I want to conduct a brief thought experiment, in pursuit of which I invite you to follow this short fiction of mine. Suppose I were to tell you I was about to show you a distribution of marks on the wall at the side of my house and challenge you to say whether the marks had been arranged there in a pattern by some higher being, in fact God, or whether on the other hand they were entirely random. And suppose that you were, even before seeing those marks, immediately to accept my challenge, preparing yourself to make the choice I was offering you. Would it not show you to have been too hasty, not to have thought carefully enough?
I'd say so - because there are other possibilities than the two I'd offered you: God or the merely random. Here's one. Some leaks in the guttering at the edge of my roof had created an initial pattern of marks on the wall, and the neighbour's Cocker Spaniel Lucky had added a few of his own by scratching at the bottom of the same wall. Noticing an interesting shape in the combination of rain marks and doggy additions, I had then put in a few dabs of paint to suggest the overall impression of something or other - something or other because that impression wouldn't be entirely unambiguous to the eyes of a diverse audience.
So, not God and not pure randomness; but a combination of 'natural' processes, the activities of Lucky the dog and the deliberate intervention of me the human individual.
Giles Fraser, now styling himself the 'loose canon', seems to have fallen for John Gray's claptrap about progress. This should be familiar enough to regular visitors here, but in summary Fraser's version has 'the inevitable march of progress towards liberty and enlightenment' and the 'arrow of time... inexorably pointing us on towards a new improved future'; and then '[w]hat is at work here is secularised theology, technically a form of eschatology – the belief that history is the expression of God's purpose for humanity'. It's 'a hollowed-out version of Christian theology'.
The only alternative to secularised theology that Fraser offers us is contained in this: 'to see history as simply one damn thing after another seems to rob it of that larger meaning that many want to read into it'.
Well, anyone whose belief in the inevitable march of progress has not been shaken by, among other things, the Nazi genocide, and the Armenian and Cambodian and Rwandan and Kurdish genocides, by the millions of victims of Stalinist tyranny and Maoist leaping-forward and other crimes and calamities too many to list, does need to think about the world again. However, it remains possible that there have been forms of human progress over the last two millennia that have nothing to do with a higher metaphysical purpose working itself out but are also not merely random, and that have led to more democratic societies in much of the world, the outlawing of slavery, advances in the status and situation of women, scientific advance, improvements in health, the dissemination of human rights norms, and so on and so on. Not just one damn thing after another, therefore, but general improvements - always provisional, always coexisting with dangers, threats and catastrophes - but morally important for what they nonetheless are, and worth continuing to fight for.