John Gray: an atheist-hating atheist

John Gray is an English writer, philosopher, and atheist—one of those atheists who really, really hates New Atheists, doesn’t think much of science, and positively loves religion. I’ve dissected his pieces before on this website (see this collection, for instance), and, truth be told, I can barely muster up the energy to discuss any more of his lame and repetitive articles. But I’ll take up the cudgels just one more time, if for no other reason than to tell him (for he’ll surely see this) that #NotAllAtheists go alone with his mean-spirited and generally mindless lucubrations. (If you think I’m exaggerating the “mean-spirited” part, see here.)

At any rate, his article in Wednesday’s New Statesman, “Why humans find it hard to do away with religion,” is ostensibly a review of a recent OUP book by Dominic Johnson, God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human. I say “ostensibly,” because Gray’s piece is his usual jeremiad against atheism. I haven’t read Johnson’s book, so I’ll discuss only what Gray says about religion, much of which seems to parrot and agree with what’s in Johnson’s book.

If you’ve read Gray’s pieces before, you’ll be familiar with his anti-atheist tropes, so I’ll be as brief as I can in laying out his thesis. His main points are three:

a. Religion is an evolved phenomenon, and it evolved because it helped society cohere. (Indented quotes are Gray’s.) It’s not absolutely clear whether by “evolved” Gray means “culturally” or “genetically” evolved, since you can discern both forms of change in his arguments. But here’s what he thinks, apparently agreeing with Johnson:

Human beings never cease looking for a pattern in events that transcends the workings of cause and effect. No matter how much they may think their view of the world has been shaped by science, they cannot avoid thinking and acting as if their lives are subject to some kind of non-human oversight. As Johnson puts it, “Humans the world over find themselves, consciously or subconsciously, believing that we live in a just world or a moral universe, where people are supposed to get what they deserve. Our brains are wired such that we cannot help but search for meaning in the randomness of life.”

Here he implies biological evolution:

But what if belief in the supernatural is natural for human beings? For anyone who takes the idea of evolution seriously, religions are not intellectual errors, but ­adaptations to the experience of living in an uncertain and hazardous world.

Such adaptations would seem to be genetic ones, given Gray’s invocation of the “idea of evolution”—surely organic evolution, since everyone takes “evolution as cultural change” seriously.

But here he might be talking about both genetic and cultural evolution:

Reward and punishment may not emanate from a single omnipotent deity, as imagined in Western societies. Justice may be dispensed by a vast unseen army of gods, angels, demons and ghosts, or else by an impersonal cosmic process that rewards good deeds and punishes wrongdoing, as in the Hindu and Buddhist conception of karma. But some kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.

Regardless, it’s still not clear how religion came to be. Social cooperation is one reason, but so is Pascal Boyer’s notion of “agency”—the desire of an ignorant and superstitious species to attribute agency to impersonal events. Another explanation is simply fear of death: we’re the only species whose members know they’re mortal, and much of religion may be an attempt to deny that. Or these reasons could all hold. The fact is that whatever purposes religion serves now may not be the reasons it arose in the first place. And why it arose may be simply a byproduct of our ignorance as early hominins, or of other evolved traits like the attribution of agency as a way to help you survive.

Gray cites psychology experiments showing that religious people are more generous in “dictator games” than are nonbelievers, but adds as well that such generosity seems to come from fear of punishment. In other words, Gray admits that religion holds society together largely through fear of both worldly ostracism and, especially, divine retribution.

And that brings up an important question. Gray is an atheist, so he doesn’t believe in religious myths, or even God. So is it useful for society to be held together by mass belief in pure fiction? Apparently, yes:

Unlike practitioners of polytheism, who seek and find meaning in other ways, Christians have found sense in life through a mythical narrative in which humankind is struggling towards redemption. It is a myth that infuses the imagination of countless people who imagine they have left religion behind. The secular style of modern thinking is deceptive. Marxist and liberal ideas of “alienation” and “revolution”, “the march of humanity” and “the progress of civilisation” are redemptive myths in disguise.

So false beliefs can motivate good morality—as opposed to atheist “myths” that are not only false, but don’t promote comity or morality. Gray doesn’t mention secular humanism, or point out that purely secular societies behave at least as morally, if not more so, than religious ones. Where would you prefer to live: Saudi Arabia or Denmark? In a Mormon enclave, where Christianity regulates everthing, or Sweden? In the Catholic Phillipines or in France (and don’t say that I’m deciding this way because the Philippines are poorer, for that’s one reason they’re so Catholic!)? And this brings us to Gray’s second point:

b. New Atheism is a doctrine promulgated by simple people, and it’s based just as much on faith as is religion. To wit:

[The idea that religion is an evolutionary adaptation is] a conclusion that is anathema to the current generation of atheists – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others – for whom religion is a poisonous concoction of lies and delusion. These “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the ­persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.

