New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.
When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.
Over all, we overestimate how pious the West of 1750 or 1800 was — and we underestimate how much the more egalitarian West of 1950 was shaped by religious mobilization and revival.
Nor is this just a Western phenomenon. As the developing world has converged in prosperity with Europe and America, old religious ideas that have been given new life — Christianity in China, Hinduism in India, Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa — are playing as important a social role as any secular or scientific perspective. (In the Middle East, too, it’s a good bet that any successful answer to the Islamic State will also be Islamic.)
The point is not that traditional ideas alone can save societies in transition. That way lies ISIS and the foredoomed ruin of countless old regimes.
But the assumption, deeply ingrained in our intelligentsia, that everything depends on finding the most modern and “scientific” alternative to older verities has been tested repeatedly — with mostly dire results. The 19th-century theories that cast themselves as entirely new and modern were the ones that devastated the 20th century, loosing fascism and Marxism on the world.