The British philosopher John Gray is not someone to shy away from ‘difficult’ topics. If you are looking for a provocative long read this weekend, his new article in the Times Literary Supplement ought to be a contender. I didn’t agree with all of it (for example, I would argue that the supposedly secular totalitarianisms of the twentieth century—essentially millenarian sects, as Gray rightly observes—were even more ‘religious’ than even he would claim), not that that matters.
Above all, Gray’s take on where the arguments of John Stuart Mill, one of the saints of traditional liberalism, have led is, to say the least, intriguing.
[Mill’s] assertion that human beings would prefer intellectual freedom over contented conformity was at odds with his empiricist philosophy. Essentially unfalsifiable, it was a matter of faith.
While he never faced up to the contradictions in his thinking, Mill was fully aware that he was fashioning a new religion. Much influenced by Auguste Comte, he was an exponent of what he and the French Positivist philosopher described as “the Religion of Humanity”. Instead of worshipping a transcendent divinity, Comte instructed followers of the new religion to venerate the human species as “the new Supreme Being”. Replacing the rituals of Christianity, they would perform daily ceremonies based in science, touching their skulls at the point that phrenology had identified as the location of altruism (a word Comte invented). In an essay written not long before the appearance of On Liberty but published posthumously (he died in 1873), Mill described this creed as “a better religion than any of those that are ordinarily called by that title”.
That may or may not be true, but at least Mill recognized its essentially religious nature, not that that took much doing.
Like Comte, [Mill] believed that humanity is a progressive species, though he diverged profoundly in how he understood progress. And what is “humanity”? The conception of humankind as a collective agent gradually achieving its goals is not reached by observation.
Like the brotherhood of man, just another delusion, unless it’s old Cain who we have in mind. Whether it is—as some delusions can be—a useful or even necessary delusion is a different question.
But back to Gray:
The politics of identity is a postmodern twist on the liberal religion of humanity. The Supreme Being has become an unknown God – a species of human being nowhere encountered in history, which does not need to define itself through family or community, nationality or any religion….
Liberals who are dismayed at the rise of the new intolerance have not noticed how much they have in common with those who are imposing it. Hyper-liberal “snowflakes”, who demand safe spaces where they cannot be troubled by disturbing facts and ideas, are what their elders have made them. Possessed by faith in an imaginary humanity, both seek to weaken or destroy the national and religious traditions that have supported freedom and toleration in the past…
Food for thought, to say the least.