Saturday, May 17, 2008

John Gray - philosopher

I’ve just been reading an article in the NZ Listener from a couple of weeks ago about the philosopher, John Gray. I’m going to quote a few paragraphs and comment on them.

[John] Gray thinks we’re doomed. His latest book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, argues that creeds that presume humankind can remake society are holdovers of Christian apocalyptic thinking – the illusion that a harmonious world will follow from an event of mass destruction that eliminates conflict. With the Enlightenment, the yearning to see human history as progressing towards a goal became secular rather than religious.

Gray isn’t anti-religion as a later quote will show. However, I think he’s mistaken in believing that Christians ever thought the world as it is would become harmonious. It will take God himself to recreate the world to bring about harmony.

Gray professes that secular ideologies – from Marxism and Nazism to extreme forms of liberalism and conservatism – contain this repressed religious inheritance. By believing that paradise on Earth can be created by force, the utopian mind justifies mass bloodshed.

Christian religion never believed that the a paradise on Earth could be created by force.

History doesn’t necessarily bear out Gray’s belief that utopianism is inevitably destructive. He argues that campaigns are not utopian if they potentially can be realised. But many historical strides, like abolishing slavery, would at one time have seemed as implausible as democratising Iraq.

Was the abolishing of slavery a Utopian idea? I think the writer of the article - Ben Naparstek - is mistaken in saying this.

The idea of using mass terror to refashion the world was absent in the medieval period, Gray says, and emerged only with the French Revolution. He sees al Qaeda as an inheritor of the same post-Enlightenment revolutionary tradition as communism, nazism and neoconservatism.
It’s interesting to see someone actually putting the blame for some of the worst atrocities of the last few centuries where it belongs; on the so-called Enlightenment.

He conjectures that the invasion of Iraq sounded the death knell for secular utopianism. “Iraq practically precludes another large-scale experiment along those lines.

And one final (long) quote:

Gray says his harshest detractors are “evangelical humanists”, hostile to his beliefs that secular movements renew Christian patterns of thought and that 20th-century tyrannies were by-products of Enlightenment ideology. “They’ve said things like, ‘Well, the Enlightenment can’t have any role in these episodes because the Enlightenment is pluralistic and tolerant’, which reminds me of those gormless Christians who say, ‘Christianity couldn’t have any role in the Inquisition because it’s a religion of love.’”

The role of atheism in Maoist and Stalinist totalitarianism is rarely acknowledged, says Gray. “Mao launched his attack on Tibet with the slogan ‘religion is poison’.”

Though not a believer, Gray excoriates the recent fad for books attacking religion by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Michel Onfray. “The difference between religious believers and secular rationalists is that religious believers are used to questioning their myths, whereas secular rationalists think their myths are literally true. I advocate an attitude of scepticism and critical distance from all these powerful belief systems.”

This seems to me to be the wisest thing said about Hitchens, Dawkins and the like in quite some time.
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