Ryan Bell asks “From where will our salvation come?” He started out this year asking, “[I]f I remove God and traditional religion as the source of salvation for humanity, what is left?” A few days ago, he recited four “primary narratives”: religion; science and technology; markets and capitalism; and democracy. All of them are problematic. “What are we to do?” he asks. “How can we sustain movements of peace and justice such that they are an actual force for good in the world? How can people be motivated when they are being anesthetized by technology and bought off by capitalism?”
He winds up this way: “I am concerned that atheists and other non-theists are so concerned about weakening their position that they have a hard time acknowledging that the myth of progress is also running out of gas. Where to from here?”
That’s no easy question; I’ve been wrestling with it for a long time, too. (Ryan abandoned “God and traditional religion” at the beginning of this year; I did the same thing fourteen years ago this month.) And for now at least I think that where we go from here is to cultivate and practice moral argument.
Something that science and technology, markets and capitalism, and democracy all have in common is a sense that each can be relied upon to avoid the difficult process of moral argument, that if we simply rely on “the people,” or “markets,” or “evidence,” then solutions to all of the difficult decisions besetting our lives, and how we ought to live them, will simply present themselves. That is, we convince ourselves that a determination to rely on these procedural tools is a way to escape the problem of considering, or determining, or persuading how best to live: the good life will emerge automatically and organically if we just aggregate votes (democracy), material preferences (capitalism), and evidence (science). Those are the bones of the myth of progress.
But that myth not only presupposes our ability to attain the good life by these purportedly neutral procedures, it asserts a value judgment about what the good life ought to be (namely, the life shaped by neutral procedures), and—most egregiously—conceals its own value judgment and encourages us to think in ways that would preclude us from considering and making our own judgments of value. Or, to borrow the terms of political philosophy, the myth of progress prioritizes “the right” over “the good”—by insisting that “the right” is “the good.” That’s the concealed value judgment. And I think it’s concealed because argument about value judgments is moral argument, and we don’t much like making moral arguments.
You are always welcome in polite society to suggest that science, democracy, and capitalism are problematic; there will be much agreement, because it always has been (and probably always will be) fashionable, and fashionably easy, to observe that the world is not perfect. But people will only agree that the defects in our systems are procedural (that is, the way to fix them is by further purging value judgments, or building other purportedly value-neutral systems whose outputs will feed into the existing systems), and that these systems are the least worst (which is really just the avoidance of moral reasoning through the affectation of resignation).
I do think science, democracy, and capitalism are each morally defensible, but moral defenses are never complete defenses. A successful moral argument never enjoys the necessity of a logical or mathematical argument. Even the best and most persuasive moral arguments are risky arguments; that is because they expose the messiness and inconsistency of the values underlying our positions, and they require us to admit these things. Most of us (including, and maybe especially, the atheists) would prefer much safer argumentative techniques—ones that, if they don’t persuade opponents, at least make proponents feel secure in their rightness. Once upon a time, people might have believed that their moral arguments rested on a solid foundation called “God,” and felt a secure sense of rightness that way. But in practice that just meant those arguments rested on the ability to wield power. Maybe that kind of thinking is withering away in some places now, but it’s not been replaced in those places by significant advances. For the last few hundred years, people in my part of the world have been so enamored with the apparent certitude yielded by procedures like science, democracy, and capitalism that, while many of us feel safe in rejecting gods and challenging that oldest procedural tool, violence, we have not really improved our moral reasoning.
That’s not to say that cultivating and practicing moral argument ought to result in a monolithic culture. As Isaiah Berlin observed, “human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another.”  But until we are able to operate the procedures of human society, be they democracy, capitalism, science, and sometimes even violence, without letting those procedures stand in for the moral argumentation entailed by those procedures, and by our diverse circumstances, then we should probably just expect more of the same—or worse, as our environmental circumstances continue to degrade.
 Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1998), page 241.