Rowan Williams on Narnia

By John Gray
New Statesman, 15 August 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

The Lion's World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia
By Rowan Williams

Children's books enable their authors to disregard distinctions between what is real and what is imaginary in ways that most books meant for adults do not. But the seven volumes of Narnia stories are all too obviously a literary rendition of a middle-aged male's nostalgic memories of growing up in Edwardian England. They lack the freshness of vision of Lewis' 1938 science-fiction novel
Out of the Silent Planet.

The Lion's World can be read with profit and  enjoyment by anyone interested in fundamental questions about the place of humankind in the scheme of things. Williams argues that theism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint. Pointing to the central role of animals in Narnia, he notes that Aslan the lion is non-human. Williams says "human beings are always already embedded" in the non-human world.

Narnia's talking beasts free the mind from what Williams describes as "the passionate campaign against nature itself that is typical of the most toxic kinds of modernity". Refashioning nature and human nature to fit ideas of perfection or progress dehumanizes humankind. Williams: "Humanity can be manipulated into a nightmare caricature of eternal life, but only by losing what makes it human."

The Long Peace

By John Gray
Prospect, September 21, 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes
By Steven Pinker

Discussing what he calls the long peace since the end of the second world war, Steven Pinker says the developed states have stopped waging war on one another.

But wait. The second world war was followed by over forty years of conflict. The cold war adversaries were at war with one another the entire time. The Korean war, the Six Day War, the Vietnam war, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Soviet-Afghan war are only some of the armed conflicts through which the great powers pursued their rivalries. These conflicts add up to a formidable sum of violence.

Pinker cites numerous reasons for the long peace, but none is as important as the adoption of a "coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment." He regards the core of the Enlightenment as a commitment to rationality. He takes for granted that science endorses an Enlightenment account of human reason.

Evolutionary psychology is in its infancy, but the idea that humans can shape their lives by the use of reason is an inheritance from rationalist philosophy that does not fit easily with what we know of the evolution of our mammalian brain. The contradiction afflicts anyone who tries to combine rigorous Darwinism with a belief in moral progress. If Darwin’s theory is even approximately right, there can be no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behavior.

Social violence is coeval with the human species. Some of the impulses we inherit from our evolutionary past may incline us to conflict. Others incline us to peaceful cooperation. To show that conflicts between the two will in future increasingly be settled in favor of peace, Pinker needs to identify some powerful trends. All the trends that supposedly lie behind the long peace are contingent and reversible.

Even if humans were not moved by the pursuit of power and glory, scarcity and uncertainty would drive them repeatedly into conflict with one another. Recurrent violence is a result of the normal disorder of human life. Violence is often simply a method. Suicide bombing is morally repugnant but it is also cheap and highly effective. Humans use violence for many reasons, and everything points to their doing so for the foreseeable future.

Pinker celebrates "recivilization" in America without much concern for those who pay the price. The astonishing numbers of black young men in jail in the United States is due to the disproportionate impact on black people of the "decimalizing process," notably the high rate of black children born out of wedlock. The vast growth of the American penal state does not immediately present itself as an advance in civilization.

Pinker's attempt to ground the hope of peace in science testifies to our enduring need for faith. Liberal humanists look to science to show that violence will decline. The result is no more credible than the efforts of economists until 2008 to demonstrate the permanence of the long boom. The long peace is another such delusion.

John Gray is a prominent liberal British political philosopher and author. Born in 1948, Gray studied at Exeter College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and completed his doctorate. He has taught at the University of Essex and the University of Oxford. He has served as a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale and other universities. Since 1998, he has been School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Ideas that Matter

By John Gray
National Interest, April 20, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

Ideas that Matter: The Concepts that Shape the 21st Century
By A. C. Grayling

Bertrand Russell fell victim to the belief that the solution to the world's problems would be found in increasing internationalism, socialism, the withering away of religion and the continuing advancement of science. He never doubted that if only humankind could bring itself to be reasonable, the future would be so much better than the past.

A. C. Grayling preaches that salvation is at hand through rational inquiry, the gift of the Greeks that was lost in the Dark Ages and rediscovered in the Enlightenment.

The result is a style of argument that often amounts to high-minded silliness. Grayling is insistent that liberal values apply universally. He is also insistent that these values have nothing to do with religion.

The history of the last century is testimony to the destructive power of rationalism, not fideism. Nazism and Communism were at one in their hatred of religion. Both claimed to be founded in science — "dialectical materialism" and "scientific racism." Of course these sciences were bogus, but they show what horrors can be justified by appeal to reason. Grayling is adamant in denying that the crimes of Nazism and Communism had anything to do with atheism.

