The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stop Looking Backwards!

We are living, at this very moment, at the apex of human civilization. No civilization, no society, no people in the history of this planet have lived in a period of time as blessed with material abundance, peace, longevity, comfort, and health. So why does religion constantly look backwards for inspiration and moral guidance? Why is religion constantly looking over our historical shoulder and attempting to impose the ideologies, social mores, prejudices and beliefs of ancient and barbaric civilizations on our own?

The formative years of nearly all of the major religions took place during periods of relative decline. During periods where it could be accurately stated and empirically verified that the past was better. At the time it would have been utterly rational to look back for wisdom, because, ancient wisdom was vastly superior to contemporary wisdom.

Imagine what it would be like to have been a peasant farmer in a backwater fiefdom in England or France. Your civilization is dominated by isolation, by illiteracy, by poverty, by tiny buildings with thatched roofs. Yet dotting the landscape are the remnants of a society vastly more sophisticated, wealthy and technologically advanced than your own. Huge ruined buildings larger than anything your civilization could conceive of building. A testament to the literal fact that the past was better than the present.

When we look at the ruins of ancient civilizations, we marvel at the ingenuity of the people that constructed them with such comparatively primitive technology. When fifth and sixth century Europeans looked at the ruins of Rome, and when their forebearers looked at the ruins of the ancient Greeks, their frame of reference is completely reversed. Those ruins were concrete evidence that once upon a time, societies were capable of things that are now impossible. There is nothing in our experience that is even remotely analogous. A similar experience would require something on the order of walking out of a modern city and seeing the largely intact remnants of an ancient alien spacecraft.

Unlike the societies that bred our backward looking religious traditions. Our civilization is not in decline. Our civilization has advanced immeasurably in the past several hundred years and our rapid technological advancement has fueled a level of integration and material well-being that is unparalleled in human history. We have no one to look up to, because we are living at the pinnacle of human existence thus far. In the event that humankind has some catastrophe in the next hundred years, it is our present civilization that our progeny will look back upon for wisdom and guidance, for understanding of the Universe.

Religion is backwards looking, at least in part, because the men who codified the canons of religious lore, practice, ethics, hailed from a time where the past was demonstrably better than the present. We, however, have no need to look back for guidance, no need to fetter ourselves to ancient and outdated tracts. We do not seek to emulate the ancients when it comes to science or medicine or politics or economics, why would we seek to emulate their morality? Why would we seek to emulate their mythology? Why, when the civilization we have created is so much better than anything that has come before?

We should not look backwards for guidance, but forward for inspiration.


  1. Ironically, I look back to a time when many people were more forward-thinking than now: The late 1950's and 1960's when possibilities and opportunities seemed almost limitless, from technology prospects such as space travel, medical advances such as polio vaccines and the birth control, social consciousness regarding injustices such as racial segregation, and Christian fundamentalism was fading from mainstream America. There was a spirit of "we can change the world".

    In so many ways American society has regressed since then.

  2. Addendum: for an example of the idealism and idealists of that era, coincidentally, in today's edition of "Truthout", a progressive newsletter, there is a very relevant feature. See

  3. Well, I guess the comment section won't accept website addresses in the text section. Please see the hyperlink in my name.

  4. Rick,

    I think you are right from our parochial standpoint as Americans. I generally think more in terms of the global civilization. I care less about any specific tribe or nation than I do about our progress as a species. And while it is true that we in this country have regressed in many ways, nearly a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in China and India during that same period. While OUR time as an imperial power may be coming to a close, the rest of our global civilization is steadily improving.

    In the aggregate, I believe that we are living at the apex of our civilization.