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Gray vs. Grayling

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It’s worth spending some time on this devastating review by British philosopher John Gray of a new book by British philosopher A.C. Grayling. Neither man is a religious believer, but, after reading this review, it’s difficult not to think that Gray is not the greater skeptic.

This passage is key:

Reading Grayling, it is hard to resist the impression that he believes Western civilization would be much improved if it did not include the Judeo-Christian inheritance. Absurd as it is, there is nothing new in such a claim. It is one of the most venerable clichés of Enlightenment thinking, and Ideas that Matter is a compendium of such dated prejudices. When Grayling condemns religion on the grounds that “a theory that explains everything, and can be falsified by nothing, is empty,” he takes for granted that religions are primitive theories, now rendered obsolete by science. Such was the position of J. G. Frazer, the Victorian evangelist for positivism and author of the once-celebrated survey of myth, The Golden Bough (1890). In this view, religion is chiefly a product of intellectual error, and will fade away along with continuing scientific advance. But what if science were to show that religion serves needs that do not change with the growth of knowledge—the need for meaning, for example? In that case, it would not be religion and science that were at odds, but science and atheism. The upshot of scientific inquiry would be that religion is an ineradicable part of human life. Atheism—at least of the evangelical variety that Grayling promotes, which aims to convert humankind from religion—would be a supremely pointless exercise.


Indeed it would. At the same time, we should not overlook the irony implicit in the paradox that Gray seems to accept a little too casually. At its core “religion” is, more likely than not, based on nothing more than fantasy, but what if (as Gray plausibly suggests) that fantasy satisfies a basic need without which human society is unlikely to flourish? That awkward fact doesn’t make religion any more true, it just makes it useful. So what is a secular sort to do? The usually helpful conservative approach—“nothing”—is not really enough. A better starting point is to recognize that some religions (or variants thereof) are more helpful—and more benign—than others.

And speaking of faiths that are far from benign, Gray (not for the first time) falls into the error of seeing the monstrous twentieth century totalitarianisms as bastard descendants of the Enlightenment. In reality, they are better seen as a reversion (explicitly so in the case of the Nazis) to the irrationality that will always be a part of the human condition, the reality of which merits a more serious response than denial or, for that matter, blind faith in Progress.

In any event, read the whole thing.

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  • Dick · April 25, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    Andrew writes: “At its core ‘religion’ is, more likely than not, based on nothing more than fantasy.”

    If by “core” Andrew means the belief that God exists, I wonder how he arrives at the conclusion that it’s “more likely than not” that that belief is false.

  • Clark Goble · April 25, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Interestingly the other skeptic is buying into a frequent canard of the Enlightenment that religious is a useful fiction necessary for the masses. Voltaire held that view, as I recall.

  • pangloss · April 25, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    “it just makes it useful”

    Well, lets put our utilitarian hats on and accept the value of religion in society.

    How then should the discourse proceed? It should include the seperation of church and state – as well as the seperation of the state from as many other spheres of human activity as is beneficial.

  • John · April 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Gray is dead wrong. If science can show why religion exists, that does not in any way mean that science proves that science and atheism are “at odds”. We are getting to the point where science can explain schizophrenia. If science demonstrated the mechanism of schizophrenia, that would not prove that the illusions of the schizophrenic are true. Similarly, if science can prove why religion exists (Is it adaptive from a Darwinian standpoint? Does it provide for social bonding?), that doesn’t prove that religion is true. But religious people are in the majority, Gray might say? So what? Majority opinion often changes.

    There either is a God or there isn’t. Whether or not belief in God is useful is an interesting question, but I would much rather know if religion is TRUE.

  • Derek Scruggs · April 25, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    ‘If by “core” Andrew means the belief that God exists, I wonder how he arrives at the conclusion that it’s “more likely than not” that that belief is false.’

    @Dick – this is well-trodden ground. To assert that something exists is to accept the burden of proof.

  • A. C. Grayling · April 25, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    Readers of Gray’s review might like to read what he is in fact responding to: my review of his ‘Black Mass’ []. I was obliged to give him a rough ride there; he is here seeking his revenge. But this is not a mere spat between academic rivals; it touches (for me) matters of the profoundest moment: for people are being harmed in conflicts, tortured in cellars, denied the chance to make lives for themselves that feel good to live; the problems are real. Identifying and contesting the causes of mankind’s sufferings, and being part of the endeavour to make things better even if only by inches at a time, are — in my view — obligations. Gray sets himself up as an opponent of the analysis and the endeavour, and what is worse he does it with serious intellectual irresponsibility. Hence my savaging of his book; and hence his attempt at revenge. Read both sides before jumping to judgment.
    Anthony Grayling

  • Interesting things on political blogs « Panther Red · April 26, 2010 at 6:49 am

    [...] Secular Right, a review by British philosopher John Gray of a book by British philosopher A. C. Grayling.  [...]

