Philosopher John Gray denigrates reason and promotes religion on the BBC

John N. Gray (b. 1948) is an English political philosopher  who is an emeritus professor at the London School of Economics.  According to Wikipedia, he “contributes regularly to The GuardianThe Times Literary Supplementand the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer.”

For a philosopher, Gray shows a curious tendency to denigrate reason and praise faith. We’ve met him before on this website (here and here), and in both cases he pointed out the limitations of science and argued that religion is a way of knowing that yields truths inaccessible to science.

We’re used to that view from faitheists and believers, but not from secular philosophers. It’s doubly curious because, in the article I’ll discuss today, Gray avers that he’s an atheist. (He’s also espoused another atheist-bashing trope: the notion that atheists are deficient because we don’t hold “the tragic view of life” taken by Nietzsche, whom Gray called “the pivotal modern critic of religion,” one who “will continue to be the ghost at the atheist feast.”)

Here’s some of Gray’s religion-osculation and science-bashing from a 2011 BBC piece, “A point of view: can religion tell us more than science“:

Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that’s far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that “humanity” can use science to remake the world.

. . . Myths aren’t relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They’re stories that tell us something about ourselves that can’t be captured in scientific theories.

Just as you don’t have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don’t have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.

Myths can’t be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I’ve no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.

By all means, Dr. Gray, let us hear some of the ancient myths that are more truthful than what modern science accepts. By truths, he means “truths about human experience,” some of which can indeed be verified empirically (i.e., “I got depressed when I was diagnosed with cancer:). But as is usual with critics of “scientism,” Gray neglects to mention any of these truths. He just bashes science, perhaps because he resents its advances. What one cannot doubt, unless one is completely blinkered with faith, is that science has saved the world far more than any myth. Two examples: antibiotics and the Green Revolution.

What is is about atheists that makes them so ready to criticize other atheists rather than the religious, whose beliefs they not only find wrong, but sometimes admit are harmful? What comparable harms does atheism do? This kind of atheist-bashing fascinates me; after all, we all disbelieve in the same God!

I suppose the atheist-bashing of arrogant pundits like Gray derives from their claim that we’re disbelieving for the wrong reasons. But I suggest that “not enough evidence” is a reason that’s perfectly sufficient. As for the “value of myth” in helping humanity, I’d like to see some examples. As an atheist who nevertheless promotes religious belief, Gray is simply advancing the condescending Little People Argument. If we need myth, how about simple but clearly fictional stories that espouse racial and sexual equality and note the horrible consequences of prejudice. Why do we need to accrete those stories around scripture that is not only claimed to be true, but has a lot of bad side effects? Why the Bible instead of, say, Maus(Actually, Maus is a graphic novel—a very wonderful one—based on real events.)

At any rate, Gray continues his attacks in another piece in BBC Magazine published 3 days ago: “The child-like faith in reason.” What a strange title for a philosopher to use! And the piece is every bit as critical of reason as Gray’s religious predecessors, like Martin Luther:

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard religion being described as childish. It’s one of those uncritically accepted ideas – perhaps I should say memes – that have been floating around for generations. Even many religious people seem to accept that there’s something at least child-like about their faith. Believing in God, they sometimes say, is a bond between human beings and an infinitely wiser power – we should trust in God just as we would a loving parent. When they hear this, our evangelical atheists feel vindicated in their crusade. In their view, nothing could be more childish than a relationship in which human beings are utterly dependent on a supernatural power. For these atheists, putting your trust in such an imaginary being is the essence of childishness.

Oh, Lord, there’s the “evangelical atheists” again, by which Gray really means “passionate and outspoken atheists.” He’s just saying that to slip the “evangelical” word in, as if somehow outspoken atheism was a religion. By those lights, I suppose we could call Gray an “evangelical philosopher.”

Gray continues, and I have bolded a very striking (and completely idiotic) statement:

Speaking as an atheist myself, I can’t help smiling when I hear religion being mocked in this way. Looking at the world as it has been and continues to be at the present time, it’s belief in human reason that’s childish. Religious faith is based on accepting that we know very little of God. But we know a great deal about human beings, and one of the things we know for sure is that we’re not rational animals. Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God.

Such a statement borders on insanity. For we have ample demonstration that using reason has told us truths about the universe. How do we know? Because reason works. If you want to cure infectious diseases, you do it by reason: making hypotheses, doing tests of whether diseases are caused by transmitted microorganisms, devising antibiotics or antivirals, testing them scientifically, and so on. It is through reason that we’ve found everything we know about the universe. If reason was as fallacious as Gray avows, the material human condition, as well as our ability to predict eclipses and send men to the Moon, wouldn’t have improved.

In contrast, believing in God hasn’t told us one thing about the universe, including whether said god exists, whether there is more than one god, what said god wants us to do, whether there’s an afterlife, and so on. Religion, in other words, simply makes stuff up and has no way to determine whether what it makes up bears any correspondence to reality. Why on earth, then, would you trust revelation and dogma more than reason? You wouldn’t trust revelation and dogma to fix your car, cure your disease, or purify your water. Why would you trust your entire life, now and hereafter, to it? There is no “leap of faith” involved in believing in reason.  We don’t have “faith” in reason, we use reason, as does Gray in his article. And we use it because it gives us results.  The true leap of faith is believing in supernatural beings and the dictates of religions.

In fact, in his whole article Gray says nothing in favor of reason, which he sees as hopelessly inadequate for solving human problems. Humans, he says, are not reasoning animals, for we have an annoying propensity to believe in the palpably untrue:

If human beings were potentially capable of applying reason in their lives they would show some sign of learning from what they had done wrong in the past, but history and everyday practice show them committing the same follies over and over again. They would alter their beliefs in accordance with facts, but clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits.

Umm. . . we no longer believe that disease or drought are signs of God’s displeasure (Rick Perry excepted), nor mental illness a sign of affliction by demons. We have used reason to show that lightning has physical causes rather than divine anger. Most of us use reason in our jobs, and we’d be unemployed if we didn’t. Why doesn’t Gray realize that?

Really, one would have to be blind to claim that every rejection of reason of humanity’s ancient days remains with us, and has kept us from advancing, both scientifically and morally. Morally because, as Steve Pinker showed in The Better Angels of Our Nature, it is reason that has led to the decline of violence on Earth, as well as other salubrious (and probably inexorable) changes in attitudes. For what is it but reason that has led us to recognize that heterosexual adult white European males hold no special moral privilege over gays, people of other ethnicities, or women? Or that children should be not be worked to death and animals mistreated? Those advances did not come from religion, although some churches promoted more liberal attitudes. Had equality been inherent in Christianity (or Judaism or Islam) from the outset, and had scripture been a myth that promoted good behavior, most of those improvements in morality would have taken place by the Middle Ages, not in the last two centuries.

Nevertheless, Gray sees religion as some kind of palliative to human problems (my emphasis):

Outside of some areas of science, human beings rarely give up their convictions just because they can be shown to be false. No doubt we can become a little more reasonable, at least for a time, in some parts of our lives, but being reasonable means accepting that many human problems aren’t actually soluble, and our persistent irrationality is one of these problems. At its best, religion is an antidote against the prevailing type of credulity – in our day, a naive faith in the boundless capacities of the human mind.

The belief in reason that is being promoted today rests on a number of childishly simple ideas. One of the commonest is that history’s crimes are mistakes that can be avoided in future as we acquire greater knowledge. But human evil isn’t a type of error that can be discarded like an obsolete scientific theory. If history teaches us anything it’s that hatred and cruelty are permanent human flaws, which find expression whatever beliefs people may profess.

Note that he says, “at its best”.  Really, though, which religions are “at their best”?  Which ones have been antidotes against the “prevailing credulity” of faith in the “capacities of the human mind”? Gray is triply wrong here. First, even the “best” religions expand the credulity of the human mind by asking us to believe the unbelievable: prophets flying to heaven on horses, saviors coming back to life after being crucified, or the existence of an afterlife in which we get either wings or fire. Are those things not conceived in the human mind and a product of irrationality—religion? Nor, as we know, are these beliefs always salubrious, even if they’re wrong.

Further, it is precisely our faith in reason that has improved humanity. How much has theology, or religion itself, improved the human lot (especially compared to science) over the last 400 years?

Finally, Gray is wrong that humans cannot become markedly better. Yes, cruelty and avarice will always be with us, partly because some of that was instilled in us by evolution. But, as Pinker showed, we’re capable of using our reason to overcome these tendencies.  I would maintain that the average person, at least in the West  (the area I know most about) is markedly more empathic now than, say, three hundred years ago.  Do we laugh at cats being tortured, as they did in medieval France? Do we not care about children laboring in coal mines, something that was acceptable  in England not all that long ago? Do we not recognize that women have moral and political equality, something laughed at only a few centuries ago? Do remember that it was only in in the 1970s that women in Switzerland got the right to vote! And they still can’t drive in Saudi Arabia—all because of the wondrous power of myth.

Gray, then, is simply wrong when he says this:

If human beings were potentially capable of applying reason in their lives they would show some sign of learning from what they had done wrong in the past, but history and everyday practice show them committing the same follies over and over again. They would alter their beliefs in accordance with facts, but clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits.

Oh really? Yes, we still have wars, but, as I said, we are on a moral arc that makes us significantly more empathic than our ancestors. Does that come from reason or from religion? (Indeed, science can potentially feed into this kind of reason, for it can show us, for instance, that a society that treats women or minorites as equals is a better society in which to live than one sanctioning inequality.) And science itself is a product of learning: the discovery that using reason observation gives us useful truths about the universe. Does Gray really think that the adoption of science instead of superstition doesn’t represent any kind of “learning from what we’d done wrong in the past”?

And, in the end, Gray can’t help but get in the obligatory licks against science:

In Europe before and during World War Two, persecution and genocide were supported by racial and eugenic theories, which allowed some groups to be demonised. These theories were pseudo-science of the worst kind, but it wasn’t this that discredited them. They were exposed for what they were by the defeat of Nazism, which revealed the horrors to which they had led. Subsequent investigation has since demonstrated that such theories are scientifically worthless. But the habit of demonising other human beings hasn’t gone away. The same minorities that were targeted in the past – Jews, Roma, immigrants and gay people, for example – are being targeted in many countries today.

Racism and eugenics did not come from science and reason, but simply used science to prop up the endemic unreason and xenophobia that Gray already indicted our species for. “Pseudo-science” is correct, for those “theories” didn’t rest on real science: the kind supported by reason and empirical investigation.  The extermination of the Jews, for instance, rested purely on religiously-based prejudice. Chalk up another good effect of “myth” that is “true to human experience.”

Frankly, if I didn’t know Gray was a serious philosopher, I’d think that this piece was meant as a joke, or a Sokal-style hoax. Really, a philosopher writing repeatedly that reason is overrated? (Why the BBC would publish a piece denigrating reason is beyond my ken.)

But he’s not joking, for he’s been cranking out this kind of stuff for years. No, the man is simply doing bad philosophy—if you can call that philosophy. (I’d call it an academic version of The Daily Mail.) The reasons for this bad philosophy, and for the denigration of the very values that underlie Gray’s discipline, are beyond me; they lie deep in the murky waters of psychology and upbringing. And I’m surprised that the BBC would publish this sort of stuff. Do they consider this a deeply thoughtful piece? Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s my impression that the quality of British journalism has declined steeply in the last few decades.

And if you don’t believe that Gray’s article is totally worthless, consider this: his essay uses reason to try to convince people that reason doesn’t work well for convincing people!

h/t: Michael

173 Comments

  1. francis
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    //

  2. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    But we know a great deal about human beings, and one of the things we know for sure is that we’re not rational animals. Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God.

    This appears to be a bait-and-switch. Is he talking about the probability that a particular person in a particular situation will be rational, or is he talking about whether rationality and reason can be useful and find truth?

    • Sastra
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      He’s talking about both, of course. He’s also adding in the idea that “believing in the power of human reason” means believing that we either are or someday will become absolutely perfect — so of course he confuses this with believing in God.

      It’s like the concept of incremental improvements leading to a better world doesn’t even exist for them. No, it’s easier to stuff that strawman and laugh at the resulting rube.

      • Jeffery
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        He’s implying, then, that we are “irrational”- in that case, how did we “irrational” creatures manage to put an “irrational” member of our species on the moon? Of course, no one of us is going to be “rational” 100% of the time, like Mr. Spock on “Star Trek”, but to take that and use it to try to discredit ALL “reason” (which he doesn’t ever really define, anyway: is it thinking? Is it the ability to base our actions on past experience, or current sensory perceptions, what?) is completely absurd.

