The Empire Strikes Back

From our friend Jess Kaplan comes a link to a critique, by the British philosopher John Gray, of the “New Atheism”. It is an engaging piece, but it makes a lot of familiar and rather weak arguments, and some that are quite strange indeed. I suggest that you go and read it — it is worth the effort — and then read this rebuttal by A.C. Grayling.

Gray takes Dawkins, Harris, and company to task for their wish for a religion-free world. Among the countercriticisms he makes is the usual boilerplate about the Nazis, Stalin, etc., who are always alleged to have committed their horrors “in the name of” X, where X is usually science or secularism. Grayling responds aptly:

As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects, and ones which the rest of the Enlightenment-derived world would not put up with and therefore defeated: Nazism in 17 years and Soviet communism in 70. They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal. They even used the forms and techniques of religion, from the notion of thought-crime to the embalming of saints in mausoleums (Lenin and Mao, like any number of saints and their relics, invite pilgrimage to their glass cases). Totalitarianism is not about progress but stasis; it is not about realising a golden age but coercively sustaining the myth of one. This indeed is the lineament of religion: it is the opposite of secular progressivism.

I quite agree. Gray flatly blames — in the usual way — Nazism, Red China, etc., upon secularism itself. But there are infinitely many wrong ways to organize a society, and religion’s primary function has been to organize human groups in ways that have indeed been quite stable and productive. So when Mao said “religion is poison”, the fact that he then went on to replace it with something far more poisonous does not mean that the right sort of secularism might not make for a better world, but only, rather, that when something is more or less working, we should be awfully careful about knocking it over and replacing it with something untested and radically different. This is the fundamental argument of conservatism, and it is a strong one. If secularism is to entirely displace religion — and it certainly isn’t about to anytime soon — it must be by an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, process. And I think the mordant skepticism of the “New Atheists” is perfectly justified and appropriate in this regard, in that it is getting people to re-examine why they hold the beliefs they do, and to see the ways in which we all might be better off without them.

So, realizing that any jackass can kick down a barn, and that religions are highly evolved social and memetic constructs the loss of which might cause intense and painful social dislocation and personal anguish for billions of people, I can see that it is going to take time for our crooked and deeply habituated species to outgrow them.

Finally, we must note also that Gray makes no argument regarding the truth of religious beliefs, the total lack of evidence for which is at the core of the atheist’s argument. He also dismisses without argument memetic models of religion; he appears to be one of those thinkers who reject the idea of the meme because it doesn’t map with perfect congruency onto the concept of the self-replicating biological gene. But I think this view of memes is far too stingy; the idea is a clear, simple, and elegant one, with great explanatory and metaphoric power.

There is a discussion thread about this essay at Richard Dawkins’s website, which readers might like to have a look at. There are some worthwhile comments there, such as this one.

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