That’s just bogus; people like Dennett and Dawkins have spent a lot of time thinking about why people are religious, and the conclusion is not invariably that their minds are deformed by “malignant priests and devilish power elites.” That may be one way religion is perpetuated in some places, but that’s a different question from what Gray is posing, which is how religion got started in the first place. And talk about “simple souls”—what an ad hominem argument! The simple souls are in fact the religious ones, those who grasp at simple myths of old men in the sky rather than grapple with the complexities of evolution and culture. Which soul is simpler: that of Dan Dennett or that of a snake-handling preacher in West Virginia? How dare someone like Gray describe people like Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris in that way? I’d put any of their intellects against Gray’s (clearly a “complicated soul”) any day.

Gray goes on with the “evangelical atheism” canard:

For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide, a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.

Surrogate faith? Haven’t we gotten past that yet? Or does Gray not know what “faith” means in religion? Yes, many atheists believe that the world would be better off without religion, but there’s evidence for that: not only the divisiveness that plagues our world at present and the malevolence of many faiths (does Gray really think that a world without Catholicism or Islam would be palpably worse?), but the observation of what happens in societies that reject religion and rely on Enlightenment principles of reason—societies like those of northern Europe. If Gray were right, these societies would be markedly worse off than religious ones, for they lack that religious glue that causes people to cohere. But, of course, places like Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Canada, and the Netherlands, are not only very well off using sociological scales, but are some of the happiest societies in the world.  Religious Palestine, Uganda, India, and Tunisia—forget it. Deeply unhappy lands.

And we mustn’t forget Pinker’s argument, forcefully made, that violence is declining in society over time. One of the reasons he gives is the displacement of superstition by reason and Enlightenment values. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide, the more godless the world becomes, the more moral and less violent it becomes.

Two more points. Gray, who apparently knows little about evolution, rejects the proposition that human minds evolved to find out what’s true about the world. In this he echoes the argument of Alvin Plantinga that naturalism can’t explain humans’ constant seeking of the truth, for there’s no evolutionary payoff for such a search (my emphasis in paragraph below):

Certainly there is an element of comedy in the new atheist mix of proselytising Darwinism and ardent rationalism. There is no way in which a model of the mind inherited from Descartes and other rationalist philosophers can be squared with the findings of evolutionary biology. If you follow Darwin in thinking of human beings as animals that have evolved under the pressures of natural selection, you cannot think that our minds are primed to seek out truth. Rather, our ruling imperative will be survival, and any belief that promotes this will have a powerful attraction. This may be why we are so anxious to discern a pattern in the drift of events. If there is none, our future will depend largely on chance – a dispiriting prospect. The belief that our lives unfold under some kind of supernatural direction offers a way out, and if this faith enables us to live through disaster, that it may be groundless is irrelevant. From an evolutionary perspective, irrational belief isn’t an incidental flaw in human beings. It has made us what we are. In that case, why demonise religion?

I discuss this argument on pp. 177-185 in Faith Versus Fact. And it’s clear that for many purposes, our minds have indeed evolved to find out what’s true about our world. For finding out what’s true—where the animals are, how they behave, what plants are safe to eat, what other members of your group are like—will very often promote the survival of your genes. Does Gray not see any connection at all between finding out what’s real and one’s survival? If not, he’s more ignorant than I thought.

But of course our minds are limited by evolution as well, and, as Trivers has shown, sometimes it pays us to deceive others, or even ourselves, so we’ll often believe stuff that is wrong. And there are, of course, things we believe, based on experience with other things, that are also wrong: that a severed tetherball will fly off in a spiral, that we saw things we never did, and that we ourselves are generally better than other people. No evolutionist thinks that natural selection will always lead us to believe what is true, for some of the “adaptive” behaviors and beliefs that have led us to truth also have spandrels that cause us to believe things that are untrue. Optical illusions are one example.