        One might argue, after bending definitions a little, that “reason” led people to believe that the Babble is the literal word of God! Is there something other than “reason” that causes people to believe in a God, at all? All nonsense. I view most philosophers as just one step above film, book, or art critics; untalented themselves, they end up spouting their own personal opinions rather than facts (sorry, Mr. Dennet; you’re an exception). He even seems to be laboring under the delusion that “unbelievers” have a “belief in unbelief”. What a marooon!

      • darrelle
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        Not unexpectedly, you nailed that in one swift and accurate blow.

  3. Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Maybe he realizes that the fundamental weakness of “reason,” meaning pure reason, is that when followed dutifully from bad starting places (axioms, presuppostions, or what-have-us that probably don’t actually hook in some way to reality), they take us further away from getting things right. I’d go so far as to note that this is a bane of (bad) philosophers and one reason that philosophy as a discipline deserves some of the ire from scientists that it often gets. In fact, I strongly suspect that (bad) philosophy of this kind slows down human progress, a kind of impedimenta philosophica whereby having to constantly deal with reason-derived nonsense stemming from bad presuppositions mucks things up and makes moving forward like slogging through a swamp. Because, ultimately, such conclusions are based upon reason, just reason that happens to have been applied to the wrong things, they’re hard not to take more seriously than they deserve.

    That’s not an attack on reason, though, and it isn’t anything like a justification for religion or faith. It’s just a call that we should be very scrupulous in examining our starting places and continuing to move further and further away from what might be called “pure reason.”

    I read the other day in a comment somewhere (apologies if it was here!) that reason really has to have two components. One is the usual logic stuff and the other is that it somehow hooks to reality (in a way that doesn’t contradict data, and measured thusly). I have to agree with this assessment, and though I think they go way too far, it brings me to sympathy for the cases of the philosophy-indicting scientists that keep getting published all over the place in the last few years.

  4. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Myths can’t be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I’ve no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.

    I would categorize this as an ‘argument from impoverished vocabulary.’ Words other than “truthful” he could have used to describe myths in a positive way that would have been more truthful: resonant, significant, enlightening.

    • Sastra
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      I don’t know. I think that the truths found in “The Little Engine That Could” have certainly informed and enriched my approach to the mountain of apologetic bullshit I keep running in to.

      I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.

      • Diane G.
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        Whatever you do, don’t read about Sisyphus!

    • Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      As with gods and religions, humans the world over also have created innumerable stories to explain origins, phenomena, endings of the world and what happens thereafter. For example: many “world trees” from Nordic to Popul Voh; the world supported on the back of a turtle or elephant; how humanity became intelligent; ages of man deteriorating from gold to silver to lead; where humans go after death; afterlives rewarded or punished, etc.

      Human beings are story-telling animals most of whom have tried to make sense of their world by connecting the “dots” of diverse elements to construct a seemingly coherent story. Therefore, we have created gods, religions and mythologies.

      Humanity is much better served by requiring evidence for what we think or “believe”, and to always be rational. This approach has benefitted mankind far more than mythologies and religions.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      The real puzzle here is how Gray intends to distinguish the more truthful myths from the less truthful if they can’t be verified or falsified. Or is he arguing that it doesn’t matter, that even an untruthful myth is better than a verifiable scientific theory?

  5. William George
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I have a woo-meister friend who keeps using “Atheism is just faith in human reason.”

    I keep trying to find polite ways to tell him this is nonsense and regardless, we’ve invented ways to look at the universe that operate independently from the biases of our meat such as math.

    After he dismissed 1+1=2 because we can’t define “one” I changed the subject because I was starting to get a Chopra headache.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      I’m completely binary so in a way I can relate that math may have its pitfalls.

      The concept of zero and infinity still doesn’t make sense to me.

      But it works and that’s a big plus, so maybe your friend just needs a bit of a reality-check.

      • Posted July 21, 2014 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        Zero is the null point on a line that reaches to infinity in either direction. I read that somewhere, and I absolutely do not possess the mathematical chops to defend it in argument. I just like the way both zero and infinity fit together in a single fifteen word sentence that is at least a toe in the water of a definition for each. Based on what you regularly post, I have no illusions I’m enlightening you with this.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

          Thanks, ls, I can dig that, but in my mind the zero is still arbitrary on a line of infiniteness( there’s no ends so where to place it? )

          But otoh if the line truly is infinite in both directions then it doesn’t matter where you place the zero. It will always land in the middle.

          I guess what confuses me is that you take a concept of everything( infiniteness ) and throw in a concept of nothing ( zero ).

          Maybe somewhere out there, there’s another species who’s version of math is just as useful and advanced as ours, but to them zero and infinity are alien concepts. Because where to find it in nature?

          Math is the language we use to describe the universe, but it is not the language the universe uses to describe us, if you catch my drift.

          But again, it is by far the most useful invention (wo)man has made so far and I get a great kick out of imagining what it might look like a thousand years from now.

          What new concepts have emerged and which old ones have evolved beyond recognition?….that kind of shit fascinates me.

          I’ll be damned if I understand half of it, though. 🙂

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted July 22, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

            Zero is most simply grasped in terms of distance: the amount of separation between things that are actually touching. That is generalised as the property of additive identity, because ‘separation’ is simultaneously a measured quantity and a transitive action on a physical object.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted July 22, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

              Are we still on an infinite line?

    • Tulse
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      he dismissed 1+1=2 because we can’t define “one”

      So he doesn’t believe in banking? Does he actually collect a salary?

      • William George
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        Unfortunately, he went to India in the 1970s when he was 19 or 20 to go study under one of those slippery eels with the long beard who go sit up on a hill dispensing “wisdom” to young people who liked The Beatles Sgt. Pepper era a bit too much.

        Despite working in a field that demands a lot of science from him, he’s managed to integrate the typical Maharishi “one does not exist because we can divide the one into two” type of stuff into his training.

        Afterwards I thought of asking him to show us how to get back to the hotel with the GPS he always has on him, but it was too late by that point.

    • Sastra
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      “Atheism is just faith in human reason.”

      Well, if we encountered a good, well-supported reason to throw reason out, then I suppose we’d do so.

      But wait! Isn’t that being rational? Oh, dear.

      Looks like we’re stuck.

      I’ve always been rather fond of citing what’s been called The Fallacy of the Stolen Concept. That’s when you use a concept, idea, or premise in order to try to undermine that same concept, idea, or premise. No can do. That’s cheating.

      Like making a reasoned argument against reason, or using English to explain why you can’t understand a word of English. If you can only make your point by using the very thing you’re denying, then that’s not some deep problem within the concept. That’s theft.

      Of course, it sounds like your friend is really just using good old Fallacy of Equivocation. Pragmatic reliance which is falsifiable is not the same as a moral commitment to believe no matter what. Plus, atheists don’t assume humans are infallible because reason works.

      • William George
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

        I’ll have to use this next time. Thanks.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted July 22, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

        Ranting against reason, he slipped in one very reasonable statement: “Subsequent investigation has since demonstrated that such theories are scientifically worthless.”

        Just call hum Each-way Gray.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted July 22, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

          him

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      Send your friend here to do some reading.

      • William George
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

        But you guys have that “faith” as well, see?

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

          But our faith is the one true faith. That is, the faith based on what is most likely true. Our creed comes from revelations that come only from holy observation, and the blessed reproducible result.
          In the story of Jesus, I can tell you that my favorite character is Thomas who doubted that Jesus had died and was now resurrected. He needed to see proof to support the extraordinary claim.

          • William George
            Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:44 am | Permalink

            I believe it was N.D.T. that said something along the lines of “I have faith [in science] in the same way I have faith the sun will come up tomorrow: The body of evidence supports the idea.”

            I agree with this.

  6. Kathy
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I think he sounds like a crank. He hates humanity.

    • Kevin
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      I agree, there is nothing appealing in his arguments and Jerry easily dismantled the hubris and insanity of his propositions.

      It is a perplexing argument Gray makes. It makes me wonder if there is some suggestion that there is an agenda behind it. Maybe a religious friend of Gray’s managed to be his only inspiration for ideas and he wants to tell the world that inspiration can come from places that he thinks atheists are unwilling to look.

      The main lesson that Gray needs to uncover is that most atheists search for answers in places that he does not conceive of at all. And the truth remains: science and reason find answers, not faith.

  7. Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Appalling. There are limitations to human reasoning, and so on. They are well worth studying, and some we can even improve upon to some degree – e.g., teaching logic. But none of that is discussed by Gray.

  8. eric
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that “humanity” can use science to remake the world.

    The world looks pretty remade to me already, Prof. Grey. You are giving interviews on BBC, which get sent worldwide for people to see and hear, instantaneously, and to download on their computers. Do you think this human lifestyle is similar to how we lived before science?

    • Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, that line just leaped out at me, and I found it hard to continue reading. Has he ever heard of physical geography? And as you pointed out, the very medium that he is using to espouse his nonsense. I’m glad I just got a buzz cut or I’d be pulling my hair out.

  9. eric
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God.

    Headline: Man goes on internet, says no reason to believe human science can build things like the internet.

  10. eric
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    being reasonable means accepting that many human problems aren’t actually soluble, and our persistent irrationality is one of these problems. At its best, religion is an antidote against the prevailing type of credulity – in our day, a naive faith in the boundless capacities of the human mind.

    So, believe in an entity without evidence because doing so prevents you from being too credulous? Prof. Grey, that doesn’t help fix persistent irrationality, it is persistent irrationality.

    • Sastra
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Who the HELL has a “naive faith in the boundless capacities of the human mind?” Boundless? All problems will be solved? Humans will all be completely rational ’cause that’s our nature? I want Gray to cite someone.

      If he has a quote it’s probably either a science fiction writer, a transhumanist, or some anonymous poster on the internet.

      • eric
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        As an anonymous poster on the internet, I resent the implication that I would say something that stupid. 🙂

        • Jeffery
          Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          If I DID have a, “naive faith in the boundless capacity of the human mind”, I’d probably be happier and a lot more hopeful as regards the future of the human race an our planet.

      • gluonspring
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps he could point to those with a bit too much faith that all problems can be solved with science, technology, etc. I’ve known a few. Perhaps there is some value to an occasional bout of humility: what if there isn’t a technological fix to global warming? What do we do then? What is our backup plan? But that’s just arguing for using more reason, for honing your reasoning and not letting yourself get sucked into an unreasoned faith that technology will pop out a solution just when it’s needed. It’s an argument for being careful, in favor of Feynman’s assertion that fooling yourself is the easiest thing to do. That’s not an argument for abandoning reason.

        The cure he is suggesting for hubris is like the bullet cure for a headache. It might solve the named malady but…

        • Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          “What if there isn’t a technological fix to global warming? What do we do then? What is our backup plan?”

          Well, we could sacrifice a goat (or a child) or pray I guess. That would be religion’s answer.

          Dang, we sure can’t rely on reason, can we?

          I take your point that humility is useful. Politicians are not notable practitioners of humility, unfortunately.

        • Scientifik
          Posted July 21, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          The technology to fix the global warming is already here (electric cars, fuel-cell cars, wind farms, solar panels, etc), it’s just not widely distributed yet.

        • eric
          Posted July 21, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps there is some value to an occasional bout of humility

          Agreed. However, adopting a belief that the universe has a human-like creator that loves you and is personally looking out for you, without any evidence, does not seem to me the sort of belief that would instil humility.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        It is projection, perhaps.

        Whatever it is, if this philosopher really thinks that a significant number of atheists believe what he attributes to them, he is not worth talking to because he either doesn’t have a clue, or is merely trying to be nasty to those he doesn’t like.

  11. Greg Esres
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    his essay uses reason to try to convince people that reason doesn’t work well for convincing people!

    Yes, and uses it poorly.

    Reason is the only tool that humans have to make decisions…we can either do it right or do it wrong.

  12. Ben
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    It’s always about the “limitations” of science. As opposed to what? religion? Give me a break. If what Gray proposed in Straw Dogs – that Christianity’s “one true god” and its subsequent search for truth gave rise to atheism, then what is he advocating now? I think he wants people to run around in circles while he watches and gets his jollies. No thanks. I hope this is just some money-grubbing publicity stunt. Otherwise, he’s lost his mind.

  13. The Militant One
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    In a way he is correct – reason does not work well to convice faithheads that their nonsense is just that – nonsense. If they had the ability to reason and think critically and understand what evidence is, they wouldn’t believe nonsense in the first place.

    • Sastra
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      It doesn’t work well — but it works better than doing nothing. Reason also works better than explaining that faith is a lovely way of knowing.

