John Gray on the Seven Kinds of Atheism
Oct 15 2018


Philosopher and author John Gray talks about his latest book, Seven Types of Atheism, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Gray argues that progress is an illusion and that most atheisms inherit, unknowingly, a religious belief in progress that is not justified. While Gray concedes that technological know-how and scientific knowledge improve over time, he argues that morality and political systems are cyclical and that there is no reason to be optimistic about the future.

Chuck Klosterman on But What If We're Wrong
Chuck Klosterman, author of But What If We're Wrong, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the possibility that things we hold to be undeniably true may turn out to be totally false in the future. This wide-ranging conversation covers...
Jonathan Haidt on the Righteous Mind
Jonathan Haidt of New York University and author of The Righteous Mind talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book, the nature of human nature, and how our brain affects our morality and politics. Haidt argues that reason often...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Oct 15 2018 at 10:40am

John Gray made good points about the difference between the progress of science and the unchanged nature of humans.  I was repeatedly reminded of this quote.

“We are living now, not in the delicious intoxication induced by the early successes of science, but in a rather grisly morning-after, when it has become apparent that what triumphant science has done hitherto is to improve the means for achieving unimproved or actually deteriorated ends.” — Aldous (Leonard) Huxley

Ends and Means: an Inquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into Methods Employed for their Realization (1937), 310

John Gray asked an important question about evil.

“How many evils, which we think have been safely confined to the past, will in fact come back? [e.g.] … the return of the practice of torture, … the return … of antisemitism, … [and] slavery.”

The contemporary slavery examples missed the slave markets that developed when ISIS was allowed to expand into the power vacuum left by the departure of U.S. forces.  That enabled a real slave market that responded to laws of supply and demand.  Here is what one reporter on location in Iraq found in February 1, 2017.

“If you want a grimly objective measuring stick of the impact Trump’s election had in this war-torn region: The sex slave traders of ISIS are afraid that their supply of Christian and Yezidi women will soon dry up, so the price of a sex-trafficked girl in Iraq shot up from $8,000 to $20,000. So I learned from a Yezidi family that is trying to ransom back a daughter.” — Jason Scott Jones

John Gray was impressively spot on when pointing out that, while atheists have been able to adopt various moralities, those moralities have been all over the map on values, including those that accepted or else rejected principles such as human equality.
That is to be expected since science cannot provide any such values.  In particular, science will never be able to provide the verdict of human equality.  Every measurement made by science will only show the material fact of the many ways that humans are not equal to each other.  Darwin’s own subtitle was “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”.  A theory of evolution will always depend on the appearance of differences.
As atheists Luc Ferry and Chris Berg have affirmed, the idea of human equality is a Judeo-Christian contribution, being based on the Genesis account (mentioned in this episode) of the nature of the creation of humanity such that all humans bear the image of God.
I appreciate John Gray’s similar well made point that some atheists assume they can justify the same conclusion without realizing they are standing on the borrowed ground of assumptions that depend on this Judeo-Christian foundation.
Yet, unless there is real truth to moral claims such as the idea of human equality, (i.e. rather than this being just one view against others of equal standing), what is the justification for the implicit assumption throughout this episode that some positions really are “evil” and “monstrous” and so on?
To say that some patterns of behavior are truly evil, there must be real moral truth, i.e. real truth to the claim that humans ought to be living in one way vs. another way.

All in all, I very much enjoyed listening to John Gray.

Paul A Sand
Oct 15 2018 at 11:28am

Thanks to this episode, I learned I’ve apparently been mispronouncing “polytheism” my entire life.

Todd Kreider
Oct 15 2018 at 1:03pm

1) John Gray’s criticism of New Atheism seems mostly unwarranted.  The four most discussed “new atheists”, Chrstopher Hitchens, Sam Harris are writers, Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and Daniel Dennett is a philosopher. They aren’t the ones who called themselves New Atheists – a journalist coined the name in 2006 – nor have I heard them claim that they have had new ideas.

2) Gray said: “If you look out through the longer perspective of human history, you find many examples of civilizations that grew up and achieved higher levels of material progress than they had in the past. I mean, Rome at its peak was much more highly developed than it was 5- or 600 years before it reached its peak. They had what we call central heating; they had public baths; they had large libraries.”

