John Gray: Waiting for an Atheist Morality is Like Waiting for Godot

John Gray: Waiting for an Atheist Morality is Like Waiting for Godot March 18, 2015

gray marionette
It seems that Gray’s new book once again ties atheists into knots.

John Gray is one of our most fascinating public intellectuals and one heck of a muckraker. He likes to take on all comers in a Voltarian fashion. This is why he is featured on my Ethika Politika post “Neither Nye Nor Gopnik: 10 Atheists Who Engage Religion Charitably.” I put Gray’s Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions on that list. Now he has a new book coming, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom. It’s going to be a barnburner if it’s anything like his latest longread piece “What Scares the New Atheists.” 

As an Old School atheist he chides the New Atheists for their historical ignorance:

It’s probably just as well that the current generation of atheists seems to know so little of the longer history of atheist movements. When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley. None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

Gray particularly singles out Haeckel and Darwin’s Bulldog for mention here because they supported the anti-Christian status quo of their times: eugenics. He is also right to point out that human equality and personal autonomy are not scientific values. At best you can use science to validate them if you believe they are part of the intrinsic furniture of reality, but you don’t really need to do this because these are phenomena which are immediately accessible to you.

Christian theology created your order.
Christian theology created your order.

The argument about liberalism having its roots in monotheism has been rehashed many times, most famously by Nietzsche in The Gay Science. More recently, and in a much more positively vein, you see the same argument in Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism:

Today many people in the West describe themselves as Christians, without regularly going to church or having even a rudimentary knowledge of Christian doctrine. Is this just hypocrisy or ignorance? Perhaps not. It may suggest that people have a sense that the liberal secular world they live in–and for the most part endorse–is a world shaped by Christian beliefs. If so, by describing themselves in that way, they are paying tribute to the origins of the moral institutions. Is it mere coincidence that liberal secularism developed in the Christian West [not East]. This book is an attempt to answer that question.

It takes Siedentop about 450 pages to answer this question definitely in the affirmative.

It's enchanting to see honest atheists paying their debts.
It’s enchanting to see honest atheists paying their debts.

From a more philosophical, rather than political theory, angle the atheist philosopher Marcel Gauchet argues in The Disenchantment of the World that Christianity not only created the liberal order but that it is “the religion of the end of religion.” This phrase needs a little unpacking. In a nutshell: It means that Christianity, with its theological invention of respecting the person’s dignity and freedom, created (even if it did not always respect it) the space for those who do not share its beliefs. And that’s the real reason why atheism historically emerged in Western Christian countries.

You’re welcome, atheists! Quit waiting for Godot and admit you’ve found some version of Christian morality.


Maybe Tweedy is not exactly wrong here since theologians invented his (classical) liberal soul:

See: The follow up to this post, Those Christians Who Think there is an Atheist Worldview Deserve a Tinfoil Hat.

You might also want to check out Nick Spencer’s recently published Atheists: The Origin of the Species whose thought experiment, Atheism’s Ancient Creation Myth, I cited extensively here.

Finally, just like Christianity and atheism aren’t necessarily enemies, neither is religion and science.


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