Gray vs. Grayling

I was forcing myself to read through PZ Myers’ blog and I happened upon his mindless little post about John Gray’s review of A.C. Grayling. The pharyngulas were fawning over Grayling’s put-downs, but the personal dispute between Gray and Grayling is not that interesting. I wanted to highlight some parts of Gray’s review:

Along with countless others, Russell fell victim to the belief that the solution to the world’s problems would be found in increasing internationalism, socialism, the withering away of religion and the continuing advancement of science. This is, in effect, a version of his godfather’s “religion of humanity”—the secular humanist creed imbibed by Mill from the French positivist thinker Auguste Comte, which aimed to replace the traditional faiths of the West with a belief in human progress. At times Russell was seized by despair, doubting the capacity of human beings to realize the glorious prospect ahead of them. What he never doubted was the faith he had in common with the rest of the progressive intelligentsia: if only humankind could bring itself to be reasonable, the future would be so much better than the past.

Myers doesn’t bother tackling this because it’s too hard for him to think about. In his previous swipe at Gray he made clear what his unaccountable beliefs are, attacking anti-atheists because “they have to abolish the whole notion of cultural progress and ignore most of history, pretending that nothing has ever changed.” Furthermore,

Prosperity and freedom of the sort brought by science and technology enable deep changes in attitudes and opportunities. Culture changed for the better between the 19th and 20th centuries for people who benefited from modern industry.

Myers is truly a product of a failed 20th-century educational system that considers “history” to consist of a snippet about the Inquisition and the Dark Ages; a passing reference to Voltaire and Rousseau; a reading of the Gettysburg address; a big section on Darwin, Marx, and Freud; and a self-congratulatory polemic on how atheist values destroyed the evil religious regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. What a freaking idiot he is.

Gray responds to Grayling’s championing of rationalism:

The history of the last century is testimony to the destructive power of rationalism, not fideism. Nazism and Communism were at one in their hatred of religion. Both claimed to be founded in science—“dialectical materialism” and “scientific racism.” Of course these sciences were bogus, but they show what horrors can be justified by appeal to reason. The worst acts of the twentieth century were committed by atheist regimes that claimed a scientific basis for their policies. This fact is mentioned nowhere in Grayling’s dictionary, and throughout his writings he is adamant in denying that the crimes of Nazism and Communism had anything to do with atheism. Instead, he asserts, they were due to the repressive character of the regimes.

This is identical to Myers’ complaint. Science, he says, did not cause Hitler and Stalin to do bad things, since Myers teaches science as academic inquiry, not as justification for racism or intolerance. Now then, of course science as an idea does not cause anything in particular; rather, scientists provide the instruments for controlling people and destroying them.

He advances this proposition as something like an a priori truth, which may be prudent as it is certainly not supported by historical evidence. Lenin and Stalin made plain, in both words and deeds, that the destruction of religion was essential to the achievement of their goals. A type of atheism was at the core of the Communist project, and the same was true of Nazism. Both made concessions to religion when circumstances dictated—Stalin during the Second World War, Hitler in his cultivation of “German Christianity” and his overtures to the Vatican. They also concocted state cults—around Lenin in the USSR, and around Hitler and an ersatz paganism in Nazi Germany. (A similar pattern was evident in Maoist China.) The long-term aim remained the extermination of every variety of traditional religion—a goal that could only be realized by repressive means.

This is the bottom line for every atheist:  how to make the stupid religionists accept reason.

Unwilling to accept that dictatorship is the result not of misapplying Marx’s theories but of attempting to implement them, he falls back on an all-too-familiar cop-out: “Some, with justice, will say that neither Marxism nor socialism has ever been properly tried anywhere; the regimes appropriating these labels have never proved worthy of them.” Here—as so often—he misses the point. Regimes embodying ideologies as all-embracing as Marxism are bound to crush those who refuse to accept the ideology.

This is why it is so silly to argue that hostility to religion had nothing to do with Nazi and Communist oppression; it was this hostility that animated a significant part of the repression. If Grayling cannot see this, the reason is that for him, atheism cannot be implicated in anything undesirable; an inevitable conclusion of rational inquiry, it is intrinsically virtuous.

Gray also comes around to my favorite criticism of the modern American atheist like Myers:

Like other contemporary critics of religion, Grayling passes over the long tradition of illiberal atheism as if it never existed.

There is an explanation for this omission. It lies in the fact that the most militant varieties of atheism have historically been highly illiberal, while liberal values derive very largely from Western religion. Toleration was first defended systematically by a pious Christian, John Locke, and Benedict Spinoza, a dissenting Jew. American secularism originated from within Western religion, not in opposition to it.

Again we have historical stuff that doesn’t matter to guys like Myers.

Finally, Gray points out that the modern superstitions about cultural progress began in the 19th century and are now obsolete:

In this view, religion is chiefly a product of intellectual error, and will fade away along with continuing scientific advance. But what if science were to show that religion serves needs that do not change with the growth of knowledge—the need for meaning, for example? In that case, it would not be religion and science that were at odds, but science and atheism. The upshot of scientific inquiry would be that religion is an ineradicable part of human life. Atheism—at least of the evangelical variety that Grayling promotes, which aims to convert humankind from religion—would be a supremely pointless exercise.

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