If you read about what Roman public baths were like, you realize that they would all be shut down in the U.S  by even 1920s standards. While Rome did become somewhat wealthier at its peak, to say it was “much more highly developed” than it was 500 years prior to the peak isn’t correct. This misunderstanding is also often stated about China’s Song dynasty.

In today’s dollars, economic historian Angus Maddison estimated that Rome and the region that is today Italy had a GDP per capita of $1,700, Northern Africa $1,100 and $800 to the north, including the British area. So Rome was about two times as wealthy at its peak from 500 B.C. and about where Haiti and Togo are at today in terms of  standard of living but without modern appliances. Further away from Rome within the Roman empire, the GDP per capita at the peak was the same as Congo today.

In contrast, the U.K. toward the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1820 had a GDP per capita of  $3000 and grew to $45,000 today using 2018 dollars, a 15 fold increase.






Harry Robinson
Oct 17 2018 at 4:41pm

Todd, using stats like per capita is a bit ambiguous. As an example. the “average” income in the U.S. is allegedly $57,000 annually. So what? What the average person makes is far far less. Thus, the better stat to use would be the weighted average income which is probably in the high $20ks or low $30ks annually.  They do not provide that stat for obvious reasons.  The FRB just published one of the stats, 31% of the populous cannot come up with $400 bucks without borrowing it or selling something. The pawn shows are doing well.

Todd Kreider
Oct 17 2018 at 6:41pm

GDP per capita best captures the standard of living of a country or region and estimates go back two thousand years. Inequality is higher in the U.S. than the U.K., so I thought it was better to look at Britain’s growth that has increased 15 fold since that GDP per capita matches median income better than the U.S.

At any rate, the standard of living in Rome at the height of the empire was higher than in 500 BCE – but not by that much. The same is true with China and the Song Dynasty at its peak.


Oct 16 2018 at 1:40pm

I enjoyed this episode quite a bit, but it was very frustrating at times. For instance, several times Gray made non-sequiturs that went unchallenged, as when he attempted to refute the proposition “you can build morality on atheism” by citing examples of atheists who had evidently failed to do. This would suffice only to refute the proposition “atheism always leads to morality”.

I also found his repeated slurs of Sam Harris et al as being “parochial” to be quite annoying. I don’t believe any of the beliefs he attributed to Harris or other contemporary atheists throughout the interview are beliefs that they actually hold, at least not in the straw-man form in which they were presented here.

Nevertheless, a thought-provoking interview and an excellent guest.

Oct 16 2018 at 4:08pm

Try listening again starting around 57:33 through 1:10:14.  It seems to me he’s not trying to “refute the proposition, “you can build morality on atheism””.  It’s more the opposite.

He actually says, (58:47) “No, I’m not dismissive of the view that there can be morality or I would say ‘moralities’ [Notice his preference for the plural.] without a divine lawgiver or without God.  I’m not dismissive of that …”.  He goes on to give diverse examples of atheists with vastly different moralities, e.g. with or without racism, with altruism or instead with egoism, liberals vs. most often anti-liberals, etc.  (1:02:17) “…you find that there are many, many different varieties of atheist morality…”

His point is that atheists tend to be “parochial” in the sense that they tend to justify some morality they are familiar with without noticing (1:04:05) “…it’s the morality they take for granted…”.  (1:04:29) “…I don’t give them any credit for picking a good morality because it’s simply the one they grew up with and they’ve never thought about it.  They think that ‘morality’ and ‘their morality’ are the same things…”

So the problem of Sam Harris and others is that, even if they appeal to science [which by itself is actually neutral and amoral], they happen to justify a morality they are familiar with and take for granted.  (1:06:13) “Why it produces that particular morality is a question he’s too parochial to ask.”

Hope that helps.

Oct 16 2018 at 10:05pm

Sam has gone to the effort of writing an entire book about creating a moral framework that isn’t dependent on any tradition or authority. People may or may not agree with it, but it’s a good faith attempt to do exactly what John Gray says no one does. I guess something relatively new and interesting was just too boring for John to bother refuting in any way except to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Tom Gregorich
Oct 19 2018 at 7:32am

Will have to check out Sam’s book, but I don’t see how this is possible. It’s like the David Foster Wallace quote about how fish don’t know they’re in water. You’d need to live in total isolation from birth in order to truly separate yourself from the influence that religion has had on the world.

