"The New Atheism" a lecture by John Gray


Ad Honorem
Sep 2009
Sector N after curfew
I don't agree with many of the things that John Gray says in this lecture. As well, I find what seems to me to be a subtly sneering tone on his part (and sometimes not so subtle) rather distasteful. I may at some point go through and try to address at least a few of the points that he makes. For now, I've made a fairly accurate (if I do say so myself) transcript of—

The New Atheism

A lecture by John Gray​

Thank you very much for that very generous, and accurate description—I mean, I speak here as a skeptic, not as a believer. I don't belong to, or practice any religion. And whatever disadvantages that may have, it has certain advantages that go with it, which is that I think I'm able to observe the current pattern of debate over the last few years about religion with a certain degree of, I won't say objectivity, that may be impossible, but a certain degree perhaps, of often amused detachment. And one thing I note about it is that—I mean I myself have found—in a sense the very fact that I'm here tonight illustrates this: That the so-called New Atheism is an extremely dogmatic, and in certain respects fundamentalist phenomenon.

And so what I want to do tonight, really is just to suggest a few thoughts about the so-called New Atheism, to ask what's new in it, if anything, and to try and explain it. Before I do that though, I want to make a rather important point. Which is that the type of atheism that we now have in the writers that Nick mentioned, is by no means the only type of atheism that has existed. And it's not to my mind the most interesting, or the most challenging or the most—certainly not the most profound.

What we have now is another round, another version of scientific atheism. Very few of the writers on atheism today who are themselves evangelists for atheism know very much about the history of thought. The only one I would recommend as knowing about that is the one who hasn't written originally in English; Michel Onfray. I mean, his book on—he wrote a manifesto of atheism, whether or not one agrees with it. (And there are lots of things in it that I don't agree with.) Has a good, comprehensive knowledge of modern thought. And that's certainly not true of Dawkins, for example. Or of most of the philosophers who've written on this subject in recent times.

And what that means is they miss out the fact that there have been some types of atheism which really have nothing to do with science at all. I'll give you an example: Some of them have been widely influential in art and literature and culture. A philosopher I'm rather fond of, Arthur Schopenhauer (early 19th century), was undoubtedly, by any standard, an atheist. But his atheism was not based in science. He wasn't a materialist, he was what philosophers call an Idealist (capital "I"), he thought that the ultimate reality in the world was spiritual. He thought science was a kind of pragmatic project which came up with partial truths essentially about a world of illusion. He was as skeptical of human free will and indeed of the specialness of humans as he was of the existence of the god of Christianity. But he had a profound impact on writers, painters, musicians. Among writers, for example, Joseph Conrad was deeply influenced by him. One of his lesser known novels, Victory, is a kind of tribute to Schopenhauer's philosophy, though at the same time an ironical criticism of it. Thomas Hardy—a long way from conventional Christianity—I think he'd have to be described as some kind of agnostic or atheist—deeply influenced by Schopenhauer.

And even in the case of Nietzsche, a figure who's sort of missed out by many of the contemporary atheists today. They hardly even mention Nietzsche, which is odd, since he was I think the most influential 19th century atheist philosopher. And in the 20th century, by the way, surveys have been done (I can't speak for their veracity) which say that he's the second most quoted philosopher in the 20th century. The most quoted being Aristotle. Enormously influential, yet, although he mentions Darwin here and there, the roots of his atheism were not in science. He had a pragmatic view of science, as well. But really in philosophy, in Schopenhauer, and in his studies of the ancient Greeks: he started as a classicist.

So really, the first thing to understand is that the present type of atheism, that's making so much—having such an impact, making so much noise, is only one type of atheism. And to my mind, a rather retrograde, atavistic type. And I'll try, in a moment, to identify where it particularly comes from.

[Five minute mark in first video.]

But before I even do that I want to make one further preliminary remark, or thought, which is that if one thinks of atheism as embracing any view which rejects the creator god of the Bible, that's to say, rejects the view that the world has been created by some kind of divine power, which is in certain fundamental respects similar to human persons. Which is the kind of view that personality of the kind which exists in humans is in some sense, ah, pervades the universe. And that the world has been created by a divine person lacking the imperfections of humans, but none the less a person. If one thinks that anyone who denies that is an atheist, then of course there can be, and are atheist religions.

