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A secular prayer for progress

By July 24, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

I recently wrote a post in praise of John Gray, for whom the idea of human progress is as much a myth as a flat earth.  His arguments are a bracing, exhilarating, intellectual tour de force.

But when you see what this idea looks like in practice, it’s terrifying.

You don’t need to read Gray to understand how much is at stake in this article about the South African university system, which after a wave of peaceful integration in the late 90s … has voluntarily re-segregated over the past 10 years.

If you can read that article without your faith in mankind blinking, you’re tougher than me.

There’s also profoundly valuable information here for our own future:  the understanding that there is a tipping point when minorities make up 30 percent of an actively participating population, and that at this point they expect the institution they participate in not just to welcome them on its terms, but to start to accommodate theirs.

It’s a reasonable request – and the beginning of majority panic, “white flight,” and riots. 

We can use this information to do better … can’t we?  Few historically white institutions in America have reached a 30% tipping point, except perhaps our democracy itself – and look how polarized that’s become.  So if we know it’s coming, we can learn from South Africa’s example, right?

This is where John Gray says no, probably not – at least not quickly.  In his view, if it can happen at all it must happen slowly, carefully, over time, so that the institutions of society are not destroyed by the accommodation.

No one can reasonably think that’s a just solution to a human crime of this magnitude.  It’s unthinkable – unless Gray’s right.

Unless there’s no other option, because there’s nothing inevitable about the small justices we have pulled from nature and chaos – and they are far more likely to shatter under strain than they are to bend and grow.

But that is unacceptable to anyone with a conscience.

So of course we hold our heads high and believe in the miracle of progress, singing its hymns.  We’re trying to desegregate a school, goddamnit:  surely that’s within our power!  Surely we can accomplish that small thing without waiting for generations!


This, I think, is what it feels like for secular humanists to pray:  to look at the world as it is and to believe, in spite of all evidence, that we have the capacity in us to make it better this time.  That there is some reserve of nobility as yet untapped, some reservoir of compassion not yet found… some spirit that can allow us to transcend our nature.  We must live in a world where we can successfully integrate a school where everyone already wants integration!

Or feed a village.

Or fight malaria.

Right?  We must!

And so we believe in progress, meaningful progress – rather than just ups and downs, the tide receding, then flowing back in again.

That’s fine for the tide, we think:  but we are marching to Zion.

God help us.