Oct 19 2018 at 11:50am

John Gray is not pretending that the Harris book “doesn’t exist” or that atheists never create “a moral framework” or that they use appeals to “tradition or authority”.  On the contrary, his point is the opposite.  Atheists have created many different conflicting “moralities” (plural).  Far from saying they never do this, Gray is pointing out that each attempt tends to advance a kind of morality they happen to have a parochial familiarity with.  They justify a morality they take for granted.  “…it’s simply the one they grew up with and they’ve never thought about it.  They think that ‘morality’ and ‘their morality’ are the same things…”

If you want to argue against John Gray’s position, counter examples would be where 1) an atheist created and justified a moral framework that was fundamentally unlike what society already held, and 2) did so in some non-arbitrary way that other atheists in other ages and cultures with other moral assumptions would nevertheless still find compelling.

I observe that never happens because the atheist position undermines the very idea that there is a true way that humans are meant to behave.  Consequently, it is not surprising when Gray observes correctly that atheists through history tend instead to justify their own moral assumptions and preferences, which have varied greatly.

Greg G
Oct 19 2018 at 1:03pm

—“Gray observes correctly that atheists through history tend instead to justify their own moral assumptions and preferences, which have varied greatly.”

OK.  Fair enough.  I observe correctly that religious people through history also tend to justify their own moral assumptions and preferences, which have varied greatly.

Some religions teach that it is ethical to kill heretics and apostates.  Others teach it isn’t.  Others change their position on that through history to match the moral assumptions and preferences of the time and place.  And, of course, there is a quite spectacular variation between religions throughout history regarding which sexual and cultural practices are ethically permitted.  In almost every case the prevailing teachings match the moral assumptions and preferences of the relevant community at the time.

Greg G
Oct 16 2018 at 4:00pm

I enjoyed this podcast, but as Todd and Mark have already noted, I  thought that John Gray’s criticisms of Dawkins and Harris were way, way over the top.  Like this one:

“None of the New Atheists knows anything about the history of ideas; even of the history of atheism they are pretty ignorant beyond the last 20 years or so.”

That is the wildest kind of hyperbole backed up by no examples at all.   As Todd pointed out, Dawkins and Harris did not originate and do not use the title “New Atheists”  and they  do they claim their arguments are new.

I though the best point that John Gray made was that religions are best thought of as a set of practices more than a set of beliefs.  That is true and it is something many people overlook. But it undermines his point when he goes on to criticize Dawkins and Harris for not appreciating the deepest and most subtle beliefs of religious scholars who take classic teachings metaphorically.

Dawkins and Harris are concerned with the damage done by the vastly larger number of religious believers who DO take religious teachings literally and that the harm those people are doing TODAY in the real world.

I think there are some good criticisms to be made of Dawkins and Harris but I don’t think they are the ones made here.  The alternative they offer for explaining behavior is evolutionary psychology.  I think evolutionary psychology does indeed have great explanatory power but one of its most basic tenets is that individual human actors cannot necessarily be trusted to understand the deep evolutionary motivations for their behavior.  Harris and Dawkins are way too credulous whenever some sociopath cites religious doctrine as the reason for his murderous behavior.  Many terrorist acts have deeper roots in politics, nationalism, racism and mental illness.   Of course the perpetrators are happy to take advantage of the cloak of religious respectability when they can get it.

And simply from a strategic point of view in fighting terrorism, it is a far more promising tactic to convince people that violent religious extremism is a perversion of their religion than to convince them they should reject that religion root and branch.

Oct 17 2018 at 12:19am

“None of the New Atheists knows anything about the history of ideas; even of the history of atheism they are pretty ignorant beyond the last 20 years or so.”

Sadly, I know of no author that could deliver the savaging this statement deserves better than the late Christopher Hitchens.

Oct 16 2018 at 5:47pm

Whenever someone says, “of course,” the proposition is questionable.

Oct 16 2018 at 10:25pm

This was a data free podcast with few quantitative estimates of costs and benefits of the myths promulgated by the major religions.    My vote is that balance has tipped to the negative due to increased scale and the incestuous relation with government.

Atheists can be less shrill when there is actually freedom from state religions.  The major religions are massive real estate empires and directly and indirectly nuclear powers.  I would almost rate the Disney myths less dangerous.  Is there really anything holy about the middle east? Seriously. Common myths may help when commerce extends beyond personal connections.  This is open to abuse by a cynical or devious elite.

