Import jQuery

On Human Progress, Real and Imagined

Is world is getting better or worse?

I recently polled my Facebook friends and the trend was clear:

My Facebook friends aren’t alone.

In Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World-And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling polled UN diplomats, university professors, diverse groups of people from all over the world.

The outcome was almost always the same: “The world is getting worse.”

And yet, measurably, the world is getting better. A few examples to convince you:

Lifespan: Life expectancy has increased from 40 to 75 in the last century. Fewer infants die in childbirth, and fewer mothers die giving birth. 1 in 100 expectant mothers died in 1800, now less than 1 in 10,000.

Disease: We’ve eradicated smallpox, we’ve wiped out polio. We recently developed a cure for Hepatitis C, and we’re close to a cure for malaria.

Poverty: 90% of the world used to live in extreme poverty: no running water, no toilet, no stove, no shoes, no transportation. Today, extreme poverty has all but been eradicated in the West, and worldwide only 10% remain in extreme poverty. Fewer people are starving.

Even in the most rural parts of deep African jungles, humans have access to electricity. Likewise, more people than ever have access to the giant repository of the sum total of all human knowledge: the internet. We can read books for $1, one-click purchase on Amazon.

(Fun story: I boarded a plane last week, and as it began to taxi before takeoff, I realized I didn’t have a book to read. In 15 seconds – before I lost cellular service – I quickly whipped out my phone, navigated to Amazon, searched for an ebook I had planned to read, bought it and downloaded to my offline reader app. All in mere seconds before I took flight in my air conditioned flying machine. Have you ever considered just how amazing that is?)

We own personal giant air-conditioned thrones we call cars,  we consume cheap airfare and can cross oceans in a few hours, we have plenty (too much?) food, and haven’t seen either plague or famine in our lifetimes.

HumanProgress and OurWorldInData document all this and more – showing through raw data that the world is measurably and tangibly getting better.

Religious people don’t like this. We want to believe the world is getting worse before the apocalypse.

Secular people don’t like this either. They believe the world is getting worse because of the climate. And Brexit. And Trump. And race/class/gender inequalities.

But the world is getting better.

Rosling’s book is wonderful and I recommend it. For me, though, it raised some difficult questions:

  1. Do the optimists have blind spots where values are concerned? (For example: is access to abortion really progress? Rosling thinks so.)
  2. How do we view human progress through history, e.g. the Roman empire? Was the world better off or worse off because of Rome? Did Rome mislabel some things as progress?

Blind spots and mislabeling human progress

As I read through Factfulness, I found myself cheering on the author, championing human progress at every turn. (I’ve long been an advocate of modern medicine, technology and science, arguing that people of faith should embrace these wonders and put away pseudoscience and medical quackery.)

Chapter after chapter I nodded in agreement, adding more ammunition to my arguments about why the world is getting better.

Until I came across a statement that made my heart sink. In his section on human sexuality, praising the correlation between richer families and fewer children, Rosling states,

“A woman’s right to an abortion is supported by just about everyone in Sweden today.”

He goes on to describe how Sweden was formerly so conservative and repressed, but now – look at us! – we’re so progressive, no one thinks abortion is bad or immoral.

Rosling admits that he may have blind spots. Might abortion be such a blind spot?

Rosling’s Swedish culture and time in history certainly see the killing of unwanted children as progress. But how do we know that’s really progress? Might we be wrong about what’s progress and what’s not?

Certainly much of what counts as “human progress” indeed is progress. I have no doubt eradication polio and smallpox are real progress. It reduces human suffering. Likewise for reduction of poverty, fewer malnourished and starving, and so on.

But it’s not clear on issues like abortion or capital punishment. Capital punishment Rosling derides, calling it human progress to eradicate capital punishment and preserve the lives of civilization’s worst murders.

How do we know what’s progress and what is masquerading as such?

Our second question helps here:

Historically, what was progress and what was mistaken as progress?

Thinking about human progress through history made me consider the Roman Empire. It undoubtedly saw advances in human progress.

Roads, aqueducts and running water, military and technological advances, education, philosophy, histories and written records, and even medicine.

But, historically, it also produced things that we now call backwards, brutish, or downright evil.

  • Public torture and crucifixion of political rebels.
  • Death and murder as entertainment.
  • Exposing unwanted infants to the gods/wild animals.
  • Pedastery; sexual relations between a grown man and a boy.
  • Emperors worshiped as divine, with full cities (e.g. Caesarea) devoted to worship.
  • Slave labor

Undoubtedly, the culture of Rome once called these things “human progress.”

How is it that the same Roman Empire that brought advances like running water, paved roads, education and philosophy, also publicly tortured and murdered the world’s only sinless human? (Not to mention destroying God’s house in Jerusalem in 135 AD, still yet to be rebuilt even after 2000 years.)

Western civilization is like this too. Despite all the amazing advances in the last 200 years, the West also produced the two bloodiest wars in human history. Encompassing the whole globe! It had never happened before. Enlightened Europe, with its bejeweled crown of philosophy, education, and theological centers in Germany, produced Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust.

If ancient Rome had blind spots in their own progressive society, might we be making the same mistake? Do we have blind spots in our optimism about how great things are?

Almost certainly.

There is real progress, but there is also mislabeled progress. Abortion is one such issue. It will be seen in the way Roman infant exposure is now seen: brutish, inhumane, immoral. (Or in a less religious standpoint, some people have argued that eating animals will eventually be seen as barbaric.)

In the West, while we’ve eradicated slavery, we have things that may be blind spots in our praise of human progress:

  • Legal and even championed abortions (e.g. Michelle Wolf’s Netflix special and its “Salute to Abortion”)
  • Fighting-to-brain-damage as entertainment in the form of boxing and MMA.
  • Normalized sexual deviancy, such that we introduced HIV to the human race.
  • New addictive chemical substances like cocaine and heroine, destroying millions of lives in the process.
  • Continue to increase the power of our government, such that individual freedom is reduced as dependency on the government is increased.
  • Due to new world communication, we have global alliances that caused 2 wars of unprecedented scale: two World Wars that were more bloody that the world had ever seen.
  • Invented weapons that can wipe out entire nations in the blink of a nuclear explosion. Their full power isn’t even known; some modern weapons may set the atmosphere on fire and destroy nearly all life on earth.
  • Our economic system praises consumption, but through our consumption we pollute the earth; whole swaths of ocean are now covered in plastic or oil. Land masses are deforested, polluted, or otherwise contaminated, making them uninhabitable for most life. Thousands of species have gone extinct.
  • Because of scientific progress, atheism has flourished and faith has receded. With God and ultimate justice eliminated, for many, their lives can and have become meaningless; you’re just a meaningless spec of dust with no calling or task in the world except your own pleasure. Morality become relative; there is no real right and wrong.

These are just a few blind spots we may have in the West.

Just as the Roman empire produced great human progress, but also mislabeled some of its backward practices as such, so also our modern culture in the US and Europe. The West, for all its grand achievements, also has backward practices we call progress.

Final thoughts

The world is getting better, though it’s getting worse in certain areas. Not all that is called progress is progress.

So, what is progress?

Things that align with the values God laid out in the Bible.

Reducing human suffering. Caring for widows and orphans. Feeding the hungry. Healing diseases. Compassion for people on the low rungs of society. Wisely exercising dominion over nature. Justice for the wronged. Showing mercy instead of taking vengeance.

The nuts and bolts of faithful living.

These align with the divine values of the Bible. These are real human progress.

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