Gray matters [not much, truly]
Through the blog of Andrew Jaffe, Leaves on the Lines, I became aware of John Gray‘s tribune in The Guardian, “What scares the new atheists“. Gray’s central points against “campaigning” or “evangelical” atheists are that their claim to scientific backup is baseless, that they mostly express a fear about the diminishing influence of the liberal West, and that they cannot produce an alternative form of morality. The title already put me off and the beginning of the tribune just got worse, as it goes on and on about the eugenics tendencies of some 1930’s atheists and on how they influenced Nazi ideology. It is never a good sign in a debate when the speaker strives to link the opposite side with National Socialist ideas and deeds. Even less so in a supposedly philosophical tribune! (To add injury to insult, Gray also brings Karl Marx in the picture with a similar blame for ethnocentrism…)
“What today’s freethinkers want is freedom from doubt.”
Besides this fairly unpleasant use of demeaning rhetoric, I am bemused by the arguments in the tribune. Especially when considering they come from an academic philosopher. At their core, Gray’s arguments meet earlier ones, namely that atheism has all the characteristics of a religion, in particular when preaching or “proselytising”. Except that it cannot define its own rand of morality. And that western atheism is deeply dependent on Judeo-Christian values. The last point is not much arguable as the Greek origins of philosophy can attest. So calling in Nietzsche to the rescue is not exactly necessary. But the remainder of Gray’s discourse is not particularly coherent. If arguments for atheism borrow from the scientific discourse, it is because no rational argument or scientific experiment can contribute to support the existence of a deity. That pro-active atheists argue more visibly against religions is a reaction against the rise and demands of those religions. Similarly, that liberalism (an apparently oversold and illusory philosophy) and atheism seem much more related now than they were in the past can be linked with the growing number of tyranical regimes based upon religion. At last, the morality argument (that is rather convincingly turned upside down by Dawkins) does not sell that well. Societies have run under evolving sets of rules, all called morality, that can be seen as a constituent of human evolution: there is no reason to buy that those rules were and will all be acceptable solely on religious grounds. Morality and immorality are only such in the eye of the beholder (and the guy next door).