It is time to breakup these religious monopolies, it would only take a little restraint, they tend to disintegrate naturally if governments stay out of the way.  Let one thousand new myths bloom.  Morality will meander along as it always has, without the major religions.  After all we have only been talking for a few thousand years.  The myths are not genetic.

Vic Nurcombe
Oct 17 2018 at 11:21am

It was a thought-provoking discussion, but often frustrating. I agree with comments above about the very poor and misleading  misrepresentation of Harris et al. Like most of the sophisticated thinkers about religion, he denounces how “unsophisticated” the Dawkins depiction of religion is, without acknowledging that 99% of religionists practice exactly the way Dawkins describes. This is close-mindedness to what’s right in front of you. The other thing that bothered me is that yes, there are many times when human nature defeats spurts of progress, and yes, empires collapse. But empires have always cross-pollinated other, rising empires, so that overall, human progress has been, from an overall sense, pretty staggering…..from banging rocks together 20,000 years ago, to telescopes that can see the end of the universe…..and the morality that is suggested by this? As Gray says, talking of Conrad, we are at our best adventuring, physically and mentally. To ignore such massive, albeit gradual progress….it doesn’t sit right.

Oct 17 2018 at 2:16pm

I don’t think I understand Gray’s ideas.

He says religious teachings are not meant to be taken literally but rather thought of as useful, allegorical myths.  He is a self-professed atheist.

So, I assume that he ultimately understands the ethics and morality that religions propagate as human inventions.  If my assumption is correct, why does he think these sets of human invented norms are necessarily better and more useful than others?

After listening to this podcast, it’s not at all clear to me why Gray believes ancient allegories are *inherently* better for human society than *any* possible system that eschews ancient allegories.

In support of these assertions, he referred vaguely to patterns in history and “the history of ideas.”

He frequently characterized people with with opposing viewpoints as “boring”, “parochial” and ignorant.

If he offered any sort of data or evidence beyond that, it was over my head.  If I missed something concrete, I would honestly appreciate it if someone could point me to that section of the podcast so I can re-listen.

Also, Russ.  *Please* keep trying to get Steven Pinker on the show.  He could provide many interesting counter arguments to Gray’s dismissal of humanism, rationality and civilizational progress.

Oct 19 2018 at 3:26pm

Per your request, please see my reply to Mark about the section “around 57:33 through 1:10:14”.  The evidence for Gray’s argument there is the many examples he gives of contradictory moralities that atheists promoted across history.  When he calls them “parochial”, that isn’t just a way to be insulting.  He is making the real claim that each of these atheists tended to justify a morality they grew up with and took for granted, which is why their conclusions were contradictory.

As to “why Gray believes ancient allegories are *inherently* better for human society than *any* possible system that eschews ancient allegories”, I’m not sure he would agree with that depiction.  For example, “human equality” derives from the Genesis story  mentioned in the episode.  Science cannot provide that.  My guess is that Gray may prefer “human equality” and related moral principles in light of the results he prefers and not just because the Genesis story they derive from is ancient.

You asked, “why does he think these sets of human invented norms are necessarily better and more useful than others?”  That is an excellent question, and not a confusion on your part.  Gray acknowledges some practices are evil, but he never justifies why his moral preferences are morally better than any other atheist’s preferences.  I’ve never heard any materialist successfully escape from this moral problem (apart from begging the question and assuming their preferred morality is to be preferred).

As far as I can see, atheist John Gray doesn’t escape from the problem he identifies in other atheists.

Greg G
Oct 19 2018 at 5:31pm

–“As far as I can see, atheist John Gray doesn’t escape from the problem he identifies in other atheists.”

I didn’t hear him claim to escape this so called problem in the podcast.  Why would he?  He doesn’t escape the “problem” of having to chose among many contradictory moralities because no one escapes it.

Even among exclusively religious moralities there are a spectacular variety that people chose from based own their preferences and intuitions.  And (no surprise) they tend to pick the ones they grew up with.

Some choose the selfless Christianity of Mother Teresa.  Others choose the hate filled Christianity of the Westboro Baptist Church.  Some choose the peaceful morality of the Sufi Mystics.  Others choose the violent Islam of ISIS.

Why would you think that anyone could avoid grounding any type of morality on the assumptions they prefer? There is no system of reasoning or morality  that doesn’t rest on assumptions.