      The faitheists mean one thing when they say that; the believers mean another. And then the first group thinks they’ve discovered common ground.

      • Jeffery
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        You can explain faith through reason; you can’t explain reason through faith.

  14. Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    If I were to criticize science, it would be for putting dynamite and matches in the hands of children. Ancient religions were limited pretty much to retail killing. Science has enabled mass production.

    If I were trying to put the best possible face on this kind of screed, I would paraphrase it as saying we have become too soon smart and too late wise.

    In response to my own argument, I would point out that scientists are well aware of the problem. But science remains a genie out of the bottle, fulfilling our wishes, whether we want it to or not.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      However it is frequently the prejudices that become endemic in society because of the influence of religion that prevents wisdom. For example, while there are still literally billions of people who believe in supernatural interference in our world, there’s a lot more focus on prayer than research. If that changed even a little bit, there would be plenty of funding to go around.

    • Posted July 21, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Your 1st sentence is a nice metaphor for politicians.

  15. eric
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Last post for now, as I am in danger of violating da roolz…

    The reasons for this bad philosophy, and for the denigration of the very values that underlie Gray’s discipline, are beyond me; they lie deep in the murky waters of psychology and upbringing.

    I don’t think it’s that deep. The changes in University funding over the past 20-50 years has generaly favored the sciences and short-shrifted the humanities. Most humanities professors resent that because the think it undervalues their disciplines (for the record, I mostly agree). But some go the extra step and blame science/scientists for it. Rather than seeing the situation as a positive sum game, where if the departments work together they might squeeze more funding out of the administration for everyone, they instead see it as a zero sum game and attempt to denigrate the sciences because they see them as competing for the same limited pool of resources. This is nothing deeper than “I must tear down my academic resource competitor.”

    • Gordon
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      The biggest competitor for academic resources isn’t other disciplines but rather increasingly bloated central administrations.

      • Posted July 21, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

        …and political cronies who see in the exploding costs of a university education an opportunity to ignore the the fact you have pointed out and instead push a privatization scam that will enrich them and starve the faculty and students to an even greater extent.

  16. Tulse
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    You wouldn’t trust revelation and dogma to fix your car, cure your disease, or purify your water.

    Unfortunately, as we all know, there are indeed people who rely on dogma for health care, although I doubt that Gray is one of them.

  17. Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Isn’t there a TV Trope about the “straw-rationalist” or something? We really don’t need to respond to this stream of poop with anything more than a link to that.

    Ah, here we go: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StrawVulcan

    • Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Straw-man rationalist at best are Aspergers people (those I know call themselves aspies) or, at worst, malign sociopaths.

      Spock and Sherlock Holmes are examples of the former. Generic mad scientists, the latter.

  18. John Robinson
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    It’s fairly simple. Gray, in his popular press articles, I make no comment on his academic work, has been bashing the Enlightenment and the Whig version of history, as an ever progressive arc, for twenty years or more. Ultimately all of his popular output reverts to this one theme. The problem he has with science is that it is perhaps the one area of human endeavour which really does seem progressive, and this appears to make him a bit grumpy with it, as it really doesn’t fit his main hypothesis that progress is an illusion. All other topics lead back to this with Gray.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      I wonder if Mr. Gray has a mental portrait of himself locked away safe from view in the attic of his mind?

      That would explain his love for the status quo.

      • papalinton
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        Shouldn’t that read: “That would explain his love for the static quo.”? After all it seems Gray is largely about generating inert ideas,

    • eric
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      So first he wrote books about progress being an illusion, allowing those ideas to be considered by anyone who bought his books.

      Then he did radio interviews about progress being an illusion, allowing those ideas to be considered by anyone who listened to the radio program.

      After that, he went on BBC and talked about how progress is an illusion, allowing those ideas to be considered by the still greater crowd that watches TV.

      And then finally, he puts his idea that progress is an illusion out on the internet, allowing those ideas to be considered by still more people who can access it there.

      No doubt that if some scientist discovers telepathy technology, Prof. Gray will use it to beam “progress is an illusion” directly into our brains.

      • gluonspring
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, you made me laugh there.

      • Posted July 21, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        Nice progression

      • Marella
        Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

        I wonder what he thinks about Steven Pinker’s recent book? “The Better Angels of Our Nature”

  19. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    It is reason that shows us where we went wrong in history and enables us to avoid making the same mistakes again. Non-religious people recognize the folly of, for example, religious practices that demand the denigration of particular parts of society, and eventually religions slowly catch up. Religion prevents the social advancement of society.
    The practices of religions also slow scientific advancement. There are the obvious ones like preventing the spread of knowledge, one of the most famous being the Church’s treatment of Galileo. Then there’s their forbidding of practices like anatomy, which held back medical advances for so long.
    Much of the hatred practiced within, towards and between different sections of humanity would be gone without the beliefs imposed by religion, beliefs that reason has shown us are irrational.
    Imo, John Gray demonstrates here that he lacks the ability to reason. He seems to have decided the answer he wants before doing the reasoning instead of after.

    • Posted July 21, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      To hear the faithful and their familiars tell it, the religious way of knowing is not at all a motive behind any of the things you mention – except for education, it has always been about that.

      The words of Buddy Jebus are being cynically twisted by those taking advantage of the temper of the times.

      However, this cynicism has seemed to persuade through the ages.

  20. Scientifik
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Interestingly, this trash BBC article comes shortly after their staff was reportedly told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes.

    I guess they already found a way around the new policy: We can’t invite pseudo-scientific cranks anymore. But we still can invite philosopher cranks who bash science and reason, HA!

    • eric
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      If it comes shortly after that, it was probably arranged and set up months before that. IOW, maybe he was grandcrank claused in.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      This is good news, and I hope that other news outlets do likewise. It reminds me of the recent skit on John Olivers’ Last Week Tonight, where he had 3 climate change deniers debate 97 scientists that argued that climate change is caused by humans. Now that is ‘fair and balanced’!

      On a different note, I do not see that the BBC site allows reader comments.

  21. Jeffrey Jones
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    “And I’m surprised that the BBC would publish this sort of stuff.”
    Unfortunately, Jerry, the BBC is very fond of religion. They won’t even allow an atheist or humanist to have say in their execrable “Thought of the Day” every morning.

    • Jeffery
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      What else would you expect from a nation of “Chair-worshipers?”

    • Celtic Atheist
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      The BBC is also obsessed with “balance”. Strangely that never seems to apply to their nauseating coverage of the royal family.

  22. Steve Gerrard
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Sorry, he can’t have it both ways. To the extent we are irrational, we reject this sort of argument because it is reasoned; to the extent we are rational, we reject its premises as false. And we can still learn about hubris from the Greek myths, without giving up on reason.

  23. Ken Pidcock
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    But they can be more or less truthful to human experience

    Let’s just leave the words truth and truthful out of this, shall we? Those words have specific meanings that you are trying to avoid, so why not just avoid them?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Because he is attempting to deceive by using ambiguous language.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      I think ‘truthiness’ and ‘truthy’ would go well here.

  24. H.H.
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Yet another faitheist who confuses art for religion. Yes, myths and stories have a profound impact on people. But that’s true for all types of fiction, not just the religious kind.

    More importantly, Gray blurs the distinction between subjective and objective truths. Fictional stories can indeed be “more or less truthful to human experience,” but it is flat wrong to then call these fictions “true.” A fiction which “rings true” or “feels true” is still a fiction.

  25. Sastra
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Just as you don’t have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don’t have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.

    Well, this is an interesting quote. He’s comparing, say, students who answer the test questions correctly on an evolution exam and yet firmly believe in creationism … to nonbelievers who use Bible stories to illustrate secular values and yet use this as support for Christianity.

    Fair enough. Liars, both of them.

    But it’s okay. Because they’re blending in successfully and making it look like harmony.

  26. Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Maybe he’s trying to play devil’s advocate. There is some value in ensuring that people are always willing to evaluate their own reasoning. If you become too comfortable with your own ability to reason, it could become too easy to cherry pick facts to support it. It think that realizing our fallibility is the best way to avoid falling victim to it.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Yeah, but in that case wouldn’t it be a bit closer to home to actually come up with some valid criticisms?

      There’s a few leaps between questioning blind faith in science and reason and actually declaring them unreasonable.

      It’s a silly deepity to declare reason as unreasonable just like it’s silly to declare war as peaceful.

      This philospher is playing the part of the devil’s advocat poorly if that was his intention.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      That is true. It is recognition of our fallibility that has driven the evolution of the methods of science. Accounting for human fallibility is, in a nutshell, all that science is.

      Have some scientists still been arrogant pricks? Oh yes indeed. The method only has good results if enough scientists abide sufficiently by the tenents of the scientific method.

      So, yes, it is sensible to remind of our fallibility. But it is disingenuous, or perhaps merely ignorance, for him to suggest that a lack of recognition of human fallibility is a problem especially for science.

      But, I don’t buy it anyway, him just playing devil’s advocate.

  27. Jonathan Dore
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    John Gray is one of the tedious legions of contemporary Jeremiahs who start whining when their professional pessimism is affronted by some actual data.

  28. Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Gray: Humans have learned nothing.

    Me: The Library of Congress. Q.E.D.

  29. JimV
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I think reason is an evolutionary process, involving somewhat random idea generation, selection according to what works and what doesn’t work, and memory to preserve what works for further incremental improvement. However, the memory apparatus (e.g., genes, in the case of biological evolution) is not perfect, so mistakes get repeated, and parts of recorded history are myths. This might even be an unfortunate consequence of a necessary feature since a bad idea in one environment might be a good idea in another.

    Off hand, I can’t think of any system which is guaranteed to work better averaged over all possible environments. There is a mathematical theorem about random searches which I think supports this view.

    In short, human reason isn’t perfect (and probably can’t be in a complex universe of unknowns), but is the best tool we have. The alternative is madness.

    For those who prefer madness, science has an answer. I propose a Church of Lobotomy, to take away their reasoning and leave them happier. No doubt Mr. Gray would be a willing member.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      There is a thread of recurrent history in our species. We inherently distrust strangers and covet resources for example, so we still have war. I think that is the sort of thing that Gray was trying to get at, although he did it very badly by using a very large brush, painting all of humanity in this manner. Jerry completely demolished him. Your points too are important — summarized as reason is all that we have. Even when a population does bad things, they do it b/c they think they have reason to.

  30. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    My impression is that Gray considers humans to be forever ‘broken’ and irredeemably beyond repair, so let ’em succor themselves with religion. Well, it is Gray who seems broken, at least on this subject, and given his long history of churning out this stuff he may never be repaired.
    On a different note, he seems to be one of the regular contributors of editorials for BBC News Magazine, writing on a variety of topics. I do not know how well he operates beyond the realm of atheist bashing.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I suppose the atheist-bashing of arrogant pundits like Gray derives from their claim that we’re disbelieving for the wrong reasons.

    Which is doubly ironic here, when Gray says

    “Just as you don’t have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don’t have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.”

    and promptly falls off his big horse.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      Um, tall horse.

  32. revelator60
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Gray is a very popular figure at the moment–he appeals to the masochism of otherwise intelligent readers who are disgusted with humanity and modern times.

    Being a former Thatcherite, he seems to have carried “there is no society” forward to “there is no progress.” His message is one of pretentious complacency–humanity is awful and has never done anything right, reason is crock, and the only thing we can do is accept it. Conveniently for him, the best way to do so is to buy his books! He is preaches doing nothing and feeling superior about it.

    If Gray was serious about his philosophy he would go off and become a hermit, instead of helping himself to all the benefits of reason and progress while badmouthing them.

  33. Martin Wilson
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for covering this story Jerry.

    I live in the UK and I was happily doing housework whilst listening to Radio 4 and this blithering idiot came on the radio. I can’t recall getting so angry at the radio in a very long time. To truly get a feel for Gray’s idiocy you really need to listen to him spouting this rubbish. He is an insufferably smug sod and I cannot believe that he is an atheist as he comes across as a truly devout creationist evangelical twerp.
    Right, having got that off my chest I’m going to sit down and have a cup of tea.

    Possibly an Earl Grey.

    • Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      He really comes across as more smug than THAT on the radio? Wow, he’s like the Wayne Gretzky of smugness.

  34. Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    “But clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits.”

    Well yes, but that’s exactly the problem with religion and superstition, not science, which *does* take account of evidence. In fact it is precisely why we need science and rational thinking in the first place…

  35. Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    “Myths aren’t relics of childish thinking”

    Nope, nothing childish about a guy hanging out inside of a whale. Nothing childish about smearing lamb’s blood on the door to tell the Angel of Death, “Hey, don’t kill MY son.” And there is absolutely, positively nothing childish about magical underpants. Amen.

