Rowan Williams on Narnia
By John Gray
New Statesman, 15 August 2012
Edited by Andy Ross
The Lion's World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia
Children's books enable their authors to disregard distinctions between what
is real and what is imaginary in ways that most books meant for adults do
not. But the seven volumes of Narnia stories are all too obviously a
literary rendition of a middle-aged male's nostalgic memories of growing up
in Edwardian England. They lack the freshness of vision of Lewis' 1938
Out of the Silent Planet.
The Lion's World
can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone interested in
fundamental questions about the place of humankind in the scheme of things.
Williams argues that theism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric
viewpoint. Pointing to the central role of animals in Narnia, he notes that
Aslan the lion is non-human. Williams says "human beings are always already
embedded" in the non-human world.
Narnia's talking beasts free the
mind from what Williams describes as "the passionate campaign against nature
itself that is typical of the most toxic kinds of modernity". Refashioning
nature and human nature to fit ideas of perfection or progress dehumanizes
humankind. Williams: "Humanity can be manipulated into a nightmare
caricature of eternal life, but only by losing what makes it human."
The Long Peace
Prospect, September 21, 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its
By Steven Pinker
Discussing what he calls the long peace since the end of the second world
war, Steven Pinker says the developed states have stopped waging war on one
But wait. The second world war was followed by over forty
years of conflict. The cold war adversaries were at war with one another the
entire time. The Korean war, the Six Day War, the Vietnam war, the Iran-Iraq
war, and the Soviet-Afghan war are only some of the armed conflicts through
which the great powers pursued their rivalries. These conflicts add up to a
formidable sum of violence.
Pinker cites numerous reasons for the
long peace, but none is as important as the adoption of a "coherent
philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment." He
regards the core of the Enlightenment as a commitment to rationality. He
takes for granted that science endorses an Enlightenment account of human
Evolutionary psychology is in its infancy, but the idea that
humans can shape their lives by the use of reason is an inheritance from
rationalist philosophy that does not fit easily with what we know of the
evolution of our mammalian brain. The contradiction afflicts anyone who
tries to combine rigorous Darwinism with a belief in moral progress. If
Darwin’s theory is even approximately right, there can be no rational basis
for expecting any revolution in human behavior.
Social violence is
coeval with the human species. Some of the impulses we inherit from our
evolutionary past may incline us to conflict. Others incline us to peaceful
cooperation. To show that conflicts between the two will in future
increasingly be settled in favor of peace, Pinker needs to identify some
powerful trends. All the trends that supposedly lie behind the long peace
are contingent and reversible.
Even if humans were not moved by the
pursuit of power and glory, scarcity and uncertainty would drive them
repeatedly into conflict with one another. Recurrent violence is a result of
the normal disorder of human life. Violence is often simply a method.
Suicide bombing is morally repugnant but it is also cheap and highly
effective. Humans use violence for many reasons, and everything points to
their doing so for the foreseeable future.
"recivilization" in America without much concern for those who pay the
price. The astonishing numbers of black young men in jail in the United
States is due to the disproportionate impact on black people of the
"decimalizing process," notably the high rate of black children born out of
wedlock. The vast growth of the American penal state does not immediately
present itself as an advance in civilization.
Pinker's attempt to
ground the hope of peace in science testifies to our enduring need for
faith. Liberal humanists look to science to show that violence will decline.
The result is no more credible than the efforts of economists until 2008 to
demonstrate the permanence of the long boom. The long peace is another such
Gray is a prominent liberal British political philosopher and
author. Born in 1948, Gray studied at Exeter College, Oxford, where he read
Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and completed his doctorate. He has
taught at the University of Essex and the University of
Oxford. He has served as a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale and other
universities. Since 1998, he has been School Professor of European Thought
at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Ideas that Matter
By John Gray
National Interest, April
Edited by Andy Ross
Ideas that Matter: The Concepts that Shape the 21st Century
By A. C. Grayling
Bertrand Russell fell victim to the belief that the solution to the world's
problems would be found in increasing internationalism, socialism, the
withering away of religion and the continuing advancement of science. He
never doubted that if only humankind could bring itself to be reasonable,
the future would be so much better than the past.
A. C. Grayling
preaches that salvation is at hand through rational inquiry, the gift of the
Greeks that was lost in the Dark Ages and rediscovered in the Enlightenment.
The result is a style of argument that often amounts to high-minded
silliness. Grayling is insistent that liberal values apply universally. He
is also insistent that these values have nothing to do with religion.
The history of the last century is testimony to the destructive power of
rationalism, not fideism. Nazism and Communism were at one in their hatred
of religion. Both claimed to be founded in science — "dialectical
materialism" and "scientific racism." Of course these sciences were bogus,
but they show what horrors can be justified by appeal to reason. Grayling is
adamant in denying that the crimes of Nazism and Communism had anything to
do with atheism.