  • hanmeng · April 26, 2010 at 7:21 am

    The picture of Mao makes me want to puke. Honestly, I’d just as soon see a picture of Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammed (haha).

  • A Greenhill · April 27, 2010 at 11:09 am

    “So what is a secular sort to do?”

    Yes, precisely why the secular organizations that currently exist need to get on the ball. They need to make secular groups a legitimate alternative to religious organizations. People should be able to come together to socialize, support each other, lend a hand to their community, and pool resources to make a difference in parts of the world that are suffering horribly.

  • kurt9 · April 27, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    It irritates me to no end whenever someone blames the enlightenment for Nazism and Communism. Both of these resulted from the Romantic movement, which was the emotional backlash to the Enlightenment values of reason and individualism.

  • J. · April 30, 2010 at 10:22 am

    I agree with Gray. AC Grayling, like his crony Dawkins, insists that religious issues be converted to strict truth functionality…(God exists, true or false? show your work). Even a great skeptic, such as the Marquis de Arouet (aka Voltaire)–not to say AC’s guru, Kant–did not proceed in such a reductionist manner. There are a number of complex issues (say, the status of naturalism) raised by theology; even if one objects to traditional monotheism, that doesn’t necessarily imply all religions are wrong, or that, say, souls don’t exist. The cathedral at Cologne itself presents a counterargument…

    For that matter the moral status of atheism also poses issues. While many fundamentalists wrongly say, “communists and nazis were atheists, and therefore atheism leads to totalitarianism”…one could at least compare and contrast–atheism qua atheism is no guarantee of moral behavior, that’s for certain (including the british sort–Winston Churchill, social darwinist, approved of liquidation of third world peoples, for one example)…

  • kurt9 · May 2, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Atheism, in and of itself, does not lead to totalitarianism. Collectivism is what leads to totalitarianism.

  • J. · May 2, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    well, atheism might lead to “collectivism” (the bolsheviks for instance purged the russian orthodox)–ie, marxist-materialists were usually atheists . For that matter there were nazi atheists (Himmler, tho’ he also sounded sort of pagan at times), and they were not collectivists (Goldberg’s hype doesn’t matter).

    “Atheism” might be a neutral term, yet that seems to imply that atheism does not equal “good” either; secularists probably assume that’s the case, but I’m not convinced that non-belief in itself results in better or smarter humans (tho’ there are quite a few academics and scientists who claim to be atheist or agnostic). Maybe a SRster could put a chart together–a Goodness metric!

  • kurt9 · May 2, 2010 at 5:37 pm


    You are correct. However, Christian right types often fail to comprehend the difference between collectivist atheists (Marxist, liberal-left types) and individualist atheists (libertarians). I think organized religion, such as Christianity, has more in common with the collectivist atheist ideologies than it does with libertarianism. After all, both religion and socialism are “top-down” centralized authoritarian systems. The only difference between them is who the central authority is. In the case of socialism, it is the state. In the case of religion, it is the god. As a individualist, I reject the very concept of centralized authority.

  • J. · May 3, 2010 at 9:11 am

    OK. That sounds like something Bertrand Russell might have said, and I agree for the most part–though collective bargaining, at least in the USA was established by democratic means–being in a union does not equal being a communist, regardless of Aynnie Rand’s hype.

    I contend, however, that the british-skeptic sort (starting at least with Hume….Grayling like Russell in that line as well) doesn’t really understand the religious mindstate–it’s not just about Jerry Falwells, or corrupt priests, or jihadists, but say, Dostoyevsky, TS Eliot, Bach, etc.

    Even if the skeptic wins the college BS session–pointing out the problems with Aquinas’ Five Ways, the points on evolution, the problem of “evil” etc–he has not therefore convinced us to toss the works of TS Eliot–or the Bible itself–on the bonfire. At the very least Grayling, like the rest of the gang has not refuted the pragmatist point (religion, even the judeo-christian sort, does not always lead to the detriment of humanity).

  • kurt9 · May 3, 2010 at 9:53 am


    My point is not that religion is necessarily bad. It is not. Rather my point is that it is completely wrong to blame individualism and libertarianism for the emergence of totalitarianism. Many Christian right people seem to do this and it infuriates me to no end whenever they do this.

    Personally, I don’t care about religion one way or another. Even though I am an atheist, I think it silly for people like Charles Dawkins and the like to try to “convert” religious people to atheism. I think this is pointless and stupid. I view religion as a form of culture for those who are into it. The people who believe in religion clearly consider it a part of their self-identity. Why should I want to mess with this (I am libertarian, after all)? I have lived in several parts of the U.S. as well as various East Asian countries for 10 years. I am very comfortable living around people who think different from me. As long as I am free to live my own life as my own, I don’t care what other people believe.

