 1994 and the following deaths of millions in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Failure to recognize what goes on today
Even at the present time, murder is something that occurs frequently in our world. Islamist militants, including the group known as ISIS, are busy murdering people whenever they get the opportunity. Drug gangs kill tens of thousands every year. And murders as a result of domestic violence account for many deaths.
Besides murder, there are plenty of other evils in our world that are very widespread. Sexual violence against women and the sexual abuse of children are both extremely common. So are human trafficking, assault, extortion and theft.
Is it really the case that people are less likely to commit these evils today than they were some centuries ago? I admit that I am not in a position to make an accurate comparison, but I can’t help thinking that anyone who says they are has a lot of convincing to do.
Human evil today is enormous
Many other evils that commonly occur today could be added to the above list. In short, it should be obvious that the evil that occurs in our world at the present time is enormous.
I would suggest that those who believe that the world is slowly becoming a morally improved place and that people are learning how to behave better are deluding themselves. It is true that terrible evils took place in the more distant past as they do today. But to suppose that people are progressing morally is just a myth.
Drawing false conclusions from progress in some areas
I think modern Westerners look back to things like slavery that were openly accepted in the past, and they often suppose that the criminalization of such things points to progress in people. Or they look at changes in attitude like the way racial prejudice is less prevalent now than it used to be, and they think this means that people are morally better than they used to be.
What they fail to recognize, however, is that other evils have arisen in Western countries to take the place of those that have become less of a problem. When slavery was legal, for example, freely available abortion, a terrible offense to God, was illegal. So-called “gay marriage,” something else that is very offensive to God, was also not on the agenda.
Fashions in morals come and go. And in any part of the world, it is probably true most of the time that some things are changing for the better and others for the worse. But the idea that people are progressing morally is not supported by the evidence.
Confusing progress in technology with progress in morality
I think another reason why many believe that human beings are making moral progress is because they confuse advances in technology with the advance of humans themselves. For example, when people benefit from newly invented medical treatments, it might superficially seem that people themselves are making progress.
This, however, is to compare apples with oranges. There is a world of difference between technological progress and real change in the moral status of people. Advances in technology do not carry the genuine advance of humanity with them.
Something terribly wrong with human beings
Looking at the world around us, then, should not lead us to believe that human beings are making slow moral progress. Placing hope in the moral advancement of humanity is nothing other than an exercise in futility.
In fact, I would suggest that according to honestly-evaluated human experience, there is surely something terribly wrong with the entire human race. Even if only a minority of us commit what are commonly viewed as the worst types of evils, there is still something genuinely bad about all human beings. We have all at times consciously chosen to do things that we have known are morally wrong. And what is more, we are unable to choose to act perfectly. It is simply not possible for someone to decide that they will live a perfect life from that point forward. There is something morally damaged about everyone at a very deep level.
Using biblical language, we can say that all human beings have sinned and are under the power of sin. This is a difficult and in some ways mysterious subject, but it is extremely serious. You often hear people joking about sins or about acting immorally, but those who do this have been badly deceived. To do anything wrong is to defy almighty God, and the foolishness of that can hardly be overstated. If God is just, as He is, and if justice involves punishing wrongdoing, as it does, then it is enormously foolish to do something wrong. You are basically inviting God to punish you. And there is a sense in which defying the infinite God is infinitely serious.
The Christian message of good news
In the face of human sinfulness, however, the Christian faith presents a message of good news. This is that God in His love offers free forgiveness to anyone who will accept it. Nevertheless, He has arranged exactly how we should receive this forgiveness.
Crucially, the idea, found among so many, that God forgives those who simply believe that He exists and ask Him for forgiveness, is completely wrong. It cannot be stressed strongly enough that just apologizing to God for what you have done wrong will not result in your sins being forgiven. That is not something that God has planned or does.
To be sure, apologizing and turning away from sin is part of what is needed. But the other essential part is to have faith in Jesus Christ as the one who saves us. We must personally claim the benefits of His crucifixion and resurrection. We need to hold out our hand to Him, so to speak, so that He can place the gift of forgiveness in it. This is the way of receiving forgiveness that God has designed.
I don’t pretend to know why God has ordained this specific route to forgiveness. Given that Jesus died on the cross for all people, I don’t know why God doesn’t just forgive those who apologize to Him and repent whether they have heard of Jesus or not. I don’t understand why they have to have faith in Christ.
Nevertheless, I am content to accept that God is infinitely greater than I am and that His ways are perfect whether I understand them or not. I am also keenly aware that those, including myself, who have taken this step of repentance and faith in Christ testify that it has resulted in a new form of spiritual life.
If you have never taken this step, I would urge you to do so today. Don’t wait until tomorrow. You could die in your sleep tonight and lose your chance.
I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com
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