  36. Diane G.
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Sounds to me like Gray is declaring that “some people never learn to think critically” leads to the conclusion “therefore reason is insufficient.”

    I thought philosophers were supposed to think better than that.

  37. mknine
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    what’s so great about the green revolution? We went from 2 billion people with a starving portion to 7.5 billion with an even larger portion starving.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      During the 1960s we were being told that world population growth was a ticking time bomb, and that by this time there would be significant food shortages in even the developed world. Countries like India would suffer crushing famine, and other populous parts of the world would be far worse. I am old enough to remember it, and I can tell you it was yet another scary thing, right alongside the very serious cold war.
      The green revolution was a series of advances in agriculture that increased crop yields significantly, and staved off the world wide food shortage. The rate of increase in population growth has also slowed (thank d*g), and that also contributed to resolution of the problem, but we are not out of the woods yet.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted July 22, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        We are nearly out of woods, forests, and other self-sustaining and resource-rich natural areas. The pond is nearly covered in lilypads. The green revolution got us here faster, and there’s a wall…

    • GBJames
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      The problem isn’t (wasn’t) the green revolution, it was the failure of public policy to get a handle on population growth.

  38. keith Phillips
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I heard the broadcast and his views seem consistent with those expressed in his book Straw Dogs, in which he makes it clear that he is not saying that progress is an illusion, but that faith in progress is. His argument is that the ability of reason to overcome the less desirable aspects of human nature can be argued for, but the notion that this is inevitable and non-reversible is a faith position.

    I don’t think he is saying that reason doesn’t work, or that it isn’t the best way to find things out about the world. He is saying that there are other means to help us think and feel about the world, like various forms of fiction and metaphor, including religion. Those who think reason can solve some of our emotionally eruptive existential problems are mistaken in Gray’s view, as I understand it.

    I am an atheist and I think plenty of us do not evince the sort of naive scientism that seems to be Gray’s target, so I do think he has a charge of straw-manning to answer, but by the same token, looking at this thread as an example, so have his opponents.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 12:03 am | Permalink

      His argument is that the ability of reason to overcome the less desirable aspects of human nature can be argued for, but the notion that this is inevitable and non-reversible is a faith position.

      So who’s he directing this criticism of blind faith at and who’s guilty of possesing it?

      I don’t think he is saying that reason doesn’t work, or that it isn’t the best way to find things out about the world. He is saying that there are other means to help us think and feel about the world, like various forms of fiction and metaphor, including religion. Those who think reason can solve some of our emotionally eruptive existential problems are mistaken in Gray’s view, as I understand it.

      Ironically in that case Gray is guilty of blind faith in the insurmountability of human existential questions.

      Or guilty of blind faith in other ways of knowing.

      In other words, he assumes too much and it shows.

      • Keith Phillips
        Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:12 am | Permalink

        As for who he is criticising, an example is Steven Pinker, have a look at the link posted in a comment below.

        What evidence do you have that Gray’s position on the limitations of science is inspired by faith?

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:39 am | Permalink

          I haven’t read Pinker, but I gather the data he is using for his hypothesis is sound. From what I’ve seen Gray doesn’t offer refutation to the numbers used by Pinker, but complain that the conclusion is faulty.

          So what remains open for interpretation is the cause of decline not the effect.

          What evidence do you have that Gray’s position on the limitations of science is inspired by faith?

          From Gray: “Evolutionary psychology is in its infancy, and much of what passes for knowledge in the subject is not much more than speculation—or worse. There have been countless attempts to apply evolutionary theory to social life but, since there is no mechanism in society comparable to natural selection in biology, they have produced only a succession of misleading metaphors, in which social systems are mistakenly viewed as living organisms. Indeed, if there is anything of substance to be derived from an evolutionary view of the human mind, it must be the persistence of unreason.”

          What data about the future ( let’s ignore his claims about the present here ) of the field of evolutionary psychology does Gray have access to that allows him to reach such an absolute statement/conclusion?

          Reason?

          • Keith Phillips
            Posted July 22, 2014 at 6:33 am | Permalink

            I agree that Gray does not directly challenge Pinker’s data, but he does not think they support the hypothesis. This seems to me to be a reasonable criticism.

            Did you mean to say “…cause of decline…”

            On evolutionary psychology, Gray’s statement is a conditional rather than an absolute, and he sets out his argument in the paragraphs following the one you quoted. So, reason yes. But he never said we were incapable of that.

            Data about the future seems an odd concept. Who has that? You know any oracles?

            • Posted July 22, 2014 at 6:43 am | Permalink

              The criticism is only reasonable if the data don’t support Pinker’s hypothesis. There’s another link below that does, and you’d be foolish to claim that Western society, at least, hasn’t become more “moral” in terms of not approving so much of slavery and mistreatment of children, women, and animals. Do you think society hasn’t improved on this issue, as Pinker claims, with data. Since you seem to KNOW the data, could you give us the counterevidence (and not just link to a cherry=picked group of critics)?

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted July 22, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

              I agree that Gray does not directly challenge Pinker’s data, but he does not think they support the hypothesis. This seems to me to be a reasonable criticism.

              Well, that depends on whether you think Gray follows the data to where it leads or not. He doesn’t offer any new facts to support his conclusions and didn’t just leave his criticism at “inconclusive”.

              If his point simply is that he thinks we put too much reason in science and reason, then fine. But given the success rate of both endeavours that just comes off as rather childish and silly.

              In other words, by what reason should we trust in his confidence in religion and other ways of knowing as sources of objective truth and common progress?

              What method do you prefer?

              On evolutionary psychology, Gray’s statement is a conditional rather than an absolute, and he sets out his argument in the paragraphs following the one you quoted. So, reason yes. But he never said we were incapable of that.

              No, he just claims it’s temporary. He does however claim that evolutionary science can say nothing about the human mind except that it’s unreasonable.

              That sounds fairly conclusive to me, but of course there’s always the option of reservations of various kinds.

              Data about the future seems an odd concept. Who has that? You know any oracles?

              Yes. Very odd. Which is why I wonder how Gray reaches his conclusions unless they’re faith-based.

              What knowledge from other ways of knowing does Gray use to reach his none-faith-based opinions about human nature?

              To me it very much looks like Gray is guilty of the very thing he tries to criticise.

              And again, who is it exactly that holds the opinion that progress( however we choose to define it ) is inevitable?

              I’ve never seen Pinker make such a statement.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted July 22, 2014 at 3:02 am | Permalink

          Speaking of numbers, here’s a short take on the facts.

          http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/jul/21/stu-burguiere/fewer-wars-fewer-people-dying-wars-now-quite-some/

    • Posted July 22, 2014 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      I’ve asked that you not use ad hominem arguments against the other readers. Further, who, exactly, are you saying is guilty of naive scientism? Be specific, because those accusations are never supported with citations?

  39. Posted July 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Gray strikes me as a victim of “two-valued” thinking: either/or, saved/lost, rational/irrational, all/nothing. He cannot see the vast middle ground of partial success, intermittent reasonableness.

    Gray writes: “Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy.” But applied science changes the world daily, hourly, every second. Whether the world will be “saved” by anything humans can or may do remains to be seen. Although the application of religion has done poorly to date, it’s failure likewise cannot yet be claimed because, again, “saving” is an event yet to be seen. Perhaps “saving” will be a long-drawn-out affair, taking centuries, or millennia. If so, science will certainly be involved.

    Gray writes: “…one of the things we know for sure is that we’re not rational animals.” This is two-valued thinking at its worst. We’re not entirely rational, we’re not entirely irrational. Most humans have the ability to reason: fewer have the ability to act on reason; fewer still can act reasonably when a powerful emotion arises; no one utilizes reason or behaves rationally all the time.

    Gray commits many more two-valued fallacy errors. Apparently he’s a good writer yet a sloppy thinker and forgets he’s dealing with a highly social yet imperfect species of animal.

    • Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Lots of postmodernists wrote this way too – “science is fallible so therefore it is just bourgois posturing/phallocentric/academic games/etc.” An extreme case of the “perfect is the enemy of the good” fallacy/mishap.

  40. DrBrydon
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think as an atheist that I am look for science to “save the world” or that guide us in how to “remake the world.” Of course, if I did, I sure wouldn’t turn to religion, who attempts to do those things have been as blood-drenched as similar “secular” programs. The danger in such attempts is people who think they absolutely know the right answers, and that those who don’t line up with them are “sinners” or on the wrong side of “history.”

    • DrBrydon
      Posted July 21, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      Wow, I really made a hash of that first sentence. Both science and religion failed me. Too bad there is no third way.

  41. Posted July 21, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for the length but I sometimes get miffed when myths are maligned.

    It is deeply ironic that Gray – as the proponent of myths – fails to recognize the essential symbolic role supernatural critters and magical objects play in myths. When religions co-opt these symbols and then invests belief in their literal and historical existence, religions actually nullify the teaching value of myths because they’ve destroyed its central message! These supernatural critters and magical objects are necessary to alert the listening, later reading, later watching, audience that here is something recognizable in ourselves or in our interactions with the real world that we cna learn about without having to directly experience it. I think the narrative form we call ‘myth’ is ideally suited to teaching us in our very own symbolic dream language.

    Gray – like far too many otherwise educated people – goes along with the travesty/charade that religions own their mythology (atheists very often use the term ‘myth’ to mean a ‘lie’, which is very much a modern day use of the term. (Of course the stories contain non literal, non historical, supernatural and magical beasties (may the Force be with you!); that’s what makes them myths!)

    At every turn we find compelling evidence that the myths too many of us mistakenly attribute to various religions have been stolen from host cultures and put to work in a way never intended… usually with a religious interpretation that simply makes no sense without some sophisticated rewriting using nebulous and ineffable pious terms.

    I would think that any philosopher worth the title would recall that Plato ends his Republic with a myth, which is a pretty good hint at its accepted role at that time: not because the myth is ‘true’ (or truly representative of actual agencies and critters) but because it is a way – meaningful and very effective way – to symbolically represent what is being revisited and reinforced, namely, the entire point of the Republic (I’ll bet almost everyone here has forgotten the Myth of Er or failed to seriously question why it was the concluding chapter in such a seminal work). And it’s got absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with religion or actual and active supernatural agencies causing effect in the world, for crying out loud.

    • Keith Phillips
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:24 am | Permalink

      Perhaps Gray thinks that myths are robust enough to survive religious transmission? He also does point out that you don’t treat myths as literally true in order to gain the insights they offer. So maybe he has followed the anthropological evidence on religion and adopts a non cognitivist stance. My point is that your criticisms make some assumptions about Gray’s position for which I’ve seen no evidence, and other assumptions are available.

      • Posted July 22, 2014 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        Robust enough? What are you talking about?

        You can’t steal a perfectly good myth and then twist it into a religious myth to gain equivalent insight. Gray is incorrect to suggest this is possible, that religious myths do this job of offering equivalently useful insight.

        They don’t because they can’t!

        Why can’t they?

        It has nothing to do with the myth being ‘robust’ enough (whatever that might mean in faitheist theo-speak). It has everything to do with altering the myth’s symbolic representation of human themes (that we relate to on a personal level) into symbolic representations of divine themes (that we can know nothing about)! What we get with religious myths is a divinely sanctioned southern product of a north-facing male bovine.

        This twisting of symbolic meaning perverts the myth’s purpose and turns it into a bizarre account of what many religious adherents then claim is a divinely revealed literal and historical account.

        This is exactly what we see in practice and Gray should know this.

        For example, in most cases of POOF!ed-into-existence-by-a-divine-creator myth stolen and perverted to support a particular religious framework, the creation myth is irrevocably altered by this substitution. Symbols about human themes are misinterpreted using the religious meaning assigned to them not to teach us about ourselves, which is what myths do if they are to offer us insight, but to teach us about this supposed God. That’s not what myths do. This is what religions claim to do. Confusing the two is not a sign of academic rigor or intellectual honesty but a capitulation to religious privilege based on ignorance.

        That switching of symbolic meaning from human to divine is the the fundamental perversion that utterly destroys the myth’s usefulness at revealing ourselves to ourselves. That’s why the theft by religion of a perfectly good creation myth is necessarily a perversion that destroys the myth’s teaching value Gray claims on religion’s behalf for another way of knowing.

    • Joe
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 4:59 am | Permalink

      Thanks for that, the myth business is my only quibble with this piece, too.

