Grayling on Gray

Anthony Grayling finds John Gray not altogether persuasive.

In a nutshell the book consists in the repeated assertion that modern secularist thinking is utopian in aspiration, has inherited this aspiration from Christianity, has failed because its belief in progress is false and has in fact been violently regressive…[H]e is against the progressivist ambitions of the secular Enlightenment, and he hopes to annoy its proponents by giving it Christianity for a father and – that weary old canard – Nazism and Stalinism for offspring…In order to establish that secular Whiggish Enlightenment-derived aspirations are the child of Christianity, Gray begins by calling any view or outlook a “religion”. Everything is a religion: Torquemada’s Catholicism, the pluralism and empiricism of 18th-century philosophers, liberalism, Stalinism. He speaks of “secular religion” and “political religion”. This empties the word “religion” of any meaning, making it a neutral portmanteau expression like “view” or “outlook”. He can therefore premise a gigantic fallacy of equivocation, and assimilate secular Enlightenment values to the Christian “narrative” of reformation aimed at bringing about a golden age.

The Humpty Dumpty move – oddly popular with people who want to give the Enlightenment or secularism or atheism or science or all those a good kicking.

[I]n making a nonsense of the word “religion” Gray blurs and blends just where important distinctions are required. A religion is a view which essentially premises commitment to belief in the existence of supernatural agencies in the universe, almost always conceived as having intentions and expectations regarding human beings…Most religions, especially if given the chance, share the totalitarian impulses of Stalinism and Nazism (think Torquemada and the Taliban) for a simple reason: all such are monolithic ideologies demanding subservience to a supposed ideal, on pain of punishment for non-conformity. Now let us ask whether secular Enlightenment values of pluralism, democracy, the rule of independently and impartially administered law, freedom of thought, enquiry and expression, and liberty of the individual conform to the model of a monolithic ideology such as Catholicism, Islam or Stalinism.

No. They don’t.

One thing that cannot be let go by is Gray’s backhanded defence of religion as “at its best … an attempt to deal with mystery rather than the hope that mystery will be unveiled”, and regrets that “this civilising perception” (one gasps) has been lost in the current clash of fundamentalisms. This painfully vague excuse for one of the worst toxins poisoning human affairs will not do: invocation of mystery has been more a potent excuse for evil than a service to the greater good.

An attempt to deal with mystery – sounds oddly like ‘some insights into ways of ultimately enhancing human flourishing.’ Equally nebulous, equally capacious, equally cautiously non-specific. Naughty.

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