And why demonize religion? That brings us to Gray’s final point:

c. The Good “Old Atheists” were better than the “simple” New Atheists because they made fun of religion but didn’t try to do away with it. These “Old Atheists” invariably include Mencken and Camus, but often leave out people like Ingersoll and Russell—people who were not only atheists but anti-theists. Ingersoll and Russell, for instance, constantly pointed out the dangers of faith, and touted a world without God. Gray’s big hero, though, is H. L. Mencken:

 Atheism need not be an evangelical cult. Here and there one finds thinkers who have truly left redemptive myths behind. The American journalist and iconoclast H L Mencken was a rambunctious atheist who delighted in lambasting religious believers; but he did so in a spirit of mockery, not out of any interest in converting them into unbelievers. Wisely, he did not care what others believed. Rather than lamenting the fact of incurable human irrationality, he preferred to laugh at the spectacle it presents. If monotheism was, for Mencken, an amusing exhibition of human folly, one suspects he would have found the new atheism just as entertaining.

I am trying to understand the mindset that leads one to say, “Wisely, he did not care what others believed.” When you think about it, that’s a reprehensible and selfish thing to say. Why do you care what others believe? Because beliefs lead to actions, and sometimes those actions are harmful to other people and society as a whole. Would Gray say the same thing about politics: “We shouldn’t care what Republicans believe”?

Mencken was a satirist and a sybarite, not a social activist. He preferred to mock religion before a fire in his Baltimore home, comfortably ensconced behind a schooner or three of beer. In contrast, Russell and Ingersoll were activists, and wanted to do something about religion’s harms. Following Gray’s advice, let’s by all means just laugh at the Republicans, but let us not try to do anything about their views on promulgating guns, banning abortion, and demonizing women, gays, and immigrants. After all, as philosopher Gray tells us, that’s the WISER thing to do.

I’ve also pondered at length why an atheist philosopher who clearly thinks highly of his own intellectual acumen nevertheless promulgates the Little People’s Argument. Apparently Gray doesn’t need religion to be a good person, but believes that nearly everyone else does. What a low opinion of human nature, and what a recipe for inaction!

h/t: Rodney


  1. colnago80
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Another explanation is simply fear of death: we’re the only species whose members know they’re mortal, and much of religion may be an attempt to deny that.

    • colnago80
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Ah shucks, hit post prematurely.

      Another explanation is simply fear of death: we’re the only species whose members know they’re mortal, and much of religion may be an attempt to deny that.

      There is some indication that elephants in Africa have some inclination of imminent death as they leave the herd and go off to what is observed to be an elephant graveyard.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted January 22, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        “Some indication ..”
        Fair. There is appreciable evidence that elephants show signs correlate blend with grief. The “Elephant Graveyard” or several, is a much less well – supported concept.

      • Posted January 22, 2016 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

        Bingo. Fear of death is the elephant (ahem) in the room. Personally, religion was hard to completely drop because I thought some element of it was true, particularly that after death we are faced with either infinite suffering or infinite bliss. It had nothing to do with holding on to myths or any of the other bullshit Gray espouses, it had to do with the fact I thought it was true. As poll after poll has shown, the religious think their beliefs are true. I’m interested in the truth and I think most religious people are too. I’ve yet to meet a religious person (not that they aren’t out there) who clings to faith despite the believing the claims are false. Perhaps, people who celebrate holidays culturally are an exception, but these types are not the ones trying to enforce dogma upon society.

  2. Posted January 22, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Mencken’s quote “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms” pretty much summarizes his attitude on religion.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      So it’s okay to mock the idiots, but it’s horrible to try to rationally persuade someone as an equal in hopes they will change their mind.

      Doesn’t Gray have this ‘respect’ thing backwards?

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        That was my reaction to that part too. I see that attitude from Gray as part of his appearing to think he’s better than the little people who need religion.

        • steve
          Posted January 23, 2016 at 5:25 am | Permalink

          I “copied” that same phrase as I read the article and then read the comments. I see that I am not the only one who was struck by that part of the post. I too am struck with:

          “in a spirit of mockery”.

          How does one equate mockery with anything except the wish that the mocked would change their behaviour? Except of course if you are John Oliver or Jon Stewart who are happy that their mockery of people (Read Republicans and popes) does not change the behaviour of the mockee because it keeps them well employed with endless comedic mockery material.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted January 23, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

            Mockery is often pretty nasty behaviour too – more often than not it’s just supercilious and patronising. It shouldn’t, of course, be confused with high quality satire, or even just pointing out contradictions.

            • Diane G.
              Posted January 24, 2016 at 1:52 am | Permalink

              Not that (IMO) there’s anything wrong with (most of) Mencken’s wisecracks on religion. 😀

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted January 24, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

                Oh, I agree. And it depends how it’s done too. He was good at it. 🙂

  3. Kevin
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    The world according to Gray is a world without scientific explanation. Gray’s arguments are undermined by his desire to make humans the most important things in the universe.

