Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Transcript, John Gray: Theos/LICC lecture on "The New Atheism", 2008

My transcription of a lecture given by John Gray in 2008, (The “Theos/LICC” lecture), originally published at Times Online, and available to listen on YouTube.
Apologies to John Gray for any mistakes.


The New Atheism

“Thank you very much for that very generous and accurate introduction, I mean I speak here as a Skeptic, not as a Believer, I don’t belong to or practise any religion, and whatever disadvantages that may have, it has certain advantages that go with it, which is that I think I’m able to observe the current pattern of debate over the last few years about religion, with a certain degree of, I won’t say objectivity (that may be impossible), but with a certain degree of perhaps often amused detachment.

And one thing I note about it [the debate] is that – I mean I myself have found, in the sense that I’m here tonight I think illustrates this – is that the so-called “New Atheism” [NA] is an extremely dogmatic, and in certain respects fundamentalist, phenomenon.

And so what I want to do tonight really is just to suggest a few thoughts about the so-called NA, to ask what’s new in it, if anything, and to try and explain it. And before I do that, though, I want to make rather an important point, which is that the type of atheism which we now have in the writers that Nick [person who introduced the lecture] mentioned, is by no means the only type of atheism that has existed, and it’s not to my mind the most interesting, or the most challenging or certainly not the most profound.

What we have now is another round, another version, of Scientific atheism. Very few of the writers on atheism today who are themselves evangelists for atheism know very much about the history of thought. The only one I would recommend as knowing about that is one who has not written originally in English, Michel Onfray,  I mean his book - he wrote a manifesto on atheism - I mean whether or not one agrees with it (and there are lots of things in it that I don’t agree with) [he] has a good comprehensive knowledge of modern thought and that’s certainly not true of Dawkins, for example, or most of the philosophers who have written on this subject in recent times. And what that means is that they miss out the fact that there have been some types of atheism which really have nothing to do with science at all. I’ll give you an example (some of them have been widely influential in art and literature and culture). A philosopher I’m rather fond of, Arthur Schopenhauer, was undoubtedly, by any standard an atheist. But his atheism was not based in science, he wasn’t a materialist, he was what philosophers call an Idealist (capital ‘I’), he thought the ultimate reality in the world was spiritual; he thought science was a kind of pragmatic project  which came up with partial truths - essentially about a world of illusion; he was as sceptical of human free will, and indeed of the specialness of humans, as he was of the existence of the God of Christianity. But he had a profound impact on writers, painters, musicians. Among writers, for example, Joseph Conrad was deeply influenced by him. One of his lesser-known novels, “Victory”, is a kind of tribute to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, while at the same time an ironical criticism of it; Thomas Hardy [was] a long way from conventional Christianity – I think he’d have to be described as a kind of agnostic or atheist - [and was] deeply influenced by Schopenhauer; and even in the case of Nietsche, a figure who’s sort of missed out by many of the contemporary atheists today, they hardly even mention Nietsche, which is odd because I think he is the most influential 19th century philosopher, and I think in the 20th century (by the way) surveys have been done (though I can’t speak for their veracity) which say that he’s the second-most quoted philosopher in the world in the 20th century (the most-quoted being Aristotle). [Nietsche was] enormously influential, yet although he mentions Darwin here and there, the roots of his atheism were not in science – he had a pragmatic view of science as well -  but really in philosophy, in Schopenhauer, and in his studies of the ancient Greeks, he started as a Classicist. So the first thing to understand is that the present type of atheism that’s having such an impact, that’s making such a lot of noise, is only one type of atheism, and to my mind a rather retrograde, atavistic type, and I’ll try to identify, in a moment, where it particularly comes from.

