He's at it again. John Gray, that is. He's treating a secular commitment to the idea of progress as a disguised form of religion.
[T]he belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal - a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species. In pre-Christian Europe, human life was understood as a series of cycles; history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Though they suppress their religious content, secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs. One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith, but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning.This is threadbare stuff. Gray is unable to maintain that all those committed to human progress are thereby attached to an 'inevitabilist' version of it, because it isn't true. So he concedes that it isn't. What, then, makes attachment to the possibility of progress 'a relic of the Christian view'? The idea, simply, that bad things continue to happen. Or the idea that you can always say 'but': slavery was abolished, but... torture has been prohibited but... etc.
The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world's pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.
Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it.
One can be aware of this and yet also notice that there have been long-term positive trends. Democracy exists far more widely today than it did 250 years ago; likewise female suffrage; the situation of women, more generally, has improved across much of the world; capital punishment is no longer used in many countries; for millions of people there is welfare provision to mitigate the effects of poverty, where once there was none.
Of course, there is nothing in these various achievements that could not be reversed, or be undone by some catastrophe, nuclear, ecological, or other. But to have a commitment to progress does not require of us that we deny this. The commitment to progress is precisely a commitment; it embodies, not a belief in linear directionality, but a hope, a set of objectives, and some degree of willingness to try to make the world a better place. (For an earlier encounter between Grayling and Gray, see here.)