Regimes embodying ideologies as all-embracing as Marxism are bound to crush those who refuse to accept the ideology. This is why it is so silly to argue that hostility to religion had nothing to do with Nazi and Communist oppression.

Grayling does not discuss the fact that antiliberal atheists such as Nietzsche believed their enmity to liberalism was of a piece with their atheism. Like other contemporary critics of religion, Grayling passes over the long tradition of illiberal atheism as if it never existed.

The most militant varieties of atheism have historically been highly illiberal, while liberal values derive very largely from Western religion. Denying that religion had practically any constructive part in the emergence of liberal values, Grayling is bound to reject their demonstrable debts to Christianity and Judaism.

Grayling apparently believes that Western civilization would be much improved if it did not include the Judeo-Christian inheritance. When Grayling condemns religion, he takes for granted that religions are primitive theories, now rendered obsolete by science. In this view, religion 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? In that case, it would not be religion and science that were at odds, but science and atheism.

Yet Grayling presents socialism and democracy, the horrors of religion and the near inevitability of ongoing secularization as ruling ideas of the twenty-first century.

William James described the Hegelian universe, every part of which is inextricably linked with every other, as resembling a crowded seaside boardinghouse in which there is nowhere to take refuge from society. Grayling's ideal world has a similarly claustrophobic effect.

Atheist Apocalypse

Based on an article by John Gray
The Guardian, March 15, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Religion is now demonised as the cause of many of the world's worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. Scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future.

Edited works by Theodore Dalrymple, including his review of atheist books

My cut of a long review of the God books by Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins

Breaking the Spell

Daniel Dennett claims to sketch a general theory of religion. For Dennett, religions are efforts at doing something science does better. He writes: "The proposition that God exists is not even a theory." But religions do not consist of propositions struggling to become theories.

The notion that religion is a primitive version of science was popularised in the late 19th century by J.G. Frazer. Dennett's atheism is not much more than a revamped version of Frazer's positivism. Dennett predicts that "in about 25 years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe that it does today."

Atheism need not be a missionary creed. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.

Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation. A great deal of modern thought consists of secular myths. Dennett's notion that new communications technologies will fundamentally alter the way human beings think is just such a myth.

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins seems convinced that if it were not inculcated in schools and families, religion would die out. I cannot help being reminded of the evangelical Christian who assured me that children reared in a chaste environment would grow up without illicit sexual impulses.

Dawkins compares religion to a virus: religious ideas are memes that infect vulnerable minds, especially those of children. Biological metaphors may have their uses — the minds of evangelical atheists seem particularly prone to infection by religious memes, for example. At the same time, analogies of this kind are fraught with peril.

Miscellany of reactions to Richard Dawkins' book-length rant against God

David Sloan Wilson argues that Richard Dawkins is wrong about religion

The End of Faith

Sam Harris argues that religion has been the chief source of violence and oppression in history. He recognises that secular despots such as Stalin and Mao inflicted terror on a grand scale, but maintains the oppression they practised had nothing to do with their ideology of "scientific atheism" — what was wrong with their regimes was that they were tyrannies.

Nowadays most atheists are avowed liberals. What they want is a secular state in which religion has no role. They clearly believe that, in a state of this kind, religion will tend to decline. But America's secular constitution has not ensured a secular politics.

My book on writings by Sam Harris and related themes

Towards the Light

A.C. Grayling reaffirms what he calls "a Whig view of the history of the modern west." The Whigs were pious Christians, who believed divine providence arranged history to culminate in English institutions, and Grayling too believes history is "moving in the right direction."

But the belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs.

The problem with the secular narrative is its assumption that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity. He did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values.

In Defence of Atheism

Michel Onfray recognises that evangelical atheism is an unwitting imitation of traditional religion: "Many militants of the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy." More clearly than his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Onfray understands the formative influence of religion on secular thinking. Yet Onfray has nothing but contempt for Jewish monotheism: "We do not possess an official certificate of birth for worship of one God. But the family line is clear: the Jews invented it to endure the coherence, cohesion and existence of their small, threatened people."

God Is Not Great

Christopher Hitchens notes that, long before Hizbullah and al-Qaida, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka pioneered what he rightly calls "the disgusting tactic of suicide murder." He omits to mention that the Tigers are Marxist-Leninists who, while recruiting mainly from the island's Hindu population, reject religion in all its varieties.

It is not necessary to believe in any narrative of progress to think liberal societies are worth resolutely defending. The issue is one of proportion. Islamism is nowhere near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down in the 20th century.

My pairing of an outraged review of Hitchens and a bland review of Jesus

A Christopher Hitchens miscellany

The Second Plane

Martin Amis is sure religion is a bad thing, and that it has no future in the west.

