Voyou Désœuvré

Dinosaur in church John Gray in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago joined the trend of writing kind of stupidly about religion and secularism. Gray rather wants to have his cake and eat it, arguing that secularism is based on religion and, anyway, secularism is worse than religion. Now, the first  half of this argument is true; contemporary western secularism really does draw a lot on early Christian arguments against paganism, reformation arguments against Catholicism, and enlightenment arguments against a personal God, which is a tradition of ideas central to Christianity. But true as this is, it doesn’t constitute the knockdown argument against secularism that Gray seems to think it does. On the contrary, secularism’s relationship to religion is no argument against secularism at all.

Secular saints of science line the wall of the OUMNH A particularly good illustration of this point is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It’s housed in a building designed as a “Cathedral to Science,” which has much the same kind of neo-Gothic sense of the sacred as Victorian railway stations, with vaulted ceilings, saints of science (Newton, Darwin, erm, Prince Albert) on plinths along one wall, reconstructed dinosaurs looming over the visitors. And I don’t mean that facetiously; there really is something religious about 19th century industrial modernity, but, as I say, that’s not necessarily a criticism. Unless you sign up to the village atheist position that the entire history of religion is some kind of inexplicable mass stupidity, presumably you have to recognize that religious ways of thinking have had some utility; shouldn’t we actually expect post-religious ways of thinking to fulfill some of the same rôles as religion? The French revolutionaries, with their religion of reason, and the Victorians, with their more plainspeaking (and thus significantly more arrogant) devotion to truth, mocked by Nietzsche, were largely right.

The natural history museum encorages children to take part in the fundamental activity of natural history, classification. While the Museum itself allows its collection to joyfully overflow categories. The OU Museum of Natural History’s exemplary quality doesn’t stop there, however. Rather splendidly, the museum treats natural history itself historically. What was once natural history’s central activity, classification, is turned into a game for children, while the museum exhibits flagrently refuse to classify anything at all. I don’t have Moll‘s knowledge of the anthropology of museum representations of science, but I was fascinated by the way the exhibits recognized the contingency of what have been considered scientific facts at different times. Science becomes an eminently human activity.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Museum of Natural History instantiates a Feuerbachian self-overcoming of religion; which is something much more interesting than broadsheet denunciations of religion or atheism.


  1. Curtis Short, 8:07 am, April 1, 2008

    Someone passed a copy of Straw Dogs onto me the other week, citing it as one of their formative ‘Angry Young Men’ texts with a blush.

    This seems pretty true to form for Gray, that stridency propped up by a determination that his views can only be met with either resigned agreement or irrational indignation brought on by having one’s sky fall in. For Gray, anyone between the archetypal Creationist Pastor and himself are cut from the same cloth.

    As you’ve already said, his points follow logically enough but it’s the dead ends he runs into that cause me to lose interest in him and Dawkins et al. I much prefer the line of thinking of a K-Punk, who struggles with getting to grips with a new use for religion, of once again utilising religion for communist discourse.

    For Gray and Dawkins, Secular Phillistines, this is self-delusion a priori, on the basis that it takes religion as its root. For anyone who hasn’t quite walked through life so comfortably, (And this is the fatal flaw of Gray and so many other ‘Rationalists,’ that their conclusions have been drawn from a distinctly comfortable middle-class white position while they so ardently insist upon disinterest) the imagination used to re-write history, to transcend, is a necessity in being able to understand discrete systemic abuses that they’ve suffered. John Gray naturally sees such wrangling as unnecessary and illogical since the academic world accommodates him quite comfortably where so many potentially more rigourous minds falter on sociological grounds. It’s perhaps only a matter of his personality and expression that his circumstances so obviously form the basis of his world view whilst undermining its claims to impartiality, that cornerstone of Rationality, but they completely cut him off at the knees for me, make his work an ’eminently human activity’ as you say.

    For me, adressing those points where class, for example, come into play; understanding their instances in the past and confronting them in the present and future, is my primary tool of understanding the world and has been essential to my coming to terms with the world up to and including my 21st year. In that sense secular 20th century Marxism has served a parallel utility to religion in allowing space for imagination beyond that which is laid out in front of me, and I’m glad of it.

    Gray scoffs at that because he’s never particularly needed that utility, being that he exists in a continuum with the well-off Victorian amateur scientist collecting fossils off Brighton beach in the noble pursuit of knowledge.

  2. John Pattison, 3:15 pm, April 4, 2008

    John Gray and Richard Dawkins are the same? Huh? I couldn’t think of two intellectuals more at odds.

    Read his Wikipedia page …

    “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. ”

    — John Gray, essay “Joseph Conrad, Our Contemporary” in Heresies

    John Gray was born to a working class mining family in South Shields, Tyne and Wear (also on his Wikipedia page … probably a good place to visit before you write about someone.)

  3. Curtis Short, 6:36 am, April 15, 2008

    Gray and Dawkins are the same in their phillistine empiricist view as I explained. I’m well aware of John Gray’s anti-humanism and I also spoke of this in my post, presumably you’re inferring that I haven’t read any Gray before making up a lot of stuff about him, not even the Guardian post to which this refers to. You, on the other hand, have read his Wikipedia page. And a fine job you’ve done too.

    In an Oxbridge which is still far from egalitarian, I’m sure you’ll agree, his childhood in contrast to his education can’t be much more than a spectacular instance of social mobility which the status quo will hold up with pride, despite all sorts of evidence that shows social mobility to be, on the whole, close to non-existent.

    And I’d imagine his career provides him with a sufficient level of comfort so as to put him in league with every other glib rationalist or empiricist like him, which was more or less the point of my comment and how I drew Dawkins and Gray together. I was merely talking about the positions from which they spring forth rather than the content of their thought.

    And thank you for the tip about wikipedia, I can only hope it will provide me with the veracity which you so clearly exhibit.

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