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Gray’s Anatomy by John Gray

Floris van den Berg exposes John Gray’s unwilling secular humanism.

John Gray, Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, is an agonistic writer – a public intellectual who comments on politics and political thinkers without himself developing a general theory or ideal. Gray’s Anatomy is a selection of essays covering 30 years and a range of topics, but one looks in vain for a theoretical or ideological frame work connecting or organizing them. Gray rows against the current, whatever direction the current goes, thereby not noticing that sometimes the current is flowing his way. But what kind of social structure or government is Gray striving for, and by what criteria can it be judged?

Twilight Liberalism

The first part of this book is called ‘Liberalism: an autopsy’. Gray comes from a liberal intellectual background, but clearly he thinks liberalism is dead. In seven essays he analyses why. Yet in what sense does he think liberalism is dead? Does he mean that liberalism is waning in the world, or does he mean that liberalism doesn’t work morally? Even if it could plausibly be argued that liberalism is dead, what would be a better alternative?

In his opening essay ‘Modus Vivendi’ (‘Peaceful Co-existence’), which is a passage taken from his book Two Faces of Liberalism (2000), Gray addresses the problem of pluralism within a liberal political framework. The problem is this: a liberal state tries to guarantee freedom for individuals to live as they please. The state does not interfere with how people should live as long as they stick to the basic rules, like paying taxes. But what about citizens who fundamentally disagree with the liberal assumption that people should be free to do as they please? Fundamentalists of many types do not accept this liberal arrangement, for example. Should a liberal state therefore enforce liberalism – and if so, to what extent?

Gray says, “The liberal state originated in a search for modus vivendi. Contemporary liberal regimes are late followers of a project that began in Europe in the sixteenth century. The task we inherit is refashioning liberal toleration so that is can guide the pursuit of modus vivendi in a more plural world.” This last vision Gray calls a ‘universal regime’, but he’s wrong about what it means. He seems to have forgotten that John Stuart Mill placed individualism at the centre of liberal ideology. According to Mill, liberty is not about different groups living in peaceful coexistence, but about the freedom of individuals (whose freedom should be protected and facilitated by the state). When liberalism is in contrast interpreted as a peaceful co-existence of groups, as Gray interprets it, there can be the problem of intolerance within the groups. Women, homosexuals and non-believers are examples of people suppressed within groups that peacefully co-exist within liberal states. Thus this modus vivendi interpretation of liberalism has a blind spot for injustices, suppression and constraint within groups. By contrast, individualism places the individual first and tries, ideally, to protect the individual from oppression.

Gray begins his essay with a delusion: “Viewed from one side, liberal toleration is the ideal of a rational consensus on the best way of life” (p.21). There are not many liberals who hold that belief. Rather, liberals of the Mill kind hold that how individuals think and flourish varies greatly. Gray seems to think that liberals want a regime where there is consensus on liberal values, and that a pluralism restricted by the basic liberal rules of toleration is a contradiction. But in a liberal state everybody does not have to agree with the basic rules (ie the law), as long as they stick to them. There is no need for a liberal consensus on the best way to live, as Gray comments: “We do not need common values in order to live together in peace. We need common institutions in which many forms of life can coexist.” Yet are there not some values we need to hold in common? If enough people were against democracy or human rights, it would be hard to keep liberal democratic society functioning. Rather, an open society needs support from civil society: a large percentage of the population needs to have consensus on its basic social values. The problem with Islamic terrorists and others is that they don’t agree with the basic values of open (liberal) societies and do not eschew to use violence to further their opposition to them.

Gray emphasizes that peaceful co-existence is underpinned by value pluralism. I agree; but in a liberal state the range of this pluralism must be limited by Mill’s ‘no harm’ principle. However, that severely limits the scope of what’s acceptable: all misogynistic, homophobic and other repressive cultures should be opposed by the earnest liberal state – including US Christian as well as Islamic fundamentalism. Gray has a blind spot for the problems of an unbounded pluralism. Fortunately he is not consistent, and in the same essay he remarks that, “not all ways of life allow humans to live well. There are universal human goods and evils. Some virtues are needed for any kind of human flourishing. Without courage and prudence no life can go well. Without sympathy for the suffering and happiness of others, the artifacts of justice cannot be maintained.” Thus there are criteria to evaluate cultures morally, including justice and sympathy for the suffering of others. A coherent modus vivendi ideal would therefore be a lot less simplistically pluralistic than Gray seems to think, as (for example) many cultures allow people in their group to suffer severely, without any sympathy.