    I only ask that the religious people show the same respect for me and my worldview as they expect me to show to them. Sometimes they have a hard time doing this.

  • J. · May 3, 2010 at 10:14 am

    OK–I’m for tolerance and the First Amendment as well. There’s another point, however, which the Grayling gang overlooks–related to something like Pascal’s Wager. What if the atheists are…wrong? Are we convinced that naturalism is true in all possible worlds??

    Now, I would not say the odds of God’s existence are even…or even close, tho’ I’m not sure how one calculates it–but it’s a possibility, though perhaps less than 1 in a 100. But with God dead (or never existing at all, as per Dawkins), then, why not join the mafia, or communists, or rape people etc? Though even with a slight chance of a Dantean afterlife, some people might hesitate to become a mafia hitman. Not real sophisticated, but I think that’s a consideration–an important consideration.

  • kurt9 · May 3, 2010 at 3:07 pm


    That the universe and everything in it is an artifact of an advanced intelligences is a possibility that I am open-minded about. This has been explored by SF. However, that advanced intelligence would be totally different than the classic oriental despot that is described by existing religion.

    Such an intelligence will be at least 14 billion years old (and hence 14 billion years more advanced than us). Since we are only 2 billion or so years removed from cyanobacteria (the first photosynthetic bacterial on Earth), we have more in common with cyanobacteria than we would with that advanced intelligence. Such an advanced intelligence or intelligences will be so far in advanced of us that it would be completely incomprehensible. The notion that such an intelligence would care about your sex life, for example, is so ludicrous that it is laughable.

    Consider the cephalopods on Arcturus IV. That its OK to put tentacle number one into hole number one, but heaven forbid that they put tentacle number three in hole number two. I think you get the point with this silliness.

    The most plausible form of this advanced intelligence is something analogous to Frank Tipler’s “Omega Point” intelligence. If this intelligence does indeed exist, it can be discovered through “naturalism”.

    As far as specific religions go, none of them can be “correct” because all religion is culturally specific. The Abrahamic religion came from the middle-east and spread into Europe and the European-derived cultures (North and South America). The East Asian cultures are totally different, as is South and much of Southeast Asia. We view Christianity as a “universal” thing because we grew up in and are a part of western culture. We think of it as universal because we have never experienced and don’t know of anything outside it.

    I lived and worked in Asia for 10 years. All of the people I deal with from this part of the world, not to mention my Japanese wife, grew up in and are part of a completely different culture. Abrahamic religion is as alien to them as, say, East Asian culture might be to you. Trust me when I tell you that the whole Christian thing is completely alien (and incomprehensible) to my wife.

    It is not possible that anything that is culturally specific can be “univeral” in any meaningful capacity.

    One man’s magic is another man’s engineering. “Supernatural” is a null word.

  • kurt9 · May 4, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    When I was in high school, I was unable to see a conceptual difference between Christianity and Socialism. Both constructs postulated a top-down, central-authoritarian concept of social organization. The only difference at all between these two concepts is who the central authority is. In the case of Christianity, it is the God, in the case of Socialism, it is the State. Except for this detail, they are identical to each other.

    Since I did not fit in, was not part of the “in” crowd, I rejected any such top-down concept of human society. I came to believe in the notion that we are inherently sovereign beings and that all legitimate social structure is based on decentralized networking between such sovereign entities. I rejected the very concept of central authority. I also came to the conclusion that the notion that the individual does not own his or her self is the philosophical root of all tyranny. This is how I came to reject Christianity with the same ferocity as I rejected Communism and Socialism (I grew up during the tail end of the Cold War).

    It was several years later, when in college that I first learned that I was not the first person to come up with this decentralized concept of social order and that there was even a name for it: libertarianism. I later heard about a novelist named Ayn Rand.

    My point in saying all of this is to explain that, yes, I am 100% supremely confident that my worldview is correct about these matters and that both religion and socialism are wrong because I actually derived it all on my own as a teenager, having no previous knowledge of either libertarianism or Ayn Rand.

    I believe the evidence of my senses. I consider all else to be nothing more than mental masturbation.

  • Tom Piatak · May 4, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    An outstanding review. Thanks for linking to it.

  • J. · May 5, 2010 at 5:59 am

    Both constructs postulated a top-down, central-authoritarian concept of social organization. The only difference at all between these two concepts is who the central authority is. In the case of Christianity, it is the God, in the case of Socialism, it is the State. Except for this detail, they are identical to each other.

