In general, Gray’s point is that the rationalist arguments that drive the New Atheist polemics—on the basis of which they claim their intellectual authority—very often depend on irrational or arational beliefs, metaphors, and/or premises. (Jacques Derrida made the same argument, mutatis mutandis, about the humanism of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger in “The Ends of Man.” The implicit suggestion of his essay is that any humanist system of thought–i.e. any system that assumes a special status for human beings in the world–is “metaphysical,” i.e. it depends on some non-rational belief.)
Specifically, Gray makes the point that many of the cherished ideas of the New Atheist program owe their development to a religious (and in particular a Christian) outlook, and further that this debt raises questions more serious than those of mere provenance.
Sounds just like a description of Vox, doesn’t it? Baird draws a conclusion from John Gray’s article that you might expect to read from Vox: “while a person might find the philosophical-political programs of the New Atheists preferable to religion for any number reasons, he should not delude himself into thinking that they constitute a pure expression of human reason.”
From John Gray’s article for The Guardian, The Atheist Delusion:
Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence….
Gray explicitly calls the scientific atheists on their unacknowledged debt to religion:
The secular era was in any case partly illusory. The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed. The current hostility to religion is a reaction against this turnabout. Secularisation is in retreat, and the result is the appearance of an evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times….
But the idea of free will that informs liberal notions of personal autonomy is biblical in origin (think of the Genesis story). The belief that exercising free will is part of being human is a legacy of faith, and like most varieties of atheism today, [Philip] Pullman’s is a derivative of Christianity.
Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion….
Gray attacks the indefensible thesis that science will eliminate religion and save humanity:
The notion that religion is a primitive version of science was popularised in the late 19th century in JG Frazer’s survey of the myths of primitive peoples, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. For Frazer, religion and magical thinking were closely linked. Rooted in fear and ignorance, they were vestiges of human infancy that would disappear with the advance of knowledge. Dennett’s atheism is not much more than a revamped version of Frazer’s positivism. The positivists believed that with the development of transport and communication – in their day, canals and the telegraph – irrational thinking would wither way, along with the religions of the past. Despite the history of the past century, Dennett believes much the same….
Dawkins makes much of the oppression perpetrated by religion, which is real enough. He gives less attention to the fact that some of the worst atrocities of modern times were committed by regimes that claimed scientific sanction for their crimes. Nazi “scientific racism” and Soviet “dialectical materialism” reduced the unfathomable complexity of human lives to the deadly simplicity of a scientific formula. In each case, the science was bogus, but it was accepted as genuine at the time, and not only in the regimes in question. Science is as liable to be used for inhumane purposes as any other human institution. Indeed, given the enormous authority science enjoys, the risk of it being used in this way is greater….
Gray points out the evident defects of atheist political regimes:
Contemporary opponents of religion display a marked lack of interest in the historical record of atheist regimes. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, the American writer Sam Harris argues that religion has been the chief source of violence and oppression in history. He recognises that secular despots such as Stalin and Mao inflicted terror on a grand scale, but maintains the oppression they practised had nothing to do with their ideology of “scientific atheism” – what was wrong with their regimes was that they were tyrannies. But might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom? It is unlikely that Mao, who launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet with the slogan “Religion is poison”, would have agreed that his atheist world-view had no bearing on his policies. It is true he was worshipped as a semi-divine figure – as Stalin was in the Soviet Union. But in developing these cults, communist Russia and China were not backsliding from atheism. They were demonstrating what happens when atheism becomes a political project. The invariable result is an ersatz religion that can only be maintained by tyrannical means.
Something like this occurred in Nazi Germany. Dawkins dismisses any suggestion that the crimes of the Nazis could be linked with atheism. “What matters,” he declares in The God Delusion, “is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.” This is simple-minded reasoning. Always a tremendous booster of science, Hitler was much impressed by vulgarised Darwinism and by theories of eugenics that had developed from Enlightenment philosophies of materialism. He used Christian antisemitic demonology in his persecution of Jews, and the churches collaborated with him to a horrifying degree. But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler’s world-view was that of many semi-literate people in interwar Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible….
Gray attacks the scientific atheist superstitions about progress and liberal values:
Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today’s secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values – on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms – rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from, and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them.
Like Vox, Gray admires Onfray above the British and American atheists:
Among contemporary anti-religious polemicists, only the French writer Michel Onfray has taken Nietzsche as his point of departure. In some ways, Onfray’s In Defence of Atheism is superior to anything English-speaking writers have published on the subject. Refreshingly, Onfray recognises that evangelical atheism is an unwitting imitation of traditional religion: “Many militants of the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy.” More clearly than his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Onfray understands the formative influence of religion on secular thinking. Yet he seems not to notice that the liberal values he takes for granted were partly shaped by Christianity and Judaism.
Gray also foresees an ignoble death for secularism:
The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.
For further proof, we can look to one of Gray’s articles for The New Statesman, about the ever-popular Enlightenment:
As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has always had a distinctly seamy side. In its political incarnation, it was one of the factors that shaped modern-day terror. Right-thinking French philosophes campaigned for the prohibition of torture, but their ideas also gave birth to the Jacobin Terror that followed the French revolution. Later, Enlightenment ideas animated some of the most repressive and murderous regimes of the 20th century. Contrary to views often voiced on the left, state terror in the Soviet Union and Maoist China was not produced by national traditions of despotism. It resulted from the utopian character of communism itself. The tens of millions who starved or were killed under communism perished for the sake of an Enlightenment ideal.
What is needed today is not the return to faith beloved of Enlightenment believers and born-again Christians alike. It is realism and doubt – especially regarding the myth of progress in ethics and politics. A couple of hundred years ago, this myth may have been useful. Today, after the disasters of the 20th century, it is merely a sedative. How many times has one heard the plaintive cry “If I didn’t believe in progress I couldn’t get up in the morning”? The Enlightenment revival is not a return to rationality. It is fuelled by the emotions, and above all by fear.
It isn’t as if John Gray is pro-Christian; he’s just anti-atheist and anti-Enlightenment, and he doesn’t accept science-worship as a reasonable substitute for religion. From reading Straw Dogs, one would think he is a pantheist in the tradition of Spinoza, and in that respect he has some ideas in common with Vine Deloria.
So, how do we get from Mr. Gray to Mr. Day? I have no clue yet.
You can read about a slapstick encounter between a liberal humanist reporter and John Gray at The New Humanist. It’s like reading the script from The Three Stooges in Orbit, with Gray as a hideous monster alien bent on destroying the earth. The reporter simply cannot believe that such a creature exists. It also reminds me of a radio show in which Alex Jones, an ultraconservative commentator, interviewed Ann Coulter and made her apoplectic with rage by demonstrating her hypocrisy in supporting George W. Bush. Political stooges can be hilarious.