The Light of Gray

The most fascinating, and irritating, essay here is ‘Evangelical Atheism, Secular Christianity’. Here Gray preaches against the New Atheists and the new wave of religious critique. He singles out Richard Dawkins as his enemy/victim. Yet Gray is an unbeliever himself. He doesn’t believe a word of any religion. However, he argues that everything is a religion: religion is a religion; atheism, secularism and humanism are religions; and all political ideologies, from liberalism to communism, are religions. “The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed,” he writes. But the New Atheists are humanists, vehemently opposed to the supposedly secular totalitarian myths of the twentieth century. They not only oppose religion, they also oppose other oppressive regimes. Gray is an anti-communist in favour of the open society (with a conservative flavour); but there is no one among his opponents who would disagree with him on the bad aspects of communism. Gray commits the straw man fallacy, criticizing a nonexistent enemy. There are no New Atheists who want to substitute other irrational myths and illiberal regimes for the religious ones. The comparison just doesn’t work.

Gray also claims that the essence of both religion in general and of humanism is the belief in progress. In the ‘Introduction’ Gray writes: “Secular thinkers imagined they had left religion behind, when in truth they had only exchanged religion for a humanist faith in progress that was further from reality.” Again, humanists don’t have faith in progress: they hope and work for it. (Despite his name, Gray doesn’t acknowledge nuances – to me he is a dualistic, manichaeian thinker: it’s either black or white.) And it’s hard not to use impolite wording to comment on this remark: “Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam.” Thinking of some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam, I think of the killing of heretics and witches; Sharia law; the suppression of women, homosexuals, infidels and children, and opposition to tolerance, scientific progress and democracy. Is Gray serious, or just eager to discredit and anger the New Atheists? It is good to keep in mind that the New Atheists engage in civilized public debate with believers, without violence. When it comes to violence and the threat of violence, it’s from the side of the believers in the God of Peace. The black or white tendency in Gray’s thinking encourages him to write sweeping statements that cannot hold critical scrutiny.

Gray further says, “Repressing [religion] is like repressing sex: a self-defeating enterprise.” But where, in the liberal West, is this repression? Religion is under critique, but far from repressed. Yet in nations where one religion has a power monopoly, such as Saudi Arabia, unbelief and other religions are being repressed. “The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms.” Are humanism and liberalism degraded forms of religion? Freedom from religion is not enough: one needs an alternative stance.

Gray’s realism (the only –ism of which he is in favour) has a good side: “The [terrorist] issue is one of proportion. Ridden with conflicts and lacking the industrial base of communism and Nazism, Islamism is nowhere near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down the 20th century. A greater menace is North Korea.”

Yes, and no. North Korea could be a danger when it has the bomb; but the Islamic Republic of Iran also seem to be developing nuclear weapons.

Gray also argues that the New Atheists neglect the fact that liberal values have their roots in Judeo-Christianity. Yes, indeed, there were roots and seeds there; but the true growing and blossoming started in the Enlightenment, when the bondage of religion was thrown off.

Indeed, some Jews and Christians had and have fairly liberal ideas. Some Jews and Christians oppose the subjection of women and homosexuals. Some are even pro-science. But believers, foremostly those in power, have often been dogmatically against expanding the circle of emancipation that has come to encompass slaves, nonbelievers, women, children, homosexuals and animals.

With his words, Gray demonstrates that fulfilling the project of the Enlightenment is still a long way ahead: “It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion,” he writes. What about Sharia law? What about creationism in schools? What about theocratic closed societies? What about all the victims in the name of religion? Should we be friendly to all this, neglecting those victims and not responding to the assault on reason by religion? Gray is what New Atheist Daniel Dennett calls a ‘believer in belief’: he thinks religion is the opium of the people, and if we take it away something worse will come in its place. To me that makes him a doom-mongering cynic. Gray writes, “Dawkins seems convinced that if it were not inculcated in schools and families, religion will die out” but disagrees, although this is an empirical question. Dawkins does not believe that his cure for religion will necessarily work – he just hopes it will.