    Though I’m not here to defend organized religion or socialism (at least soviet-style), I don’t think your analogy holds in all cases. The New Testament itself may feature quite a bit of superstition, obviously, but the political message does not seem that socialist, at least in some statist or marxist sense. “JC” protests the corrupt clerics and judges, doesn’t he? He’s not with Caesar, exactly.

    That’s not to say JC’s correct or not (or even to suggest the bible’s reliable testimony), but I think one could read the NT as…anti-statist, or anti-authoritarian in a sense, at least if one’s being charitable or Jeffersonian in a sense (and putting aside, say, Hume for a few nano-seconds). The church– ie catholic, but later protestants as well–may have become an state-like institution, but that’s a separate matter from the text itself. I don’t think it’s as political as you imply.

    When Aynnie R. blessed the Founding Fathers and Lockean rights, I was somewhat impressed (not completely). Yet she also blessed JP Morgan-style capitalism. I don’t think that JP Morgan and Rockefeller necessarily follow from Jefferson and Locke, and they were not opposed to all govt. intervention wrong– (Locke himself was not with the powerful barons and aristos of his time…I’d have to check ECHU, but im pretty sure he supported taxation, and wanted to break up the massive estates of the brit. royalty…).

  • kurt9 · May 5, 2010 at 9:56 am


    You misunderstand me. Both religion and socialism (socialism, communism, etc.) represent the concept of central authority. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Since ANY form of centralized authority represents absolute power, such a thing can only be evil and must be destroyed.

    You have to understand that I despise both socialism and religion to the core of my being. I find the suggestion that competent individuals having a need for either of these to be downright insulting.

  • J. · May 5, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Well, does your anti-statism and isolationism go so far as you don’t pay taxes to support the US military? Should we not have built up the military and fought the nazis in WWII? States, and sovereignty of some type are needed as a practical matter–at the level of the military, or constabulary, courts, the DMV or IRS . I don’t think you’re an anarchist (right?), and imagine you want the police protecting you–and your property. Again, the religion = socialism analogy doesn’t seem to hold across the board–even a secularist, at least rational sort usually wants laws to some extent (say enforceable business contracts…), and those laws require govt.

  • kurt9 · May 6, 2010 at 12:00 pm


    You misunderstand me once again. It’s a matter of magnitude. Government does serve necessary functions. I believe in having a minimal level of government to serve those functions and nothing more. I think you would agree with me that we have way too many laws and too much regulation. Religion, on the other hand, serves no useful function for me. Thus, I will have nothing to do with it.

    You will note I was comparing religion to a socialist state, not a state with a minimal level of government. You need to improve your reading comprehension.

  • J. · May 6, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    No, you need to be more precise. You didn’t use “minimal state”; you said government as a whole. At any rate, you haven’t really established your assertion that religious authority = statist authority. In some cases, that might hold. Not all.

    Whether one believes or not, it’s not obvious that churches always promote injustice (as Grayling and Co want to suggest), and that secularist are always good. Some churches played a part in the elimination of slavery. Although catholicism has …issues, the jesuits for example at times educated and assisted the natives.

    One other thing I note about SR: while there seems to be a great deal of criticism of christianity (some warranted, of course), few writers mention islamic fundamentalism or orthodox judaism. Dis-belief should be ..equal opportunity. It’s fairly easy to take potshots at Jerry Falwells or corrupt priests, yet few skeptics will criticize/lampoon imams, or rabbis, or hindu leaders with the same intensity (Hitchens has at times, tho’ seems a bit tamer now).

  • pangloss · May 9, 2010 at 5:59 am

    “Both religion and socialism (socialism, communism, etc.) represent the concept of central authority.”

    This is not necessarily true and this issue was the basis for split between the original Christian churches.

    Christianity believes in a deity comprised of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

    The Holy Ghost is that which is in each of us to tell us what is right and wrong. This is a decidedly democratic/libertarian/anarchistic mechanism built into the deity that made the concentration of power and wealth very difficult.

    Thus, the Church of Rome split off from the other Orthodox churches when it determined that the Holy Ghost was subordinate to the rest of the Holy Trinity.
    This made for a rigorous hierarchy that is now the Roman Catholic Church.

    This centralization of power, wealth, and catechism can be analogous in some respects to socialism.
    However, the relative monasticism of the eastern Orthodox Churches can be rigourously individualistic in a tradition that goes back to St Anthony

    (Ironically, most of the links dont work!)

  • J. · May 9, 2010 at 11:10 am

    The Holy Ghost is that which is in each of us to tell us what is right and wrong

    Unfortunately the transmission from K-THG seems to be sort of broken up, or in a foreign language…BushCO preferred to get his knowledge of Good and Eevil–and his political ideology– right from the Good Book, the Book of Revelation in particular (“the ravings of a lunatic,” said Jefferson).



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