(From Joel’s Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice)
One group of “Fallacies of Time” involve man’s pronouncement of judgment upon a given period of time. Again, man’s word does not create truth; rather, God calls man to witness His truth in His courtroom. When man exalts new things or old things simply because of their newness or oldness, he presents a falsehood based on time. Whether something survives from old or arises as a fresh prospect, died a long time ago or first sweeps the dreams of today’s restless youth—none of this in itself constitutes a standard for truth.
The Christian critical thinker will not fall for appeals to things old or new, progressive and modern, or old, tried, and true. He will know that the “ancients versus moderns” argument occurs ultimately on the level of autonomous human reason—it is essentially a humanistic debate. Age or development does not impute truth, God does. Man must think God’s thoughts after Him, and in turn impute God’s judgment of good or evil onto history irrespective of the newness or oldness of any given thing.
Appeal to Progress
The Fallacy of Appeal to Progress labels something as “bad” because it is somehow old, and labels something “good” because it represents “change” or something new. We can also call this fallacy “Progressivism,” being careful that we do not mistake it for the mere political label. This “Progressive” fallacy fails in the fact that just because something appeared long ago does not necessarily imply truth or falsity. Even if society appears to have “moved on,” and unanimously agrees that the “old” thing in consideration is unquestionably “outdated,” society’s consent still cannot prove something true or false based on age.
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G. K. Chesterton provides a classic refutation of “the boast of certain writers that they are merely recent.”1 He writes,
It is incomprehensible to me that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite. But apart altogether from that particular disturbance, I am conscious of a general irritation expressed against the people who boast of their advancement and modernity in the discussion of religion. But I never succeeded in saying the quite clear and obvious thing that is really the matter with modernism. The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness. It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is specially up to date or particularly “in the know.” To flaunt the fact that we have had all the last books from Germany is simply vulgar; like flaunting the fact that we have had all the last bonnets from Paris. To introduce into philosophical discussions a sneer at a creed’s antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a lady’s age. It is caddish because it is irrelevant. The pure modernist is merely a snob; he cannot bear to be a month behind the fashion.2
Chesterton characteristically nails the problem: snobbery, which is to say, prejudice void of logic. C. S. Lewis has since termed this type of fallacy “Chronological Snobbery.” He defines it as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”3 The key word here is “uncritical”—this indicates, as I have discussed, “without judgment,” “without wisdom,” or “without understanding.” You may possibly reach a right belief uncritically, or possibly a wrong belief through criticism poorly applied, but the possibility for each of these scenarios remains low. The uncritical—in this case, snobbish—mind will almost certainly find itself mired in some fallacy, likely many.
Discerning his own foolishness during youth, Lewis helps us dissect the fallaciousness of an Appeal to Progress. Looking back on his younger days, Lewis explained how he reacted negatively to his best friend joining a cult. Instead of refuting the cultic beliefs specifically, Lewis simply scoffed at the “gods, spirits, after-life, and pre-existence” and such things as “medieval.” He goes on to explain the fallacy of letting his “modern” mentality lead him to “use the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse.”4 He teaches us how to confront this “uncritical . . . assumption”: “You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so, by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it die away as fashions do. If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.”5 In other words, where an idea appears in history alone cannot determine its truth or falsity. Some vitally true things remain from time immemorial; some dangerously false things emerged into popularity in modern times, and vice versa. Labels like “medieval” cannot diminish the value of a good principle; the label “modern” cannot redeem a harmful idea.
Lewis finds a secondary motive at work in such “snobbery.” From the same uncritical spirit grows a passivity—an apathy, a lulled indifference—which simply accepts the illusions of one’s own time by living in a kind of mental bubble, never questioning or seeking wisdom. Lewis describes the effects of realizing how “the times” have no logical effect on truth or falsity:
From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.6
In many ways, Appeals to Progress partake of Peer Pressure in that they create fear of bucking trends, going against the spirit of the times, or defying popularity. In addition, when we give uncritical respect to the trends of a particular era we commit an Appeal to Authority. These fallacies apply to both Appeals to Progress and to the next fallacy of Appeal to Antiquity.
Paul confronted this fallacy with the Athenian philosophers, who particularly sinned in this regard: “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). They took interest in Paul because they thought he offered some “new teaching” (17:19). The apostle, however, confronted their ways by addressing them as “superstitious” (17:22), and by calling them back from “new” speculations to an ancient principle, the Creator God (17:23–31).
