John Gray on the myths the “New Atheists” tell themselves.
I’m what you’d call an agnostic. I don’t know if God exists, but the question is probably unanswerable, so I’m content to live in the uncertainty. That’s probably why I’ve always found the so-called “New Atheists” misguided in their critiques of religion.
New Atheism is a literary movement that sprung up in 2004, led by prominent authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Although they were right about a lot of things, the New Atheists missed something essential about the role of religion. For them, religion was just a protoscience — our first attempt at biology and history and physics. But religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world, and you can’t fully understand if you don’t account for that.
John Gray is a British philosopher whose latest book, Seven Types of Atheism, explores the history of atheism. It’s both an affirmation and a critique of atheism, written by an atheist who is aware of all its contradictions.
Gray has been one of the most forceful critics of the New Atheists since they first emerged on the scene, and his new book continues in that vein. I called him up to talk more about his views on the movement, and about religion and science more generally.
Gray told me that the New Atheists are shaped by myths of their own, and that their failure to understand or acknowledge that is one of the biggest flaws of their movement. He also said that atheism is far more interesting when it seriously asks what it’s like to live in a “genuinely godless world.”
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
I see you as someone who enjoys exposing the hypocrisies of people who enjoy exposing the hypocrisies of others. Is that how you see yourself?
Indeed. I’m a skeptic by nature, so I’m resistant to claims by anyone to have complete answers to intractable human problems. I’m particularly annoyed by what’s now called “New Atheism,” and I react strongly against those who debunk the beliefs of others in a way I find bullying and shallow.
The New Atheists — Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others — attack religions in the sublime confidence that these religions are myths and that they themselves harbor no myths, but that’s not true.
In many cases, the New Atheists are animated by 19th-century myths of various kinds: myths of human advancement, myths of what science can and cannot do, and all kinds of other myths. So yeah, I’m compelled to attack anyone who is debunking others for their reliance on myths when the debunkers themselves can’t see how their own thinking is shaped by myths.
Something as ancient, as profound, as inexhaustibly rich as religion or religions can’t really be written off as an intellectual error by clever people. Most of these clever people are not that clever when compared with really clever people like Wittgenstein or Saint Augustine or Pascal — all philosophers of the past who seriously engaged the religious perspective.
These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world.
My complaint with the New Atheists has always been their insistence on treating God as a purely epistemological question. I don’t think you can make sense of religion if you only see it as a system of beliefs. In the book, you make a similar point in a slightly different way, saying that the “human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth,” and I’m curious what you mean by that.
The human mind is like every other animal mind. If Darwinism is right, and I think it’s the best approximation we have to the truth about how humans came into the world, then all aspects of the human animal are shaped by the imperatives of survival.
That includes the human mind, so there’s a deep-seated tendency in the human mind to see the world in ways which promote human survival. And the tendency to obsess over reason and rationality overlooks this fact.
Many of our most important ideas or conceptions aren’t really intellectual solutions to intellectual problems. I think that’s what you had in mind when you said earlier that the New Atheists irritated you because they treated the idea of God as a kind of theoretical or epistemological question.
There’s this silly idea that we have no need for religion anymore because we have science, but this is an incredibly foolish notion, since religion addresses different needs than science, needs that science can’t address.
I think that’s right, but you can unpack that a bit so it’s clear what you mean?
For example, there are still people who treat the myths of religion, like the Genesis story, as some kind of literal truth, even though they were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.
Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It’s not obsolete, primitive science. It’s not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn’t like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.
In other words, it’s not a search for explanation. Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means.
That’s where religion steps in.
Let me push back a little on behalf of the New Atheists. I think they’d respond to you by saying, “Look, specific religious ideas like the notion that life begins at the moment of conception or that homosexuality is sinful are causing real harm in the world, and so we’re morally obliged to attack those ideas.”
How do you respond to that?
There’s no doubt that religions have contained many ideas that have caused humans harm. There’s not the slightest doubt about that. All human institutions cast a shadow which comes from the evil they carry within themselves.