Before I even do that, I want to make one further preliminary remark, or thought, which is that if one thinks of atheism as embracing any view which rejects the Creator God of the Bible, that’s to say rejects the view that the world has been created by some kind of divine power, which is in certain fundamental respects similar to human persons (which is the kind of view that ‘personality’ of the kind that exists in humans [in] some sense pervades the universe and that the world has been created by a divine person, lacking the imperfection of humans, but none-the-less a person) - if one thinks that anyone who denies that is an atheist, then of course there can be, and are, ‘Atheist’ religions. Buddhism would be an ‘atheist religion’ in that sense, because Buddhists (or Hindus or Daoists) don’t believe was created at all, actually, by anything, or anyone, and they don’t think the universe is permeated by anything like human personality, on the contrary, they think like Schopenhauer that human personality is in some sense an illusion. So there could be an atheist spirituality, an atheist religiosity, and atheist religions if we take this broad view of religion.

In fact that leads me to one of my themes, which is that current atheism is really a reaction against Western Monotheism. The atheism we have now is modelled on certain aspects, not to my mind the most valuable or interesting aspects, not the most profound aspects, of Western Monotheism, by which I mean principally Christianity and Judaism, although in the larger scheme of things probably Islam also belongs, although it sounds odd to say, within that tradition of Western Monotheism. Atheism, especially of the kind we have now, is a rejection of that set of beliefs, monotheistic beliefs, and in fact most atheists that I’ve spoken with seem to think that in rejecting monotheistic beliefs, they’ve rejected religion. They get tremendously angry - by the way they always get tremendously angry, I found, they’re very good at being angry. I think they think that if they’re angry intensely and for long enough then religion will go away. It won’t. I think one of the reasons I think they think that is they don’t understand that they can reject the religious beliefs but continue with the categories of thinking. And many of the categories of thinking, and even many of the values - including some of the (to my mind) precious values - that go with at least liberal civilisation, for which they claim to stand (because, unlike an earlier generation in which atheists were communists, Leninists  and some were even Nazis, the present generation of atheists all claim to be some kind of liberals), one of the things they suppress, I think, in their thinking and in their public utterances - and they genuinely believe this – is they suppress the fact, which I believe to be historically demonstrable, that liberal conceptions of toleration in religion come from within Christianity and Judaism. They do not come principally from a criticism or attack on religion. I mean in the English tradition, I suppose, on the the great, I mean you could think of Milton and John Locke, both of them belonging within the Christian tradition, and in the case of Locke, whom I studied a lot when I was working as a political philosopher, his entire philosophy is saturated from top to bottom with a particular version of Christianity. On the European continent, one of the great proponents of toleration of religion was Benedict Spinoza, a Jew who was ostracised from his religious community, a Rationalist but also a mystic, I think one can find some of the best arguments for toleration in Spinoza I think he was a critic of his own religious tradition - he certainly was shaped by it. And in fact I think it’s just demonstrable that modern ideas of toleration, which go back well before the French Enlightenment – they go back to the 17tgh century if not before, together with a profound tradition of scepticism which one finds in writers such as Pierre Bayle [1647-1706] – Christian sceptic – of Michel de Montaigne – my favourite writer on these subjects – all of these came from within Western religious traditions and didn’t attack them, although they sometimes criticised them  for inhumane practices that they’d taken up.

So one of the kind of oddities of the current wave of atheism is first of all by its own ignorance of earlier types -.of the history of thought and of earlier types of atheism. I think that blocks out consideration of more interesting types of atheism that have gone on in the past, which didn’t have very much to do with science, but it also involves a more fundamental error that the New Atheists make, which is by not studying how they acquired the concepts and categories they themselves use – how they emerged, how they’ve grown up and developed in the Western tradition. They think that by merely rejecting religious belief they are rejecting religion, and they tend systematically to suppress the extent to which modern ideals of toleration came from within religion.