    • Posted July 22, 2014 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Tildeb, let me say two things. First, you are right about the importance of myth, and it seems to me that Jerry misses this point. But, second, you do not seem to understand how myth has traditionally functioned. You complain that “When religions co-opt these symbols and then invests belief in their literal and historical existence, religions actually nullify the teaching value of myths because they’ve destroyed its central message!” But, surely, myths function in precisely this way, by being owned by a people for whom it is in some sense exemplary for their lives as a people. One of the most significant uses of myth is to make a people’s common life intelligible to themselves. The reason myths come to be taken literally is because superadded to the myth there has been (as, for example, with Christianity) a rational dimension. The old question, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? is crucial. Myths come to be cashed in in terms of semi-literal rational descriptions, not because those things are essential to the myths, but because another dimension of people’s lives is the aspect of reason and rational-scientific understanding of the world. In the effort to make these two very different approaches to world, life and human community consistent, myth begins to take on the character of rational argument. Hence certain forms of theology. But if you look at myth in animist traditions, or everyday Hinduism, for example, there is no real attempt to understand the myths in terms of everyday common-sense reality. When Jerry insists on being told the truths that myths convey, he is asking for a translation of myth in rational terms, which in fact destroys myth. One of the dangerous things today is, by destroying our myths, a task which is, for the West, almost complete, we leave the door wide open for any other myth that takes people’s fancy. Hence New Age religions, as well as some indication that the myths of Islam are making inroads in the West, especially since we have destroyed our own myths. So, if myths are important to self-understanding (which I suspect they are), by destroying our own myths we may in fact have left room for myths which are far more destructive. At least Christianity was adapting to the scientific world view, but if you take that adaptation and call it prevarication (as so many new atheists do who want to be rid of myths altogether), what are the options for those for whom mythical understanding is important (as it was for the super-idealist rationalism of Plato)?

      How Gray conceives of religious myth is very clear in what he tells us about Graham Greene’s conversion to Catholicism. Here it is from his Point of View piece entitled “Can Religion tell us more than Science?”:

      When he recounts the story of his conversion to Catholicism in his autobiography A Sort of Life, Graham Greene writes that he went for instruction to Father Trollope, a very tall and very fat man who had once been an actor in the West End.
      Trollope was a convert who became a priest and led a highly ascetic life, and Greene didn’t warm to him very much, at least to begin with.
      Yet the writer came to feel that in dealing with his instructor he was faced with “the challenge of an inexplicable goodness”. It was this impression – rather than any of the arguments the devout Father presented to the writer for the existence of God – that eventually led to Greene’s conversion.
      The arguments that were patiently rehearsed by Father Trollope faded from his memory, and Greene had no interest in retrieving them. “I cannot be bothered to remember,” he writes. “I accept.”
      It’s clear that what Greene accepted wasn’t what he called “those unconvincing philosophical arguments”. But what was it that he had accepted?
      We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don’t believe. It’s an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism.</blockquote?

      The point, to make it clear once again, is that it is the myth that is important, not the rationalisation of the myth. Now, I don't carry a brief for John Gray, and, indeed, as Jerry points out, his use of reason to undermine reason suffers from circularity. But, of course, this is no more circular than trying to defend science by pointing to science. Science, it is said, is true because it works — that is, it delivers propositions confirmable by science. But this is clearly circular. Like all attempts to limit the scope of knowledge, it inevitably issues in propositions which cannot themselves be verified by that privileged form of knowledge. So, when someone says, as Jerry does, that

      By truths, [Gray] means “truths about human experience,” some of which can indeed be verified empirically (i.e., “I got depressed when I was diagnosed with cancer:). But as is usual with critics of “scientism,” Gray neglects to mention any of these truths.

      I don’t think that the parenthetical example is what Gray has in mind. And, in demanding that Gray “mention” any of these truths, what Jerry is doing is in fact demanding that Gray reinterpret myths in rational form. And then, of course, they are no longer myths. And myths only provide an understanding of ourselves if they are taken seriously as somehow our stories, stories that explain who we are, and what it means to be human. The religious claim that science is no help in this department, and I am inclined to believe them. There are some, like Lloyd Geering in New Zealand, who think that we can express our religious stories in terms of modern cosmology. I’m not sure this is true, but it interesting at least to try, because this at least helps us to understand how myths work.

      As for some of the other things claimed here, that, for example, Pinker has showed that “it is reason that has led to the decline of violence on Earth,” there is absolutely no reason to believe that reason has done any such thing. For the period of the long peace it was mutually assured destruction that reduced widespread international violence, and kept wars small, isolated, and away from the West in particular. But we should remember that before the Great War there was also confidence that reason (in the form of liberal belief systems) was achieving a similar reign of peace, a confidence that was dashed to pieces on the Western Front and the trench warfare that claimed the lives of millions. There are some who are comparing the world situation today to the period before 1914, and there is no reason to believe that a similar conflagration (and perhaps a larger catastrophe) is not waiting in the wings. Russia’s resurgence, China increasingly flexing its military muscles, the tinderbox of the Middle East, the tension between India and Pakistan, even the increasing belief that Germany should once again don the mantel of a great power: are these just figments of imagination? John Gray may be an Eeyore figure, but is he completely wrong to express some anxiety about the contemporary illusion that science is capable of solving all our problems? (And, by the way, eugenics was not pseudo-science. It was not only widely held, but it could still be held on scientific grounds, had it not been for Nazi racial ideology. But eugenic practices survived into the 1960s in both Canada and the US. What is pseudo-scientific about it? It is used in the breeding of horses and cows and dogs; why not humans? That is not a scientific but a political and moral question.)

      • Posted July 22, 2014 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        “When Jerry insists on being told the truths that myths convey, he is asking for a translation of myth in rational terms, which in fact destroys myth.”

        Sort of like ESP, or religion, isn’t it, Eric? This is why you and others can never explain the “truths” that other ways of knowing tell us, for they can’t be explained “in rational terms.” They are “irrational truths.”

        • Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

          No, Jerry, not sort of like ESP or religion at all. What Gray says is that myths are “true to human experience,” not that they provide propositional knowledge. If scientific knowledge could do the trick, then myths would have no point. However, it seems that myths do have a point — how would you, scientifically, show that they do not (without begging the question, that is) — and therefore that there are “truths” that are not communicable in scientific propositions.

          You seem to miss the point about knowledge, thinking that knowledge must be propositional. You keep speaking about “ways of knowing,” but insisting that the only way of knowing is scientific, propositional knowledge based on empirical evidence. But there is all sorts of knowledge, as you must know. Moral truths, for example, cannot be proved propositionally or empirically. But anyone who suggested that, say, “flaying babies alive for fun,” is not immoral, simply does not know the meaning of the word ‘moral’. There are less obvious cases where there may be some dispute, but there are still core moral claims that make it clear that we can know that some things are morally wrong, and yet there is no empirical proof of those core moral values.

          In a similar way myths can be true to our experience, and can be considered true in such a way as to shape an entire culture and its practices. If you ask me what is true about those myths, all I can point to is the cultural practices in which the myths are held to be true to human experience. They work, as you say about science. They shape societies, sometimes entire civilisations. Suggesting that science is true to human experience in this sense is, as Gray points out, simply outlandish, however pragmatically true the propositions of science may be.

          And even scientists have to recognise the fact that the truths of science are dependent on our particular cognitive abilities. That is why Hawking speaks of “model dependent realism,” for our scientific knowledge is expressed in terms of (very often, but not always) mathematical models of how the phenomena behave, and in other ways scientific findings are expressed in terms of metaphors. The truths themselves are indeed dependent on the reliability of the modelling, and just working is not sufficient to ground their truth. Ptolemy’s astronomy worked at the time that it was formulated. Indeed, it worked better than Copernicus’. There is, for example, a fundamental contradiction in physics, and any theory that reconciles relativity with quantum mechanics will presumably (most likely) be a completely different model than we have now.

          The whole idea of truth and knowledge with which you are working is inadequate to ground the claims you make for it. Indeed, you must know that, just like Verificationism, your claim that all knowledge is scientific in fact is a contradiction, for that claim is not a scientific one. If the proposition “All knowledge is scientific” is true (that is, something we know), then not all knowledge is scientific. It’s that simple.

          • GBJames
            Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

            To say myths are “true to human experience” seems to me to say precisely nothing. In what sense might some human creation NOT be “true to human experience”? This is a meaningless concept.

            To point out that myths “shape society” is similarly unhelpful. All things communicated between members of society “shape society”. And to claim that the fact of some bit of communicated culture is equivalent to being a truthful description of the universe is just perverse. This claim can be made for any and all bits of communicated culture. There’s no there there.

          • Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

            I asked this to someone else previously, and I’ll try again: what theory of truth allows it to apply to non-sentence-esque things? How does it integrate with the sentence-esque things? Is it truth functional: e.g., what’s the truth of “((truth expressed by Hamlet) & (truth expressed by Triumph of the Will))”. Heck, what does that operator mean if “truth expressed by Hamlet” is not a proposition (sentence, statement, whatever)?

          • Vaal
            Posted July 22, 2014 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

            Eric,

            You keep speaking about “ways of knowing,” but insisting that the only way of knowing is scientific, propositional knowledge based on empirical evidence.

            I don’t see Jerry “insisting” that empirical forms of knowledge are the only type of knowledge. Rather I usually see him more carefully saying “in empirical matters, I can give you the justifications for how we apportion our beliefs, and
            there seems most people actually agree with this approach, using some version of it themselves, etc. Now, IF you are going to claim that there is Some Other Way Of Knowing things about the world, some other way of deciding one thing is true or not, then I’m going to ask you ‘how do you know that?”

            He’s not simply declaring scientific knowledge the only form of knowledge.
            He’s asking “ok, let’s see your theory.”
            What is your answer to “how do you know that?” And it’s a question you don’t seem willing to answer in any specific way, and neither do most of Jerry’s critics it seems.

            You may want to say “but you will just evaluate my claim of another way of knowing on your own empiricist/verificationist assumptions. Since it doesn’t meet the same criteria, so of course you won’t recognize it as knowledge.
            You’ve rigged the game and begged the question.”

            No. Such “other ways of knowing” aren’t being rejected on mere assumption of empiricism, but rather on a wider critique of overall epistemic coherence. In other words, most critics do not (and can not, really) dispute the empirical forms of knowledge (at the cost of making a hash out of science, and their own daily actions as well). But insofar as you want to say there are “other ways of knowing” then the question is: can you show both 1. An internally cogent theory for this way of knowing and, just as important, 2. how accepting this form of knowledge is CONSISTENT with your accepting the more rigorous empirical forms of knowledge as well. THAT is the log over which critics of New Atheists tend to trip, and it’s this lack of epistemic consistency that Jerry and others point out in their critiques on why religious belief and “knowledge” is incompatible with accepting science as a path to knowledge as well.

            The justifications for why you want to form hypotheses, test hypotheses, and take all sorts of precautions by accounting for or controlling variables, aren’t just some arbitrary rules of a game called “science.” They spring from the most fundamental problems of trying to know about reality. If you notice that A seems to be caused by both B and C, then the next time A occurs it follows that before you should have any confidence you “know” A was caused by B, you have to have some way of discerning that A was not caused by C instead (or less likely to have been caused by C). And as Jerry points out often, this type of empirical approach runs right through our daily life, looser and more informally in figuring out where we left our keys, to determining what might be causing the leak in the ceiling, to it’s most rigorous expression in the scientific method. Pragmatically speaking, you don’t have to use a scientific level of rigour to warrant your every single belief, but you ought to be consistent in recognizing where your belief lies in your hierarchy of empirical warrant. If your neighbour says he got a new job, that is consistent with what you know through general experience to be plausible,
            and does not challenge scientific knowledge. So it’s rational to accept his claim. If he says he created a perpetual motion machine, that would conflict both with everyday experience and would challenge our most rigorous (scientific) understanding of the world, and so we would want to bring our most rigorous method of inquiry to bear on such a cain before believing it.

            Given this, anyone saying there is some “other way of knowing about the world” that is not amenable to this line of empirical reasoning, will have to show how adopting this “way of knowing” is CONSISTENT with the type of epistemic responsibility we employ in science, and more informally when we want to “know things” in other areas of our daily life.

            The scientist whose conclusion has been shown to be based on shoddy control methods can’t just turn around and say “Ok, then the truth of my conclusion isn’t empirical knowledge, it’s another way of knowing, I’m calling it turquoise knowledge.” But does his mere declaring it “another way of knowing truth” MAKE it reasonable to rate his conclusion as knowledge? Why would we call that “knowledge” when we have demanded so much more care elsewhere in what we are going to call “knowledge?” It seems like epistemological chaos to just let anyone define whatever conclusion they want to be “true” or “knowledge” or “another way of knowing” without their having to show it’s consistency with the epistemic virtues we have acknowledge in our empirical version of “knowledge.”