Buddhism would be an atheist religion in that sense. Because Buddhists don't believe, or Hindus, or Taoists, don't believe that the world was created at all, actually, by anything, or any one. And they don't think that the world is permeated by anything like human personality. On the contrary, like Schopenhauer, they think that human personality is in some sense an illusion.

So there could be atheist spirituality, and atheist religiosity, and atheist religions if we take this broader view of atheism. In fact that leads me to one of my themes, which is that current atheism is really a reaction against Western monotheism. The atheism we have now is modelled on certain aspects—not to my mind, the most valuable, or interesting aspects, not the most profound aspects—of Western monotheism, by which I mean principally Christianity and Judaism, although in the larger scheme of things, Islam probably also belongs (though it sounds odd to say so) within that Western monotheist tradition.

Atheism, especially of the kind we have now, is a rejection of that set of beliefs, monotheistic beliefs. And in fact, most atheists that I've spoken with seem to think that in rejecting monotheistic beliefs they've rejected religion. They get tremendously angry (by the way they always get tremendously angry—I've found this—they're very good at being angry), I think they think that if they're angry long enough, and intensely enough, religion will go away—it won't. And one of the reasons I think they think that, is they don't understand that one can reject the beliefs, but continue with the categories of thinking. And many of the categories of thinking, and even many of the values, including to my mind some of the precious values that go with at least liberal civilisation for which they claim to stand—because unlike an earlier generation when many atheists were Communists or Leninists, and some were even Nazis, the present generation of atheists all claim to be some kind of liberals—one of the things they suppress, I think, in their thinking and in their public utterances, and they genuinely believe this; they suppress the fact, which I believe to be historically demonstrable, that liberal conceptions of toleration in religion come from within Christianity and Judaism. They do not come principally as a criticism—as an attack on religion. I mean, in the English tradition, I suppose one of the great—you could think of Milton and John Locke, both of them belonging within the Christian tradition, in the case of Locke, who I know—studied quite a lot when I was working as a political philosopher—his entire philosophy is saturated from top to bottom with a particular version of Christianity. On the European continent, one of the great proponents of toleration in religion was Benedict Spinoza, a Jew who was ostracised—kicked out of his religious community; a rationalist, but also a mystic.

I think one finds some of the very best arguments for toleration that one can have, in Spinoza. Although he was a critic of his own religious tradition, he certainly was shaped by it. And I find, I think it's just demonstrable that modern ideas of toleration, which go back well before the French Enlightenment, I think go back to the 17th century, if not before, together with a profound tradition of skepticism which one finds in writers such as Pierre Beyle, a Christian skeptic, or Michel de Montaigne, my favourite writer on these subjects. All of these came from within Western religious traditions, and didn't attack them, though they sometimes criticised them for the inhumane practices that they'd taken up.

[First video ends in mid-sentence below]

So one of the kind of oddities of the current wave of atheism, is first of all, by its own ignorance of earlier types—of the history of thought, and of earlier types of atheism, I think it actually in a way blocks out consideration of more interesting types of atheism that have gone on in the past, and which didn't have very much to do with science. But it also involves a more fundamental error that the new atheists make, which is by not studying how they acquired—how the concepts and categories that they themselves use have grown up, where they came from, how they emerged and developed in the Western tradition.

They think that by merely rejecting religious belief, they're rejecting religion, and they tend systematically to suppress the extent to which modern ideals of toleration came from within religion. This is true, for example of American secularism. Now, American secularism might not have been terribly successful in dividing religion from politics. You can have a secular constitution without having a secular politics; we've learnt that from recent times in America. But in may other ways American secularism has been successful, but it's the secularism which emerges not from—principally from deistic writers such as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine in the 18th century, it emerged in the 17th century, a hundred years before, from religious dissent. That's to say, from a certain type of religion. Not from an attack on religion, but from a type of religion, which had suffered persecution in Britain and in other parts of Europe.