The belief that your preferred religion is the the right one of all the thousands that have ever existed rests on an assumption.  That’s why they call it faith.

Oct 19 2018 at 7:37pm

Greg G: “I didn’t hear him [John Gray] claim to escape this so called problem in the podcast.  Why would he?”

If John Gray were to fully embrace the moral relative view, “I prefer no torture, antisemitism, or slavery, but that’s my moral preference.  Other people have moral preferences of equal moral standing that affirm and include one or more of these”, then that position would be logically defensible within his worldview.  Instead he makes moral statements as if true evil is both real and truly wrong.

“How many evils, which we think have been safely confined to the past, will in fact come back? [e.g.] … the return of the practice of torture, … the return … of antisemitism, … [and] slavery.”

If these choices are only morally equal competing moral preferences, then none of the positions are truly evil in any objective moral sense (or else all positions are “evil” in the sense that every position is contrary to one or more other frameworks).  To suggest that some moralities are evil while others are not is an internal contradiction for his position.  Yet atheists are prone to both affirm moral relativism and then later disregard it when they want to hold onto (or appear to hold onto) the concept that just some moralities are truly evil — a moral conclusion incompatible with that worldview.

In other words, consider the question, “Are some moralities/moral frameworks objectively morally superior to other moralities/moral frameworks?”  He and some others still seem to want to be able to say “Yes” and to speak as if the answer were “Yes”, but he hasn’t been able to escape from (or alternately be at ease with) the answer “No”.

More subtly, when he points out the parochial nature of justifying whatever morality someone takes for granted, that isn’t a compliment.  Yet, how is there anything wrong about doing the very thing he criticizes, if moral frameworks are inventions and moral relativism is accepted anyway?  One could hardly consistently fault the implementation of moral relativism — unless one wanted to still harbor the idea that some moral frameworks really are morally superior to others and some are truly evil.

Greg G (my emphasis added): “In almost every case the prevailing teachings match the moral assumptions and preferences of the relevant community at the time.”

While you are quite correct that there are many religious cases of this, an objective consideration would have to place Jesus among the most exceptional counter example cases, not only because his moral teaching was revolutionary to the dominant Roman culture, but even in the Jewish culture his teaching was counter cultural (e.g. love even your enemies, go a voluntary extra mile serving Roman oppressors, both some Jews and some non-Jews will be in God’s kingdom, and much more), and he appealed to his own independent authority rather than to the prevailing views of the experts in the law, e.g. “You have heard it said …, but I say to you …”.  Considered as a moral philosopher, Jesus was not an example of the parochial issue John Gray raises of justifying a teaching on morality that merely matches “the moral assumptions and preferences of the relevant community at the time.”

Greg G
Oct 19 2018 at 8:43pm

—“Jesus was not an example of the parochial issue John Gray raises of justifying a teaching on morality that merely matches “the moral assumptions and preferences of the relevant community at the time.”

There have been cases of people in the west who grew up in conventional  families and went on to become Muslim terrorists.  They also were not examples of the parochial issue John Gray raises of justifying a teaching on morality that merely matches “the moral assumptions and preferences of the relevant community at the time.  Rejecting the religious teachings of the community you grew up in is no guarantee of contact with “objective” morality.

–“To suggest that some moralities are evil while others are not is an internal contradiction for his position.”

No it isn’t.  You are simply assuming that viewing all competing moralities as equally valid is the only alternative to your own preferred religious beliefs.  That is a false dichotomy.

Human nature exists and has an objective reality.  A morality based on understanding that nature correctly is better than one based on misunderstanding it.

No one can “prove” the objective truth of an ethical system whether it is based on belief in God or not.  There are many things that are true that we cannot prove.

Kanu B
Oct 17 2018 at 2:31pm

I’m reminded of Hayek while I’m hearing this. In ‘The Fatal Conceit’ he offers the insight that cultural evolution, much like biological evolution, can work in a direction which most of us would not call “progress” when some of the darker aspects of human beings come to the fore again by shaking off the constraints of cultural evolution. Hayek emphasizes the need for a good measure of respect for traditional norms and institutions, and piecemeal reform. I disagree with Gray’s cyclical view, even cycles are not inevitable because they are contingent on some preceding conditions which may or may not occur, and which may or may not lead to cyclical change

Kanu B
Oct 17 2018 at 3:02pm

Disagree with Gray on the condition of the Indian economy before the British arrived. Don’t think per capita income differed much between the two countries. The larger share India in world income was mostly due to Indians being more numerous than other. This was in line with the Malthusian paradigm. Right when the British arrived India the Malthusian paradigm was almost coming to an end the Industrial Revolution was beginning. The first phase of British crown rule (1860-1913) saw tangible economic progress, after that things deteriorated due to lack of (technological!) breakthrough in agriculture and a rigged exchange rate

Wincie Pierce
Oct 18 2018 at 4:54am

Thank you for another interesting discussion (and for a lifetime supply of Mr. Gray’s voice).