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Evolution and The Shifting Moral Zeitgeist
The Fallacy of Progressivism gains great strength today from the doctrines of evolution. The specific idea that things evolve to adapt to their environment fuels the false notion that whatever exists now is generally better than what existed previously. Even many evolutionists deny this application of Darwin’s theory, yet it seems to permeate the popular mind, and for good reason: secularists have worked very hard to push Darwinism in every venue of public education and knowledge. The mental mistake comes easily, and pervasive propaganda spreads it without correcting it. Evolution implies for many people that things inevitably get better as time goes on.
In his best-selling book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins spreads this idea blatantly. He blasts the idea that morality requires God as its basis and refers to something he calls the shifting “moral zeitgeist”—a fancy word for “spirit of the times.” Dawkins, who specializes in evolutionary theory, argues for ten pages that in societies the consensus of morals necessarily improves over time, but it does so naturally and without the aid of religion. To prove his point he quotes from century-old sources that use racist or sexist slurs which society accepted at the time but which we find appalling today. See? The morals have gradually changed over time—so he argues.
What drives this invisible force, and why does it always seem to move in direction of improvement? Dawkins has no answer. For him, “it is enough that, as a matter of observed fact, it does move, and it is not driven by religion—and certainly not by scripture.”7 He tinkers with an answer: leaders who are “ahead of their time,” as well as “improved education” both aid the advance of the zeitgeist. Of course, these points are irrelevant because neither can determine the advance of morals, for how does one judge if a leader is “ahead” or rather “behind” his time? The “Joker,” the great villain of the most recent Batman movie The Dark Knight, justified his terrorism and murder by labeling himself “ahead” of the social curve. How could Dawkins argue against this? By what standard do we judge an “advance” versus a “decline”? Is it if everyone applauds, versus if everyone boos? If so, then morals come by democratic decision, and whatever the majority says, goes. But this standard justifies Hitler’s Nazi Germany as a good thing due to popular German vote. Likewise, exactly how do we determine if education is “improved”? If the kiddies all smile and get As when they’re taught about their ape-like ancestors? And what of this when Darwin’s theory turns out false? Or when preteen and early teenage children abandon discipline and learning for sex and mindless gratification—in other words, begin to act like animals? Again, by what standard, and who says?
Dawkins can’t answer these questions and says that for his purposes of bashing God, he does not have to. But he cannot help take a stab at religion whenever he sees an opportunity. So he says, by “improved education,” particularly meaning “the increased understanding that each of us shares a common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex—both deeply unbiblical ideas. . . .”8 I had to laugh when reading this. “Deeply unbiblical ideas”?!
Now put this in perspective. Dawkins has master’s and doctorate degrees from Oxford. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, no small accolade. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, again, quite an honor. He has written nine or so major books, the most recent explicitly attacking God. He has lectured around the world and held a Professorate at Oxford for years. All of this, and yet, apparently, he has not read the first page of the Bible; for that first page informs us that “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). After telling us that both sexes bear the image of God and are thus part of a “common humanity,” the next verse reveals God’s command to multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28). The accounts following make it clear that all of humanity, including its races and every other genetic distinction, come from one common ancestral family, and thus share a “common humanity.” The New Testament develops this theme as well (Acts 17:24–27).
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Now perhaps you can see the fallacious Appeal to Progress—among other fallacies—in Dawkins’ idea. The delusion that the ideas of a shared humanity between races and sexes developed in modern times as a result of modern education blinds Dawkins (and his followers) to the fact that these ideas actually stem from ancient Biblical wisdom. Of course, even had they not, emphasizing them as recent would not ensure their truth or falsity anyway. Nevertheless, Dawkins argues strongly—and ignorantly—that we’ve moved on.
I cover this point for no other reason than to expose the fallacies of Dawkins’ educated ignorance about the religion he pretends to abolish. Like many atheists, he either pretends that the main features of Biblical religion do not exist or argues that modern science has accounted for them naturally, and that thus religious thought perpetuates outdated ideas. Along this line, Dawkins quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The religion of one age is the literary amusement of the next.”9 This fallacy fuels Dawkins’ concept of the shifting “moral zeitgeist” as well. He pretends that “advances” in morals take place naturally—he has no idea what compels this invisible force, but he’s certain it must be natural. Whatever it is, it isn’t God—that can’t be true, because God doesn’t exist, so Dawkins must reason.