This is true, for example, of American secularism. American secularism might not have been terribly successful in dividing religion from politics: you can have a secular constitution without having a secular politics. I think we’ve learnt that from recent times in America. But in many other ways American secularism has been successful, but it’s the secularism which emerges not from, principally, from Deistic writers such as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Payne in the 18th century, it emerged in the 17th century, a hundred years before from religious dissent, that is to say from a certain type of religion, not from an attack on religion, but from a type of religion, which had suffered persecution in Britain and other parts of Europe. So even secularism, which I suppose goes all the way back to the statement of Jesus “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render up to God what is God’s” (Caesar and God are separate, a distinction later theorised by St Augustine) - even though, I think, the modern ideal of secularism (problematical as it is in many ways) can be seen as a development from Western religion and not from the attack on religion. So my first point, just to repeat, is that there are many types of atheism only one or two have really been fundamen... connected with science (I’ll talk a little bit about the present one in that way); some more interesting ones have nothing to do with science, and the present type of atheism is distinguished not only by its view of science, and particularly of Darwinism, but also by its suppression of its own religious heritage: it’s suppression of the fact that many the categories of thinking that are adopted within it, human history for example, the [idea of the] human animal as being separate from the rest of life, really come from within Western Monotheism.”

[Average Protestant thinks here of the idea that humans are endowed with the ability to make radical choices in their actions, and so consciously alter their environment, and this is what gives rise to the notion of ‘history’. We don’t think of animals as having ‘history’.]

“So having said that, where does this atheism really come from? I think there are two separate things: what’s evoking it now, and what are its antecedents in thought (in other words what does it most resemble in the past, in human thinking).

The first thing is something that I think Nick said at the start. Contemporary atheism, 21st century atheism, is primarily a media phenomenon. Now that’s a very important point to grasp, although it still sounds a slightly kind of cheap crack, but it’s very important, because that was not true in the 20th century. In the 20th century there were large, mass political movements and organisations all over the world of which atheism was an integral part. Now of course we tend to forget now, as if it was a long time ago, but it was only in 1989-1991, that communism collapsed. But we tend to forget that throughout the 20th century there were, not only in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe after WWII but also in France and Italy and many other countries, Japan, Latin America, there were mass communist parties. Now if you read their manifestos, if you read Marx, if you read Lenin, if you look at all of them, there were one or two fellow-travellers, Christians and others who were Communists, but for the vast majority of 20th century Communists atheism was an integral feature of being a Communist. The goal was a world in which there would be no religion; religion would have died out or been transcended. And all communist countries and all communist states have systematically persecuted religion, whether that be Christianity in predominantly Christian countries or Buddhism or Daoism in China or the Tibetan form of Buddhism in Tibet, they have all launched perpetual war on the religious traditions, Islam and Judaism included, of the people they have ruled.

So that in the 20th century there was at least one global ideology which was predominantly atheist, and that’s gone pretty well now, completely collapsed; there are some Maoist movements in Nepal, Peru, in Sri Lanka there are Marxist-Leninist movements which the Tamil Tigers (who, by the way, were the first to develop and perfect the technique of suicide bombing, not Muslims, not even religious, they’re Marxist-Leninist, they recruit mainly from the Hindu population of the island, although they’ve also recruited from former Christians, and they are devoted to the old Marxist-Leninist idea of a world without religion, so that when they blow themselves up – and until the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the organisation which had produced the largest number of suicide bombings in the whole world was the Tamil Tigers, not an Islamic organisation – when the do that it’s not because they are going to go to heaven, nor even to a place in which they listen eternally to ten seminars on Marx and Lenin. They think that death is the end, the complete end, yet they’re willing to give up their lives, in the act of killing others, in order to bring about a better world, a world that’s better than their existing [world], but in general… so there are these outposts, Marxists-Leninist and so forth, here and there, but the vast movements in Western  countries, in Western Europe, they’ve all gone. The largest movements now in the world are either single-issue movements, about climate or wildlife or whatever, or religious. The largest single organisation, political organisation in the world, I think, is an organisation of moderate Islam in Indonesia of about 30 million members. So the vast, mass secular movements of the past are gone.”