Oct 18 2018 at 2:26pm

As many have stated, Gray was extremely unfair to Harris, Dawkins and Dennett.

Any of them would make excellent guests on Econtalk.

Readers/listeners should also check out Harris’s podcast “Waking Up.”

Kevin D Remillard
Oct 18 2018 at 5:12pm

Milton Friedman Speaks – Myths That Conceal Reality

Oct 22 2018 at 10:20am

I don’t believe anyone has yet examined how the following exchange points to internal problems in John Gray’s position.

Russ Roberts: … You are absolutely right about Judaism. Of course. Judaism emphasizes action. Not solely–there are obviously beliefs in Judaism–there’s emotional things. But Judaism emphasizes a set of obligations a person is supposed to do, rather than–

John Gray: In other words, practice.

Russ Roberts: Practice. And, there’s even a dispute in Judaism whether believing in God is a requirement. Some thinkers and Jewish rabbinical sources say it is one of the commandments; others say, ‘No, you just have to do the things.’

John Gray: Well, I met one of the last–not one of the last, but one of the few Rabbis in Poland, where of course most Jewish people were killed during the Nazi period, and he said, he quoted something from his teacher; he said, his teacher said, ‘Don’t worry about belief. Just practice.’

Combine this with the section in which atheists are taking for granted that morality means “the liberal morality”.

John Gray: It’s all based on the idea that the morality that their talking about is the liberal morality.

Russ Roberts: The right one.  …  The good one.  The good morality.  The kind that I believe.

John Gray: It’s the morality that they take for granted, … just as a hundred years ago maybe they would have taken racism for granted.  Some of them would have been Bolsheviks.  Some of them would have been Nietzscheans and proto-nazis.  Key point: historically speaking, most atheists in the history of modern western atheism have not been liberals.  They’ve been anti-liberals — most.

Bolscheviks, Communists, Stalinists, etc.:

Gray draws attention to how people in the west turn a blind eye toward the repression that existed even before the “evil” atheist Stalin.  Yet Stalin wasn’t blind to his own practice of his preferred moral framework, e.g. the very deliberate Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.  Now repression in China is on the rise again under an atheistic leader who has done away with limits on the duration of his rule (though they may have learned to avoid some of the economic pitfalls of the Soviet system).

QUESTION: So would Gray consider it equally valid for those running totalitarian states (whether old Stalinist system or the new nuanced Chinese system) to say to each other, “Don’t worry about belief. Just practice according to our morality.”?

Nietzscheans, proto-nazis, nazis, neo-nazies:

Nietzsche explicitly distinguished between the moralities of the strong Masters and the reactionary moralities of the weak Slaves.  Hitler was a big Nietzsche fanboy.  If an atheist faults (neo-)nazi morality as failing to fulfill the goals of equality or the best outcome for the most people, etc., Nietzsche points to this as the slave morality trying to subvert and overcome master morality.  Gray correctly exposes how such an atheist is being parochial when they just take for granted that their moral standard is “the right one, the good one”.  That is exactly where the reasoning of many (most?) modern atheists breaks down, since they assume they can just take a particular moral standard as a given when they suppose they can justify it by reason.  It is the error of begging the question.

QUESTION: So would Gray consider it equally valid for old or modern disciples of Nietzsche to say to each other, “Don’t worry about belief. Just practice according to our morality.”?

It seems to me that even John Gray prefers to hold onto the idea that these practices are truly evil and not morally equivalent to the moral standards he prefers and defends.  I’m not convinced that Gray fully accepts the implication of his atheism that these other moral systems would be morally equivalent to his own.

(BTW, even while asking these tough questions, I’ll say again that I enjoyed and appreciate the thought provoking nature of John Gray’s observations and comments.)

