Portrait of John GrayMy first encounter with the political philosopher John Gray was at the Institue of Contemporary Art shortly after the publication in 2002 of Straw Dogs, his powerful and provocative assault upon the central values of liberal humanism. On that occasion my modest task had been to chair a session at which Gray would outline and develop some of his ideas and then take questions from the audience. I was interested in the nature of those questions. For Gray's book was not only attacking values that I regarded as my own but was (rather more alarmingly) doing so with a verve and wit that had elicited a chorus of admiration from a high-powered bunch of writers and commentators. The visionary novelist, JG Ballard, for example, had described Straw Dogs as "a powerful and brilliant book" and "an essential guide to the new millennium", while Will Self in the Independent thought it to be "a remarkable new work of philosophy... devoid of jargon, wholly accessible, and profoundly relevant to the rapidly evolving world we live in."

After that sort of critical reception it was not surprising to find that the ICA room was packed. It looked like being quite an evening. But as Gray began to outline his ideas there was a puzzling lack of reaction to his assertions. There were no interruptions or expressions of disagreement or even whispered asides, and when it came to question time nobody asked for anything much more than a clarification of a few specific points.

I decided to raise the stakes by asking if everyone in the audience knew exactly what Gray was asserting? What, for example, did they make of this passage? "To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody today, but it is groundless." Or perhaps this passage: "Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth - and so be free. But if Darwin's theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals."

This did at least engender a mild skirmish about the impossibility of reconciling ideas of progress with evolutionary theory, but otherwise there were no more discussions or questions and I brought the evening to an end and drifted downstairs with John for an amiable drink at the bar.

Since that ICA date I've read much more of Gray's work: his account of the war against terror, Al Qaeda And What It Means To Be Modern, his analysis of the delusions of global capitalism, False Dawn, and the collection of his New Statesman essays on politics and the illusion of progress called, with a typically iconoclastic flourish, Heresies. It is all wonderfully readable and consistently provocative. But it is also unremittingly pessimistic. Gray is literally proposing that we should do nothing to try to change our world. We might be able to make modest adjustments here and there to some local social and political arrangements, but even these modest changes are likely to be quickly reversed by the next cycle of history. In such circumstances our best bet might be quiescence.

However vividly expressed, these are still alarming opinions. Should we not take issue with an author who lauds such immobility, who sees it as nothing more than a welcome and long overdue acknowledgement of human impotence? And, at a time when religious fundamentalism is on the rise alongside a host of new religions and superstitions, should we not be arguing vigorously with an academic who sees such developments as merely the inevitable return of the repressed, evidence that humans cannot live without illusions?

These were the type of nagging questions which led me to seek out Gray for an extended interview. We met in his room at the London School of Economics and I began by suggesting that he was facing his own worst nightmare: he was looking at a self-confessed liberal humanist. His first reaction was to question my certainty: How well had I examined the premises upon which my beliefs rested? "My experience is that liberal humanists fall into one of two categories. Some hold to a set of conventional beliefs that don't have much depth. They're the sort who almost seem to be relieved when I ventilate the doubts, the forebodings that they have long had. The other type of liberal humanist is the body-armoured rigid type who illustrates a certain kind of innocence. Unlike members of most religions in the world, they don't interrogate their own myths. They don't even think that their beliefs might be myths."

There didn't seem to be much room in this bi-modal distribution for my own ambivalences so I decided to let it lie and move on to what Gray regards as the the central 'myth' of liberal humanism, the idea of human progress. I knew he regarded this particular myth as a derivative, an alternative version of the Christian religious idea of progress and finality. "That's right. A great many religions saw history as a cycle, not as a narrative of progress. And that's also true for the philosophies of Egypt and ancient Greece. Most ways of giving meaning to human life have not involved the idea of betterment and improvement. But when I put this forward, the naiveté and the innocence - and I might almost say the parochialism - of most liberal humanists, leads them to say, 'Well, if I believed what you believe then I wouldn't get up in the morning'. To which my response is, 'Well, maybe, you shouldn't. Maybe the world would be better off, maybe you would better off, if you had a time of quiet reflection.' It doesn't occur to them that people have throughout history been living lives with varying degrees of happiness without having a kind of Prozac-like belief that the future can be better than the past has ever been."

But what was the mechanism by which liberal humanists came to adopt the Christian notion of progress and make it central to their own beliefs? Were they so strongly influenced by their childhood religiosity that they necessarily imported ideas of progress and betterment into their secular and humanist visions? Or was the mechanism more unconscious? A Freudian return of the repressed?

