16 March 2015

John Gray: a self-hating atheist?

Every few weeks, it seems, the English philosopher John Gray publishes more or less the same article in a new venue. Publishers and editors still see novelty in his act. Gray is a professed atheist who now spends most of his time attacking other atheists. As reported here before, he is a harsh critic of what he now calls "evangelical atheists," i.e. the "new" or "militant" atheists who show up on best-seller lists. Jealousy? I doubt it. Gray's books don't top the charts but he's a well-known name in intellectual circles and apparently can be published anywhere he wants. In any event, he has a real issue with the "evangelicals" (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris etc.).  His fear seems to be that the "evangelicals" will define what atheists are or ought to be. Gray objects to the "evangelicals" setting the standard because he feels that you don't have to be hostile to religion just because you don't believe in God. In a piece for The Guardian this month he implies that he speaks for a silent majority of atheists.

Roughly speaking, an atheist is anyone who has no use for the concept of God – the idea of a divine mind, which has created humankind and embodies in a perfect form the values that human beings cherish and strive to realise. Many who are atheists in this sense (including myself) regard the evangelical atheism that has emerged over the past few decades with bemusement. Why make a fuss over an idea that has no sense for you? There are untold multitudes who have no interest in waging war on beliefs that mean nothing to them. Throughout history, many have been happy to live their lives without bothering about ultimate questions. This sort of atheism is one of the perennial responses to the experience of being human.

Atheism goes bad, Gray argues, when it becomes a movement with idealist goals. When that happens, he claims, atheists become millennial and intolerant in the exact image of the religions they denounce. He believes that today's bestselling "evangelical" atheists are more vocally intolerant because they're afraid that history is proving them wrong. They inherit from the Abrahamic eschatological tradition a belief (if not a faith) in an ultimate triumph of reason, a time when people will do without superstition once and for all. They also assume (so Gray assumes) that a world without religion will be more tolerant, while he accepts the historical argument that the "liberal morality" to which these atheists appeal is more dependent on faith in a universal lawgiver than they care to admit. He claims Nietzsche as his authority for the argument that the "death of God" leaves no firm basis for the sort of morality atheists today take for granted. Gray himself seems to assume that in a world "beyond good and evil" human rights as understood by liberals (including even the intolerant "evangelical" atheists) will be less certain, if not less secure, than atheists assume. He doesn't need God to actually exist to preserve liberal civilization, however. For him, it seems, it will suffice if people act on the assumption of a benevolent lawgiving God. If the results are good (e.g. liberal civilization) why question the premise? A more militant atheist might answer that people should be held to a single standard. If John Gray doesn't have to believe in the literal truth of scripture, or even the likelihood of intelligent design, in order to be a moral or liberal person, why should such beliefs be necessary for anyone? Gray's complacency smacks of Platonic classism. Plato imagined "noble lies" necessary to keep the majority in order; the Founding Fathers espoused deism amongst themselves while affirming the necessity of religious instruction for the masses. When Gray challenges atheists to consider whether "the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind," does he acknowledge his own dependence? Whether he does or not, does he really believe that the benefits of atheist acquiescence outweigh the costs of the many forms of religiously-based resistance to progress that the more militant atheists perceive?

Gray would most likely answer the last question with a hearty affirmative. The main difference between him and the "evangelical" atheists may be that, however idealistic different atheists may be, Gray is a philosophical pessimist. He scoffs nearly as often at the idea of "progress" as he does at atheists. If "evangelical" atheists share with Christians (and Muslims) a millennial optimism, Gray shares with many Christians a premillennial belief in ultimate human imperfectability. Man can never perfect society in this world, the premillennials say, because of sin. Gray, of course, doesn't have to believe in Adam and Eve to believe in what he calls human intractability.

If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up? The answer that will be given is that religion is implicated in many human evils. Of course this is true. Among other things, Christianity brought with it a type of sexual repression unknown in pagan times. Other religions have their own distinctive flaws. But the fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal. Like religion at its worst, contemporary atheism feeds the fantasy that human life can be remade by a conversion experience – in this case, conversion to unbelief.

Why does Gray believe this? He can appeal to history all he wants, but his pessimism is really a kind of negative faith -- not the absence of faith, but a certitude, as much in his heart as in his mind, that some things just can't happen. If Gray is still a kind of liberal, his is a liberalism rooted in some sort of compassionate despair. If there is no God and no ultimate justice, and if mankind can't ever make this world that much better a place, then "why make a fuss?" may well be your natural response to anything. Others apparently need to believe in the illusion of progress -- to believe that the world can always be made better, or that people can become better. Gray apparently believes that this illusion is worse than the illusion of God. That leaves whatever his ultimate illusion is, however comforting it may be to him. It doesn't do the rest of us much good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People can't be made better. Individuals can decide to better themselves, but to understand what "better" is, they need at least a modicum of real education, most importantly how to think and how to do so in a critical and consistent manner. The average individual has no motivation to make of themselves a better person, when "tried" is good enough. Nowadays, it seems that merely contemplating change to most individual equals "try".