Is moral progress purely man-made?

The Claim: Moral progress comes by something that spreads in the air.

Something changes, something spreads ‘in the air’ such that, as the decades go by, the things that people find acceptable change. Dramatically quickly. Before women had the vote in Britain, nice, decent men could be heard saying things like, ‘Women are sweet and pretty and all that, but they can’t think logically. They certainly shouldn’t be allowed to vote.’ Can you imagine anyone saying that nowadays?

Richard Dawkins, Outgrowing God, Chapter 6: how do we decide what is good?

Restating Dawkins Argument

The view that human development is gradually progressing toward betterment, a view held by most of today’s leading Atheist and secular elites, is a view in large part driven by the enlightenment belief that, as religion and superstition are replaced with science and reason, every truly human domain and endeavor, morality included, will advance and become more and more perfected with time.

Many of the examples of such moral improvement given by atheists such as Dawkins, have to do with the moral change that has taken place in the relatively recent time frame of the last two centuries. Events such as the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and also certain wartime practices and sentiments that have changed just in the last half-century, would seem to show us, as Dawkins points out, ‘that something changes, something spreads ‘in the air’ such that, as the decades go by, the things that people find acceptable change. Dramatically quickly’. I take it that he is indicating that there need not be any religious texts, or religion in general, to inform us of what is good and morally true. Instead, the ‘something in the air’ seems to proceed on the basis that humans, given enough time, using their intellects and rational acumen, will collaboratively work to gradually uncover what is best for people, based on the unique situations present in the times in which they lived.

Dawkins attempts to show us how this process of change and improvement comes about, citing a range of different relational practices, such as conversations around dinner tables, speeches, opinion pieces from newspapers, novels, watching videos on youtube, and government actions such as passing laws that fairly uphold the dignity of the people involved, among others. However, there is a common element in all of them: they are all based squarely on human effort. God and revelation are nowhere mentioned as playing an even mildly significant part of humanities ‘great conversation.’ Interestingly, he admits, and rather curiously, that ‘neither religion nor genetic evolution’ is responsible for such changes. 'Whatever is ‘in the air’ says Dawkins, ‘has been moving in what we can broadly see in the same direction from century to century.’

The Flaw of the Argument

Professor Dawkins really wants to believe, and wants us to believe, that these historical instances he cites happened as a result of a truly new, more enlightened way of thinking. They happened according to what he sees as a gradual, secular progression of inevitable moral betterment.

Man-Made Efforts and All-Powerful Christian Truth

Important to his argument is that such betterment happens through man-made efforts, and largely it appears through reason and the intellect. It always occurs apart from God and thus irrespective of revelation. He certainly leaves us no hints that religion played any serious role in the success of such events. However, this is clearly false and can not be said to be based on a true understanding of history.

The Christian insistence on liberation and dignity for all is a fundamental part of scripture and is revealed to be equally endowed to all people, regardless of sex or of race, or, for that matter, any other human attribution. The Apostle Paul makes it as plain as can be made regarding every individual’s equal standing and status before God:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:8

Christian history is filled with examples of how the true implementation of passages such as this one better societies that were anything but fair in their treatment of people, especially with regards to women and unwanted children. For example, Fredric Farrar in His book The Early Days of Christianity writes that in Ancient Rome, infanticide ‘was infamously universal.’ However, because of the Judeo/Christian belief of the sanctity of life, and the brave efforts of Christian men and women who would continually oppose it wherever it existed, infanticide was outlawed in Rome by Emperor Valentinian in 374 CE. This is just one example of many: history shows us that the Christians’ world-changing doctrine on the value and worth of the individual came many, many years before movements like the ‘enlightenment’ and the ‘age of reason’ were even a thought.

A helpful read of such world-changing truths and more can be found here.

Moral Change and Progress are Different

Another point to consider is that moral change and moral progress are not necessarily synonymous. Moral change can happen independently of moral progress, and just because something changes does not mean it progresses. Weight gain is a change, but it isn’t necessarily progress. Presuppositions regarding the “good life” precede one’s definition about what the good life is, and would, therefore, determine what one believes would count as moral, and what would thus count as moral progress. In order to identify real-world examples of what constitutes true moral progress, one would have to at least begin by answering the questions:

  1. What is truly good for humanity
  2. How do we properly pursue what is good for humanity
  3. Where ought humanity be ultimately headed?