Dawkins further fails to mention that his very idea of a moral “spirit of the age” entered philosophy long before recent times as well. The idea dominated the philosophical world due to the massive influence of Hegel (writing around 1800), who believed in something like the spiritual evolution of mankind worked out gradually in history.10 He derived this theory after reading similar ideas in Jakob Böhme, a Christian mystic who wrote 200 years earlier.11 Whether Dawkins would admit it, Hegel thought he worked out his philosophy as a conscious justification of Christianity in history. Many Christians rightfully object to much of Hegel’s thinking, but Hegel did correctly attain the idea that history and morals do not change on their own, or merely because of the times. Behind movement and change in history stands some kind of reason, a divine personality. C. S. Lewis likewise concluded his discussion of chronological snobbery describing how he confessed that “the whole universe was, in the last resort, mental; that our logic was participation in a cosmic Logos.”12 As usual, the atheists have to steal Christian ideas in order to support their atheism.
A more sane view of the moral zeitgeist comes from the noted Church historian Philip Schaff. In discussing the Roman Emperor Constantine (just one example), Schaff lays down what he calls “the great historical principle,” placing historical change in its rightful perspective:
All representative characters act, consciously or unconsciously, as the free and responsible organs of the spirit of their age, which moulds them first before they can mould it in turn, and that the spirit of the age itself, whether good or bad or mixed, is but an instrument in the hands of divine Providence, which rules and overrules all the actions and motives of men.13
Delusions and Insults
The fast pace and great output of science and technology in the past two centuries have perhaps fueled the Fallacy of Progressivism more than anything. Everything seems “up-and-up,” nothing appears unattainable, and “progress” looks inevitable. Of course, the fallacy here lies in the fact that technological change only advances our tools, not to our ethics and values. The quality and length of human life may improve due to technological advances, but these advances cannot change the truth of that to which we impute worth and worship. Unfortunately, many people tend to let this fact get buried by dozens of everyday cares and the fast pace of life. Technological change begins to stand as a symbol of all human progress. Human Life 1.0 is old and out-of-date as soon as Human Life 2.0 hits the shelves of the latest computer store, despite the fact that this metaphor defies facts and logic (it’s a False Analogy). Dawkins partakes of this False Analogy as well in his Appeal to Progress. Arguing that morals improve over time, and yet at a loss to explain why, he guesses it probably involves “a complex interplay of disparate forces like the one that propels Moore’s Law, describing the exponential increase in computer power.”14 The analogy may hold strictly concerning the interplay of forces involved, but even here the association of human moral progress with technological progress (computer chips, in this case) transgresses the boundary between fact and fallacy. Dawkins simply does not have the evidence or logic to support this claim.
Like other fallacies, Appeals to Progress show up everywhere, from bestselling works like Dawkins’ to your everyday newspaper. A final example comes from the latter, an old newspaper in which I noticed an article about the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2000 decision that Scripture does not allow women to act as pastors. A syndicated columnist condemned this decision as “retrograde,” and pronounced his opinion of the Convention: “They are going backward.”15 Such a claim tastes of chronological snobbery—an attempt by the columnist at maligning a male-only clergy as undesirable because it belongs to a bygone age. Jeers like “stepping backward,” or “turning back the clock,” ring as classic insults from liberals. If they only realized that the type of leftist religion and politics they themselves preach has roots in Plato,16 2400 years ago, they might realize the fallaciously idiotic nature of this tactic.
(Tomorrow, the evil opposite of the fallacy of Progressivism: the fallacy of Conservatism, or Appeal to Antiquity.)
1. G. K. Chesterton, All Things Considered (Project Gutenburg Edition, 2004 [Original 1915]); http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/11505-h.htm#THE_CASE_FOR_THE_EPHEMERAL (accessed February 16, 2009). Partially quoted in A. J. Hoover, Don’t You Believe It (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 54.
3. C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1955), 207.
4. Ibid., 206.
5. Ibid., 207–208 (emphasis mine).
6. Ibid., 208.
7. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), 272.
8. Ibid., 271.
9. Ibid., 29.
10. Good introductions are R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 113–126; and Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949). For a Biblical view, see Rousas John Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1997).
11. See Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).
12. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 209.
13. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume 3: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity From Constantine to Gregory the Great, A.D. 311-590, 8 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers,  1996), 13 (emphasis mine).
14. Dawkins, The God Delusion, 273.
15. Tom Teepen, “Southern Baptists step backward with policy,” Atlanta Constitution, June 20, 2000, A9.
16. See Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: Vol. 1: The Spell of Plato (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971).