            So it’s not just a question-begging argument against the type of knowledge you are proposing: if you can ever propose a clear, cogent theory of “other ways of knowing” to begin with, it can also be judged on how consistent you are being
            with accepting some form of empiricism as well. So far, I do not see even a coherent, articulated theory of “other ways of knowing” to begin with.

            Finally, the “verificationism is self-defeating” meme is a facile argument, a straw man. I’m not aware of anyone currently proposing the type of simplified, naive version of verificationism that would be susceptible to the level of refutation you have given. Most people arguing for some basic empirical approach to knowledge incorporate rationalism, reason, logic and a general underlying pragmatist concerns when justifying the empirical approach. A slogan like “if it’s not verifiable it’s not knowledge” does not deal with all the underlying justifications for the type of approach many new atheists seem to be converging on.

            • Posted July 22, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

              Very nicely articulated. Thanks for making the effort to make it so easily followed.

          • Vaal
            Posted July 22, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

            Eric,

            (cont’d from previous post)

            Come on GBJ, surely you have read novels, watched movies, etc., where what is said or depicted is simply not true to human experience.

            Yes, but what you seem to miss here is that the dispute comes down to on what basis are we deciding a novel or movie isn’t “true to life.” You seem to depict some free-floating, unhinged version of ‘direct knowledge’ or something. This is similar to the dispute about biblical morality. The Christian says “look, we can both read in the Bible that Jesus says love your neighbour and know that is wise.” Yes. But the question is on WHAT BASIS have we decided it is a wise, moral precept?
            Some Christians want to say it’s goodness resides in it’s being in God’s scripture – it’s good because they read it in the scripture. Whereas the atheist disputes this and says, no, you’ve misjudged the situation. Notice how you have cherry picked out only certain parts of the scripture as good dictates for your life, and rejected others. It’s clear, rather, that you have brought your own sense of morality, likely forged by the larger social forces in which you live, to the text. Hence the judge of what is good in the bible is you, and by extent the society which has formed your morality, it is not coming directly form the bible as you think it is.

            You, Eric, seem at this point to be like the Christian, wherein you are identifying “truths” in art and declaring that it is obvious that this is something you “know” via the art. Whereas we are saying “I don’t know about that, it seems to make more sense that you are recognizing what is “true” in a piece of art based on knowledge you have gained elsewhere, from empirical experience. And if that’s not the case, give a more cogent account of how you ‘know’ the truth just through the art, rather than just declaring it knowledge like a Christian declares the bible is obviously true and if you don’t agree you are just naive or deluded.”

            “John Wayne, for example, was a fairly wooden actor, not true to life at all.”

            Based on what? How do you know “false” from “true?” You seem only to be appealing to some inner subjective decision, or intuition, but surely you understand the problems with that, right? What about when I disagree?

            Take Tome Cruise. There are vociferous arguments about his acting ability, some people calling him a great actor and very convincing in many of his roles, whereas tons of people think he is as wooden and untrue to life as John Wayne.
            I myself always see Tom Cruise “acting” and never as natural or real, yet others have precisely the opposite “experience” of his acting.

            You accuse Jerry of allowing for contradictions in his worldview. Do you allow for such contradictions as “Tom Cruise’s acting is true to life” and “Tom Cruse’s acting is NOT true to life?” Can both be true if Jane thinks one ‘truth’ and John the other? If so, you’d be the one allowing contradiction. But if not, you clearly owe an explanation for HOW YOU DECIDE THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER of such disputes. You haven’t done this, only appealed to your personal intuitions.

            When John Gray deprecates the widespread worship of reason,

            But who is “worshipping reason” in the naive, utopian way you and Gray seem to be suggesting? No one I know, nor do I see it in the New Atheists. Every atheist I know acknowledges the obvious faults in humanity, including our reasoning, but we note that of all the options, emphasizing reason would seem to offer the best route forward. That is NOT to deny the role of subjectivity, emotion, art, love etc. These are the things we value, but what other than reason as a guide holds the most promise for our figuring out how to get what we want?

            “Tell the story in as simplistic and offensive way as you can and that is enough to deal with them.”

            And what you are doing here is precisely what you are accusing the atheist of: characterizing what atheists are doing in criticizing Christianity in the most reductive, straw-man version in order to knock it.

            I’m just amazed Eric, that you can make these arguments when you should be far more familiar with New Atheism than your posts portray. It’s like watching the New Atheists critics who over and over raise the straw man of “you only go after the most naive, fundamentalist versions of Christianity, as if that is Christianity itself.” Which utterly misses the New Atheist critique, especially Harris, which actually aims as much at the liberal “sophisticated” versions of Christianity just as much as the literalists, because the “sophisticated” versions are ultimately on no firmer ground and they rely on a level of special pleading for their own version of Christianity to the degree of giving licence to the fundies to do the same thing! That’s the whole critique! That the mushy-headed epistemology liberal Christians allow themselves is ultimately disarms them from having a truly consistent basis for pointing out the problems in fundamentalism.

            It’s not that New Atheists have only spoken to fundamentalist literalist beliefs – Jerry and other continually point to the claims of more sophisticated
            versions and say “Ok, if you want to say THAT about your beliefs – e.g. taking some portion metaphorically…HERE are the problems with taking that stance.” New Atheists are continually addressing various Christian interpretations, including the very ones you are defending here. It’s just a flat out mischaracterization (nicest way I can put it) to depict them as doing otherwise.

            (Sorry for the length…)

            Vaal

          • Vaal
            Posted July 22, 2014 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

            (Sorry for the mangled first paragraph. It should have read:

            I don’t see Jerry “insisting” that empirical forms of knowledge are the only type of knowledge. Rather I usually see him more carefully saying “In empirical matters, I can give you the justifications for how we apportion our beliefs, and
            it seems most people actually agree with this approach, using some version of it themselves in their daily lives, and also acknowledging the legitimacy of science. Now, IF you are going to claim that there is Some Other Way Of Knowing things about the world, some other way of deciding one thing is true or not, then I’m going to ask you ‘how do you know that?” )

      • Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        Eric, I said When religions co-opt these symbols and then invest belief in their literal and historical existence, religions actually nullify the teaching value of myths because they’ve destroyed its central message! You then commented But, surely, myths function in precisely this way, by being owned by a people for whom it is in some sense exemplary for their lives as a people. One of the most significant uses of myth is to make a people’s common life intelligible to themselves.

        No, myths don’t function in precisely this way!

        Look, I’m talking about the personal teaching value here of a public dream language: symbolic language inside a very specific kind of narrative. (I don’t like using the word ‘true’ or ‘truth’ value as if the insights gained from experiencing myths is somehow equivalent to understanding accurate models about the world that seem to work the same for everyone everywhere all the time.)

        The value of myths begins in its form: a narrative delivered publicly but encased in dream language – symbols that we MUST personalize to make personal sense of it. This is the important part: each of us invests our meaning (and most certainly NOT the meaning others insist we apply) into these human themes and, by doing so, only then can we experience the myth and learn without having to copy it in real life.

        By a religion assigning specific meaning to these symbols (rather than each of us doing it for ourselves), it destroys the form. This twisting of myths in the service of some religious narrative destroys the means by which we can experience it personally. Myths cannot be owned by ‘a people’ (and if they are, then we know they are not myths!) but made meaningful by each who experiences it regardless of culture or language or religious affiliation or gender or whatever. When someone or something else bullies their way into assigning specific meaning for specific symbols found in myths, then the process of recognizing wisdom of the myth is broken and the personal teaching value is destroyed. The myth’s teaching value cannot be attained by assigning religious meanings to the symbols. Doing so turns the myth into dogma.

        You’re right that each of us can find value in identifying our personal journey with common life with similar life journeys by others. But it is you who mistake how this done by mythology – it has to be a personal recognition of the human theme(s) we individually own but share with all others. As soon as a religion (or ‘a people’) assigns this meaning on our behalf, it severs the connection to the story as a myth. The myth is no longer a personal journey of discovery but a laid out fictional narrative like any other.

        As for the value of religious stories claimed to be myths, ‘these are not droids you seek’.

        • Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

          Tildeb. You may not like to use ‘true’ and ‘knowledge’ about what myths have to teach, but they apply there just as well as they do in the case of science, riding a bicycle, understanding music, interpreting a poem, providing an interpretation of historical events. As I said above to Jerry, truth and knowledge are far broader in their use and scope than their application in science. Indeed, the claim, as I said, that all truth is scientific, or all knowledge is scientific, if true, is false. That’s what we call a contradiction.

          You say, rather oddly:

          As soon as a religion (or ‘a people’) assigns this meaning on our behalf, it severs the connection to the story as a myth. The myth is no longer a personal journey of discovery but a laid out fictional narrative like any other.

          This is nonsense. Religion does not ‘assign a meaning on our behalf.’ It interprets myths, and we find ourselves in tune with the interpretation. That’s what happened to Graham Greene when he converted to Catholicism. It wasn’t done on his behalf. It was a worldview he could buy into. It’s just a bit silly to suppose that any of us can produce, on our own, a whole worldview that owes nothing to what has come before. Religions do not do things on our behalf, for, if we are religious, and belong to a particular religious tradition, we are a part of the community who share that worldview. What’s so strange about that? What you say is a bit like saying that the US doesn’t need a Constitution, and assign (“on behalf of all citizens”) certain rights that are held to be inalienable, as though this kind of civil community could exist without this myth. Rights are myths, and very important ones, not nonsense on stilts as Bentham said. All social communities, in achieving some sort of coherence, depend upon mythology. The idea that they don’t is a libertarian dream.

          • Posted July 22, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

            One last kick at the can, Eric.

            You insist that Religion does not ‘assign a meaning on our behalf.’ It interprets myths, and we find ourselves in tune with the interpretation.

            This is demonstrably false.

            Probably one of the best understood demonstrations resides in the use of the Genesis myth(s).

            This myth, admittedly around for at least a thousand years prior to when Jesus purportedly lived and died, has been saddled and mounted as the centerpiece by Christianity and then used to justify why Jesus had to die.

            Jesus had to offer a blood sacrifice in order to redeem our sinful nature inherited from the myth’s central character: Adam (or so the Christian interpretation tells us). Note the backwards order: first the myth… told and retold through the generations, again and again as if the symbols were meaningful on their own merit … and then, POOF!…all of a sudden, Christians come up with the weirdest, most anti-life interpretation of it possible… an explanation for the symbols that show that life is hard because of disobedience to the Big Kahuna Caretaker, the father of the Christ, the Creator of the world, the final Judge and Jury of our lives, namely the very god that Christians just so happen to have discovered in Jesus. Well, gobsmack me senseless! The redeemer Jesus just so happens to be a necessary counterbalance for Adam’s disobedience!

            This makes no sense, Eric. The interpretation of the human themes in the Genesis myth(s) are only explainable in the Christian interpretation more than a millennium later without accounting for how and why it was meaningful for so long on its own. We are patted on the head by the theistically enlightened and assured Jesus died an historical and literal death in order to redeem us from an inherited sin as the myth ‘explains’, you see. It’s the myth doing the explaining and the religion is just “in tune’ with it, right?

            And you tell us with a straight face that this religion does not assign a meaning on our behalf? How can all those folk who preceded this Christian interpretation have found themselves to “be in tune” with this later interpretation… a thousand years before the redeemer Jesus was even a glint in Mary’s eye?

            Come on. Of course the symbols have been interpreted for people by the self-interest of the religion who uses it this dishonest way. Of course religions assign the meaning to the symbols in myths or they wouldn’t bother stealing them in the first place and then using them to ‘explain’ later events! The only surprise is that so many people just go along with this charade.

            • Posted July 22, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

              Come on GBJ, surely you have read novels, watched movies, etc., where what is said or depicted is simply not true to human experience. There is no verisimilitude, as they say. Which is very like the German adjective/adverb wahrscheinlich, true-seemingly. The idea of true to human experience is one that is used everyday in assessing the quality of plays, movies, novels, etc. I see no reason why you should have a problem with that, much less suppose, as you suggest, that it is a meaningless concept. John Wayne, for example, was a fairly wooden actor, not true to life at all.