A Martin Amis miscellany

Religion has not gone away. Repressing it is like repressing sex. Not everything in religion is precious and no religion has the right to break the peace. But the attempt to eradicate religion only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms.

Only Science Can Save Us

By John Gray
The Observer, January 20, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

No reasonable person any longer doubts that the world is heating up or that this change has been triggered by human activity.

When it comes to deciding what should be done, most people shrink from the discomfort that goes with realistic thinking. Greens put their faith in sustainable growth and renewable energy. The root of the environmental crisis is our addiction to fossil fuels. If only we switch to wind, wave and solar power, all will be well.

The environmental crisis cannot be resolved without a major reduction in our impact on the Earth. This means curbing the production of greenhouse gases, but here fashionable policies can be self-defeating. The shift to biofuels involves further destruction of rainforest, a key natural regulator of the climate. Unsightly and inefficient wind farms will not enable us to give up fossil fuels, while large-scale hydroelectric power has major environmental costs. Moving over to organic methods of food production does nothing to stop the devastation of wilderness that goes with expanding farming to feed a swelling human population.

The uncomfortable fact is that an energy-intensive lifestyle of the kind enjoyed in the rich parts of the world cannot be extended to a human population of nine or ten billion. In terms of resources, human numbers are already unsustainable. Global warming is the flipside of worldwide industrialisation. No expansion of renewables can satisfy the demand for energy in China and India. Anyway, does anyone really expect the countries getting rich from hydrocarbons to give them up? As long as there is enough demand, these countries will continue extracting fossil fuels.

The only way forward is to make full use of technologies many environmentalists view with superstitious horror. Nuclear energy has well-known problems of security and waste disposal, but demonising it is conventional green thinking at its delusional worst. Though solar power has potential, no type of renewable energy can replace the dirty fuels of the industrial past. If we reject the nuclear option, we will inevitably end up going back to coal. There are emerging technologies that can make coal cleaner. That is no reason for turning our back on nuclear, which is already virtually emission-free.

Any feasible remedy for the environmental crisis involves high-tech solutions. Given the legitimate aspirations of people in developing countries, only a high-tech strategy has any chance of reducing the human footprint.

But it will also be necessary to face up to the reality of population pressure. Malthus argued that population growth would finally overtake food production. Industrial farming turns out to have been heavily dependent on cheap oil, and limits on food production are re-emerging. Far more than renewable energy, we need to ensure that contraception and abortion are freely available everywhere.

While there is no technical fix for the human condition, intelligent use of technology is indispensable in coping with environmental disruption.

"The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge — not even in the long run."

From Uncle Joe To Boy George

By Damian Thompson
Daily Telegraph, July 5, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

 Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
By John Gray

The human project to create a perfect society has died in the sands of Iraq. The attempt to export democracy to the Gulf was so crazy that its failure has killed off not just neoconservative ideology but also utopia itself.

That is the central thesis of John Gray's new book, and it really is a load of bollocks.

Gray, a professor at the LSE who is described on the front cover as "the most important living philosopher", has had a fit of Bush-hatred spectacular even by the standards of important living philosophers. But the silly man has gone and built an entire theory of history around it.

Here's the argument. Jesus and his early followers believed that a perfect world would come to pass after an earth-shattering confrontation with Satan. This apocalyptic belief was given a makeover by the Enlightenment.

So far, so good. The link between Christian millenarianism and Nazism is well established. But Gray also sniffs out a trail from Auschwitz. This is interesting, as is the information that Stalin had peasant women inseminated with ape sperm in an attempt to produce soldier ape-men who would be resistant to pain.

Then, unfortunately, Gray goes almost as nuts as Uncle Joe. He thinks that the apocalyptic torch has been passed from Pol Pot to George W Bush, who practises mass terror to create an Iraqi utopia dreamt up by shadowy neoconservatives. And most of them stay in the shadows, because Gray can't come up with more than a few names: Wolfowitz, Kristol, Perle and a couple of other Jews (he is sufficiently nervous to leave out this detail).

Perhaps aware that he is running short of neocons to man his conspiracy, Gray presses Tony Blair into service. The former Prime Minister was not only a classic neocon, we learn, but one whose mendacity bore the stamp of Soviet disinformation.

Although Gray is by no stretch of the imagination our most important living philosopher, he does slightly remind me of Bertrand Russell in his dotage — a clever man playing to the gallery.

But it's getting late, professor. Go home and sleep it off.

AR  John Gray and I were undergraduates together at Exeter College, Oxford. He matriculated in 1968, I in 1969.