So even secularism, which I suppose goes all the way back to the statement of Jesus: Serve God and serve Caesar, as it were; they're separate. A distinction which was then theorized and developed in St. Augustine. Even, I think, the modern idea of secularism, problematical as it is in many ways, can be seen as a kind of a development from Western religion, and not from the attack on religion.

So my first point, just to repeat, is that there are many types of atheism. Only one or two have really been fundamentally connected with science. (I'll talk a little bit about the present one in that way.) Some of the more interesting ones had nothing to do with science. The present type of atheism is distinguished, not only by its view of science, and particularly of Darwinism, but also by its suppression of its own religious heritage. By its suppression of the fact that many of the categories of thinking that were adopted within it—the view of human history, for example and the view of the human animal as being separate from the rest of life, among other things—really come from within Western monotheism.

So having said that, where does this type of atheism really come from? Now, I think that there are two separate things. You could ask, "Well, what's evoking it now, and what are its antecedents in thought?" In other words, what does it most resemble in the past, in human thinking? The first thing is something that I think Nick said at the start. Contemporary atheism, 21st century atheism, is primarily a media phenomenon. Now that's a very important point to grasp, although it sounds slightly kind of like a cheap crack, it's very important, because it was not true in the 20th century. In the 20th century, there were large, mass political movements and organizations all over the world, of which atheism was an integral part. Now of course we tend to forget, as if it was a terribly long time ago, but it was only in 1989-91 that Communism collapsed. But we tend to forget that throughout the 20th century, there were, not only in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe after the Second World War, but in France and Italy and in many many other countries—Japan, in Latin America, there were mass Communist parties. Now, if your read their manifestos, if you read Marx, if you read Lenin, if you look at all of them, there were one or two fellow travellers, Christians and others in various countries who were Communists, but for the vast majority of 20th century Communists, atheism was an integral feature of being a Communist. The goal was a world in which there would be no religion—religion would have died out, or have been transcended.

[Five minute mark in second video in mid-sentence below.]

And all Communist countries, all Communist states, have systematically persecuted religion. Whether that be Christianity in predominantly Christian countries, or Buddhism and Taoism in China, or the Tibetan form of Buddhism in Tibet, they've all launched perpetual war on the religious traditions, Islam and Judaism included, of the people they've ruled. So that, in the 20th century, there was at least one global ideology which was predominantly atheist, and that's gone, pretty well, now, completely collapsed. There are some Maoist movements in Nepal, Peru. In Sri Lanka, there are Marxist-Leninist movements—the Tamil Tigers, who, by the way, were the first to perfect and develop the technique of suicide bombing—not Muslims, not even religious, they're Marxist-Leninists. They recruit mainly from the Hindu population of the island, although they've also recruited some former Christians, and they are devoted to the old Marxist-Leninist idea of a world without religion. So that when they blow themselves up—and until the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the organization in the whole world which had committed the largest number of suicide bombings was the Tamil Tigers, not an Islamic organization. When they do that, it's not because they believe they're going to a heaven in which there are 72 new virgins, nor is it even that they think they're going to attend seminars eternally on Marx or Lenin, they think that death is the end. The complete end, yet they're willing to give up their lives, in the act of killing others in order to bring about a better world, a world that's better than their existence. So there are these outposts of Marxist-Leninism and so forth, here and there, but the vast movements in Western countries and Western Europe, they're all gone. The largest movements now in the world are either single-issue movements like climate, or wildlife, or whatever, or religious. The largest single political organisation in the world, I think, is an organisation of moderate Islam in Indonesia, which has about 30 million members. So the vast mass secular movements of the past have gone, and so have the secular ideologies, at least the large, ambitious, radical comprehensive ones like Communism.

I still have to mention Nazism, because there's a lot of ignorance—I've dealt with this in some of my writings about Nazism. As having been connected with—it made deals, of course, with various churches, and I think the history of the Church, of the different churches in its relations with Nazism are certainly not beyond sharp criticism. I think it can be criticised in many ways. But having studied the subject for some time, I mean I'm pretty clear in my own mind that the leadership of the Nazis, most of the elites, the political elites and so on were nearly all atheists, and were pretty well nearly all strongly influenced by Nietzsche, and by a certain vulgarised type of Darwinism. In fact, the very idea of race, which they played with, came fr—turning into a pseudo-scientific category, came from a kind of vulgarised form of eugenics theory, and Darwinian theory, which was floating around in the 19th century, and got taken up by a variety of thinkers in the early 20th century. It was killed off, I'm happy to say, by the Second World War.

