“Again, nothing infuriates the current crop of evangelical atheists more than the suggestion that militant unbelief has many of the attributes of religion. Yet, in asserting that the rejection of theism could produce a better world, they are denying the clear evidence of history, which shows the pursuit of uniformity in word-view to to be itself the cause of conflict. Whether held by the religious or by enemies of religion, the idea that universal conversion to (or from) any belief system could vastly improve the human ot is an act of faith. Illustrationg Nietzsche’s observations about the tonic properties of false beliefs, these atheists are seeking existential consolation just as much as religious observers” - John Gray in the New Statesman, 30/11/12)
Here at Shiraz, we’ve previously had occasion to identify him as probably the most profoundly reactionary writer in respectable, mainstream journalism today. Gray can be difficult to follow precisely because his writing is vague, evasive and often illogical. In the New Statesman article from which the quote at the top of this piece is taken, for instance, it is difficult to discern even what he understands by the word “toleration” (as opposed, for instance, to “indifference”) and why he seems to think that irrational beliefs are a positively good thing. His repeated approving references to Nietzsche do, however, provide a telling clue.
Like Nietzsche, Gray despises humanity in general, and enlightenment humanism in particular. I’m not sure whether Gray would share his hero’s dismissal of democracy (“liberal” / “bourgeois” or otherwise) in favour of the artistocratic ideal of the Übermensch. Gray certainly seems attracted to Nietzsche’s emphasis (present from the first in in Die Geburt der Tragödie) on the unconscious, voluntaristsic ‘Dionysian’ side of human nature, as opposed to the rational ‘Apollonian’ side. Also, like Nietzsche, Gray is in fact an atheist, but seems to regard this as being entirely unconnected to any rational belief system, and simply a personal judgement that the ignorant masses cannot be expected to understand.
Gray’s contempt for humanism (and humanity) was well expressed in an earlier piece he wrote for the New Statesman:
“The idea that humankind has a special place in the scheme of things persists among secular thinkers. They tell us that human beings emerged by chance and insist that ‘humanity’ can inject purpose into the world. But, in a strictly naturalistic philosophy, the human species has no purpose. There are only human beings, with their conflicting impulses and goals. Using science, human beings are transforming the planet. But ‘humanity’ cannot use its growing knowledge to improve the world, for humanity does not exist.” - John Gray, ‘Humanity doesn’t exist’, New Statesman (10/02/11)
I’m not arguing, by the way that Gray’s views shouldn”t be published, or are unworthy of debate. I would question, however, what such an enemy of the Enlightement is doing as lead book reviewer in a publication whose strap-line is “Enlightened Thinking for a change.”
By the way, Nietzsche’s thinking contains an essential contradiction (explained by Antony Flew, thus): “Of course, Nietzsche goes on to use his views about the essentially ‘falsifying’ nature of language, and therefore of rational thought, to give theoretical backing to his favourite belief in the superior veracity of action and ‘will’. But here the central paradox in Nietzsche’s theory of knowledge emerges: he cannot himself, in all consistency, take that theory too seriously.”
Or as a letter to the New Statesman in response to Gray’s article, put it: “It is amusing to read yet again a rational man, John Gray on this occasion (‘Giant Leaps for mankind’, 30 November), arguing rationally for how very irrational we all are.”
Ophelia (“Butterflies and Wheels’) Benson on Gray, here
Above: One of the ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoons that have caused so much “offense”. Click on the picture for a clearer view.
By James Bloodworth, cross-posted from Obliged To Offend
Aside from the drinking, experimentation with drugs and casual sex, university life has traditionally been a place where young people have cut their teeth amidst a wealth of new and exciting ideas. Not every university student is lucky in this respect, of course – at the former poly I attended the closest I ever got to political activism was throwing rotten vegetables over the garden wall at our affluent neighbours – but as a rule, university students tend to leave with a better understanding of a number of political trains of thought than they had before they went.
The latest idea to be popularised at university, however, is not really a political idea as such, but rather a sensibility. It is not taught in lectures, nor as far as I am aware does it have any social societies to its name. It is backed, however, by a great number of the political activists universities up and down the country are famous for. I am talking, of course, about the idea that students require protection against being “offended”.
Lots of things, such as racism, homophobia and sexism, really are offensive. No one should be in any doubt about that. Nor am I in any sense trying to downplay the feelings of offense people feel from time to time about a wide range of things. Who, apart from an ice-cold sociopath, could never feel offended?
