Two contributors present brief
essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes
independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a
Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of
the traditional Church.
Does religion impede human progress?
If I were to ask Mr or Ms Average, "How would you describe a
religious person?" I might well get an answer something like this:
Religious people believe in God and worship in a church or a
mosque. For them, prayer and meditation are important activities. They
would characterise themselves as spiritual rather than materially
minded. The Bible or Qur'an would be a source book and they would try
to live good lives based on God's Word.
This description, simplistic as it is, doesn't highlight the unspoken
assumption of many religious people - that they have final answers to
life's great mysteries. Final answers remove the need for progress. For
if even only one answer is final, then all questions must ultimately
lead to it. And if you or I know this ultimate truth, then we have no
need to advance except in incidentals.
It is in this sense that religion can impede human progress. For it
produces people who fall into roughly two categories. The first is those
who live as though there are not only right and wrong answers, but also
right and wrong questions. They gravitate to the institutional side of
religion. And institutions inevitably become more concerned with their
own perpetuation than with progress.
The second category is those whose lives are split into two
compartments. One consists of the essentially secular, untouched by
religious concerns. The other compartment goes to church, prays, looks
to divine revelation for guidance - and is not allowed to invade the
secular. This dualism is largely unconscious. Most of the time, neither
part fertilises or challenges the other. The result is sterility and
inertia arising from a separation of "sacred" from "profane".
Religion in this mode tends to be relatively comfortable and cosy. It
produces potted answers to life's dilemmas. But above all, its view of
the world impels it to resist change. It tends to substitute either
formulaic "conversion" or moribund "tradition" for the profound
transformations which life offers us all. In its most bleak, judgmental
and fossilised form, we know it as fundamentalist.
Yet religion has been an essential part of every culture throughout
the ages. It is highly unlikely to disappear. Religion will remain - not
because it is the opium of the people, but because in its right form it
is a valid way of respecting and exploring the mysteries of life.
Interestingly, a few secular people are beginning to wonder if religion
is a useful aspect of society.
However, religion should not be equated with the Church. The truly
religious person is not one who "goes to church" (though a churchgoer
may also be truly religious) but one who enters life and engages it as
completely as possible. This religion is common to all cultures and all
times because it embodies an intense devotion to whatever is perceived
as most meaningful in life. It asks any question and considers any
According to this view, many of those who have never seen the inside
of a church or mosque, and are never likely to, are also the most
religious. Such people, whether in church or out, pose no threat to
progress because new life in its manifold forms moves in and through
I preface my remarks with this definition of progress.
Progress implies continuous improvement or movement toward betterment
and a higher, more advanced stage.
Progress also implies change but it must be noted that change does
not necessarily indicate progress.
In evaluating progress it is essential to identify the sphere of
human activity to be evaluated. Are we talking about science/technology,
political and economic systems, medical care, morality, the arts or
I will focus my evaluation on the broad category of civil society.
By civil society I mean that arrangement of institutions which
maximizes harmony, security and peace within a given community. An ideal
civil society gives every person the opportunity to pursue happiness
In order for a particular community to realize these goals, all
spheres of human activity should be optimized. For this to happen, every
person in the community ought to have freedom to think and act
creatively with the interests of the whole community in mind. This
implies equal possibilities for all, regardless of sex, ethnicity, race
or any other distinguishing human characteristic.
With this background I will finally confront the original question,
does religion impede human progress? Certainly religions have impeded
progress as defined. This occurred primarily because personal freedom
was constricted. I doubt there is any religion that at one time or other
has not violated personal freedom. It happens today.
On the other hand, there can be little question that religion, by
promoting human freedom from tyranny as the Catholic Church did in
Eastern Europe near the end of the Cold War, can have a salutary effect
on human progress. Additionally, many scholars cite the Reformation as a
turning point in the political-economic progress of Western society.
Liberation of the faithful from oppression of the Church led to a flurry
of human creativity resulting in expanded opportunity and economic
Jesus famously said, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are
Caesar�s, and to God the things that are God�s" (Matthew 22.21). To me
this indicates Jesus' clear view on the separation of church and state.
Where there is hegemony over all areas of human activity there is
oppression. Where there is oppression, be it religious or secular, human
Thus, my answer to the main question is mixed. Religion can, has, and
in some cases will probably continue to impede human progress. It
doesn�t necessarily have to be.