[Average Protestant thinks here of China. Presumably John Gray – like Slavoj Zizek – would regard China as state-capitalist, and the lives of individual Chinese as not Communist-atheist but secularised Buddhist-Daoist?]

“And so have the secular ideologies, at least the large, radical comprehensive ones like Communism. I ought to mention Nazism because there’s a lot of ignorance… I’ve dealt with this in some of my writings on Nazism, as having been connected with- it made deals, of course, with various churches, and I think the history of the church, of the different churches, in its relations with Nazism is certainly not beyond sharp criticism, I think it can be criticised in many ways, but having studied the subject for some time now, I mean I’m pretty clear in my own mind that the leadership of the Nazis, the elite, the political elite, were nearly all atheists, and were nearly all pretty well strongly influenced by Nietsche and a certain vulgarised type of Darwinism. In fact the very idea of race which the played with, turning it into a pseudo-scientific category, came from a vulgarised form of eugenics theory and Darwninian theory which was floating around in the 19th century and got taken up by a variety of thinkers in the early 20th century. It was killed off, I’m happy to say, by the second world war. In other words, their world view was shaped by tremendous hostility to traditional religion, especially Judaism, but also Christianity, secondly many of them (not all) were pro-scientific, especially Hitler, and thirdly they were all pretty much influenced by vulgar versions of Darwinism, that was their world view. Now it’s pretty obvious to me, but it’s adamantly denied by today’s atheists, that this [Nazism] is an atheist world-view, and I also think it can be reasonably said, it’s pretty straightforward to argue that this world view in some way opened the way to their worst atrocities, because the moment you think of human beings as belonging to biological races and you even then have another argument which says that some races are superior to others then you open the way to racial slavery and to genocide, you’ve gone beyond the demonisation of for example Jews in mediaeval Christianity, you’ve gone beyond that to something which has the mantle of pseudo-science. So I think Nazism, although it tried to revive in Wagnerian comic opera-terms  forms of European Paganism, was basically anti-religious but certainly opposed to the traditional religions of Europe since Europe was Christianised.

So that’s all gone. Not that there are no neo-Nazis, not that there are no racists. There are. Not that there are no Communists and Leninists. There are. But that great period of secular ideology has gone, so what I think is that we’re in a period of de-secularisation, we’re in a period which in certain respects at least is post-secular, and that’s true even though some societies have become more secular, like Ireland has become more secular, Italy and France are more secular than they have been in the past and even Poland I would say is more secular that it has been in the past. But in spite of that the large ambitious secular projects of the past are gone. And I think that’s produced, it’s part of what has produced at least, the wave of atheism, because most of the people who argue it now are from a generation that were brought up in universities and reading social scientists and philosophers for whom thought there might be zig-zags along the way, the world was inexorable bound, humanity was inexorably bound, on a process of secularisation. If you read not only Marx, but pretty well the vast majority of 19th century and 20th century social scientists, social theorists, sociologists, they all assume that a secular world, or a world without religion, or in which religion has become marginal, at least in politics and life, a world in which religion is trivial, if it still exists, is inevitable. Why did they think it inevitable? Mostly, this gets me on to my main point, because they think that science drives religion out of life. The more and more societies become dependent on science the less religious they become. And of course the oddity of this is that it’s never been true in the United States. The US remains a society of a tremendous amount of scientific technology and invention and virtuosity and in many respects it continues to be a world’s leader, but it’s as religious now as it was when de Tocqueville went there in the early 19th century, there’s no ongoing process of secularisation going on there. That’s a big counter-example.  But we have the other examples of places where religion was persecuted by regimes which aimed not just to make it marginal, but to eradicate it, to wipe it out, to persecute it out of existence, like the former Soviet Union, and anyone who’s travelled recently in the former Soviet Bloc will know that not only has religion not disappeared, but in many contexts it’s in a profound period of revival, especially in younger people, especially in people who were not comprehensively shaped.. I mean you go into a church you don’t just find half-a-dozen old people. If you go to a synagogue, you don’t just find a few old people, you find lots of young people. And actually you find a lot of new religious architecture going on in various parts, new monasteries, churches and so forth are going on in various parts of the former Soviet Bloc. So the kind of secularisation that people of my age expected isn’t happening.