              It is not true that everything that is communicated in a society shapes society as a whole. Indeed, I would suggest that the foundational characteristic of Americans is a result of the founding documents of the Republic. This may not be quite so true as in the past when cultures and nations tended to be more homogeneous than they are now. There was a time when an Englishman or woman could be identified by the cache of quotations and allusions to what might be called the English canon, in which Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, Wordsworth, etc. figured largely. It was a culture shaped by its language and literature. Such homogeneous cultures were not always a good thing, but they did characterise, and make meaningful, a certain structure of relationships which gave value and perspective to a life. Modernity and its rootlessness is not an unmixed blessing, despite the good things that are provided by science and technological control of the environment. Indeed, it may be that the ultimate result of the hegemony of science will be a “culture” (if it can still be called such) which very few will consider rich or rewarding. I surely don’t have to remind you that science has enabled the exploitation of the earth to such an extent that human life is in danger of being greatly impoverished. When John Gray deprecates the widespread worship of reason, I do not think he is being inconsistent; he is merely saying that reason is a limited instrument, and its widespread apotheosis is not likely to make our lives appreciably better. Indeed, one thing that science is, to a large extent, is that it is not true to life. Indeed, as Alex Rosenberg makes clear in his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, the more untrue things are to human experience (no selves, no freedom, no consciousness) the more conformable it is to science. As was recognised fairly early on in the scientific project, science was made possible by abstracting from the human, common sense view of the world, and adopting a view from nowhere (as Thomas Nagel called it). It’s an invaluable method for achieving a certain kind of truth, technological truth, if you like, or mechanical truth, but if you want human truth, you must look elsewhere.

              • GBJames
                Posted July 22, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

                “It is not true that everything that is communicated in a society shapes society as a whole.”

                I believe you have added the “as a whole” bit to my comment, Eric, completely altering the meaning.

                The point is that societies are groups of people sharing collections of cultural information. All bits of cultural information “shape” the society, some bits more than others. Some of the bits are lovely and some of them are hideous. To claim that “myths shape society” is to crash through an open door. It contributes nothing to our understanding of society or myth. What matters is whether this bit or that bit is valuable or not.

                Myths are nothing but descriptions of the universe (often unreliable but sometimes entertaining). To bemoan the “loss” of these stories across the board strikes me just a bit silly. Keep the lovely bits (great art) and chuck the ugly bits (faith, among them). Learn to distinguish between accurate descriptions of reality and cultural artifacts that feel good. Life is better for recognizing the distinction.

            • Posted July 22, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

              Again, clicked on the reply button before starting a new note, so a reply to GBJ got stuck onto one by Tildeb.

              However, first of all, not all Christians consider Jesus’ death a blood sacrifice, nor do many Christian interpret Genesis in a literal way. The Genesis myths, probably originating in Babylonian creation myths, are sometimes read in a perfectly reasonable sense, conformable to the times in which they were written. Not everyone reads these myths in a Christian way. The Jews do not. And not all Christians interpret them in a fundamentalist way. But there really is no point in expressing yourself in an offensive way when you (offering your own interpretation of an interpretation) try to characterise what Christians believe. The simplistic attempts to reprise Christian beliefs for atheist consumption is an art in itself, is it not, and whether they in any sense reflect any of the sensitivity of depth of Christian interpretations doesn’t seem to matter. Tell the story in as simplistic and offensive way as you can and that is enough to deal with them. It’s tiresome, to tell the truth, and while I do not believe that Jesus died for our sins, I have more respect for the people who do believe it than you seem to, and who do so with a sensitivity to the nature of being human that your caricature simply doesn’t do justice to. You may disagree with Barth, for example. I do. But his intellectual command of a great tradition, and his sensitive appreciation of the flawed nature of our humanity is of value, whereas your travesty is not.

              I mean, for example, this is pathetic:

              Come on. Of course the symbols have been interpreted for people by the self-interest of the religion who uses it this dishonest way. Of course religions assign the meaning to the symbols in myths or they wouldn’t bother stealing them in the first place and then using them to ‘explain’ later events! The only surprise is that so many people just go along with this charade.

              Read some Augustine, or Origen or some of the great medieval theologians, read Barth or Bultmann or Bonhoeffer, Mcquarrie, Lonergan, Farrer, Wiles or any number of other theologians, and then speak so cavalierly of stolen symbols and interpretation for people by the self interest of religion who uses it [in] this dishonest way. You haven’t even come close. So the first Christians were Jews, and to the Jewish scriptures they added the Christian writings. But why stolen symbols? Why dishonest? Who is being dishonest here? Those who live and work within the tradition or those who characterise what they have done (for no very clear reason) as dishonest?

  42. papalinton
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne
    What a fucking brilliant critique!

    I tingled as I read this piece.

  43. papalinton
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I do hope this article and the following comments get back to him. It will be interesting to read his rebuttal.

  44. hank_says
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Oy vey, Gray, enough with the self-loathing atheist schtick already. It’s beneath you – or at least it should be.

  45. hank_says
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Tell me if I’m on my onwn here, but John Gray employing reason to denigrate reason reminds me very strongly of creationists employing science to debunk science.

  46. Posted July 21, 2014 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as an atheist myself, I can’t help smiling when I hear religion being mocked in this way. Looking at the world as it has been and continues to be at the present time, it’s belief in human reason that’s childish. Religious faith is based on accepting that we know very little of God. But we know a great deal about human beings, and one of the things we know for sure is that we’re not rational animals. Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God.

    Why do I find myself wanting to gently whack him around the ears with a copy of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational? Does he really think people’s irrational tendencies are a mystery to us?

  47. John Crisp
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    I wonder whether John Gray has bothered to read any of the excellent works on psychology (e.g. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman), which use applied reason, i.e. very cleverly designed experiments, to show to what extent we are irrational. Or the works of people like Robert Trivers on the evolutionary roots of both the rational and irrational aspects of human beings.

    Of course, nobody acts rationally all or even much of the time (Hume, reason slave of the passions and all that, or to put it another way, humans use reason to get what they want, not because it is a good in itself). However, at least some of the time reason can introduce a buffer between passion and action.

    I am not a philosopher, but it seems that the mistake that John Gray makes (perhaps deliberately, since he is pitching a line), is to blur the distinctions between many different manifestations of rationality and reason. And as someone has already commented above, if you’re going to use the word “true” in relation to myth, you need to define what you mean by true. Myth dramatizes different aspects of human experience, as do literature, art and poetry, but they are not “true” in the way that evolution is. It is a rhetorical device for a philosopher to use the word truth in this way without defining what he means.

    • Keith Phillips
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:36 am | Permalink

      I see no reason to suppose Gray is unaware of the recent findings of psychology, as these seem compatible with his views.

      As for his use of “more or less truthful to human experience”, that was as clear to me as your use of “Myth dramatizes different aspects of human experience”. If there is nothing in the dramatization which faithfully represents human experience, then in what sense is it a dramatization of that experience? Gray makes it clear that the literal truth of the events portrayed in myths is not the meaning he intends.

  48. Joe
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    This guy has been my bugbear for years. His byline makes me clench my teeth, as does the fact that he continues to be taken seriously in upper-middlebrow pulications in the UK and, indeed, the US. Isaac Chotiner published an excellent takedown of Gray in the “Nation” about a year ago – clearly, he couldn’t publish it in the “New Republic” (where Chotiner usually writes) because Gray’s writing appears there, too.

    • Joe
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 12:40 am | Permalink

      That said, if there’s one thing I’ll give Gray a tiny bit of credit for in this piece, it’s the statement that scientific methods can be used to irrational ends. It’s worth recalling that tools are, to some extent, neutral. The thing is, Gray rather defeats his own claims against science. See the a sentence in that last paragraph re. eugenics etc.: “Subsequent investigation has since demonstrated that such theories are scientifically worthless.” – What subsequent investigations, Mr Gray? – (mumbles) “Scientific investigations…”.

      So he’s basically admitting that science self-corrects.

      With regard to myth, I wouldn’t fall into the trap laid by Gray, conflating myth with the kind of story the Bible tells. Theology is pretty clear on this distinction, for its own reasons, but it can be trusted to know its enemies. Classical mythology allows for a plurality of stories and conflicts of value in a way that stories centred around a single god don’t. And it’s worth distinguishing between mythical stories that make falsifiable claims about cosmogony etc. (and within them, those that found the authority of a wrathful dibinity and those that are merely just-so stories), and those that address aspects of the human condition – the stories told by Homer, Sophocles etc., i.e. are to be read as works of literature rather than theology.

  49. Posted July 22, 2014 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Only just seen this article, and haven’t the time to read all 107 comments, so apologies if this is a repost.

    Gray, unsurprisingly, was not taken by Pinker’s Better Angels thesis:
    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/john-gray-steven-pinker-violence-review

    • Keith Phillips
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:08 am | Permalink

      Gray makes some good points against Pinker’s thesis in my view.

  50. Gerry
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    Better philosophers than Gray have been analyzing the limits of human knowledge since the year dot, so this click-bait can be safely ignored.
    An interesting view from a scientists perspective is ‘Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits’ by the English physicist John D. Barrow.

  51. TJR
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    If you read Gray’s stuff in the voice of Marvin or Eeyore it works a lot better.

  52. Bruce Gorton
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    The funny thing is reading this – it falls into the same basic issue I always have with people who argue that human reasoning is flawed.

    They invariably argue that reasoning is flawed, in order to argue against the use of what amounts to non-reasoned facts.

    The most basic example of non-reasoned fact is empiricism. That we observe X is not the same as reasoning X.

    If I measure 5ml in a beaker, whatever you have to say about the unit of measurement or the accuracy of the device I am using to take it is reasoning applied after the fact of me observing that the said device measured 5ml.

    This is not to say pure observation is all that useful, we take it and then apply further thought in order to achieve greater results, but it is a balancing factor to apply to reasoning.

    With the example of the beaker, we can agree on the unit of measurement being standardised, and then check again using a different device to see if it is consistent. We can reason, and then apply further empirical testing.

    We balance observation with reason and further observation – as each individual observation may be unreliable on its own, and our reasoning can be entirely incorrect in unexpected ways, we test further to refine what we think we know.

    The charge that New Atheists rely purely upon reason can more accurately be applied to the religious, and those speaking of things numinous – the spiritualists and their apologists.

    They demand we accept things, or treat things as intellectually respectable on the basis of nothing but faith, and arguments unbolstered by observation.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 23, 2014 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      To sum up: there’s no need for faith at all. Just an awareness of practical limitations.

      That should shut down all arguments between rationalism and fideism (faith-ism, basically). There’s no glory, religious or secular, in practical limitations, and plenty of scope for rational reflection in practical considerations.

  53. Andrew
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    I doubt the quality of British journalism has gone down, I think it’s just that it’s easier to see the crappier side of it too now.

    The Guardian won the Pullitzer prize this year, for example.

  54. Ken Nardone
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Just a quick comment to say this is one of the best posts I’ve read in a while that clearly highlights the value of reason and science over myth and religion.

    In the USA, the godless community too often bickers over petty nitpicking; what is our obsession with wordsmithing? However, when people call themselves godless but preach the importance of faith in the supernatural, we must seriously question their ability to think critically and/or their motives for leading other to such mind poison.

    Constructive and meaningful criticism with philosophers such as Dr. John Gray is of great importance if we are ever to take Advanced Philosophy to it’s next logical, evolutionary plateau (as part of applied science). Dr. Gray’s claims about reason are wishful, at best, highly flawed, and blatantly suspect. How does this man believe his own nonsense?

    Thank you for posting and clearly documenting the value of reason (and science) in an unreasonable world. I cherish your daily posts and thank you for fighting the good fight necessary to save our planet, our animals and ourselves! Cheers!

  55. Colin Wright
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    “And if you don’t believe that Gray’s article is totally worthless, consider this: his essay uses reason to try to convince people that reason doesn’t work well for convincing people!”

    Ahh yes, the fallacy of the stolen concept. Always surprised when I see that, as it’s so obviously absurd and self-refuting. At least we don’t have to waste much time arguing against it, since it actively argues against itself whenever it is voiced.

  56. Michael
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    The most disappointing quote for me is this:

    “The same minorities that were targeted in the past – Jews, Roma, immigrants and gay people, for example – are being targeted in many countries today.”

    It was the Catholic Church that did so much to foment hatred against the Jews, and had done so for a very long time. And it’s the Bible that condemns homosexuality. The people who condemn homosexuality are the religious, who according to Gray should be the ones with revealed knowledge. The Nazi’s focused a hate that had existed for centuries that was systemic in church and theocratic governments.
    That is why so few countries would accept Jews that were fleeing for their lives.

