John Gray

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2018 edition of New Humanist

John Gray is a political philosopher whose books include “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals” and “Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia”. His latest is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane).

Your new book claims atheism is a “closed system of thought”. Why so?
Because atheists of a certain kind imagine that by rejecting monotheistic beliefs they step out of a monotheistic way of thinking. Actually, they have inherited all of its rigidities and assumptions. Namely, the idea that there is a universal history; that there is something like a collective human agent; or a universal way of life. These are all Christian ideals. Christianity itself is also a much more complex belief system than most contemporary atheists allow for. But then most of these atheists know very little about the history of religion.

Particularly, you argue, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. What is your disagreement with them?
They treat religion as a kind of intellectual error; something only the crudest of Enlightenment thinkers believed. Not every human being has a religious sensibility, but pretty much all human cultures do. Neither Dawkins or Harris are interesting enough to discuss this at length.

Dawkins is really not worth discussing or engaging with at all. He is an ideologue of Darwinism and knows very little about religion, treating it as a kind of a priori notion, rather than the complex social, and anthropological set of ideas which religion usually entails. Harris is partially interesting, in that he talks about how all human values can be derived from science. But I object strongly to that idea.

What is your main disagreement here?
That [deriving human values from science] is really just projecting scientific values for the time. In the early 20th century, for example, racial hierarchies were a prominent theme within scientific thought. Science has developed as a form of knowledge that is progressive and cumulative. But even science contains [prejudices] from dominant myths of the time. Nineteenth – and 20th – century science, for instance, was comprehensively racist. It only moved away from that kind of racism when Nazism revealed the horrendous consequences of using these racial theories.

Could you cite a specific scientist here?
In the 1930s Julian Huxley [the British evolutionary biologist] wrote about “negroes” (his term not mine) being less evolved than white Europeans. And then four years later he was rejecting that: claiming that race had no place in science. So science is very susceptible to the shifts and fashions and politics of the time.

Why are you so against the ideology of modern humanism?
I’m not against it. I don’t give a toss if people believe in it or not. But humanism is essentially a reformulation of monotheism in different terms. I’m simply pointing that out. The faith of all those people who imagine they have no kind of religion is called meliorism.

Can you briefly explain this term?
It’s essentially an idea that says what has been gained in civilisation cannot be lost. The reality is that whatever is gained is lost. Meliorism is a type of humanism that says that humanity is gradually evolving to different stages with cumulative improvement. But that is really just a secular vision of the earlier version of the Christian doctrine which was called post-millennialism: it said that Jesus would return to the human world, but the improvement of the world would mostly be done by human beings. That idea has been inherited by modern secular humanists, who have taken Jesus and replaced these religious fictions with a different fiction: humanity.

You argue that there is no fixed idea of humanity as such?
Yes. Humanity is just a collection of human animals with many different ways of life, values and histories. All of that can be observed empirically. And in that way of life, different periods of civilisations have long periods of advance: they gain wealth, knowledge and peace. They rise to a higher level, and then they decline. That’s all that can be observed. History has proved that.

The only thing that really increases over the whole of human history is human knowledge and technology. But human knowledge – particularly in the realms of science and technology – is morally and politically useful, in that it is used by different human groups, for different contending purposes.

So is knowledge useful?
Well, modern science can be used for purposes of prolonging human longevity. But it can also be used for purposes of genocide and war. We see that all around us. So the central myth of secularism is that there is a cumulative process of advancing human civilisation running parallel with that in knowledge. Knowledge does grow exponentially. But human civilisation – the quality of human life and the conditions in which people live – rises and falls. That was a view that pretty much everybody in the world took for granted until the 17th century. But that idea is now incomprehensible to many.

How do you view history, in that case?
History is composed of long periods of drifts and cycles. It is cyclical and chaotic. That’s what ancient historians thought. But that changed when the idea of progress within history arrived in the 19th century.

Are humans any more reasonable now than they have ever been?
Humankind is unique among animals in its capacity to grow knowledge. It’s also unique in its incapacity to learn from experience.

You are hugely critical of modern liberalism: what is your main problem with the ideology?
That it’s immune to empirical evidence. It’s a form of dogmatic faith. If you are a monotheist it makes sense – I myself am not saying it’s true or right – to say that there is only one way of life for all of humankind. And so you should try and convert the rest of humanity to that faith.

But if you are not a monotheist, and you claim to be an atheist, it makes no sense to claim that there is only one way of life. There may be some good and bad ways of living. And there may be some forms of barbarism, where human societies cannot flourish for very long. But there is no reason for thinking that there is only one way of life: the ones that liberal societies practice.

Have you been surprised by far-right politics bubbling to the surface yet again in Europe?
No. I’ve been talking about this since the early 1990s and everybody said I was being deeply pessimistic. The reason the old right has resurfaced in countries like Poland, Austria, Hungary, Germany and France stems from an attempt to create a Eurozone with markets from everywhere; where labour can move freely from one part of the continent to the other; and where national governments become subordinate to a transnational government. Inevitably, this has caused a backlash.

How do you think liberals have reacted to this?
They will not confront it. Of course you would have to be completely blind not to recognise what has happened in Poland, Hungary, Austria and in Germany too. Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) winning seats has meant for the first time time in 70 years that Nazis are in the Reichstag. Even in France, over a third of the country voted [in the last election] for Marine Le Pen and the Front National, which is still a neo-fascist party. The centre left in pretty much all European countries has collapsed. If you raise this issue with liberals they say: oh, this is just a blip. But it’s happening in many different countries over several decades.

Is this an inevitable consequence of the darker side of human nature?
Well, this is not a re-run of the 1930s. But of course it is the case that humans never hang onto civilisation for very long. Presently all over Europe anti-Semitism is on the rise. And in many countries this is promoted by governments. For example in Poland and in Hungary. And in Austria you have the Freedom party that was founded by an SS officer, which is now back in power. So these poisonous trends are now creeping into governments across Europe. But when looking at this, one of the things you have to notice is the follies of the liberal centre, which is disappearing all over Europe: because it’s clinging to a set of policies that has lost popular support. If the liberal centre doesn’t make values of freedom and toleration legitimate, then you will get extremes at both ends of the spectrum taking over. In Europe as a whole, it’s not the far left that has re-emerged, it’s the far right. But I expect it to get worse, and don’t expect any change in liberal thinking.
Interview by J. P. O’Malley