    It is as if he is unaware that 99.999999….% of all of the known universe has nothing to do with humans (as far as we know). He should explore what it means to understand nature from a scientific point of view. Until then his words are peripherally unimportant noise.

    • Nell whiteside
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      Deliciously succinct. Yessir!

  4. Sastra
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    But what if belief in the supernatural is natural for human beings? For anyone who takes the idea of evolution seriously, religions are not intellectual errors, but ­adaptations to the experience of living in an uncertain and hazardous world… Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match.

    But of course many things are “natural” to human beings and they have the same virtues. War and violence, for example. Authoritarian dictatorships and honor cultures. Addiction and obsession. Xenophobia, tribalism, and racism. Hey, these things also derive from aspects of our evolved human nature and they’re all just great at promoting social co-operation! So what?

    The issue isn’t about whether we can understand certain beliefs or empathize with their holders or recognize their biological and cultural roots. It’s whether or not what makes them unique also makes them good. And for that we look at the big picture.

    They say you’ll never bond as closely with any group as you do in wartime, with your fellow soldiers under fire and extreme stress. Would Gray like to go back to the idea that nothing builds character like war? Why not? Waging battle against a demonized enemy is surely “natural for human beings.” Nothing “poisonously irrational” here because … biology.

    These “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world.

    Hey, I’ll tell you who’s a “simple soul” — it’s people who think that either we’re rational and truth-seeking OR we seek comfort and meaning and accuracy be damned.

    The gnu atheists think it’s both. Our values are complicated and often come in conflict. The Little People who need religion because they can’t handle the truth ALSO care deeply about whether or not their beliefs are true. If Gray doesn’t believe us, maybe he should find some religious folks and ask them. “Do you give a crap about God or is your religion all about what it does for you?”

    Their response might rock your world, John Gray. The only time the religious eat this faitheism shit up with a spoon is when they think it’s going make atheists smile benevolently down at them and shut up. Faced with a direct challenge, the individuals usually aren’t as eager to agree that yes indeedy, it’s all a placebo.

    • Posted January 23, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Nicely put. Plenty of plagues upon human life evolved to promote (limited, selective) social cooperation. Two things about biological evolution, though: it finds *local* optima, and it’s very slow to respond to changing conditions. We can co-opt these big brains evolution gave us, and do better.

  5. Vaal
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    GRAY writes: “Human beings never cease looking for a pattern in events that transcends the workings of cause and effect. No matter how much they may think their view of the world has been shaped by science, they cannot avoid thinking and acting as if their lives are subject to some kind of non-human oversight.”

    That’s just false that such thinking is unavoidable. I don’t think or perceive or act as if my life as subject to non-human oversight.

    “As Johnson puts it, “Humans the world over find themselves, consciously or subconsciously, believing that we live in a just world or a moral universe, where people are supposed to get what they deserve. Our brains are wired such that we cannot help but search for meaning in the randomness of life.”

    But…I and no doubt many atheists provide counter evidence to that claim. There is no WAY I subconsciously believe in a just world or moral universe. Quite the opposite – it strikes me down to the bone as showing no justice or benign oversight. In fact, I’d say it’s actually this same problem for many believers: they are TOLD there is a benevolent Deity overseeing reality but this clashes with their intuitions, conscience and lived experience that no such benevolence seems implied by how fate and suffering occurs in the world. This is the reason faiths come up with Theodicies in the first place: to try to harmonize the hard to ignore impression of an unjust world with claims of a benevolent good God.

    And, no, I also don’t go finding “meaning” in the randomness of life. I have my own reactions to the randomness of life, ways of deciding what type of reactions will be most wise. But I simply do not search for some exterior objective meaning – that is “intention” or “purpose” – beneath that randomness.

    These guys should speak for themselves.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      There’s a similar argument to the effect that people instinctively act as though the world ought to be just. It would be better that way. We get angry when it’s not ‘fair.’ This is then either used as a lameass justification for the existence of God (why and how could we even want this if it wasn’t true???) or a pisspoor reason why theists and atheists are really in this together so atheistshutup.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted January 23, 2016 at 4:08 am | Permalink

        I can understand the innate desire for the world to be ‘fair’. And hence the desire for a just supreme being, and a heaven for those who have been unfairly treated, and a hell for Isis. It’s a very strong motivation to ‘believe’.