In other words, their world view was shaped, for most of the Nazi leaders, was shaped by tremendous hostility to traditional religion, especially Judaism, but also Christianity. And secondly by—many of them, not all—were very strongly pro-scientific, especially Hitler. And thirdly they were all pretty much influenced by vulgar versions of Darwinism. That was their world view. It's pretty obvious to me, although this is adamantly denied by today's atheists, that this is an atheist world view of a type, not the only one of course, as I've said earlier, but it's an atheist world view. And I also think it can be reasonably be said, in fact I think that it's pretty straight-forward to argue that this world view in some ways opened the way to their worst atrocities. Because the moment you think of human beings as belonging to biological races—and you even then have another argument which says that some races are superior to others—then you open the way to racial slavery, and to genocide. You've gone beyond the demonisation, for example, of Jews in medieval Christianity, you've gone beyond that to something which has the mantle of serious science. So I think Nazism, although it tried to revive, in Wagnerian comic opera terms, forms of European paganism, was basically anti-religious, but certainly opposed to the traditional religions of Europe since Europe was Christianised.

[Second video ends in mid-sentence above,]

So, that's all gone. Not that there are no neo-Nazis, not that there are no racists; there are. Not that there are no Communists and Leninists; there are, but that kind of great period of secular ideology is gone. So what I think is that we're in a period of de-secularisation. We're in a period which is, in certain respects at least, post secular. And that's true even though some societies have become more secular. Like, Ireland has become more secular. Italy and France are more secular now than they were in the past, and even Poland I would say is more secular than it's been in the past. But despite that, the large ambitious secular projects of the past are all gone. I think that's what's produced—it's part of what's produced, at least—the wave of atheism. Because most of the people who argue it now are from a generation—they were brought up in universities, and reading social scientists and philosophers who assumed that, although there might be zig-zags, there might be retrogressions, there might be—it might take a long time, the world was inexorably bound, humanity was inexorably bound, on a process of secularisation. If you read not only Marx, but pretty well the vast majority of 19th century and 20th century social scientists, social theorists, sociologists, they all assume that a secular world, a world without religion, or in which religion has become marginal, at least in politics and in life, a world in which religion is trivial if it still exists, is inevitable. Why do they think it's inevitable? Mostly—this gets me onto my main point—because they think that science drives religion out of life. That the more and more that societies become dependent on science, the less and less religious they become.

Of course the oddity about this is that it has never been true in the United States. The United States remains—its a society with a tremendous amount of technological and scientific invention and virtuousity, in many respects it continues to be a leader, the world's leader—but it's religious now as it was when de Tocqueville went there in the 19th century. There's no ongoing process of secularisation there. That's a big counter-example. But also, of course, we have the other examples of places where religion was persecuted by regimes which aimed, not just to make it marginal, but to eradicate it, to wipe it out, to persecute it out of existence, like the former Soviet Union. Anyone who's travelled recently in the former Soviet bloc will know that not only has religion not disappeared, but in many contexts it's in a profound period of revival. Especially in younger people. Especially in people who were not comprehensively shaped, there are. I mean, in other words, if you go into a church, you don't just find half a dozen old people. If you go into a synagogue or ah, you don't just find a few old people, you find lots of young people. And actually quite a lot of new religious architecture in various parts is going on—new monasteries, new churches and so forth are going on in various parts of the former Soviet bloc.

So the kind of secularisation that people of my age expected isn't happening. The opposite is happening. Religion is back at the centre of politics. And of course it's always been in politics, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. But it's been—I think it was assumed by many people—Marxists, liberals and others (other types of secular humanists) that over time it would become less central, it would not be a pivotal factor of politics, it would not be a central feature of politics. It would not be a part of war. Just four years ago, I won't name the journal, but I was asked by a scientific journal to write something. I said, "What would you like me to write about?" They said, "Well, what would you like to write about?" I said, "Religion," they said, "No, no, you can't write about that." I said, "Well, why not?" They said, "Well nobody's interested in it." Four years ago. In other words, the assumption was, it's on the way out. It's on the way out; maybe there'll always be believers, but it won't be central in life, it won't be central in politics, it won't have anything to do with war, it won't be part of, as it were, the conflicts of the world, it's on the way out. And this has turned out to be false, as anyone could have predicted, who's looked at the last couple of hundred years with a fairly dispassionate eye, I think.

