Does religion hinder progress?

Religion has often promoted human progress

This is the kind of objection one frequently hears:

“When the banking system began in the 14th and 15th centuries, Church Councils tried to ban the practice, equating the taking of interest with the `usury’ condemned by the Bible. When Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species (1859), he attracted a wave of hostility from Christian believers. When Margaret Sanger launched her campaign for family planning and birth control in 1914, she encountered the fiercest opposition from Church circles. The litany goes on and on. Religious institutions, as the guardians of tradition, often block progress.”

It is true that religious leaders and religious institutions have, at times, blocked progress. And, rightly or wrongly, it was mostly God who received the blame for it.

In their indignation against various `innovations’, Christian enthusiasts have frequently overstated their case, alleging that God was against this or that. In recent years Christian leaders have become more circumspect, but the impression at times lingers on: God is displeased with people who think for themselves and who try to improve the world.

This is all the more regrettable as just the opposite should be the case. According to the Bible, God blessed the human race and told them to take charge of the world:

“Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth and take charge of it. Take responsibility for the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
(see: Genesis 1,28.).

And when Jesus took leave from his disciples at the Last Supper, he spoke these remarkable words: “Truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. Yes, greater things than I have done will that person do, because I go to the Father” (see: John 14,12). Of course, Jesus was mostly speaking of spiritual leadership, but other achievements were also included. Jesus was very much concerned about such earthly realities as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, nursing the sick, and doing justice to prisoners (see: Matthew 25,32-46).

It is also fair to say that, contrary to the impression created by the few Christians who oppose progress, Christianity itself, with its stress on human responsibility, has been a major factor in bringing about the European scientific and technological upsurge. The point has been dramatically illustrated by James Burke in his television serial The Triumph of the West. It was the spiritual convictions underlying Western societies that gave them the key to explore the universe, advance the sciences, travel to other parts of the globe and establish a new vision of an international community.

Christians believe in taking responsibility

It is risky to venture a guess at how future generations will judge our century. Perhaps they will criticise us for not preventing World Wars I and II, and for constructing and using nuclear bombs. They may also give us high marks, however, for the dynamism with which technological advances have been pressed into service, in order to raise the living standards of people all over the world.


We live in an incredibly expansive era. As human beings we have really taken charge of the earth. We have created a new world order of communication and international cooperation. We have given a new impetus to the responsible growing of food, to health care, to safe and efficient manufacture of essential goods and to improving all the infra- structures of society.

Of course, grave areas of concern remain: the unrestrained depletion of the earth’s resources, the neglect of the Third World poor, the danger of a take over of politics by commerce, the whole question of international justice. But even in these areas we appear to be making progress. Enormous changes are taking places, many – I am happy to say – for the good, and all these changes are carried forward by our human determination to make the best of this world we live in.

I believe we can be proud of our achievements as a human race. I am also strongly convinced that we carry an enormous responsibility for our planet. Its viability and health in future generations depend on us.

Religion may well retard progress in some instances. People who are unwilling to change, usually resist change through a mixture of personal, cultural, national as well as religious motivations. But this does not mean that religion as such is an obstacle to change.

On the contrary, most people who are religiously motivated, will find in their belief strong reasons for taking their responsibilities seriously. Because they believe in a Creator, they will have the courage to try new avenues and be creative in their own work. Because they treasure the primacy of love, they will be prepared to offer their services, even at a personal cost.

It is here that Christian faith comes into its own. However well-intentioned agnostics often are, their motivation for selfless love is inadequately supported by rational argument. If there is no transcendent dimension to life, if human beings came about by a blind process of evolution in which the strongest survive, why bother about the plight of the weak?

The record of voluntary work undertaken by Christians

It is noteworthy that Christian motivations do make a difference to the external manifestations of selfless service. The European Values Research study has shown that, though practising Christians form less than one quarter of the population of Europe, they provide about half of all unpaid, voluntary workers. This extends not only to religious charities (in which they account for 88% of volunteers), but to all other charitable services.

“In all fields of activity, the more intimately people are involved in the institutional church, the more likely they are to be actively engaged as volunteers . . .

Core Church members comprise less than one-quarter of the combined populations of Europe and North America, yet they are overrepresented in all fields of voluntary activity, accounting for between one-third and one-half of all volunteers in each major category if work (excluding religion where their share is even higher).

Even in fields such as conservation and animal rights or sport and recreation in which, on measures of religious disposition, religious orthodoxy and confidence in the church volunteers do not differ from the population at large, core church members remain the largest source of volunteers.
D. BARKER, “Values and Volunteering” in Volunteering in Europe, ed. J.DAVIS SMITH, Berkhampsted 1993, pp. 26.).



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of conscience