        Unfortunately, ‘ought’ does not mean ‘is’ and the universe doesn’t give a toss.


        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted January 23, 2016 at 5:32 am | Permalink

          Agreed. I have a simple philosophy which sees me through difficult times: “Shit happens”.

          • Robert bray
            Posted January 23, 2016 at 10:58 am | Permalink

            My ‘theology:’ a cousin to yours:

            Arnie. . .

            . . . is humankind’s only god,
            whose personal pronoun is Shit,
            or that which happens.

            Arnie may not be implored, supplicated,
            prayed to or otherwise bought off,
            lest worse Shit happen.

            At least so we must infer,
            since Arnie has vouchsafed us,
            Shit’s necessary devotees,
            no revelation, nor holy book,
            nor priesthood nor church
            (such a church’s, did one exist,
            chandelier would surely fall down
            upon us sooner or later,
            Shit having to happen).

            What Arnie teaches,
            through cosmic silence
            across all space and time,
            is to be ready for anything
            on the way to nothing:
            Shit big and little
            until the end of its happening.

          • Sastra
            Posted January 23, 2016 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

            In his book Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes that one of the most important elements for the breaking Enlightenment was the growing belief and acceptance that “shit happens.” In other words, not everything “happens for a reason:” bad luck doesn’t mean you have been cursed and good luck doesn’t require rituals. The world is indifferent to us.

            Without this, we are still stuck mentally in the Dark Ages.

            • jimroberts
              Posted January 23, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

              “Shit happens” is the lesson of the book of Job, though framed slightly differently. JHWH can find no fault with Job, but Satan suggests that Job is only good because everything is going well for him. So JHWH says, “OK, make a lot of bad shit happen to him, I bet he will still think I’m great and worthy of praise”. So lots of bad stuff happens, and everybody says Job must have done something to annoy JHWH. In the end JHWH turns up and explains at tedious length that indeed there was no reason for Job’s misfortunes, that shit happened to Job just because JHWH felt like it, and anybody who thought there was a reason for it was wrong.
              So who still says that the Bible doesn’t get stuff right?

              • Sastra
                Posted January 23, 2016 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

                No, I think that story was a sort of theodicy: God was testing Job. Or, perhaps, just showing or using his power because He can. God isn’t a mindless force like electricity: he’s more like a narcissistic potentate.

              • jimroberts
                Posted January 24, 2016 at 6:41 am | Permalink

                Yes, arbitrarily showing or using his power because he can. Job’s misfortunes were through no fault of Job. If something bad happens to me, what difference does it make whether it’s just a random coincidence in a mindless universe, or a result of random acts by some divine being?

        • Posted January 25, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

          On the other hand:

          “I used to think it was a terrible thing that life was so unfair. Then I thought, ‘what if life were fair, and all of the terrible things that happen to us came because we really deserved them?’ Now I take great comfort in the general unfairness and hostility of the universe.”

          — Note that even non-theistic “theodicies” (like in Buddhism) suffer from this problem too …

  6. chris moffatt
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Religion began with the first shyster who figured he could make a better living if he could make believe that he had a special hotline to the spirits so that others would work and support him while he stayed out of harm’s and work’s way doing the spirits’ business.

    These grifters have appeared in every society and at every point in human history.
    And no Mr Gray; as an atheist I don’t believe that getting rid of religion would immediately transform our world for the better but we can’t even begin that transformation while we still have the life-sucking parasite religion battened on us.

    • Rick
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Your comment, Chris, reminded me of a scene in the first season of “True Detective”. The scene is a little harsh, but it’s interesting. (It also has some swearing.) Here’s a link:

      • chris moffatt
        Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        Yup. That’s about it! Thanks for the video clip, very enjoyable. I’ll have to track the rest of it down now.

        • mikeb609
          Posted January 22, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

          And yet . . . I don’t like it. It’s condescending, pseudo-intellectual, intolerant.

          It seems to project the exact figure of the atheist straw man that Gray flails away at.

    • Brad
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
      A few details have changed over the years, but this about sums it up.

      • Rick
        Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        Lol! Thanks, Brad, for that link.

        Chris: I feel that I should warn you that Rust’s end in the season finale is a disappointment. The good thing is that the ride there is, nonetheless, really entertaining.

    • steve
      Posted January 23, 2016 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      Yah but that too would be an evolved trait (parasitism, cheating on the commons, bullshit displays, faking etc.) so it’s all good cuz it’s evolved so cuz that.