"Absolutely. Freud says if you suppress sex it doesn't just go away. It's part of us, so if you repress it, it comes out in more bizarre and morbid and ridiculous forms. And I think that is true of religion. Liberal humanism now has all the mood-enhancing, meaning-conferring functions that Christianity had in the past."

Wasn't this playing rather fast and loose with Freud? The founder of psychoanalysis may have spent his life demoting the centrality of consciousness and promoting the power of the irrational, but surely his work did not provide any license for Gray's suggestion that liberal humanism could be seen as the return of repressed religion. Secularism for Freud represented an advance on religious thinking. It was recognition of the illusory nature of religion.

"Sort of. But when Freud talks about illusion he doesn't mean an error. Illusions aren't errors that can be corrected by an increase in intellectual ability or understanding. Illusions are beliefs we have because we need to have them in some way. And he says that we cannot imagine a world where the mass of humankind - I would say 'anybody' - can manage without illusion. Freud didn't go along with the classical freethinkers of the Enlightenment who worked on the assumption that human life could be exorcised of superstition, fantasy, and illusion. He cannot conceive of humanity without illusions. So this leads me to the conclusion, which I don't think Freud would have made, that if we are going to have fantasies and illusions in one way or another, we should seek ones which are dignified, aesthetic, attractive, tolerant. In other words our criteria for judging religions shouldn't be truth or falsehood, it should be like judging poetry or art. We should adopt ones which are the most beautiful."

So truth doesn't come into religion? "Yes, it does. In the following way. The myths or illusions of traditional religions are often ciphers for unchanging features of human life, in other words the truths about human life. Look at the Genesis myth. Once you have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge you can't go back. It suggests that power can enslave and that knowledge can enslave as well. That's very profound. But the trouble with the myths of liberal humanism is that essentially - and I almost don't want to say this, it sounds too harsh - they are the myths of adolescence. They deny or repress or somehow forget permanent features of human life. The key example in liberal humanism is the idea that knowledge liberates. I think that knowledge normally simply enhances human power."

I had the sense at this point that the interview was beginning to get a little too comfortable. It was early evening and already dark outside the windows of Gray's small second floor office at the LSE, and there was something distinctly cosy and nicely old-fashioned about sitting there with a distinguished and cultured professor and exchanging ideas about the meaning of life. I sat up a little straighter and went in hard on his Genesis example. "But isn't Genesis also a warning about intellectual presumption? Adam and Eve have dared to try and possess the knowledge that is supposed to be God's preserve and that presumption is punished. They are rebelling against authority, claiming the right to think for themselves, the very right that was demanded by the liberal humanists of the Enlightenment."

"Well, that might been have a useful demand in the 17th and 18th centuries when the predominant form of established wisdom was religion. But now the predominant form of established opinion is liberal humanism. So thinking for yourself now involves exactly what I am trying to do, which is question those liberal humanist ideas. And particularly the view of history as being potentially meaningful and with a happy ending."

But where exactly were all these millennarian humanists? I knew a great many liberal humanists, spent my time hanging around offices and sitting in bars with them, but I'd be hard pushed to think of one who subscribed to anything which resembled a grand narrative of progress?

"Let me try and be more precise. I don't deny that some states of human history are better than other states. Europe in 1990 was better than Europe in 1940. I don't deny that. And I don't deny that some programmes of reform have enhanced the lot of human beings to a considerable extent. And peace is better than war, freedom is better than anarchy, prosperity is better than poverty, pleasure is better than pain, beauty is better than ugliness. But there is a another very specific belief that I would guess you subscribe to: the belief that advances in ethics or politics can in principle become like advances in science in the sense of being cumulative. This is the belief that there is nothing inherent in human life or human nature to prevent cumulative improvement. We'll get to the point where there is no poverty in the world, where there is no anarchy in the world. My view is that all gains in ethics and politics are real but they are all also reversible and all will be reversed and often reversed very easily. For example, I know many liberal humanists myself and I know that when I said two and a half years ago that torture would come back, they were incredulous. That doesn't tell me they are stupid. That tells me they are in the grip of a belief that makes such a thing unthinkable. They have a narrative, a notion of stages. But when I look at history I don't see any kind of thread, however tenuous, however sometimes broken. What I see is cyclical change, cyclical transformation."

A certain pantomimic aspect was beginning to become apparent in our conversation. Whenever Gray said that liberal humanists believed in X, I would counter by say 'oh no, they don't'. But I still couldn't let him get away with liberal humanists who believed in a 'notion of stages'. This was surely a 19th century development which derived its impetus from the illegitimate application of biological theories of evolution to ethics and politics. I didn't detect any such theories of immanence in contemporary liberal humanism or indeed in the writings of the 18th century Enlightenment philosophers who were credited with its foundation.

