Editor's note: This essay is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
“If man stops believing in God, he will start believing in anything.” — attributed to G.K. Chesterton
The Judeo-Christian tradition has many prohibitions against idolatry but few against atheism. Perhaps early theists understood that humans are homo religious — religious beings by nature who will always seek out an object of worship. Joshua did not say, “Choose you this day whether you will serve,” but, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve.” According to novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “If a man rejects God, he will have to worship an idol of wood, gold, or ideas.” Since we all need meaning and higher purpose in our lives, there is no way out of worship, there is only a choice of what to worship (something even evolutionary biologists are now acknowledging).
In our current society, worship of the Judeo-Christian God is being replaced by the worship of a “God of History,” the deity of the “Religion of Progress.” This religion permeates our culture, largely shapes public discourse, and has a major impact on popular thinking. It can be summarized in a three-part creed:
1. History is unfolding in a pre-determined direction
2. The enlightened know what that direction is
3. That direction is good
In the past, the Religion of Progress was embodied in movements and theories such as Marxism, fascism, and Hegelianism; today it is alive and well on both sides of our political spectrum. The “left” pays overt homage to the God of History with the “progressive” label, while many on the “right” believe history inevitably points to peace and prosperity under the free market or to universal democracy through American military intervention. In the Religion of Progress, History is an omnipotent, omnipresent force that acts in and through all things, and will bring eventual salvation to society. The “arc of history,” we are often told, “bends towards justice.”
But unlike other deities, the God of History makes few demands; just make sure you’re “on the right side of history.” Individuals can’t change the God of History’s doings, they can only align themselves with his will, thereby proving themselves to be among the elect.
For most versions of the Religion of Progress, another sign of virtue is powerlessness. This view replaces the mistaken 19th century imperialist maxim — “might makes right” — with the opposite but equally mistaken maxim — “might makes wrong.” People who belong to historically powerful or advantaged groups — males, whites, the wealthy, Americans — are often viewed as inherently evil by virtue of their perceived position of privilege, while anyone who belongs to a historically disadvantaged group — women, racial minorities, the poor, inhabitants of the Third World — are righteous by virtue of their perceived lack of power. Being born into “privilege” is the Religion of Progress equivalent of original sin.
Those willing to approach the question of power rationally rather than dogmatically realize that belonging to a group does not, in itself, confer any moral standing on someone — there are good and bad people in all groups — but the God of History denies agency. People are saved either through identification with an oppressed group or through identification with the Religion of Progress — being on the right side of history.
Like most religious believers, history worshippers don’t arrive at their beliefs through rational inquiry, but through a faith commitment. The doctrines of the Religion of Progress are final, absolute and closed to further discussion. Just as Christians don’t question the will of Christ, history worshippers don’t question the will of history. Since those disagreeing with any of these dogmas are clearly “on the wrong side of history,” they are not to be engaged and debated, but marginalized and silenced.
Since young adults are particularly given to religious zeal, it’s understandable that the most fanatical history worshippers would be found on college campuses. The high priests of the Religion of Progress (the faculty) convert and instruct their acolytes (students) in seminaries (classrooms) and then turn them loose to stop anyone from polluting the church (university) with blasphemy (dissenting ideas). You can’t debate God (history), you can only shut down those who oppose his will.
Accordingly, Charles Murray, Heather Macdonald, Christina Hoff Sommers, Bret Weinstein and others who dissent from the Religion of Progress are heretics to be driven from the temple — by violence if needs be. The same religious zeal that led Puritans to persecute innocents as witches in 1690s Salem is leading students to persecute innocents as heretics today. The problem with colleges is not — as is commonly believed — that they have become secularized; the problem is that they have become temples of a new religion.
History worship is attractive and growing for two primary reasons: permissiveness and popularity. As a matter of doctrine, the Religion of Progress denies human agency and therefore absolves people of responsibility for their actions. Since virtue comes from being on the “right side of history,” rather than from repentance, adherents to the Religion of Progress can freely indulge in substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and general hedonism. Anyone who condemns such behavior is clearly an opponent of the Religion of Progress and can be accordingly dismissed as, “intolerant,” “bigoted,” “reactionary,” “racist,” “sexist,” “fascist,” “imperialist,” etc. This gives history worshippers a sense of moral superiority to go along with their hedonism.
The Religion of Progress is not only false but also dangerous. The great bulwark of religious freedom in America has been pluralism, but history worship is approaching dominant status and we increasingly see it imposing itself on society. People who dare “defy history” (by, say, opposing same-sex marriage) have been harassed, threatened, persecuted and fired from jobs. God’s will must be enforced, they believe, and once a majority concurs, religious freedom will be subject to majority whims.
Since it does not acknowledge itself as a faith, history worship poses dangers that other religions do not. History worshippers, seeing themselves as the enlightened vanguard for a better world rather than the religious zealots they are, feel justified in oppressing and silencing those who disagree. While other religions are subject to legal constraints, such as the separation of church and state which (rightly) denies them public funding, we are all compelled to subsidize the Religion of Progress through taxation (e.g., public funding of universities, media and art).
Because the Religion of Progress combines the authority of reason with the zealotry and dogmatism of faith, we should all be concerned about its growth. History worship threatens to make our society less rational, more politicized and, ultimately, less free.
Hyrum Lewis is a professor of history at BYU-Idaho and, this year, a visiting scholar at Stanford University. This article is adapted from his book, "There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days" (Cedar Fort Inc., 2017). His views are his own.