Enlightenment pessimist John Gray v. Enlightenment optimist A.C. Grayling

John Gray is a very, very tart-tongued skeptic of Enlightenment triumphalism of the Bertrand Russell variety, and he recently wrote a rather biting essay attacking A.C. Grayling for taking up, in the 21st century, Russell’s supposedly naive mantle:

Russell fell victim to the belief that the solution to the world’s problems would be found in increasing internationalism, socialism, the withering away of religion and the continuing advancement of science. This is, in effect, a version of his godfather’s “religion of humanity”—the secular humanist creed imbibed by Mill from the French positivist thinker Auguste Comte, which aimed to replace the traditional faiths of the West with a belief in human progress. At times Russell was seized by despair, doubting the capacity of human beings to realize the glorious prospect ahead of them. What he never doubted was the faith he had in common with the rest of the progressive intelligentsia: if only humankind could bring itself to be reasonable, the future would be so much better than the past. A. C. Grayling takes up this same mantle with fervor and conviction.

Why, exactly, the humanist project is something Russell was wrong to embrace, John Gray does not explain. Perhaps Gray thinks that 20th century history has made the project’s foolishness self-evident, and anyone who takes up this vision now must be in the psychological grip of a utopian delusion. And so, enter A.C. Grayling. John Gray calls the books of our contemporary soul-inheritor of Bertrand Russell’s “mantle” a tiresome repetition of:

the same sermon: history is a record of crime, oppression and superstition; but salvation is at hand through rational inquiry, the gift of the Greeks that was lost in the Dark Ages and rediscovered in the Enlightenment. Repeating this as Grayling does, over and over again, suggests that he believes the lesson has still not been understood, and throughout his extensive corpus of polemical writings he has the manner of a querulous teacher hammering rudimentary lessons into the heads of refractory schoolchildren. For Grayling, it seems, few if any of the difficulties of ethics and politics are insoluble. The remedies for human ills are obvious, or would be so if only humans were not blinded by superstition. Never doubting that he is free of this vice, Grayling writes as one conveying the simple truth.

And if there’s any doubt that Gray himself does not for one second believe Grayling’s tidy narrative of secular progress and hope through reason, here’s what Gray says about religion v. reason:

The history of the last century is testimony to the destructive power of rationalism, not fideism. Nazism and Communism were at one in their hatred of religion. Both claimed to be founded in science—“dialectical materialism” and “scientific racism.” Of course these sciences were bogus, but they show what horrors can be justified by appeal to reason. The worst acts of the twentieth century were committed by atheist regimes that claimed a scientific basis for their policies.

Fortunately (from John Gray’s vantage), the dream of a society based on progressive secular reason is just that: a dream. Gray is pleased to report that it is religion’s stock, and not secular humanism’s, that seems to be on the rise in the 21st century:

Happily, there is not the remotest possibility of such a world [as Grayling envisions] ever coming into being. Religion is spreading most rapidly in the parts of the world that are modernizing most quickly, such as China and Brazil, and it is worn-out secular ideologies that are being everywhere discarded. The rise of militant atheism is a sign not of advancing secularization but instead of secularization’s retreat.

John Gray’s critique of secular humanism of the Bertrand Russell/A.C. Grayling variety can be read in full here, but what does Grayling offer as retort?

Here’s a portion:

Anxious to appear original while in fact pushing a familiar counter-Enlightenment line, Gray has often entertained us with his assaults on logic and historical fact, each time repeating the two tenets of his faith, one acquired from Isaiah Berlin and the other from his Sunday school, namely, that we are condemned to live with the conflict between irreconcilable goods, and that we owe everything of significance in human achievement (not, he gloomily adds, that there has been much) to religion. (Does he notice the irony there?)

My delight at being reviewed by Gray is prompted by more than the fact that I have at last stirred him to revenge for having his knuckles publicly wrapped by me. It is also prompted by the flattering fact that he has read so much of my work that he can tell you how repetitious it is (though perhaps he ought to be reminded of Walter Pater’s dictum, that “it is only the dullness of the eye that makes any two things seem alike”). And it is further prompted by the fact that it exposes a fallacy Gray shares with all those suspicious of what the last few centuries have brought in the way of scientific advance, personal freedom, liberal democracy and regimes of rights: namely, that because a true and right view was held in the past it is old hat to defend it now, at least without post-modern disguise to make it seem novel. . . .

If . . . it is high-minded silliness to champion the cause of trying to conduct our affairs sensibly, and to free our minds and lives to the greatest extent conformable with our being social animals who owe one another moral regard, I embrace it with enthusiasm. Gray, with his shallow and rather aimless hostility to this view, is the least likely fellow to talk me out of it.

In this debate, though I understand the brake that John Gray is tapping, I’m nevertheless with A.C. Grayling.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Enlightenment pessimist John Gray v. Enlightenment optimist A.C. Grayling

  1. Megan says:

    I’ve hated John Gray ever since I read Black Mass but not because I think he’s mistaken, just the opposite. AC Graylings attack on his writing seems a little bit ad-hominem and lacks any actual detail. He also seems to misrepresent what Gray actually says in Black Mass. I’m not sure yet if this is deliberate. I’m also not sure if Grayling is wrong. Its interesting reading the two sides of the argument – so far I have to say I am more in agreement with John Gray – so far.

  2. Patrick says:

    Absolutely on the side of Gray here. I’ve read a lot of his work; it’s because the world appears so different after he wipes away the fog of our secular ideologies that we initially disagree with him. He does not dispute that the accumulation of knowledge through science has made our lives much more comfortable – dentistry is one of his favourite examples – he disputes that ethics progresses at the same time as science. If you are in doubt about this latter point, read a newspaper. If you are still in doubt, read some good history books.

    Megan – tell us more about your hatred?

  3. mlbardmess says:

    This is all very much like the blind men describing an elephant. Does a Yokut Indian think western civilization improved the world? Would wolverines miss humans if we were to all just be gone? Would the oceans be better of without us? All Grey is saying is our belief in the self is our basic delusion. He says the daoists had it right. What is there to disagree with? He seems to really have his thumb on a lot of people’s hot button.

  4. Batraghor says:

    I think Gray is right on the key matters, though he overstates religion’s influence. I think that Grayling’s belief in secular progress is ultimately a failed meta-narrative much like religion, and the idea we will ever rationally or permanently master the world or truly solve the problems of the world with idealism of religious or secular varieties is nonsense.

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