The opposite is happening. Religion is back at the centre of politics. And of source it’s always been in politics, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, but I think it was assumed by many people, Marxists, Liberals and others, types of secular Humanists, that over time it would become less central, it would not become a pivotal factor of politics, it would not be a central feature of politics, it would not be a part of war. Just four years ago – I won’t name the journal – I was asked by a scientific journal to write something, I said: what should I write about? They said: what would I like to write about? I said, religion. They said no, no you can’t write about that. I said why not. They said, because nobody’s interested in it. Just four years ago. In other words the assumption was it’s on the way out,  maybe there’ll always be believers, but it won’t be central in life, it won’t be central in politics, it won’t have anything to do with war, it won’t be part of the conflicts of the world, it’s on the way out. And this has turned out to be false as anyone could have predicted who’s looked at the last couple of hundred years with a fairly dispassionate eye. I think if you stood outside these great secular projects you’d think first of all that they will fail, Communism is impossible, even Nazism is impossible in the sense in which the Nazis wanted it because they wanted to generate a new type of human being using non-existent science, they did the negative part of it, that’s to say they murdered millions of people and enslaved millions more, but they couldn’t develop a new type of human being, they simply produced rather hideous types of the old human being; so you could know that they would fail at whatever cost, couldn’t know that they’d be defeated – but they were defeated – it was pretty obvious that this was an illusion, the modern illusion, or one of  the key modern illusions or myths, is the notion that science drives out faith.

Now the reason I think that’s illusion is not that I believe in Creation Science, or anything like that, I don’t. It’s not because I take part in arguments about Darwinism. I don’t do that either. It’s that I actually think science and religion are separate spheres of human life and that a wide variety of attitudes to religion can be reasonably adopted by scientists and a wide variety of attitudes to science can reasonably be adopted by religious practitioners and thinkers.

So where does this leave us?

The present type of atheism comes really from 19th century atheism, from what’s often called Positivism (capital ‘P’), the French movement which was founded in the early 19th century by Henri de Saint-Simon and later on taken over by [Auguste] Comte, and this type of atheism has two features in common with present day atheism. First of all it’s the idea that all of human history all of human society is pressing towards a global civilisation based on science: there was a period of religion, they say, which was confused with magical thinking, then there was what they called “metaphysical” thinking, which was the middle-ages, then there was the modern period based on science, and the ultimate end of history – I mean the very idea that ‘history’ has a direction, by the way, comes of course from within Western theism, it’s not in pre-Christian Europe, not in Homer of Plato, or the Roman historians, but they think that history has a kind of direction and that as science presses ahead we eventually have a world based on science. So theirs is a kind of scientific atheism and I think most of the contemporary atheists are not sufficiently familiar with the history of thought to recognise the fact they’ve revived this slightly atavistic type of 19th century atheism. But there’s a second feature they have in common, which is that Positivism was a cult of Humanity. In fact the Positivists called their view the “Religion of Humanity”. And they said that having worshipped God, we must now worship a new supreme being, ourselves basically, Humanity. So it’s a kind of project of the divinisation of Humanity, and I think you get a bit of that in some of these atheist writers now, that’s to say Humanity without limits, knowledge will emancipate humanity from its earthly limitations, if we can know, if we can have a complete theory of everything, then we can exercise our power on the world and on our lives, perhaps we can even escape death, and stop being mortal and finite.

