A conversation with acclaimed philosopher John Gray.

JP O’Malley

John Gray is an English political philosopher whose major books include Straw Dogs, Black Mass, and The Silence of Animals. Gray’s latest book is called Seven Types of Atheism.

Where did the title of your new book arise from?

It parallels an idea in William Empson’s 1930 book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, which says that there are seven types of ambiguity in poetry. Empson argued that language is essentially ambiguous. And that the ambiguity of language is what makes poetry possible. Atheism has many different forms. The purpose of my book is not to convince the reader of a belief of disbelief, but to provoke thoughts in the reader’s mind.

Your book argues that history, rather than science, has always posed more of a challenge to Christianity. Why so?

Well the more astute critics of Christianity in the nineteenth century realized that the real threat to Christianity wasn’t science. Because science and religion are different human activities.

It’s still common, for instance, among the primitive new atheists to treat the Genesis myth as an early version of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. However, leading Jewish scholars stated more than two thousand years ago that the Genesis story was not to be read literally, or as some kind of explanatory theory; but as a myth: that is, a way of finding a fundamental truth through a narrative. So in that sense, religion and science are completely different.

Your book looks at various scholars who have analyzed the historical truth of Christianity. What findings did you discover.

In the nineteenth century there were a number of scholars who looked into claims whether the Christian version of the story of Jesus was historically correct. Even then there were criticisms of it. Christianity is an unusual religion in that a large part of it plays on historical events.

So if Jesus is not seen as as representing the perceived versions of Christianity—that he died and was resurrected—then Christianity is compromised. Of the various different versions of the life of Jesus, none of them can be shown to be wholly the right one. But the one that I think is the most plausible was developed over many years in the writings of a great scholar of the origins of Christianity: Geza Vermes. He argued that Jesus was a charismatic Jewish prophet, and not the founder of Christianity. And that [Christianity] was actually founded by St Paul and later St Augustine. So that important bit of history challenges the Christian story.

How important was St Paul in terms of shaping the history of the West?

He is one of the key figures. You could almost say that Paul was one of the foundational figures of the West because he successfully turned what was originally a Jewish religious movement into one that has universal claims. The historical figure of Jesus was a Jewish prophet and remained a Jewish prophet. He wasn’t the founder of a universal religion. But Paul turned him into that. Paul also linked Christianity together with Greek thinking and philosophy, though in a way that has never really been satisfactory. But he was also a rather malignant figure. Because the religion that he invented—Christianity—has many negative features. For example, the obsession with [sexual piety and the body]. None of that was in Jesus’s teaching.

What is the main difference between Christianity and other religious faiths?

Particular traditions within Western Christianity put so much emphasis and importance on belief, which are really not central in most religions. There is no creed in Hinduism, Taoism, or in ancient Judaism. Indeed, for most of human history, beliefs were not central to religions. But practices were more important. So in this sense, Christianity is rather unique.

You believe that earlier forms of liberalism were more tolerant than present day liberalism. Why so?

The early forms of liberalism that emerged from people like John Locke [in seventeenth-century Britain] were explicitly Christian and monotheistic. This to my mind was more reasonable than present-day liberalism. I am not a monotheist or a Christian. However, I’ve read countless accounts of secular liberals saying that their values are universal. But none of them stand up. Today’s evangelical liberalism wants to convert the whole of humankind to these values. It’s another one of those secular surrogates for religion.

You also say that liberalism did not arise during the European Enlightenment, as many believe.

Yes. The origins of liberalism actually come from the roots of Judaism and Christianity. But I don’t expect to persuade atheists about this because they are irrational on this point.

You are hugely critical of modern liberalism. What is your main problem with the ideology?

That it’s immune to empirical evidence. It’s a form of dogmatic faith. If you are a monotheist it makes sense—I myself am not saying it’s true or right—to say that there is only one way of life for all of human kind: and so you should try and convert the rest of humanity to that faith. But if you are not a monotheist, and you claim to be an atheist, it makes no sense to claim that there is only one way of life. There may be some good and bad ways of living. And there may be some forms of barbarism, where human societies cannot flourish for very long. But there is no reason for thinking that there is only one way of life: the ones that liberal societies practice. It’s also worth pointing out that secular liberalism is the most dominant ideology in the West today, as far as the West has any ideology left.

Do you see any benefits of liberalism?

The old liberal way of life was a highly civilized way of humans co-existing. It produced things like a government that is independent of any single faith. The interesting thing now is that hyper liberals, or what you might call alt-liberals, are destroying what remains of this life. They are closing down free speech in the name of a hyperbolic version of liberal values. This hyperbolic ideology is destroying a valuable way of life.

What kind of influence did the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche have in shaping the atheist movement in nineteenth-century Europe?

Nietzsche retained many forms of Christianity in his thinking. Still, he is the most important atheist. And atheism has really degenerated since his time. Because what he was trying to do—but of course failed—was to develop a form of atheism that really steps outside of Christian beliefs and monotheistic ways of thinking. I think atheism has declined in intellectual quality since the nineteenth century. Today’s atheism is a pale shadow of that other form of atheism.

Are we living in intellectually barren times?

In the world of philosophy—particularly concerning ideas relating to religion—I would say, yes.

But more broadly, no. Because there are many things going on in the media, arts, literature, film, and so on, which I think are extremely interesting.

And we have seen a hybrid of so-called low culture with high culture. Culture, overall, is quite lively and interesting. But in philosophy there is either stagnation, or actual decline. And I blame the liberal center for this. Liberals are absolutely adamant that progress is going on at present. And at the same time they are full of blind panic about many features of the contemporary world. They are horrified by the various forms of rising fundamentalism and nationalism. So the liberal mindset oscillates between adamant certainty and blind panic. That is not interesting.

Many of your critics describe you as a misanthropist and a nihilist, who sees no hope for the human condition. What is your response to that?

Well, these days a nihilist is anyone who simply ruffles or questions the ideas of the time. A nihilist is just someone who makes silly people uncomfortable. Actually most of my critics are themselves nihilists in the original sense. Nihilism was developed in Russia in the late nineteenth century: they believed that traditional religions should be abolished and derive new values from science. 

JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.