    Why didn’t Catholicism, the strongest church in the world for centuries, know what they did was wrong? The persecution of the Jews, by church after church in country after country. Religion is supposed to be a method of knowing truth, but they were all incapable of knowing that the systemic demonization of an entire people is wrong?

    It is not churches leading the way to a kinder gentler world. Indeed, they often are dragged into that world, kicking and screaming, or only changing after they lose so much of their congregation that they are forced to adapt or die. The Catholic church is STILL hiding and protecting priests that raped children. This is supposed to be showing us that they know some truth?

    Gray gets not just his philosophy wrong, but his history as well. I wonder if he has glasses similar to Ken Ham’s “bible glasses”, glasses that filter out everything that conflicts with his own preconceived ideas.

    I believe Jerry hit the mark when he labelled one section “insanity”. I think the word applied to the larger work as well.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 23, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      Also, guess which countries are most accepting of gay rights today? Generally, the most secular ones, especially most of Europe, Canada, Australia, and other places like New Zealand and Japan. Who are the most vocal anti-gays, and which objections are most usually cited against it? Generally the religious ones in both categories.

  57. Posted July 22, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Sub

  58. marvol19
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Ah, John Gray. I tried to read Straw Dogs. Didn’t get past page, idunno, 20. What cynical, lazy, misinformed writing.

    At least he is consistent: he doesn’t believe in reason, so he doesn’t use his.

  59. JFrog
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I think you have completely missed the point of Gray’s article. He is not claiming that religion is better than reason. He doesn’t claim that human reason isn’t useful. He merely claims that it is only useful in technological terms – in many ways undoubtedly a good thing. However, it is just as illusory to put your faith in it as in religion. It can’t improve us morally or ethically – we are bound by our natures.

    His criticism is against those who either:

    a) believe that the use of reason is the totality of the human condition.

    b) believe that science provides us with ‘truth’ rather than simply knowledge.

    c) believe that the use of reason can create a more ethical world.

    I don’t think Gray actually condemns the ‘evangelical’ atheists. He just thinks they should take themselves less seriously, and be more tolerant of others.

    I don’t think you can seriously argue that a faith in reason hasn’t caused similarly devastating effects to the faith in God. The attempts to export the neo-liberal models of politics and economics to the Middle East through the use of modern weaponry are a prime example. Gray is against zealousness I think, nothing more.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Gray actually condemns the ‘evangelical’ atheists. He just thinks they should take themselves less seriously, and be more tolerant of others.

      Would it be childish of me to suggest you and Mr. Gray to do some growing of skin and maybe add a bit of tolerance and balance to your own post-colonial blame-game?

      Or is there a limit to the ignorance tolerated by the sublime level of tolerance you preach?

      And just for clarification, how would you define “truth”?

      • JFrog
        Posted July 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        I’m really struggling to see how my comment was ‘intolerant’, but am happy to be corrected. The defensiveness of your reply seems to suggest someone defending a system of belief rather than a method of rational enquiry (which, after all, is what science is). And again I don’t think Gray would be overly critical – human beings need belief to give meaning to life, he just doesn’t think we should be forced to take them too seriously. Or that some beliefs should be allowed to claim monopoly on truth.

        I’ve never been asked to define truth, and I was talking from my perception of Gray’s ideas rather than my own. If I had to guess at his definitions I guess they would be that truth is teleological, knowledge is cumulative. I think the fact that scientific theories are constantly displacing one another shows that, on these definitions, science has more to do with knowledge than truth.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted July 22, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

          What beliefs do you reckon I hold and what belief-system would they fall under in your opinion?

          And I find it rather ironic that one of the hallmarks of one of the “other ways of knowing”( religion ) Gray endorse is exactly an attempt at monopolizing truth and making absolute statements about the human condition and the universe we live in.

          They just turned out to be false, as far as we know.

          Facts and reality change and I think most of us new atheists are fully aware of that. The sources of the major religions, on the other hand, are fixed and that is one of our criticisms of religion.

          It simply doesn’t jive with reality and if you think pointing that out again and again for as long as needed constitutes intolerance, well too bad.

          The funny thing about these charges of evangelical atheism are that they’re never accompanied by a concrete actual example of it in action.

          It’s an attempt at a sophisticated version of “play nice, kids” aimed at adults.

          Frankly it’s condescending towards all parties involved and once again I’m going to advice you to grow a pair and man up.

          Do you think religion as we know it is true or not?

          • JFrog
            Posted July 22, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

            Oh jeez. You’re assessing religion in rational, scientific terms. Religion isn’t about proof of external facts, it’s about meaning and the interpretation of human existence. Are you saying that, because of the development of reason, human beings can dispense with the need for meaning?

            It seems to me that you are confusing religion (a repository of myth and meaning) with religious fundamentalism (a desire to convert everyone to a common set of beliefs).

            Why are you so keen that people give up their religious beliefs? And I’d like to pre-empt irrelevant answers by saying that corrupt institutions of religion (e.g the Catholic Church) are not the same as belief, and that many crimes have been committed throughout the 20th century against humans in the name of reason.

            And do you genuinely believe that the human mind is evolving towards the perception of greater ‘truth’ – that the mind is evolving through a set of stages with science as the telos – rather than to ensure survival?

            • GBJames
              Posted July 22, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

              “You’re assessing religion in rational, scientific terms.”

              Yeah, Jesper! Get with the program. You’re supposed to assess religion in irrational terms! Talk about novice mistake.

              • JFrog
                Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

                Nope you’re right, humans are simply governed by reason, nothing else.

                And even if they’re not you can always explain their beliefs and actions in rational terms.

                Thank God that the errors of human enquiry and philosophy have finally been settled on this website. No sorry, I’m not thanking God because he doesn’t exist. In that there isn’t a physical being called God who made the world. Which is if course all that matters when explaining the significance of religious belief, and it’s prevalence in all human societies.

                Belief is not rational. It gives meaning and leads to people setting up websites to exalt in their shared version of ‘truth’. A bit like this one.

              • Bruce Gorton
                Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

                JFrog

                You do realise what you just said, is what we new atheists are accused of saying about the religious, except you’re saying it with total sincerity right?

            • Bruce Gorton
              Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

              So you want to exclude everything wrong that has come about because of religion, and then say “what’s wrong with religion.”

              Hmm, yeah, trouble is that doesn’t present any challenge at all.

              Religion’s ultimate negative effect is not in how the religious elites take advantage of the rest, but in how it strips the defenses of the rest.

              Religion is the mental equivalent to AIDS – it attacks the mental immune system. Hitler could never have risen to power as anything other than a Christian, Saudi’s entire authoritarian government rests on its profoundly religious roots.

              It is not simply corrupt leadership, it is how religion leaves the followers vulnerable to that leadership that defines religion.

              Because it builds an automatic out to your standard reality checks – it predisposes you to accept very, very bad ideas on no evidence at all.

              Take anti-vaccination in the Middle East, or witch hunts, these aren’t strictly religious – but with the addition of religion polio is still endemic to Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

              Meanwhile witch hunts are occurring across sub-Saharan Africa and in India. Without the religious component – these issues wouldn’t be as hard to tackle.

              Take what happens when you mix religion another great tribalism like nationalism – Israel and Palestine have been blowing each other up for decades.

              And the territory itself has been contested for millenia.

              And any video highlighting the sheer human cost of this, any video showing the endless, relentless horror of it, will have Muslims on one side saying “kill all the Jews”, and Zionists on the other side saying “killing the Muslims is acceptable because they want to kill us.”

              There can be no peace because nationalism is tied to the religious identities of both groups. They can never stop killing each other.

              It is not religion on its own – but it is the effect religion has as mental HIV.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted July 22, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

              “Oh jeez. You’re assessing religion in rational, scientific terms. Religion isn’t about proof of external facts, it’s about meaning and the interpretation of human existence. Are you saying that, because of the development of reason, human beings can dispense with the need for meaning?”

              Which instruction manuals do you use to define the intention and meaning of various religions and their scripture?

              Where does it say in religious scripture that what you are about to read may or may not be based on actual events and its characters are fictional and in no way intended to portray real characters?

              After all, many of the stories would require the laws of physics as we know them to be suspended and manipulated.

              Got evidence?

              And, btw, am I to understand that you think meaning can’t be reached through reason and that entirely natural explanations about your surroundings aren’t sufficient to establish a foundation for further search for meaning?

              “It seems to me that you are confusing religion (a repository of myth and meaning) with religious fundamentalism (a desire to convert everyone to a common set of beliefs).”

              It seems to me you entirely missed my point about why I criticize religion. I don’t care whether they preach or not. I care whether what they preach is true or not.

              A distinction you don’t seem overly concerned about, but hey, to each his own.

              “Why are you so keen that people give up their religious beliefs? And I’d like to pre-empt irrelevant answers by saying that corrupt institutions of religion (e.g the Catholic Church) are not the same as belief, and that many crimes have been committed throughout the 20th century against humans in the name of reason.”

              I’m keen to see people give up their religious beliefs because I see a waste of potential progress and a shitload of cash floating around that could do a ton of good elsewhere. If only all those great minds of the past and in the present would direct their efforts into researching actual knowledge/science.

              And I’m a bit puzzled about which movements/ideologies driven by reason you think have committed many of the crimes against humanity during the last century?

              I have no knowledge whatsoever about a movement/ideology/religion declaring unreason as the banner under which they march, so of course faith in reason have been posited where it wasn’t present.

              If your claim is that reason can be unreasonable, then I’m sure Chopra would appreciate the input.

              “And do you genuinely believe that the human mind is evolving towards the perception of greater ‘truth’ – that the mind is evolving through a set of stages with science as the telos – rather than to ensure survival?”

              No, and who the deuce have claimed that there’s a telos to the evolution of the human mind?

              You do realize that evolution to the best of our knowledge doesn’t work like that, right?

              There’s no overarching telos to nature and the universe as far as we know, and there is no single telos to human endeavour.

              What makes you think survival is the name of the game?

    • Bruce Gorton
      Posted July 22, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      His criticism though is crap. All you really need to do is ask yourself what reason is exactly, and then it all unravels to show what an intellectually dishonest turd the man is.

      Reasoning is basically everything that goes on in your head. It is ultimately examined thought – which is the basis of all religion.

      Why? Because somebody had to think really hard about it at some point. All religions have theology.

      Now the thing with science is, it isn’t entirely based on reason. It isn’t all based on “well somebody thought that” – it is based on “somebody observed that, thus thought that”.

      To class science in with reason in general is a simple category error, science is not simply its theoretical component, but theory meshed with observation.

      Now as to his argument that morality cannot be advanced by reason, frankly what else does he expect it to be advanced by? Even turning to religion – its still reason, it is just reason unchecked by reality.

      And as we can see from the far easier questions of is, it is bad reasoning that produces bad results.

      Which historically it has also done in terms of morality. It was the religious who were the chief champions of slavery, the religious who were the chief champions of racism, it is still the religious who are the chief champions of homophobia.

      Note that in any law pushing for gay rights, or gender rights for that matter, it is always religious exemptions that are sought.

      Heck, laws regarding children’s rights are frequently undermined by religious organisations because when its some holy roller that is the only time our society will really look the other way.

      If the Amish were not a religious community – do you think child protective services would not be on their cases?

      Even law is in advance of religion when we talk about morality.

    • Posted July 23, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      So why can’t reason be used to create a more ethical world?

      1) I reason that if I hit my neighbour over the head with a club and take his stuff, maybe he won’t like it and do something similarly/more unpleasant to me.

      2) So, reasoning further, it would increase the sum total of our joint happiness if we cooperated instead.

      Presto – we created a more ethical world using reason.

      On what basis can we judge our new relationship to be ethically superior? … Who cares, but what is certain is that the solution we arrived at through reason is a whole load better for both of us than an escalating conflict would have been and that’s something you don’t need some absolute moral pillar to judge.

      Surely we can and do use a similar approach on a global scale and if everyone involved in the process was more reasonable and less swayed by faith, superstition, xenophobia and nepotism, then we would be able to create an even more ethical world.

  60. johzek
    Posted July 22, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Gray is wrong of course to say that we are not rational animals. We are rational animals its just that we are rational only some of the time. We do not reason automatically and it takes a conscious effort of will to reason effectively. The systematic and rigorous application of reason as is done in science demonstrates what a powerful tool it can be.

    Reason is not simply the use of logical inference but begins with premises that are perceptually grounded and then proceeds to infer the logical consequences of these premises. One is not using reason if they start with arbitrary or imaginative hypotheses and no matter how validly their argument is structured the argument will be unsound and the conclusion will be unsupported by the premises.


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