A delicious deconstruction of John Gray by A.C. Grayling

Of John Gray’s Black Mass, A.C. Grayling writes that the book:

tells us that the world is in a bad way and that there is nothing we can do about it. Perhaps we can infer from this that his aim is to keep us informed of the true state of affairs, so that we have a reason to feel depressed if depressed we feel. 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. The only thing that will replace it is more apocalyptic religion-inspired conflict, and – this with an Eeyore relish – all is therefore doom and gloom.

Actually one must suppose that there are further points than mere iteration of pessimism and negativism, which is Gray’s preferred (see Straw Dogs) and here iterated pose. The chief of them is that he 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.

Secular humanism should be embarrassed of its dismissal of religion and its confidence in reason, for it has Christianity as a parent and Hitler and Stalin as offspring. That’s brilliant. It sounds like the solution to a riddle: What do Christianity, Hitler, and Stalin have in common? Answer: Secular humanism. In other words, all that’s good about it, it gets from Christianity, and all that’s non-Christian about it leads to fascism and communism.

Lovely.

What a wonderfully concise capturing of John Gray’s ridiculous and defamatory thesis in a nutshell.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to A delicious deconstruction of John Gray by A.C. Grayling

  1. Gunlord says:

    To be fair, considering how many atheists have claimed materialistic, anti-theistic Communism to be not only a religion but an offshoot of Christianity, I can see where Gray is coming from if he tries to apply the same argument to secular humanism.

    • Batraghor says:

      I absolutely agree, Gunlord. I think Santi Tafarella is just generalizing and being defensive about their optimism. Gray does not deny certain kinds of “progress,” but rather that it is not a permanent progress, and he acknowledges a genealogy of rationalist logocentric ideology in the West that aspires for global influence.

  2. andrewclunn says:

    Religion often makes a business of taking credit for things it had nothing to do with. It’s the Thomas Edison of philosophy.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Gunlord:

    Of course, there is an element of truth that Christianity has had a hand in BOTH the evolution of humanism and communism. Nietzsche famously noted that the atheists of his time were a weird amalgam of atheist and Christian, professing an atheist metaphysics even while holding (Nietzsche thought incoherently) to a Christian ethical system, the shadow of God. As for communism, its apocalyptic and utopian eschatology and hyper-altruism are obviously a secular parody of Christianity: a historical manifestation of a religious hangover.

    Likewise, communism and fascism are secular ideologies born out of the Promethean 19th century after God had been cleared from the field by Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, capitalism, technology, etc.

    It’s not as if, in other words, Gray is ridiculous. It’s that he doesn’t know where to stop. Analysis that is true at one level can distort perception when treated as a reductio ad absurdum. The complexity of the questions “Where did humanism come from?” and “Where is humanism taking us in the 21st century” should be acknowledged and thought about and discussed. The questions do not have simple or obvious answers, and ought not to be closed with the trite answers “Christianity” (for question one) and “communism and fascism” (for question two). Gray and Grayling both have their hands on different parts of the elephant, and if relied on exclusively, cast very large blind spots.

    What I like about the debate between Grayling and Gray is that they bring out arguments against one another that actually makes for a fuller, and more nuanced, understanding.

    —Santi

    • Batraghor says:

      To Santarella,

      I have found reading your blog interesting, and so I would like to finally comment on something that is most relevant to my research interests.

      “It’s not as if, in other words, Gray is ridiculous. It’s that he doesn’t know where to stop. Analysis that is true at one level can distort perception when treated as a reductio ad absurdum.”

      Is it really that he doesn’t know where to stop, or that he is making predictions based on cycles of history without being optimistic? There is no reason to be optimistic about the cycle of history; there is only optimism in working towards it in ways that do not reinforce these meta-narratives that lay dormant until the next religious/political “incarnation” for them is possible. Considering most ways of thought DO reinforce a redemptive meta-narrative, it is not hard to say that assuming secular humanism will be different when communists or Christians believed the same exact thing, that they had the true revolution before them. There is no true revolution, because the revolution carries the seed of tyranny in its very structure. It borrows and then replaces in different language and norms. The secular humanist approach, how is it different? Why would it be? It’s a conceptual abstraction. Negation is a superior approach because it takes away the illusion.

      “The complexity of the questions “Where did humanism come from?” and “Where is humanism taking us in the 21st century” should be acknowledged and thought about and discussed.The questions do not have simple or obvious answers, and ought not to be closed with the trite answers “Christianity” (for question one) and “communism and fascism” (for question two). Gray and Grayling both have their hands on different parts of the elephant, and if relied on exclusively, cast very large blind spots.”

      I obviously think forces of our evolution produced moral tendencies, but the ideological codification of laws eventually took deepest root in Christianity; in the West, anyway. And yes, if we borrow the meta-narrative but make it about Mankind, it is ultimately an imposition as well that will become collective, but also inevitably hierarchical. Hence constructions like fascism and so forth. But it could take other forms. The problem remains that they are manipulations of consciousness, whether of God or “The People,” and even so, they have certain weaknesses that permit bureaucracy to rise to the top. I recommend you investigate the Iron Law of Oligarchy, as I believe this is especially true of democracy if you see what has happened in America, the classic example of a contemporary plutocratic oligarchy posing as democracy.

      I think Gray’s pessimism is accurate in many ways because it acknowledges the implicit structural conditioning in all these meta-narratives. Politically, I would say this is also the largest problem of government. As Stirner rightly said, “The liberty of the people is not my liberty.” Liberal regimes carry oppression within their structure, whether they would try and obfuscate this by looking at all the solutions we have.

  4. Pingback: Nietzsche’s checkmate: does atheism lead to totalitarianism? « Prometheus Unbound

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