Some Enlightenment figures certainly looked forward to the expansion of knowledge and its extension to wider and wider circles but they were far more united by their insistence upon freeing people from traditional modes of authority such as the church and the monarchy and the restrictions these institutions placed upon free speech.

I paused in my monologue. Was I getting my point across? I decided to change the line of my attack.

"You know, I always get incensed when I read you on the 18th century Enlightenment. When you indict the people you see as the founders of liberal humanism. I think that you are dishonouring these people. When Hume criticised religion he did it only 40 or 50 years after they executed someone in his hometown of Edinburgh for blasphemy. These were difficult and dangerous times. And he and other brave writers were prepared to come out in favour of people being able to express their opinions openly without hindrance from authoritarian figures. And that is an emancipation. A liberation. You and I have spent our lives being able to say what we like. We revel in being able to say what we like. What Hume was talking about was extending that privilege, that right, to more and more people. He didn't have a stage theory of progress. How could someone with such scepticism about traditional notions of causality possible have any explanation of progress?"

John Gray happily admitted to a fondness for Hume and his extreme scepticism. But he was far less ready to exempt such other Enlightenment figures as Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and Rousseau, from the charge of believing that as larger and larger numbers of people acquired knowledge so the world would inevitably improve. Even Hume, he argued, for all his strengths, never got around to explaining where religion came from, the origins of this 'monstrous religious beast'. "But the part of the Enlightenment that I like is the part before reason was turned into a religion itself. Most of the humanists I've talked to get worked up into a frenzy when I point out that in the 20th century the worst and largest crimes against humanity were created by secular regimes. That's just a fact. These totalitarian regimes didn't come from nowhere and they can't be explained by specific traditions like Russian despotism or Chinese traditions because these regimes were in very different places but were all very similar. They were similar because despite their huge historical differences they were pursuing a version of a progressive European revolutionary project which when pursued logically by a government with power always has such results. But no one needs to have this belief in progress. I get the impression with a lot of people - not just the humanists but also the self-professed Christians - that they cling on like grim death to some sort of belief in progress because they really feel that if they give that up life's not worth living and chaos will break loose. And what I want to say is that this is an unnecessary fear. Epicurus was very cheerful; he was even cheerful when he was dying. You can have a philosophy or view of human life which is positive and cheerful but contains no trace of a belief in human progress."

As I found in the hour and a half that I spent with him, it's extraordinarily difficult to knock Gray off this particular perch.

He is absolutely convinced that liberal humanists have made the fundamental mistake of believing that the cumulative developmental nature of science is paralleled by a cumulative development in human well-being and ethical behaviour. He is equally insistent that religion can only be temporarily vanquished because its special access to basic truths about human life means that it will always reassert itself in one form or another. Above all he is thoroughly sceptical about attempts to better the human condition. He'll just about go along with a little of what Popper once called 'bit and piece social engineering' but anything more ambitious is certain to founder at some time in the future. History is cyclical not progressive. Reversible not linear. In such circumstances many of us might be better off staying quietly at home and minding our own business than rushing out to the latest set of barricades.

It's an intellectual stance which can lead to some unproductive trading with historical examples. Will torture ever again be used by western democracies? 'Of course not', said the liberal humanists three years ago. 'Well', Gray would argue, 'look what's happening now in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. I told you so'. But is this really solid evidence of history's reversibility? Might we not also point to the widespread condemnation of these latest examples of torture as evidence that our ethical distaste for such practices is still alive and well?

Gray's characterisation of liberal humanists as believers in inevitable progress also tends to lean heavily on somewhat sweeping generalisations about the character of 18th century Enlightenment thinkers and upon the dubious assertion that humanists share something with the 19th century positivists and their absurd notions about a religion of humanity.

Neither is there much clarity about the status of his much cited cyclical view of history. Is this merely another way of formulating the common fatalistic sentiment that what goes around comes around, or is there a hypothesis here which might lend itself to some other test than a list of recent policy failures?

There's a final concern. Does not Gray's insistence upon the futility of most attempts to better the lives of others rather chime with our times than run counter to them? When I look around I don't find my immediate world is populated by crusading liberal humanists with millenarian projects.

What I do see are very large numbers of people who have become so obsessed with the endless elaboration of their individuality through the services and commodities offered by consumer culture that they are in danger of losing their compassion for fellow human beings. They simply don't have the time or the inclination to think of others. Gray, however unintentionally, may be providing an intellectual licence for their bedazzled inactivity. And that after all may have been the reason for the peculiar lack of debate at the ICA. It was not a silence of incomprehension. It was a silence of approval.

Read AC Grayling's review of John Gray's Black Mass (2007)