[Five minute mark of third video in mid-sentence below.]

If you stood outside of these great secular projects, you would think, first of all, they will fail: Communism is impossible, even Nazism is impossible in the sense in which the Nazis wanted it, because they wanted to generate a new type of human being. Using non-existent science they did the negative part of it, that is to say they murdered millions of people and enslaved millions more. But they couldn't develop a new type of human being; they simply produced rather hideous types of the old human being. Particularly horrible and hideous as they were. So you could know that they would fail, at whatever cost. Couldn't know they'd be defeated, but they were defeated. And actually it was pretty obvious, I think, that this was an illusion.

A modern illusion, or one of the key modern illusions or myths, is the notion that science drives out faith. Now, the reason I think that's illusion is not because I believe in Creation science or anything like that; I don't. It's not because I take part in arguments about Darwinism and so on. I don't do that either. I actually think that science and religion are separate spheres of human life. And that a wide variety of attitudes to religion can be reasonably adopted by scientists. And a wide variety of attitudes to science can reasonably be adopted by religious practitioners and thinkers.

So, where does this leave us? Because I really now, have to wind up so we have enough time to have some debate and dialog. The present type of atheism comes really from 19th century atheism. From what's often called Positivism (capital "P"), the French (to begin with) movement which was founded in the early 19th century by Henri de Saint-Simon, later on by—taken over by Comte. And this type of atheism has two features, which it has in common with present day atheism. First of all, it's the idea that all of human history, all of human society is pressing towards a global civilisation based on science. There was a period of religion, they say, which they confuse with magical thinking, then there was a period they call metaphysical thinking, which was the Middle Ages. Then there is the modern period, that they imagine is based on science, and the ultimate end of history—I mean the very idea that history has a direction, by the way, comes of course from within Western theism. It's not in pre-Christian Europe, for example; it's not in Homer or Plato, or the Roman historians. But they think that history has a kind of direction, and that as science presses ahead, eventually we'll have a world based entirely on science.

So, theirs is a scientific type of atheism. And I think most of the present atheists are not sufficiently familiar with the history of thought to recognise the fact that they've revived this slightly atavistic type of 19th century atheism. But there's a second feature which they have in common. Which is that Positivism was a cult of humanity, in fact the Positivists called their view "the religion of humanity." And they said, "Having worshipped God, we shall now worship a new supreme being: (ourselves, basically) humanity." So it's a kind of project of the divinisation of humanity. And I think you get a bit of that in some of these atheist writers now. That is to say, humanity without limits. Knowledge will emancipate humanity from its sort of earthly limitations. If we can know—if we can have a complete theory of everything then we can exercise our power on the world and on our lives. We can perhaps even escape death, we can stop being moral and finite. A lot of that is in the 19th century Positivists.

But in some respects, the Positivists, as crude as they were, were subtler than the present day atheists. Because the Positivists recognised that humanity has religious needs. They don't say that religion is just a passing phase in human nature, or in human history. They don't say that religion is just the product of intellectual error or wicked priests, or low levels of education, or political oppression. They don't say that, those are things they don't say. What they say is that there are human religious needs which are pretty near universal. And which in the past have produced religions of the traditional kind, and in future should produce a new religion: the religion of humanity. And they even did have—there were by the way Positivist churches in Liverpool, Manchester, London. A lot in Latin America. They recruited extensively among scientists and particularly engineers. Several great canal builders, including the man who built the Panama Canal was a Positivist.

[End of third video in mid-sentence below.]