Paul Turner
Oct 24 2018 at 9:01pm

Disappointed in Gray’s lack of criticism of religious literalism/fundamentalism (he only mentions it in passing).  After all, I don’t think the “new aethiests” are worried about Buddhism!

Bob Widlefish
Oct 25 2018 at 3:41pm

I tend to agree with the commenters pointing out the unfair criticisms of “New Atheists” though I think he has more than a kernel of truth in what he says. It’s surely the case that many if not most atheists really are just coasting on cultural norms (religious or otherwise) rather than thinking about issues from the ground up or being well-informed by a realistic historical perspective. The default view of history you get from virtually any kind of education is chock full of regime-supporting propaganda. In the US it’s very easy to leave school thinking that religion was the old way of barbarians and science is the new way of enlightened people which can solve all problems if only we appointed enough clever people to operate the levers of power. You can see that kind of belief implicit in folks like Sam Harris whenever he talks about government policy. Just listen to Sam for yourself and you can see quite plainly that he doesn’t know economics or political theory in any depth and has fairly typical (and I would say naive / ignorant) views on the morality and efficacy of centrally planning by smart people.

The guest’s non-sequiturs and absolute statements all rub me the wrong way, though he’s clearly very bright and well-read which makes his perspective pretty interesting even so. He made many good points about the potential for backsliding and the shortness of our normal perspectives on meaningful lengths of time.

All in all I’m skeptical of his attempt to step back and view all of history and all ideas and judge them realistically. The desire for a smart well-educated person to see themselves as being on the outside and able to make grand pronouncements about the cyclical nature of history (or whatever) seems to be a fairly normal quirk of big picture ivory tower intellectuals. The devil is in the details.

I’m an atheist myself and from my perspective most atheists in the US more or less replace the worship of God with the worship of the state. Not literally, but in practice by the ways they seek to use the omnipotent state to address various problems faced by individuals. Poverty is a government problem. Bad words are a government problem. How bathrooms are used is a government problem. And so on. In general I’ve found the average atheist to be rather insufferable: arrogant, naive, and angry. I used to be one of them. I apologize to all my religious brothers and sisters I was harsh with over the years. As one human being to another I wish you well — cheers!

Nov 9 2018 at 7:17pm

Thank you for being a positive example of choosing to move in a direction all of us do well to practice and promote, i.e. away from angry and harsh and toward a better approach to dialogue that is both meaningful and well meaning.  Best blessings to you!

Scott Urista
Oct 29 2018 at 5:00am

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.–Econlib Ed.]

Nov 10 2018 at 12:13pm

Peter Hitchens, the brother of Christopher Hitchens and the author of the book The Rage Against God, has written a review of John Gray’s book on Seven Types of Atheism called

John Gray: A Spinoza for Today

Here are a couple excerpts:

Even more enjoyably, Gray teases those who try to build a morality on evolution by natural selection, pointing out how that theory has been used in the past to justify what its modern supporters would rightly denounce as appalling racial bigotry and perhaps worse than that. He reminds us of T. H. Huxley’s typically clear-eyed and undeceived warning that evolution “is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.”

The godless believer in “progress” is in reality like the victim of an avalanche tumbled deep in snow. He has no idea which way is up because he has no means by which to measure anything of the kind. Ultimately he must use religious categories to orient himself.

Gray keeps on saying much the same thing in many different ways, such as his contention that “secular thought is mostly composed of repressed religion.” This is all so obviously correct that, like so many other blindingly obvious things that we prefer to ignore, nobody likes to discuss it. Perhaps most definitive of all is his observation that godless searches for a universal law are futile. “Without a law giver, what can a universal moral law mean?” he asks. “If you think of morality as part of the natural behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans do not live according to a single moral code. Unless you think one of them has been mandated by God, you must accept the variety of moralities as part of what it means to be human.” Well, exactly. No God: no law. No law: no morals, just situational, alterable ethics.

Steve Rose
Nov 14 2018 at 1:24pm

Yes evil can, and no doubt will, return, will cycle.  But things have progressively improved despite this.  Not only have we experienced material improvement but crime and violence have decreased, there is less disease, more people have education, and so on.  Steven Pinker has made this point (and yes would be a great guest on Econtalk).  A similar point made nearly 200 years ago:

On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
― Thomas Babington Macaulay

The point about the new atheists drawing on the judeo/christian morality of our culture and assuming its the only one, or the right one, is so true.  Thanks for a great, thought provoking podcast.