What I am referring to, rather, is the increasingly popular notion that a person has some sort of right not to be offended; to have their ears stuffed with cotton wool whenever anyone says anything that might bring their worldview crashing to the floor like a house of playing cards.
There have always been some who have sought to use force to silence those they perceive as blasphemers and critics, of course. Fortunately, our relatively free society has for the most part pushed such people to the margins, and it is no longer possible to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night over a poorly timed joke about a beardy chap (secular or religious).
It seems to have been learnt in some quarters, however, that if your feelings are hurt you again no longer have to actually bother challenging the argument of a rival at all, but can instead cling to the irrefutable and subjective notion of “deeply held belief” to silence your critics.
An example of this made the news recently when the President of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society at the prestigious University College London (UCL) had to step down after a furore erupted over the publication of a cartoon featuring Jesus and Mohammed having a beer.
The strangest thing about the whole affair was not the behaviour of the devout, which was depressingly predictable, but rather the reaction of much of the student political left – historically the very people supposed to be the defenders of free expression. The only Left group that put out anything defending free expression was the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, of which I am a member.
In response to the “incident” (or the publication of a couple of scribbled pictures, whichever you think most appropriate), the LSESU Socialist Workers Society put up posters around campus that included the following pitiful statement:
“The Atheist Society’s efforts to publish inflammatory “satirical” cartoons in a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims serve to highlight a festering undercurrent of racism.”
You may notice that they could not bring themselves to say outright that the cartoons were racist (because they were not), but instead sought deliberately to confuse the matter by saying the pictures “highlighted a festering undercurrent of racism”.
What was it Orwell once said about the use of this sort of language?
“When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
When did the student Left become so conservative?
Christopher Hitchens has died of cancer at the age of 62, Vanity Fair reports.
The magazine said he died yesterday after being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer last year while on a book tour.
I don’t call myself a ‘new’ atheist; I’m just an atheist. However, I won’t let that prevent me responding to what Giles Fraser says about new atheists who ‘simply duck the challenge made by atheistic anti-humanism’. Being a humanist as well as an atheist, I was interested to see what this challenge is, so I read on and, my goodness, what a feeble challenge it turns out to be. It amounts only to two things: (1) putting in question an outlook inherited from the Enlightenment that, despite ‘the horrors of the first world war and the Nazi death camps’, persists with an ‘optimism about human nature and strong belief in the power of human reason and the inevitability of progress’; and (2) the following notions critical of humanism that Fraser takes from Louis Althusser:
There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces. Everything that cannot be analysed structurally is false consciousness. Humanism itself is false consciousness.
The only part of (1) that a humanist need sign up to is some belief in the power of human reason. It doesn’t have to be an exorbitant belief, such that reason is thought to be all powerful, but humanists think that there are human universals, there’s good evidence that the power of reason is one of these, and there’s much to be said, morally, for using reason to try to make the world a better place. That’s it. No humanist is obliged to be uniformly optimistic about human nature. This plainly has both good and bad sides, and while we should do everything we can to bring out the good and restrain the bad, a humanist would have to be a fool to let his or her humanism obscure the facts – so many and large are they – about the human capacity for doing serious wrong. Equally, humanists today can be cleverer than to believe in the inevitability of progress; we can just believe in the possibility of it, a possibility there are already grounds for thinking is not altogether utopian.
As for (2) the conjoint proposition ‘There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces’ is false. It is the result of taking the truth that we are all partly the product of external forces and turning it into the absurd claim that we are altogether the product of such forces; because only if we are that is it possible to maintain, against so much that is so obvious, that there’s no intrinsic humanity.
Three simple ways of seeing that this is false are the following. (a) Consider that, however hard you try, you won’t be able to get a collection of tomatoes to form a parliament, or find from amongst a population of bees a writer to emulate either Charles or Monica Dickens, or one to write essays on any topic whatsoever. (b) A human being forced to live on a diet exclusively of steel nails and blotting paper will die. (c) Given the choice between having a chat with friends and jumping into a blazing furnace, nearly all people in all cultures and at all times will choose the former. From (a) we learn that there are universal human abilities that distinguish us from other species. From (b) we learn that there are general human needs which must be met for survival. And from (c) we learn that there are all but universal human aversions.
These facts are so well known that only people in philosophical mood ever pretend or affect to deny them. But there is, thank goodness, better philosophy than the one governing that kind of mood. If Fraser’s account of the anti-humanist challenge is any guide, the latter should trouble no kind of atheist – or indeed non-atheist.