To give you an example, I think the Christian idea of original sin has an important truth in it, which is that humans are divided animals. They’re different from any other animal on the planet in that they regret and sometimes even hate the impulses that guide them to act as they do. It’s a key feature of the human animal, captured by this myth of original sin.
But from the very start, the idea of original sin was caught up with a kind of obsessive interest in and hatred of human sexuality, which poisoned it to the core. At the same time, we should remember that many of the secular religions of the 20th century condemned gay people, for example.
Homosexuality was illegal for most of the time that the Soviet Union existed. Doctors who performed abortions in communist Romania could be sent to prison, and in some cases even subjected to capital punishment. Many of the worst features or the worst human harms inflicted by monotheism have been paralleled in the secular religions of modern times.
So ideas do have consequences. All we can do is try to embody these traditions as much as possible. There isn’t some form of life, not even an imaginary type of pure liberalism, that is free of these terrible consequences.
I don’t think that all religions are the same, but I do believe that they’re equivalently untrue in the conventional sense of that term. But it’s obvious that religion contributes something essential to the human condition that we need, and whatever that is, we’ll still need it in a Godless world. This is the thing that atheists dismiss too easily.
I think you’ve put it very closely to the way I put it in the book. Most forms of organized atheism are attempts to fashion God surrogates. In other words, one of the paradoxes of contemporary atheism is that it’s a flight from a genuinely godless world.
I’m most interested in the atheists who’ve seriously asked what it’s like to live in a godless world. Not to construct some alternative God, like reimagining humanity as some collective agent that manifests itself through history or science or some other redemptive force.
Too many forms of atheism have functioned like monotheisms by another method. In other words, they’ve tried to fill the gaps in their view of the world, a world in which God has been dethroned, and then they just leave the rest of it as it is.
But they’re still stuck with core assumptions that come from the monotheistic traditions. The idea, for instance, that humanity has a collective identity is fundamentally a religious notion — that’s how it came to us. We can make secular arguments in defense of this belief, but you can’t simply ignore its historical roots.
I think we should regard religions as great works of the human imagination rather than pictures of the world intended to capture what is empirically true. Any atheism that fails to do this will invariably miss what is most essential and enduring about religion, and probably make the mistake of smuggling religious assumptions into their secular alternative to religion.
I often wonder if the Enlightenment skepticism that birthed atheism ultimately leads us to a moral abyss — and by that I don’t mean to imply that people can’t be moral without God, which is one of the stupidest claims I’ve ever heard. What I mean is that science cannot supply moral values, and I’m not sure this is a fact we can really own up to as a civilization, because it requires a conversation about human values that we seem incapable of having.
I think we have to own up to it, because the danger of thinking that science can provide values has been demonstrated many times. What often happens is that science simply validates the ruling values of the time, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, those were racist values.
And we see this happening now: Many people believe science can validate our deepest values, and it just so happens that those values are conventionally prevalent in society — they’re fundamentally liberal democratic values.
If the prevailing values are good, then great. If they’re not, though — as was the case in Nazi Germany or communist Russia — then science becomes a handmaiden to the most awful crimes in human history; and almost always, those crimes are committed in defense of some grand project to improve human society.
So I think we just have to accept that science has limitations. All values come from the human animal, and that’s just the way it is. That doesn’t mean all values are equally good or bad or wise — I think that’s a mistake, too. We have natures, and there are certain constants in human life, and that’s a moral foundation we can build on.
I suppose what I was getting at is that religions are stories in the same way that liberal democracy and justice and human rights are stories. These are products of the human imagination; they mean nothing and would not exist without human beings around to affirm them, and there is no ultimate foundation for any of them.
We live by our fictions, and there is no supreme fiction. We fashion different fictions as we go along. There’s no part of our lives that is exempt from this kind of fictive world-making. As you say, even our highest ideals and creations are constructs that we’ve collectively built.
To think that you can escape the storytelling impulse that animates myths, to think you can do politics without relying on these same impulses is a deadly myth of its own, because it means you condemn all these other practitioners — except yourself, of course, because you’re the rationalist who stands above it all. But that is a terrible conceit, a fatal conceit. That’s what I’m really arguing against in my critiques of the New Atheists.