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John Gray on the fear behind missionary atheism

John Gray on the fear behind missionary atheism

Writing in the Guardian, author and atheist John Gray criticizes the myopia of modern atheism, and traces the history of evangelical atheism from eugenics, scientism, and cultural imperialism.

He notes that most atheists distance themselves from Nietzsche, Huxley, and the eugenics movement, but that they continue the tradition of framing their biases as scientific fact. Earlier generations of missionary atheists promoted the biological superiority of ‘white’ people as scientifically demonstrable, and modern atheists promote the secular liberalism of the West as culturally superior to any other possible system.

From the column:

Considering the alternatives that are on offer, liberal societies are well worth defending. But there is no reason for thinking these societies are the beginning of a species-wide secular civilisation of the kind of which evangelical atheists dream.

In a lengthy examination of atheist theories and controversies, Gray expresses the belief that the real fear and panic behind the movement is that religion may actually be flourishing, and that the unexamined bias in holding up Western civilization as a platonic ideal may be coming from fear instead of rational enlightenment.

If you’re interested in more of Gray’s critique of utopian thinking, his latest novel, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom, explores the ideas expressed in his column in even greater depth. The book was published last week by Penguin and has been favorably reviewed by many publications, including the Financial Times.


Posted by David Streever


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Susan Forsburg

I love Gray’s distinction of the what he calls “evangelical atheists” (what I call anti-theists), and those of a more tolerant bent like himself, who aren’t really exercised by whether other people have religious faith. Gray writes,

Though not all human beings may attach great importance to them, every society contains practices that are recognisably religious. Why should religion be universal in this way? For atheist missionaries this is a decidedly awkward question. Invariably they claim to be followers of Darwin. Yet they never ask what evolutionary function this species-wide phenomenon serves. There is an irresolvable contradiction between viewing religion naturalistically – as a human adaptation to living in the world – and condemning it as a tissue of error and illusion. What if the upshot of scientific inquiry is that a need for illusion is built into in the human mind? If religions are natural for humans and give value to their lives, why spend your life trying to persuade others to give them up?

Indeed. Can’t we all just get along here?

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