A lot of that is in the 19th century. But in some respects the Positivists, crude as they were, were subtler than the present-day, contemporary atheists, because the Positivists recognised that Humanity has religious needs. They don’t say that religion is just a passing phase in human history, they don’t say that religion is just an intellectual error, or wicked priests, or low levels of education or political oppression. They don’t say that. What they say is that there are human religious needs which are pretty near universal, and which in the past have produced religions of the traditional kind, and in future should produce a new religion, the religion of Humanity, and they even did have, by the way, Positivist Churches in Liverpool, Manchester, London, a lot in Latin America, they recruited extensively among scientists, in particular engineers.

(Several of the great canal builders, including the man who built the Panama Canal, was a Positivist. They shared the view, by the way, they said things then about the canals that people say now about the internet. They said that, now that we’ve got canals, bigotry’s going to wither away, now that we’ve got canals humanity will stop fighting eachother, there’ll be no more tyranny, well there was, as we now know. In other words there were great Canal Utopians, just as professor [Daniel C] Dennet has said that with the Internet and portable televisions and radios, he says, in 25 years religion will have transformed, it will have almost vanished. He obviously hasn’t looked at television evangelism, he hasn’t heard of the Taliban with their mobile phones, he hasn’t looked at the way various sects and cults, and some of them very valuable, others dreadful, are traded on the internet, he hasn’t noticed that any more than it occurred to the evangelists of canals that canals can take terrible things up and down them like ships containing slaves or weapons and so forth. They’re neutral basically, ambiguous, ethically, like any other technological advance, they’ll be used by humans, canals were used in certain ways, railways, the telegraph, now the internet, simply used by humans with all their conflicting needs and desires).

But the Positivists did have this one advantage that they understood that humans have religious needs and that’s not going to change. And therefore they came up with this absurd project of a new religion of Humanity, there was even a Positivist Pope for a while. Of course they were French so he lived in Paris. There were Positivist rituals and liturgies based on the science of phrenology, you had to touch your forehead several times each day on the points of Progress, Benevolence and Order, and if we all did that long enough and faithfully enough we would all become more progressive benevolent and orderly. It all sounds very absurd but very important figures in the 19th century were very much influenced by them for example, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, although he came in the end to reject Comte’s system, wrote a rather good book about it, but even called his own view the religion of humanity, and I think, I’ll conclude at this point, the present atheism is a reversion to 19th century Positivism, although most of them never heard of it, that’s to say it’s a mixture of the belief that atheism is based in science and that the world is inexorably moving to a civilisation based on science, with the idea of the divination of humanity, that’s to say that Humanity is a fit object of worship, that instead of worshipping a God or Gods or some spiritual reality, we should worship and ideal version of ourselves. Now of course this is not explicit in New Atheism, and they would probably indignantly deny it, but if you look at their writings what is key in them is that Humanity is imagined to be a sort of collective actor, Humanity does things, Humanity advances and then retreats.

Well if you think as I do, that what there are are billions and billions of separate human beings with their own dreams, desires, illusions, fantasies, hopes, needs, and choices, then Humanity doesn’t really advance or retreat at all. I mean it doesn’t go around doing things, you don’t wake up one morning and say “I see Humanity has got to stage 5 now. Let’s get at it and we’ll be at stage 6 in about twenty years”, it’s not like that. I think this is a kind of Positivistic notion that you can interpret history as a kind of advance of Humanity. Of course it also has the implication that we, or rather they, are the privileged representatives of Humanity, because they can look back at all the earlier generations, struggling in darkness, the pathetic benighted medi-aevals, the ignorant Greeks, the uncivilised Chinese, all these ridiculous caricatures of previous civilisation, they can say “We’re superior to all of those”, even though, of course, we wage greater wars, kill more people in genocides and civil wars than they ever did, and we’ve now reverted to Barbaric practices such as torture.

So.. my main point is that for Christians, challenging forms of atheism really isn’t this, it’s not terribly challenging, it’s all been said before. As far as I can tell there’s nothing new in it at all, it’s 19th century Positivism regurgitated. If you want to read atheists, you have to read other people. Thank you.”











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