27 February 2012
It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides [left] and al-Ghazali—to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions—lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd . . .
So says British political philosopher and public intellectual, John Gray, in a recent book review.
Gray—a former professor at the London School of Economics and a regular contributor to many of Britain’s top newspapers and literary magazines, as well as the author of numerous books on politics, intellectual history, and social criticism—is not to be confused with the American pop-psychology author of the same name.
The essay I draw this striking quote from is called “The Cult of Unbelief,” and appeared in The New Statesman the week before last. In form, it is a review of Alain de Botton’s latest high-fructose philosophical confection, Religion for Atheists (Pantheon, 2012). However, in this column I will focus on Gray’s views on religion and ignore de Botton’s.
One of Gray’s main contentions is that the denial of a supernatural order is logically compatible with any number of different attitudes towards the phenomenon of religion. The main reason for the knee-jerk hostility of most contemporary atheists towards religion is historical and philosophical ignorance.
Gray (right) backs up this claim by rehearsing some too-little-remembered history:
Atheist thinkers have rejected and at times supported religion for many different reasons. The 19th-century anarchist Max Stirner rejected religion as a fetter on individual self-assertion. Bakunin, Marx and Lenin rejected it because it obstructed socialist solidarity, while Nietzsche hated religion (specifically, Christianity) because he believed that it had led to ideologies of solidarity such as socialism. Auguste Comte, an atheist and virulent anti-liberal, attempted to create a new church of humanity based on science.
In contrast, the French atheist and proto-fascist Charles Maurras, an admirer of both Comte and Nietzsche, was an impassioned defender of the Catholic Church. John Stuart Mill—not exactly an atheist but not far off—tried to fuse Comte’s new religion with liberalism. In marrying atheism with very different ethical and political positions, none of these thinkers was confused or inconsistent. Atheism can go with practically anything, since in itself it amounts to very little. . . .
Rightly understood, atheism is a purely negative position: an atheist is anyone who has no use for the doctrines and concepts of theism. While not compatible with any kind of literalism, atheism of this strict kind is consistent with many varieties of religious practice. The present clamour against religion comes from confusing atheism with humanism, which in its modern forms is an offshoot of Christianity.
In other words, there is nothing in atheism itself—which has very little intellectual content, amounting after all to nothing more than the rejection of a particular proposition about the existence of God—that entails hostility towards religion.
The hostility towards religion that we see on such prominent display in the media today derives not from the narrow negative claim of atheism per se, but rather from the embrace of a broad set of beliefs amounting to a rival worldview—indeed, a rival religion.
It is this attempt by modern atheism to set itself up as a religion in competition with Christianity that accounts for the hostility. Gray calls this rival religion “humanism.” And he is very much against it.
Gray is a thinker who is impossible to classify according to our ordinary categories. He is obviously no believer. It is not even clear he is really a friend of traditional theistic religion. But he is even more opposed to the religious pretensions of science.
Listen to this from his celebrated book, Straw Dogs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007):*
. . . science alone has the power to silence heretics. Today it is the only institution that can claim authority. Like the Church in the past, it has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers. . . . In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things, but by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview. From the standpoint of anyone who values freedom of thought, this may be unfortunate, but it is undoubtedly the chief source of science’s appeal. For us, science is a refuge from uncertainty, promising—and in some measure delivering—the miracle of freedom from thought; while churches have become sanctuaries for doubt. (p. 19)
Above all, Gray is an anti-Utopian thinker, opposed to all totalizing systems of thought.
He also stands in the tradition of refined pessimism, with affinities to writers like Thomas Bernhard, E.M. Cioran, Ernst Jünger, and Gregor von Rezzori, in recent years, stretching back to thinkers like Oswald Spengler, Arthur Schopenhauer (right), and Joseph de Maistre, in years past.
To be sure, as an Anglo-Saxon he is far more plainspoken—far less given to pedantry and mystification—than any of the writers I’ve just noted. Nonetheless, his tone of voice is no less prophetic and his vision no less bleak than theirs.
Such thinkers cultivate clear-sightedness at the expense of compassion. Their great strength lies in their aloofness from partisanship—their willingness to declare “a plague on both your houses.” They have much to teach us, even if in the end we turn away from their elegant cynicism with a shiver of disgust.
Gray ends “The Cult of Unbelief” with this observation:
[August Comte's] church of humanity is a prototypical modern example of atheism turned into a cult of collective self-worship. If this ersatz faith came to nothing, it was not because of practical difficulties. Religions are human creations. When they are consciously designed to be useful, they are normally short-lived. The ones that survive are those that have evolved to serve enduring human needs—especially the need for self-transcendence. That is why we can be sure the world’s traditional religions will be alive and well when evangelical atheism is dead and long forgotten.
Whether one finds this observation consoling or maddening will depend, not so much on the value one places upon religion, as on one’s tolerance for the Mandarin tone of dispassionate disengagement from human folly.
Certainly, Gray is not for all tastes. But he is a salutary reminder of the simple-mindedness of the Dawkinses and the Hitchenses of the world.
* Originally published in the U.K. by Granta Books in 2003.