Saturday, December 08, 2007

John Gray and Straw Dogs

John Gray's Straw Dogs is an attack upon the purported faith which supports modern secular liberal humanism. Gray's book is important, for it is the source for many of the anti-humanistic mantras uttered by contemporary religious apologists. Gray's primary target is the belief in the possibility of human progress, hence the attraction of his ideas to those who believe that human suffering is a penance we must serve to atone for 'original sin'.

Gray's definition of humanism can be found on page 4 of Straw Dogs:

"Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals."

Unfortunately, however, this is not the definition of humanism, but the definition of transhumanism. Humanism is the belief in the possibility of human progress, whilst transhumanism is the belief in the possibility that humans can transcend their animal nature. Gray's entire book, then, is founded upon a mis-understanding of what humanism is.

Moreover, humanism should not be conflated with utopianism. The unattainability of a human social and political utopia does not entail the impossibility of human progress. If progress is defined to be the reduction of human suffering, then progress is undeniably possible. Consider as a simple example the invention of anaesthetic. If one accepts that it is better for medical surgery to be performed with, rather than without anaesthetic, then one must accept that a society makes progress when it first conducts medical surgery under anaesthetic.

Gray's opinions on progress, however, are confused and contradictory. On p4 he states: "in the world shown to us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress," whilst on p155 he states: "anaesthetic dentistry is an unmixed blessing. So are clean water and flush toilets. Progress is a fact. Even so, faith in progress is a superstition...Improvements in government and society are...real, but they are temporary. Not only can they be lost, they are sure to be."

Humanism, however, does not assert that progress is certain or irreversible. Humanism merely holds that: (i) human progress is possible; and (ii) human progress should be pursued. Most humanists are all too aware of the possibility of regress, and the difficulty of achieving progress. And, whilst there is no guarantee of progress, contra Gray there is also no guarantee of eventual regression.

The arguments expounded by Gray in Straw Dogs are washed, tumble-dried, and hung on the washing line again in Black Mass, which received the following withering review from the philosopher AC Grayling:

In order to establish that secular Whiggish Enlightenment-derived aspirations are the child of Christianity, Gray begins by calling any view or outlook a “religion”. Everything is a religion: Torquemada’s Catholicism, the pluralism and empiricism of 18th-century philosophers, liberalism, Stalinism. He speaks of “secular religion” and “political religion”. This empties the word “religion” of any meaning, making it a neutral portmanteau expression like “view” or “outlook”. He can therefore premise a gigantic fallacy of equivocation, and assimilate secular Enlightenment values to the Christian “narrative” of reformation aimed at bringing about a golden age.

For starters this misreads Christianity, for which truths are eternal and the narrative is a very short story indeed (obey, get to heaven; disobey, do not get to heaven); but more to the point, it utterly misreads the secular view. The secular view is a true narrative of incremental improvement in the human condition through education and political action. Gray thinks that such a view must of necessity be utopian, as if everyone simplistically thought that making things better (in dentistry, in the rule of law, in child health, in international mechanisms for reducing conflict, and so forth for many things) absolutely had to be aimed at realising an ideal golden age to have any meaning. But it does not: trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect. That is a point Gray completely fails to grasp, and it vitiates his case. Since that is so, the point bears repeating: meliorism is not perfectibilism.

But in making a nonsense of the word “religion” Gray blurs and blends just where important distinctions are required. A religion is a view which essentially premises commitment to belief in the existence of supernatural agencies in the universe, almost always conceived as having intentions and expectations regarding human beings. Such is the myth derived from humankind’s infancy, a myth that survives for both institutional and psychological reasons, largely to the detriment of human affairs. Most religions, especially if given the chance, share the totalitarian impulses of Stalinism and Nazism (think Torquemada and the Taliban) for a simple reason: all such are monolithic ideologies demanding subservience to a supposed ideal, on pain of punishment for non-conformity.

Now let us ask whether secular Enlightenment values of pluralism, democracy, the rule of independently and impartially administered law, freedom of thought, enquiry and expression, and liberty of the individual conform to the model of a monolithic ideology such as Catholicism, Islam or Stalinism. Let us further ask how Gray imagines that these values are direct inheritances from Christianity – the Christianity of the Inquisition, which burned to death any who sought to assert just such values. Indeed, the history of the modern European and Europe-derived world is precisely the history of liberation from the hegemony of Christianity. I shall be so bold as to refer the reader to the case for this claim in my forthcoming (Autumn 2007) full-length discussion of it, Towards the Light.

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.

Most of what was achieved in the history of the West from the 16th century onwards – most notably science and the realisation of the values listed above – was wrested from the bitter reactionary grip of religion inch by painful and frequently bloody inch. How can Gray so far ignore this bald fact of history as to make the modern secular West the inheritor of the ideals and aspirations of what it fought so hard to free itself from (and is still bedevilled by)? His accordingly is a bizarre fantasy-version of history. In the face of the central heating that warms him, the modern dentistry that allows him to chew his peanuts, the computer he writes his strange books on and the aeroplanes he travels in, he asserts that “progress is a myth”. But perhaps he does not mean to call material progress a myth, but rather alleged progress in the political condition of a large portion of mankind. Does he thus mean that the movement from feudal baronies to universal suffrage and independent judiciaries is not progress? If it is not, what is it? Regress?

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