Jul 01 2008

A Critique of John Gray

Published by under Meetings,The New Atheism

At our 27 June meeting, Brian presented the following critique of John Gray’s article in the Guardian, that Laurie referred to in announcing the meeting.

I don’t question Professor John Gray’s moderate social conservatism. I believe it is sincere, as would be his view that religion is one of its bulwarks. But so far it seems to me that his defence of religion against Dawkins and the so-called New Atheists is too shallow and popularist. This leaves a question in my mind as to why Gray has become so prominent in ‘liberal’ and media circles.

There has been a steady revival in religious as well as political conservatism. People crave a more traditionalist, settled world, and the New Atheist attacks on the ‘God-concept’ have been unsettling. Whenever that kind of disturbance happens, well-financed conservative forces go for a ‘backlash’ through their think-tanks, their consultative agencies that influence and serve the ‘establishment’, and their almost complete control of the media. I leave you with the question: Am I being paranoid, or is my suspicion about Gray’s sudden rise to appear to be an authoritative demolisher of the New Atheists, justified?

Calling the ‘New Atheists’ “secular fundamentalists” rather begs the question. Are they really? Paul Grieves in his fairly sympathetic book on Islam (Chpt.7) gives a factual example of how social progress can be hindered by a ‘God religion’, but this would not impress Gray as he appears not to believe in social progress. Well, if nothing in the fundamentals of society (apart from materialistic ‘cultural’ effects of the industrial and scientific revolution) can ever change, why does Professor Gray write so fiercely against those who want to see society change by abandoning traditional religion for a ‘spirituality’ aligned to social progress? By his own lights he has no need to make the effort. The ‘New Atheists’ can bluster all they want, it’s not going to change anything. His idea of the inevitability of ‘no-change-possible’ is very Marxist, in that Marx also had that notion of inevitability, but in terms of the opposite – that is, inevitability of progressive social change.

Gray is very eager to label the ‘New Atheists’ as religious in a crypto-Marxist sense. Getting rid of the power of organized religion is – according to him – the N.A.’s “article of faith”. But surely it is legitimate to write in favor of a certain development in society, hoping that it might come to seem inevitable, because one wishes it to happen, without being put into the same category as people who hold views as articles of faith. Gray thinks it won’t happen, and cites the ‘fact’ that “the US is not more secular today than it was 150 years ago”. The popularity of the ‘N.A.’ books (something Gray admits) and the success of Obama with the decline of the mainly ‘religious’ Republicans hardly bears that out.

Gray talks of “mass political movements”, identifying them – directly or indirectly – with Nazism and Communism and by association, with atheism. They were inspired, he thinks, by “myths derived from religion”. As a conservative he may not like mass political movements, but history seems to show that both bad science and bad superstitious beliefs were part of what Nazism and Russian Communism worked with, in conditioning their followers. Atheism can hardly be implicated. Gray is drawing a long bow and missing his mark. His intention is to knock down atheism as ‘bad myth’, derived anyway from the not-so-bad myth of Christianity, and it seems to me that he fails despite his authoritative, knowledgeable style.

Gray finds ‘freedom-of-will’ in the Bible and cites the Genesis story. In my understanding of the Bible, free-will certainly comes into the picture, mainly with tragic consequences (to Adam and Eve). Lott’s wife exercises her freedom and curiosity by looking back and is turned to salt. It is God who is free, not man. If He commands you to kill your own child you must do it. People who have no religious beliefs generally have a strong belief in their individual freedom. Atheists can be “friendly to religion”, Gray says? Hardly! The few that are, are either dissembling or don’t know enough about traditional religion. Fundamentalists (US and Islamic) believe ardently in the best kind of guns, but usually don’t make them. Such belief doesn’t have anything to do with ‘information’. ‘Information as opposed to mere ‘know-how’ must go along with allowing creativity, debate and testing theories and suppositions. If Gray’s ‘Edge’ opponent include “information technology” in that sense, Gray is wrong.

There’s no doubt that ideas (and practices stemming from them) can spread with extraordinary rapidity without being discriminatingly examined and questioned by those taking them on. That’s how I would understand Dawkin’s ‘memes’. Dawkin’s Darwinian, genetic and virus mind-bio-connection is far-fetched; in that I would agree with Gray. That ‘memes’ may nevertheless be a useful concept seems to be something Gray could never bring himself to admit. Gray emphasizes the role of “bogus science”, “counterfeit science”, in his criticism of concepts such as ‘memes’. He leaves out severe criticism of how religion has misused scientific notions. Examples: (a) affirming that missing links prove the need for a ‘Designer’; (b) every event having a cause – being essential to the scientific method – the Universe must have had a cause or been ‘created’ by something outside itself.

Gray’s ‘article of faith’ is that religion is as fundamental to human nature as sexuality. Perhaps a form of ‘spiritual intuiting’ is as inevitable as sexual impulses, but surely not the weight of differing, often conflicting varieties of religious baggage that different societies carry along with them and deposit on their children generation after generation. Anyone looking objectively at our Western culture must admit that religion (Christianity, mainly) seeps into our education system and media directed at children – let alone into avowedly Christian homes and private schools. Why does Gray find the N.A.’s concern “puzzling”? (My recent run-in with two local State-run schools and Ed. Dpt. is illustrative of such.)

Gray makes much of modern tyrants’ apparent hostility to religion. In my reading of history I would say those tyrants’ motives were more similar to the motives of Henry VIII than to those of plain secular enemies of religion. Established religion in those dictator’s countries had great power and property wealth, which the dictatorial state set its greedy eyes on. “Lying behind secular fundamentalism [loaded terminology] is a conception of history that derives from religion,” Gray asserts. But if the N.A.s are going to derive anything from history, they have to work with centuries of domination by religious thinking, religious conflict and the self-serving political misuse of religion and superstition (by Hitler, for instance). It has to color the way they look back on history and the way they envisage the way forward – eliminating the more corrupt, supernatural side of religion, not necessarily religion altogether.

Gray values “liberal freedoms”, attributing these to the religious faith of reformers and the humanitarian doctrines to be found within established religion. He is not utterly wrong, but again, it is a biased view of history. Opposition to religious conservatism during the so-called age of enlightenment, as well as both before and after that age, played an enormous part in bringing about the liberal freedoms we enjoy. Gray is too free with his matter-of-fact assertions: “Judaism has never been a missionary faith” is plainly wrong according to Paul Grieve’s book on Islam. And do the Hindu-as-opposed-to-Buddhist-and-Christian Tamil Tigers really “reject religion in all its varieties”? Augustine was a dreadful prude and Pascal talked nonsense about religion (Blaise Pascal as quoted in Huberman’s ‘The quotable Atheist’), but Gray uses them as touchstones in his criticism of Tony Blair’s religion, lining him up with the Neocons.

In his last paragraph, Gray asserts that eradicating religion (There’s no indication that the N.A.s are aiming to eradicate – along with its ‘bad’ metaphysics and dogmas – the home-spun wisdom contained in many of the myth-stories within religion.) only opens the doors to “credulous belief”. He could more honestly praise the “mysteries of religion” as usually articulated by its heretics, and admit that “credulous belief” goes, not with the “mysteries of religion”, but with religious materialism and traditionalist moral derivations from it, which I suspect Professor Gray is fearful of letting go.
[Submitted by Laurie on behalf of Brian]

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