  7. Barry Lyons
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink


    This is an excellent post. It’s one of your best on the subject. That’s all I wanted to say.


    • Mark R.
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      I agree.

      • Blue
        Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        I do, too.

        Wisely (= no apostrophes) helpful !

        And am, stat, passing along to three sons / their families.

        My thanks.

        • Blue
          Posted January 22, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          Huh ? !

          Should ‘ve read: Wisely (= no superfluous quotation marks) helpful. I apologize.

          It .is. … … F r i d a y. Und brain’s been blitzkrieged both at home and at work by campaign (e – AND home usps – mailbox’s hard – copy) flyers seeking caucus – goers !

          central Iowa

    • mikeb609
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink


      I’m glad to have my hunch about Gray confirmed.

      Incoherence, thy name is John Gray.

      What a negative, bitchy fuck he is.

  8. Historian
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    It may be unfair to judge Johnson without reading his book, but this seems to be his thesis as he wrote himself in a summary of the book:

    “Given the dangers of our social minefield, an exaggerated belief that one is constantly being watched and judged by supernatural agents—the fabled hyperactive agency detector device (HADD)—may be an especially effective guard against careless selfishness. Schloss and Murray’s concern that God is a “seemingly excessive” deterrent is prescient—the threat of punishment may need to be excessive, such as a belief in an omniscient and omnipotent God, because this is the most effective way to avoid dangerous mistakes.”

    In other words, fear of God keeps us doing good or at least not doing bad. This is natural selection’s way or increasing fitness. Professor Coyne and others have debunked this notion many times. Considering the history of human behavior is largely one of carnage and other bad acts, this fear hasn’t been particularly successful. And, of course, some of the most happy and peaceful societies that now exist are essentially secular. Evidence is thus mounting against Johnson’s view, which I suspect Gray endorses. Maybe Johnson and Gray would argue that for some unknown reason there are fewer Little People in these countries than elsewhere.

    • revelator60
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Johnson’s theory also doesn’t take into account societies where “fear of God” isn’t a major factor. How would Buddhist or Hindu societies fit into his theory? Or the Greek and Roman civilizations? They mostly believed in a set of gods who didn’t fit the punishing Judaeo-Christian model, and they were hardly worse or less “moral” than Christian societies.

      • Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        To be fair, I think Johnson takes that into account, or at least Gray discusses it in his article.

    • chris moffatt
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Yeah; I always think how scared that fine christian gentleman Kenneth Lay must have felt while he was ripping off billions of dollars and stealing his own employees retirements. Or how scared clerical child rapists must have been while wrecking the lives of thousands of children. Or how scared all those fine upstanding christian (all but one) national leaders were as they blithely sent their peoples to war in 1914. Yeah, yeah, religion sure does make people act better – doncha know?

  9. revelator60
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    A very fine rebuttal. One loophole that someone like Gray might exploit involves the phrase “societies that reject religion and rely on Enlightenment principles of reason”. Gray would probably respond by saying the Soviet Union was an example of a society that rejected religion and relied on Enlightenment principles of reason. One could respond that Soviet Communism was a monist faith of its own, whose totalitarian nature was an insult to the values of the Enlightenment as propounded by Volatire, Diderot, and Spinoza.

    Mencken might not have cared what others believed, but Gray seems to be obsessed about what atheists believe. Perhaps his attacks are a cheap way of signalling how supposedly sophisticated he is, though his “philosophy” is no more than a sour quietism which says you should give up on everything aside from buying his books.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      The communist societies did remove religion from their edifice, as best they could, but I did not think that they replaced it with enlightenment values. They kept control of their populations in a kind of police state. Replacing one smiteful and punishing God for a very real send-you-to-prison kind of ‘god’.

  10. Randy Schenck
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    He is an annoying person to listen too. If you spend a great deal of time bashing atheists, new or otherwise, and apologizing or making excuses for religion, how is it he defines himself as an atheist. He may be kidding himself and he may be a little person as well.

  11. DrBrydon
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Gray’s view seems like warmed over Natural Law to me. The trouble with that is that, first, everyone’s view of what is natural is subjective. Second, it assumes that what is natural is good. One could have said (probably did say) in the 19th century that we had “evolved” to own slaves. I’d say we’ve evolved to be able to rise above what is natural. Do we still need the invisible friend to keep us honest? To me New Atheism is the answer that, No, we don’t need that any longer, and that it has really been more divisive than not. Getting rid of religion is a laudatory goal because our rational answers to integration and cooperation are better than ones built on fear and exclusion.