Regimes embodying ideologies as all-embracing as
Marxism are bound to crush those who refuse to accept the ideology. This is
why it is so silly to argue that hostility to religion had nothing to do
with Nazi and Communist oppression.
Grayling does not discuss the
fact that antiliberal atheists such as Nietzsche believed their enmity to
liberalism was of a piece with their atheism. Like other contemporary
critics of religion, Grayling passes over the long tradition of illiberal
atheism as if it never existed.
The most militant varieties of
atheism have historically been highly illiberal, while liberal values derive
very largely from Western religion. Denying that religion had practically
any constructive part in the emergence of liberal values, Grayling is bound
to reject their demonstrable debts to Christianity and Judaism.
Grayling apparently believes that Western civilization would be much
improved if it did not include the Judeo-Christian inheritance. When
Grayling condemns religion, he takes for granted that religions are
primitive theories, now rendered obsolete by science. In this view, religion
will fade away along with continuing scientific advance. But what if science
were to show that religion serves needs that do not change with the growth
of knowledge? In that case, it would not be religion and science that were
at odds, but science and atheism.
Yet Grayling presents socialism and
democracy, the horrors of religion and the near inevitability of ongoing
secularization as ruling ideas of the twenty-first century.
James described the Hegelian universe, every part of which is inextricably
linked with every other, as resembling a crowded seaside boardinghouse in
which there is nowhere to take refuge from society. Grayling's ideal world has a similarly claustrophobic effect.
Based on an article by John Gray
The Guardian, March 15, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
Religion is now demonised as the cause of many of the world's worst evils.
As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of
proselytising atheism. Scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists
and journalists are debating whether religion has a future.
Edited works by Theodore Dalrymple,
including his review of atheist books
My cut of a long review of the God books
by Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins
Breaking the Spell
Daniel Dennett claims to sketch a
general theory of religion. For Dennett, religions are efforts at doing
something science does better. He writes: "The proposition that God exists
is not even a theory." But religions do not consist of propositions
struggling to become theories.
The notion that religion is a
primitive version of science was popularised in the late 19th century by
J.G. Frazer. Dennett's atheism is not much more than a revamped version of
Frazer's positivism. Dennett predicts that "in about 25 years almost all
religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that
in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe that it does
Atheism need not be a missionary creed. It is entirely
reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It
is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly
human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.
Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need
for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation. A great deal of
modern thought consists of secular myths. Dennett's notion that new
communications technologies will fundamentally alter the way human beings
think is just such a myth.
The God Delusion
seems convinced that if it were not inculcated in schools and families,
religion would die out. I cannot help being reminded of the evangelical
Christian who assured me that children reared in a chaste environment would
grow up without illicit sexual impulses.
Dawkins compares religion to
a virus: religious ideas are memes that infect vulnerable minds, especially
those of children. Biological metaphors may have their uses — the minds of
evangelical atheists seem particularly prone to infection by religious
memes, for example. At the same time, analogies of this kind are fraught
reactions to Richard Dawkins' book-length rant against God
David Sloan Wilson argues that Richard
Dawkins is wrong about religion
The End of
Sam Harris argues that religion has been the chief
source of violence and oppression in history. He recognises that secular
despots such as Stalin and Mao inflicted terror on a grand scale, but
maintains the oppression they practised had nothing to do with their
ideology of "scientific atheism" — what was wrong with their regimes was
that they were tyrannies.
Nowadays most atheists are avowed liberals.
What they want is a secular state in which religion has no role. They
clearly believe that, in a state of this kind, religion will tend to
decline. But America's secular constitution has not ensured a secular
My book on
writings by Sam Harris and related themes
Towards the Light
A.C. Grayling reaffirms what he calls "a
Whig view of the history of the modern west." The Whigs were pious
Christians, who believed divine providence arranged history to culminate in
English institutions, and Grayling too believes history is "moving in the
But the belief that history is a directional
process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. With the
arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a
predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Secular humanists continue to
cling to similar beliefs.
The problem with the secular narrative is
its assumption that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science
can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific
knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society.
Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and
revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers.
Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.
progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal
narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning
it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of
Christianity. He did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal
In Defence of Atheism
Michel Onfray recognises that evangelical atheism is an unwitting imitation
of traditional religion: "Many militants of the secular cause look
astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy." More clearly
than his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Onfray understands the formative
influence of religion on secular thinking. Yet Onfray has nothing but
contempt for Jewish monotheism: "We do not possess an official certificate
of birth for worship of one God. But the family line is clear: the Jews
invented it to endure the coherence, cohesion and existence of their small,
God Is Not Great
Christopher Hitchens notes that, long before Hizbullah and al-Qaida, the
Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka pioneered what he rightly calls "the disgusting
tactic of suicide murder." He omits to mention that the Tigers are
Marxist-Leninists who, while recruiting mainly from the island's Hindu
population, reject religion in all its varieties.
