Guest Contributor: Chris Oldfield on John Gray

‘Part of the secular fury in Europe comes from exasperation. After all, it has been a canon of progressive thought since the Enlightenment that modernity—that heady combination of science, learning and democracy—would kill religion.’ 

John Micklethwait


Despite its apparent strength, one outstanding feature of “New Atheist” rhetoric is its profound anxiety about the persistence of religion in society. The idea that religious faith must be pathologically caused somehow, a ‘virus of the mind’ and ‘together we can find the cure’, coupled with a spurious appeal to the pseudoscience of memes to justify such claims are some of the most extraordinary to come out of academia in the past century.

Terry Eagleton is surely right that ‘the War on Terror and the New Atheism share more than a passing resemblance’. Postmodernists may suspect that as the rational arguments for atheism were falling short in the academy (a claxon Quentin Smith sounded in 2001), the violence embedded in the self-confident project of Rational emancipation came to the fore. Those who were not atheist were not merely in disagreement; they were dangerous, divisive, deluded - the enemies of enlightenment.

This has led John Gray to suggest that…

John Gray


‘The most necessary task of the present time is to accept the irreducible reality of religion… Underlying the Enlightenment faith is a denial of the fact that the need for religion is generically human’. 

(Straw Dogs)


Such dogged faith in secularisation, even in the teeth of evidence, is the kind of faith Richard Dawkins tells us is the principal vice of any religion, but for one so astutely aware of the traditionary faith embedded in the enlightenment project, it’s surprising to see Gray’s thesis here so vulnerable to the tuquoque objection.

Gray’s idea that the tyrannical obsession of Reason over Religion urgently needs to be replaced by a more realistic ‘admission’ that Religion is the irreducible universal, is in itself yet another delusion – or an illusion of our grammar, as Terry Eagleton might put it. Despite the best efforts of the logical positivists to find one, there is simply no universal language, which is not historically bound.

Undoubtedly Gray has Kant’s famous 1784 preface in mind, where Kant explained what enlightenment is in terms of the stirring vision of an essential human nature, a universal ‘Man’ now coming of age, emerging from his ‘self-incurred immaturity’ and growing up into his ‘natural [i.e. rational] endowments’. For Kant, the antitheses of man’s natural and rational progress into enlightenment are ‘dogmas and formulas’. Such ‘mechanical instruments’ of rote learning (constitutive, of course, of ‘religion’) are ‘the ball and chain of man’s permanent immaturity’.

From the French Revolution to Freudian psychoanalysis, this stirring image of an essential human nature ‘coming of age’, ditching that heavy encumbrance of tradition, tribe and tyrannical authority which had held him down for centuries, was to be an almost universal feature of modern discourse – not least in its frantic attempt to make sense of the boy who never grows up (for Freud, the boy who needs therapy). The problem with this is not reason, but rationalist anthropology.

As Alasdair MacIntyre has said, of Kant’s appeal to an essential human nature:

Reason [for Kant] as much as for Hume, discerns no essential natures and no teleological features in the objective universe available for study… To understand this is to understand why their project of finding a basis for morality had to fail

(After Virtue)

Nietzsche famously turned against Kant’s critical philosophy, opening On the  Genealogy of Morality with the famous line: ‘We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers, and there is good reason for this: we have never looked for ourselves’. In other words, there is no human ‘essence’ that is discernible to Pure Reason.

Gray picks up this thread in Straw Dogs:

In our more detached moments, we admit that this [essential reason] view of ourselves is flawed. Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of our most fateful decisions are made unbeknownst to ourselves… 

(Straw Dogs)

So it’s surprising then that Gray, who is usually so relentless in his critique of delusions, ends up taking a late modern European discourse – this peculiar construct of ‘religion’ as we currently know it – as somehow embodying the universal essence of humanity, appealing to ‘the deepest human aspirations’ and comprehending ‘universal human needs’.

Contemporary atheism is a Christian heresy that differs from earlier heresies chiefly in its intellectual crudity. This is nowhere clearer than in its view of religion itself. Marx held to a reductive view in which religion was a by-product of oppression; but he was clear it expressed the deepest human aspirations – it was not only the opiate of the masses but also ‘the heart of a heartless world’. The French Positivists wanted to replace Christianity by a ridiculous Religion of Humanity; but they understood that religion answered to universal human needs. 

(After Secularism)

Whether you think human nature is essentially ‘rational’ or ‘religious’ likely says more about the genealogy of your own thought than about what human nature really is. What is problematic then is not Gray’s conclusion that ‘humanism is not science but religion’, but rather his projection of this profoundly modern construct ‘religion’ (in its systematic and dogmatic formulation, as imagined by Kant) as somehow the antithesis of rationality: as not only a natural kind but a universal and essential measure of mankind.

I can’t help but think, at this point, of the rather ludicrous ‘Hood mystical scale’ and the BMMRS, the ‘brief multidimensional measurement of religiosity/spirituality’, which are rooted in the assumption that religion is something generic for which measurable criteria can be found. On the contrary, far from being a fixed, self-evident, natural kind, religion is a socially and intellectually plastic notion, with its own theological genealogy – the use of the term revealing as much about the user as about whatever it supposedly refers to.


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