John Gray reviews two books by Alister McGrath, one of which I wrote about here (and, in a slightly revised form, here). Gray commends the first book, The Twilight of Atheism, for several of the reasons that led me to criticise it. Principal among these is the idea that atheism is parasitic on religion. This is trivially true, inasmuch as the word "atheism" is the negation of "theism". But that's just an etymological point and has no bearing on an assessment of the atheist's positive beliefs - his "naturalism" let's say.
McGrath's case, and Gray's defence of it, derives such polemical power as it can muster from a conflation of atheism with anti-religious and, more specifically, anti-Christian points of view. Thus Gray:
As we know it today, atheism is a by-product of Christianity. It is not a world-view in its own right but rather a negative version of Western monotheism, and can have little interest for anyone whose horizons extend beyond that tradition.
Gray makes an additional point here, one that was lurking behind his remarks about contemporary liberal thinking that I discussed in an earlier post. This is that "modern ideologies of human emancipation, such as communism and neo-liberalism, are the illegitimate offspring of the Christian promise of universal salvation". There are two things to say about this: first, there's nothing intrinsically eschatological in modern liberalism (for which the term "neo-liberalism" is going proxy here) - a commitment to certain basic liberal principles doesn't compel some vision of their realisation in a secular paradise; second, it looks very much as if any vision of human emancipation will count as an off-shoot of Christianity for Gray - and that can't be right.
I wasn't going to blog about Alex Thomson's spectacularly stupid piece in the Guardian yesterday about the desirability of journalists embedding with the "insurgency" in Iraq (you know, the head-choppers, car-bombers, police-killers) - but then I discovered that David T from Harry's Place had emailed Thomson asking him to clarify a point in his "argument". Thomson referred to an "ideological and military clash [in Iraq] of Christian fundamentals with Islamist fundamentals". David T asked, "In what way is the US's conduct in Iraq explicable in terms of Christian fundamentals? Am I missing your point?" Thomson replied: "Yes - US Neo-Cons". David then asks: "Do you believe that US Neo-Cons have waged the war for reasons connected with "Christian fundamentals"? I thought that the US Neo-Cons were supposed to be jewish?" Thomson replies: "In part, yes - I think that's pretty much a matter of record and openly stated policy".
So the "Jewish cabal" calumny about the neo-conservatives is no longer currency on the Grays Inn Road? (Hat tip: Clive Davis)
Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling has responded to what he takes to be a challenge set in this post of mine on the topic of religion and moral values. I commended a question posed just after the US election by Mark Schmitt. Schmitt asked "why it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the first time ever, virtually no element of social justice?"
Now Dillow's right to insist that Schmitt's question, whilst a good one, is "of sociological, not ethical, importance". In other words, he's saying that there's no intrinsic connection between religion and "progressive politics", which is obviously true, and, more fundamentally, no intrinsic connection between religion and what he calls "conventional morality" - presumably the norms that most of us, the non-religious included, feel to be binding. He cites Alasdair MacIntyre to some effect here: “Religious conceptions of morality are intelligible only insofar as they complement or otherwise elaborate upon existing secular conceptions.”
I'm not sure I accept what Dillow goes on to say about the role of reason and belief in politics, though I do think the idea that religious commitments aren't best understood on the model of preferences fits with the point I was making about "the nature of [those] commitments and their place in the moral fabric of believers' lives".
John Gray is back in the New Statesman, reiterating some familiar themes in a review of a book about modern liberalism by Mark Garnett. Gray begins by asserting that "there is no agreement about what liberalism means", drawing distinctions between narrowly political and more comprehensive liberalisms, and between autonomy-based and multiculturalist construals of fundamental liberal values. That's all uncontroversial, of course, and we hardly need reminding today of the tension between, for example, different conceptions of liberal toleration. (Actually, some peopledo need reminding of it, but that's another matter.)
But at the same time, Gray argues, "all liberals have in common a touching certainty that they are right. Liberalism is a missionary faith, and prosleytising zeal is not normally conducive to sceptical inquiry". Now I'm not sure what sort of claim that is meant to be. Is it an empirical or historical claim, or is Gray saying that liberalism somehow entails "prosleytising zeal"? He then points out that the "core values" of liberalism, whatever they are, sometimes come into conflict. Sure they do, but it's just false, simply as a matter of fact, to say that this "rarely occurs" to liberals.
A corollary of the claim that religious belief sometimes conduces to civic virtue is that virtue and religiosity are not identical. That much should be obvious, of course, but it seems it isn't - at least if much of the "religion and moral values" talk in the last week or so is anything to go by. Leon Wieseltier, in The New Republic, gets things straight:
It is not the triumphalism of the Republicans that is so distasteful (victory indeed is theirs), it is the sanctimony; and this is owed to a further refinement of the Republican worldview, according to which moral values are finally religious values. It is philosophically and historically obtuse, of course, to think that morality cannot exist without religion, or that immorality cannot exist with religion; but for the Republicans "values" are the entailments of "faith." The good are with God, the bad are without God. And since winners are good and losers are bad, it follows that the winners are with God and the losers are without God. What clarity!
And, as if to confirm that it is possible to hold together in your head at the same time the two claims I mentioned above , today's Le Monde carries a short interview with Michael Walzer in which he says that what "we need is a new anti-clericalism that is not simply anti-religious".