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    The first point is worth debating but the 2nd and 3rd seem self-evidently false on the face of it.

    And there is no particular reason to believe Mencken would have lampooned the New Atheism. This is just wishful projection, a major red flag in the presentation.

    Finally, from the point of view of genuinely smart (or at least clear and non-murky) theologians, Gray is confusing “faith” with “hope”. In Christian terminology, New Atheism is in a certain sense a “hope-position”, but certainly not at all a “faith-position”.

    Are atheists like this actually self-hating, half-wishing they were believers?

  13. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I do not have a great problem with the idea that religion is a practice that stemmed from natural selection. The point made above that religion can stem from belief in an ‘agency’ pretty much makes the case for me that religion might have an evolutionary root.
    But so what? That does not mean that we still need it. Once our ancestors needed gills, and now we have discarded them. Lots of people and whole societies are discarding religion the same way.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 23, 2016 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      I concur.

  14. Frank Bath
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    John Gray is a miserable old curmudgeon who has found all the clever positions occupied and so closed to him.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I have wondered this before about a philosopher or two. That they find that the good truth claims are taken, so they build one to hang their name to & then defend it against all reason. This actually ‘works’ because the problem with philosophy is that they have difficulty in showing claims to be empirically wrong.

  15. jimroberts
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    “And it’s clear that for many purposes, our minds have indeed evolved to find out what’s true about our world.”

    I like what Quine said on this subject: “Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind.”

  16. Tom
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I have read some of Gray’s stuff, he appears to be an ardent Malthusian.
    Since we are doomed, all our science is mere delusional tinkering whilst our pathetic decline and fall is inevitable.

    • mikeb609
      Posted January 22, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Please don’t be so unkind to Malthus.

      His views have become ensconced in Darwin’s.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted January 22, 2016 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        Not ensconced, I think. I am not sure Malthus’s ideas are as applicable as Darwin thought (having read neither), but as I understand it they are applicable in a few cases of early growth while mostly populations behaves differently.

        • Robert Seidel
          Posted January 22, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

          From what I remember of the Origin, Darwin took the idea of overpopulation from Malthus: Animals producing more offspring than their ecosystem can provide for, which thus becomes one of the starting points for natural selection.

          I don’t think that’s controversial, but here’s the funny point: Malthus was chiefly concerned with human overpopulation, and thought it to be the reason for all that working class misery at the time – which is wrong, as competition between capitalists is the driving force for poor working conditions, unemployment, and the like. Lovely theory, wrong species.

  17. mikeb609
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I have to just leave this here:

    A viper entering a smith’s shop, looked up and down for something to eat, and seeing a File, fell to gnawing it as greedily as could be. The File told him, very gruffly, that he had best be quiet and let him alone; for that he would get very little by nibbling at one, who, upon occasion, could bite iron and steel.



  18. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    If for nothing else, Gray’s piece would crumble for me at his claim that I am contemplating some sort of non-human oversight. Obviously Gray has not slipped his bonds of slavery to imaginary beings, but why would he extrapolate that his tomfoolery touch all other humans?

    Now, as Jerry shows, Gray’s piece crumbles piece by piece anyway.

    These “new atheists” are simple souls.

    Against Gray’s Sophisticated Theology™ I put Simply Science™ any day.

    Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion?

    That was figured out a decade ago, it is because religiosity correlates positively with dysfunctional societies. Remove them, and the apparent ‘wedding’ disappears.

    FWIW, in my read pile is an article with the lede that Bill Gates claims poverty can be eradicated by 2030. Be afraid Gray, be very afraid.

    you cannot think that our minds are primed to seek out truth

    Yes, finding facts (not subjective ‘truth’) is exactly what we see them do. As an easy example, counting may have evolved in fishes because mammals and birds can but so can also water living modern fishes.

    Wisely, [Mencken] did not care what others believed.

    Hoist on his own petard Gray is parading himself as a fool.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Gray cites psychology experiments showing that religious people are more generous in “dictator games” than are nonbelievers, but adds as well that such generosity seems to come from fear of punishment.

    Now I have’t read the paper and I am not sure I trust the reasoning in the summary description, but it is funny here:

    “While traditional economic and evolutionary theory predicts that people will typically seek to maximise their own success, the results of economic games have shown people to be much more altruistic than expected.

    But a series of experiments carried out by evolutionary biologists at Oxford found that people are just as generous towards computers, which cannot benefit materially from cooperation, and that simply misunderstanding the game may lead to altruism in many cases.