Gray Green

The best theme in this book is Gray’s ecological concern in his one environmental essay, ‘An Agenda for Green Conservatism’ (1993). A self-proclaimed conservative, he makes two progressive points, both of which are either neglected out of ignorance or evaded because of taboo. First, Gray points out that continuous growth of the global economy is self-destructive within a limited system such as planet Earth, where there are finite resources. He pleads for a ‘steady state economy’ – an idea that goes back to John Stuart Mill. For a conservative such as Gray, implementing this would mean a pretty large over-turning of the basic structure of our societies and economies. Gray’s second point, borrowing his analysis from Malthus, is that unlimited population growth is also a recipe for disaster – not only for the human population, which runs the risk of a terrible natural check, but for the whole ecology, because biodiversity will drastically decline.

Gray’s response is that privatizing common territory will protect it from being degraded by over-exploitation. So Gray argues that the oceans and natural resources should be privately owned. This seems a naïve, utopian solution. Should the oceans be divided into a grid, for example, of which parts can be sold to the highest bidder? This won’t protect migratory fish. Also, a system of private ownership does not take into account future generations. If I own an oil well, why shouldn’t I pump up as much as I can? Maybe I’ll leave something for my children; but why should I bother about future generations, who won’t have any oil, but who will suffer from the consequences of fossil-fuel burning, such as global warming? Gray’s solution does not seem a solution at all. And things have only become worse since he wrote this essay in 1993, even though the public and political awareness of ecological problems has grown.

The apocalyptic acceleration of population growth over the last century is the reason for the ecological disaster unfolding right before our eyes. If there were only 200 million people in the world, as Gray muses would be a fine population size, there would be hardly any ecological problems, not even if each person had a large ecological footprint. Thus Gray also argues that we should strive for stabilization of, and preferably a decline in, the human population, and he recommends actively promoting planned parenthood, sex education and the availability of birth control and abortion to achieve this. This does not exactly look like a conservative policy: it seems quite progressive, even looking like an Enlightenment project – a program to make the world a better place, a utopia of fewer but thriving people and a stable economy. I cannot agree with him more about this aim. Why then does Gray think it won’t work, and that trying to make things better will only make things worse?

It is a pity Gray has not elaborated on his green conservatism since 1993. Again, Gray does not see nuanced alternatives. He sees either the triumph of non-anthropocentric Gaia, or present-day destruction.

Gray cites a horrible passage from James Lovelock’s book Gaia: “Our humanist concerns about the poor of the inner cities or the Third World, and our near-obscene obsession with death, suffering, and pain as if these were evils in themselves – these thoughts divert the mind from our gross and excessive domination of the natural world.” Yes, there is a gross and excessive domination of the natural world; but how can one not see that untimely death, suffering and pain are evils in themselves that we must try to ameliorate? This is exactly what the Enlightenment liberal humanist project is all about: trying to reduce suffering and enlarge individual freedom (and hopefully, happiness). Lovelock and Gray are right that anthropocentrism and myths surrounding economic growth are disastrous for nature. Yet the correct alternative is not non-anthropocentrism, but a mild anthropocentrism. That is, humans must still strive for their happiness, but without damaging the natural environment, so that future generations have the greatest opportunities for life, harming as few sentient beings as possible. By contrast, it is hard to grasp what Gray considers to be the recipients of the benefits of his ideal morality: if he is serious about his above citation of Lovelock, it is not the poor. As we have seen, it is apparently not the victims of oppressive cultures and societies either. So who benefits?

Conclusions and Questions

John Gray is a liberal secular humanist in disguise. He does think homosexuals should have rights; he does think women shouldn’t be suppressed; he does think that tolerance is important; he does think there is a universal minimal morality; and he does want to ameliorate the human condition by restricting population growth and creating a steady state economy. It would be possible to construct an essay consisting of quotes by Gray which shows him to be a liberal secular humanist. But he eschews those called what he is. Thus he is a strange fellow who does not want to be friends with his friends, but instead likes to flirt with the opponents of liberalism. This seems like a pose, which fits him in his role of (the English equivalent of) French-style public intellectual. But is it not good philosophising. Who does he help with his cynicism, fatalism and flirtations with nihilism and paternalistic conservatism?

The other question is why Gray’s writing is so popular. I don’t know. For a clear-headed liberal secular humanist, read Grayling.

© Floris Van Den Berg 2009

Floris van den Berg is a philosopher at Utrecht University, and author of How to Get Rid of Religion: An Inconvenient Liberal Paradox and Philosophy for a Better World (both published in Dutch). florisvandenberg@dds.nl.

Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, John Gray, Allen Lane, London, 2009, 481 pgs.

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