It is not necessary
to believe in any narrative of progress to think liberal societies are worth
resolutely defending. The issue is one of proportion. Islamism is nowhere
near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down in the 20th
My pairing of an outraged review of
Hitchens and a bland review of Jesus
A Christopher Hitchens miscellany
Martin Amis is sure religion is a bad thing,
and that it has no future in the west.
A Martin Amis miscellany
Religion has not gone away. Repressing it is like repressing sex. Not
everything in religion is precious and no religion has the right to break
the peace. But the attempt to eradicate religion only leads to it
reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms.
Only Science Can Save Us
By John Gray
The Observer, January 20, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
No reasonable person any longer doubts that the world is heating up or that
this change has been triggered by human activity.
When it comes to
deciding what should be done, most people shrink from the discomfort that
goes with realistic thinking. Greens put their faith in sustainable growth
and renewable energy. The root of the environmental crisis is our addiction
to fossil fuels. If only we switch to wind, wave and solar power, all will
The environmental crisis cannot be resolved without a major
reduction in our impact on the Earth. This means curbing the production of
greenhouse gases, but here fashionable policies can be self-defeating. The
shift to biofuels involves further destruction of rainforest, a key natural
regulator of the climate. Unsightly and inefficient wind farms will not
enable us to give up fossil fuels, while large-scale hydroelectric power has
major environmental costs. Moving over to organic methods of food production
does nothing to stop the devastation of wilderness that goes with expanding
farming to feed a swelling human population.
The uncomfortable fact is that an energy-intensive
lifestyle of the kind enjoyed in the rich parts of the world cannot be
extended to a human population of nine or ten billion. In terms of
resources, human numbers are already unsustainable. Global warming is the
flipside of worldwide industrialisation. No expansion of renewables can
satisfy the demand for energy in China and India. Anyway, does anyone really
expect the countries getting rich from hydrocarbons to give them up? As long
as there is enough demand, these countries will continue extracting fossil
The only way forward is to make full use of technologies many
environmentalists view with superstitious horror. Nuclear energy has
well-known problems of security and waste disposal, but demonising it is
conventional green thinking at its delusional worst. Though solar power has
potential, no type of renewable energy can replace the dirty fuels of the
industrial past. If we reject the nuclear option, we will inevitably end up
going back to coal. There are emerging technologies that can make coal
cleaner. That is no reason for turning our back on nuclear, which is already
Any feasible remedy for the
environmental crisis involves high-tech solutions. Given the legitimate
aspirations of people in developing countries, only a high-tech strategy has
any chance of reducing the human footprint.
But it will also be necessary to face up to the reality of population
pressure. Malthus argued that population growth would finally overtake food
production. Industrial farming turns out to have been heavily dependent on
cheap oil, and limits on food production are re-emerging. Far more than
renewable energy, we need to ensure that contraception and abortion are
freely available everywhere.
While there is no technical fix for the
human condition, intelligent use of technology is indispensable in coping
with environmental disruption.
"The core of
the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel
with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary.
Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the
values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to
alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to
wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that
powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these
technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an
unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the
growth of knowledge — not even in the long run."
From Uncle Joe To Boy George
Daily Telegraph, July 5, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia
The human project to
create a perfect society has died in the sands of Iraq. The attempt to
export democracy to the Gulf was so crazy that its failure has killed off
not just neoconservative ideology but also utopia itself.
the central thesis of John Gray's new book, and it really is a load of
Gray, a professor at the LSE who is described on the front
cover as "the most important living philosopher", has had a fit of
Bush-hatred spectacular even by the standards of important living
philosophers. But the silly man has gone and built an entire theory of
history around it.
Here's the argument. Jesus and his early
followers believed that a perfect world would come to pass after an
earth-shattering confrontation with Satan. This apocalyptic belief was given
a makeover by the Enlightenment.
So far, so good. The link between
Christian millenarianism and Nazism is well established. But Gray also
sniffs out a trail from Auschwitz. This is interesting, as is the
information that Stalin had peasant women inseminated with ape sperm in an
attempt to produce soldier ape-men who would be resistant to pain.
Then, unfortunately, Gray goes almost as nuts as Uncle Joe. He thinks that
the apocalyptic torch has been passed from Pol Pot to George W Bush, who
practises mass terror to create an Iraqi utopia dreamt up by shadowy
neoconservatives. And most of them stay in the shadows, because Gray can't
come up with more than a few names: Wolfowitz, Kristol, Perle and a couple
of other Jews (he is sufficiently nervous to leave out this detail).
Perhaps aware that he is running short of neocons to man his conspiracy,
Gray presses Tony Blair into service. The former Prime Minister was not only
a classic neocon, we learn, but one whose mendacity bore the stamp of Soviet
Although Gray is by no stretch of the imagination
our most important living philosopher, he does slightly remind me of
Bertrand Russell in his dotage — a clever man playing to the gallery.
But it's getting late, professor. Go home and sleep it off.
AR John Gray and I were undergraduates together
at Exeter College, Oxford. He matriculated in 1968, I in 1969.