    The results are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).”

    “Dr Burton-Chellew said: ‘We found that many of the so-called conditional cooperators are confused and do not seem to understand the public-goods game, appearing to think that being generous towards others will make them money. We primarily demonstrated this by having them play with computers, which cannot benefit from this cooperation, and showing that people behaved the same way regardless.”

    [ ]

    If the new result is correct, I guess Gray’s references are observing that religious are more confused than average. (And/or less intelligent than average, which statistics says.)

    Another take home for Gary would be this:

    “‘In short, I would argue that there is too much confidence placed in the results of these economic games; too much confidence in their ability to measure social preferences.'”

  20. Posted January 22, 2016 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    “Atheist problem of evil”? No, it’s not. No atheist I’m aware of claims that, based on human nature, we shouldn’t expect to see religion emerge. I’ve heard Dawkins say many times that there are several adaptive (strictly in an evolutionary fitness sense) behaviors that we should work to eliminate, eg, rape.

    Religion may well be a natural or easy human tendency. What has that to do with arguments about the truth of it? Is/ought, Appeal to Nature, and all that.

  21. kelskye
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    “The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.”
    Seriously? After all the understanding we have now of paternicity, agenticity, and the cultural propagation of belief, is there anything in religion that requires us to go to a supernatural explanation? If not, then there’s not even a challenge to atheism.

    • steve
      Posted January 23, 2016 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      I read that as “invertebrate”. Linnaeuan slip.

      And also:

      “Richard Dawkins ……..for whom religion is a poisonous concoction of lies and delusion. These “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory………”

      I seem to recall that Richard Dawkins has some “better-than-simple” understanding of evolutionary theory that he might draw upon when he professes on religion and it’s origins and effects.

      And even by Gray’s own admissions in the excerpts here, religion is a concoction of if not lies, then certainly delusions — does Gray just disagree that they are “poisonous” concoctions?

      • steve
        Posted January 23, 2016 at 5:58 am | Permalink

        oops “its”

  22. peepuk
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    John Gray is living proof that our minds aren’t selected for truth. He doesn’t seem to know the difference between justified and unjustified beliefs. If he gets something right it is by accident.

    Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman claims his computer animations show that selecting for truth is in evolutionary terms a losing strategy (if my memory is right).


    All culture is fiction to quote Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens). I personally know only of one truth seeking cultural activity that has had any success (the natural sciences) and does indeed bring us closer to understand and explain reality. But science also shows us we cannot rely on intuition to see the truth.

    Nevertheless we can rely on our intuition to keep us safe and to reproduce most of the time.

  23. Zado
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    “These ‘new atheists’ are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory…”

    Straw man. In fact, an ignorantly crafted straw man.

    I mean, Richard Dawkins doesn’t base his view on evolutionary theory? The man can hardly ever stop talking about “ee-volutionary theory.”

  24. Victoria
    Posted January 23, 2016 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Gray introduced me to the notion of the atheist nihilist who hates atheist who believe in progress more than religious fundamentalists. His views truly shocked me ten or fifteen years ago. He’s just one of the weirder manifestations of Postmodernism. Of course I also remember the Guardian and lot of the British media praising his Star Dogs, which really was my first inkling something was terribly wrong with my leftwing political views.

    Anyway I appreciate PCC(E) taking the time to Fisk this nonsense.

  25. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 23, 2016 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    I believe that Gray is starting from the wrong point in the argument, and so reaches the wrong conclusion.

    In evolutionary terms what traits would you expect a troop animal like humans to show? You might expect a predisposition to to act as if others in the troop had expectations of your behaviour. You don’t have to know what their expectations are in reality, only that your behaviour doesn’t generate censure.

    That’s it. Sometimes known as the Generalized Other (see Wikipedia) or a number of other concepts. Religion and/or gods is just the vague feelings of Generalized Other given a more concrete expression. All you need (plus time) to explain religions, traditions, culture, politics, war.

    So religion is just one of the *secondary* effects of biological predispositions. People don’t necessarily ‘need’ religion to get a handle on their feelings of the Generalised Other. Religion is a secondary characteristic of humans, not a primary one.

  26. Mike
    Posted January 23, 2016 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Atheism is a disbelief in the assumptions of Theists, thats how I see it, as for Religion , Gods came about to explain the unexplainable to ignorant People, and those that had a line to these “Gods” became very powerful as they also possessed the “Key to Eternal Life” very powerful combination, because who could prove you wrong.?no-one until the Age of Reason came along.

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