All of these issues are fundamentally dependent upon the truths of our nature - what it really means to be human. Without the answer to this question, it won’t be enough, for example, to say that a more educated populace constitutes progress. We will have to define what kind of education leads to progress, and what progress itself looks like. What is good to learn first depends upon what is true of the person learning - we must know what is good for that person. This is absolutely crucial, and one of the best starting points we have is Genesis 1:27, where we learn that human beings, both male and female, were made in the image of God.

A better starting point

What best justifies the pursuit and the reality of moral progress?

Option 1: We could say that humans originated from material chaos, from the valueless, impersonal forces of mass and energy. There is no moral foundation from the outset for our natures to conform too.

Option 2: Human nature originated in value and worth, from the ordering, personal creativity of an omniscient mind (God). Moral progress happens as we conform to the value and worth given to each of us by God.

If nothing is moral from the beginning, as postulated in option 1, how do we justifiably establish a moral endpoint, and thus determine whats constitutes true moral progress? If the impersonal interactions of power and force upon material objects are what ultimately brought us here, then who is to say it’s wrong for the most powerful to control the powerless? Can materialist evolution tell us whether or not it’s right or wrong for the weak to serve the strong? Not really. It can only tell us that the strong will ultimately prevail over the weak. The rightness or wrongness of such a fact can not be derived from that fact, for like all things in science, it’s just an observation of what is, and not what ought to be.

Following this line of reasoning, we’d have to admit that our universe is not going to end in what we would consider moral. As the universe expands, it will inevitably cool until there remains no available energy left for anything to happen. This is known as the heat death of the universe.

As William Mullock, in his classic 1881 work titled ‘Is life Worth Living’, says about the true implications such an event:

'All the vice of the world, and all its virtue, all its pleasures and all its pains, will have effected nothing. They will all have faded like an unsubstantial pageant, and not left a wrack behind."

It becomes more apparent that a purely materialist account of morality can not build a consistent case, in any rationally justifiable way, for why one thing is truly morally superior to another when the absolute end of both moral pathways is the same destination of death and extinction. All things will be ultimately forgotten. No memory, no point.

Dawkins may be right to point out the bettering of humanity through events such as the abolition of slavery and the advancement of women’s rights, but he is not right based on the facts of evolution, but on the values found in Judeo/Christian revelation. His ideas have to be grounded in Option 2, which posits the existence of the God he does not believe in. Starting points matter because you can not get to something as lofty as the equality of dignity for all based on the struggle for survival being fought by all, which is all we’re left with in Option 1.

To understand the incredible significance of the Judeo/Christian belief of being made in the image of God, this short youtube clip featuring Ravi Zacharias will be helpful.


Dawkins would like to pin the progress we’ve made as a society upon the backboard of science and rationality. However, the materialist worldview Dawkins adheres to gives him no justifiable grounds upon which to build such a case. What is true of our nature given the realities of the goalless orientation of materialist evolution cannot speak consistently about moral progress, let alone morality, because all progress implies an end goal from the start. If the end goal, on terms consistent with materialist evolution, is fundamentally about survival, and nothing, in the end, will ultimately survive, what do our efforts actually accomplish, and why do we consider them moral? Such an answer has to be smuggled in from a different source that is actually consistent with the kinds of people that we are and the kinds of longings and moral capacities that we have, based on where it is that we ultimately came from, and who it is that ultimately brought us here. C.S. Lewis once said:

If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

The progress achieved in the instances that Dawkins cites are really triumphs of dignity for all. These find a more reasonable basis in the Judeo-Christian belief that all men were created equally in the image of God and deserve to be treated according to the intrinsic worth that they possess as a consequence. This is a spiritual value and not a scientific fact. It has been around ages longer than the Enlightenment and ‘The Age of Reason’ that Dawkins sees as humanity’s best way forward. Humanity may move forward upon the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, but these cannot be the basis or foundation of progress.

For those who are looking for a more informative and specific look at the particular ways in which Christianity shaped our world for the better, I recommend How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin Schmidt. This is a comprehensive work that offers the full picture of Christianity’s practical global impact on a broad range of cultural issues.