They shared the view, by the way—they said things then about canals that people now say about the internet. They said that now we've got canals, bigotry is going to wither away. Now that we've got canals, humanity will stop fighting each other. Now that we've got canals, there'll be no more tyranny. But there was, as we now know. In other words, they were great canal utopians. Just as Professor Dennett has said that with the internet, and all of the televisions and radios, he says, in 25 years religion will have transformed, it will have almost vanished. He obviously hasn't looked at television evangelism, he hasn't heard of the Taliban with their mobile phones, he hasn't looked at the way various kinds of sects and cults—some of them very valuable, and others, dreadful, are created on the internet. He hasn't noticed that. Anymore than it occurred to the evangelists of canals, that canals can take terrible things up and down them, like ships containing slaves, or new slaves—new types of slaves. People taking their exile, weapons and so forth. They're neutral, basically, or ambiguous, ethically, like any other technological advance that will be used by humans. Canals were used in certain ways, railways, the telegraph, now the internet. They're just simply used by humans with all their conflicting needs and desires.

But the Positivists did have this advantage: They understood that humans have religious needs. And that's not going to change. And therefore they came up with this absurd project of a new religion of humanity. There was even a Positivist pope for a while. Of course they were French, so he lived in Paris. There were Positivist rituals and liturgies, based on the science of phrenology. You had to touch your forehead several times every day on the points of progress, benevolence, and order. And if we all did that long enough and faithfully enough, we would gradually become more progressive, more orderly and more benevolent. It all sounds very absurd, but very important figures in the 19th century were very much influenced by this. For example, George Eliot, the woman novelist, was pretty well a Positivist. John Stuart Mill, although he came in the end—the greatest British liberal thinker—he came in the end to reject Comte's system. He wrote a rather good book about it. He was tremendously influenced by it, tremendously influenced by it. He even called his own view the religion of humanity, which was a Positivist phrase. It was hugely influential.

And I think (and I'll conclude on this point), I think that the present version of atheism is just a reversion to Positivism. Although most of them have never heard of it. That's to say, it's a mixture of the belief that atheism is based in science, and that the world is moving inexorably to a universal civilisation based on science, with the idea of the divinisation of humanity. That is to say, that humanity is a sort of fit object of worship. And that instead of worshipping a god, or gods, or some spiritual reality, we should worship an ideal version of ourselves. Now this is of course not explicit in the New Atheism, and they would probably indignantly deny it. But if you look at their writings, what a key in them is that humanity is imagined to be a sort of collective actor. Humanity does things. Humanity advances and retreats.

What if you think as I do, that there isn't humanity? What there are, are billions and billions of separate human beings with their own needs, desires, dreams, projects, illusions, fantasies, hopes, needs, and choices. And humanity doesn't really advance or retreat at all. I mean, it doesn't go around doing things. You don't wake up one morning and say, "I see humanity's got to Stage 5 now. Let's kind of get at it, and we'll be at Stage 6 in about 20 years." It's not like that. But that's the way they write, and I think this is a Positivistic notion. That one can interpret history as some kind of—the advance of humanity. Of course it also has the implication that we, or rather they, are the privileged representatives of humanity. Because they can look back at all of these earlier generations struggling in darkness: The pathetic, benighted Medievals, the ignorant Greeks, the uncivilised Chinese. All these ridiculous caricatures of previous civilisations. They can say, "We're superior to all of those." Even though, of course, we wage greater wars, we kill more people in genocides and civil wars than they ever did. And we've now reverted to barbaric practices such as torture.

So I'll leave it at that and turn it over to discussion. My main point really, is that I think for Christians, challenging forms of atheism really isn't this. It isn't this; it's not terribly challenging. It's all been said before. As far as I can tell, there's nothing new in it at all. It's 19th century Positivism regurgitated. If you want to read atheists, you'll have to read other people. Thank you.
Feb 2015
Thank you for transcribing this wonderful lecture.
As a religious atheist I have followed the "New Atheists" with interest.
To critique others views requires an ability to question our own presuppositions and trace their origins if we hope to maintain any
intellectual integrity. Good scientists don't necessarily make good philosophers.
I don't detect any sneering tone here at all. Grey makes his case matter-of-factly while demonstrating his solid grounding in intellectual history. I think its a wonderful contribution to the discussion and I hope it leads to a deeper understanding.