Comments are closed.


EconTalk Extra, conversation starters for this podcast episode:

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: September 17, 2018.]

Russ Roberts: My guest is philosopher and author John Gray. His latest book, which is the subject of today's episode, is The Seven Types of Atheism.... Now, your book, The Seven Types of Atheism is a fantastic, short, jarring, provocative book. It's jarring to someone who is religious; and I think it's jarring to someone who is an atheist. At the heart of the book there are two central ideas which we'll be talking about today, along with anything else that comes up along the way: the religious nature of most types of atheism, and the illusory nature of progress. And, I found that second theme deeply disturbing. I came to realize from reading your book that I had imbibed much of the--that I was a child of the Enlightenment, and I had adopted many of the progressive--the view that the world is making progress. And, it might be. So, I want to give you a chance to defend it, and I'll challenge you at some point. But you do make a very strong case that it might not be. But I want to start with atheism. You are very critical of the New Atheists--Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others. You say that they bore you and that their view of morality doesn't hold up. So, what's wrong with the so-called New Atheism?

John Gray: The first thing that's wrong with the so-called New Atheism is that there's nothing in it which is new. Most of the criticisms of religion that they advance, nearly all of them, in fact, were made in similar but better forms in the 19th century. None of the New Atheists knows anything about the history of ideas; even of the history of atheism they are pretty ignorant beyond the last 20 years or so. And so, they make a number of criticisms which fit into the Victorian or mid-19th or 20th century dispute about a conflict between religion and science--in other words, they take for granted that religion is a body of propositions or even theories, and that the theories aim to explain the world; and now that we've got science, we don't need religion. It's been superseded or rendered obsolete. But, that's a primitive view of religion, which actually not many people who study religion deeply and professionally, hardly any of them would take that view. If you asked an anthropologist or a sociologist or even a cultural historian about religion, not one of them nowadays, or very few of them, would think of religion as bodies of theories or beliefs or propositions which try to explain the world. Religions are in most parts of the world, throughout most parts of human history, of being composed of practices more than of beliefs. Most of them haven't had creeds, written down as propositions. Ancient paganism in Greece and Rome, for example, had no creeds, which had an advantage, among many, which was that there weren't any heretics. You can't be a heretic if there isn't something to be a heretic against. What we now call Hinduism, very, very bold body of beliefs, of practices associated with very sophisticated philosophies, has never been summed up in a single body of beliefs. The same goes for Taoism, or Taoism and Confucianism and Shinto. And for most of its history--you would know more about this, perhaps, than I--Judaism hasn't been embodied in any single list of propositions or creeds. So, most religions haven't been like--don't conform to this New Atheist understanding of what religion is. And there's a reason for that, which is: New Atheism is a kind of inversion of monotheism, particularly Christian monotheism. It just turns upside down that body of thought, by rejecting the key beliefs in it. And New Atheists think that if they reject these beliefs, then they've rejected the whole framework of thought of monotheism. But, my view is that just turning the beliefs upside down, inverting them or rejecting them, leaves most of the rest of the framework of thought intact. And so, that's one reason why--although I did only discuss the New Atheists quite briefly, in fact I seriously considered not discussing them at all because I do find them boring and feeble in their arguments. But I did in the end, did discuss them in the end, because most readers, if we say the word 'atheism,' wouldn't nowadays be most familiar with figures like Dawkins and Sam Harris and the others that you mentioned. I did discuss them quite briefly, but only really to point out that they are recapitulating, repeating an argument that went on for several decades, a couple of generations in the 19th century, and coming up with the same narrow and to my mind rather parochial view of religion. Which is that religion is an early and obsolete kind of theory that we don't need any more. And that really doesn't correspond to what religions have been throughout human history and prehistory and most of the world. It simply corresponds to an upside down picture of Christian monotheism.

Russ Roberts: What's upside down about it? Why do you say 'upside down'?

John Gray: Well, I mean, what atheists do is they, treating religion even in general as a kind of system of beliefs, they say, 'well, what do religious people believe?' And they say, 'They believe that there's a Supreme Being that created the world--God--and created life and humanity, and lays down various sort of edicts for how human beings should live.' Now, the way I think of atheism, and I say this right at the start of the book, is that for me an atheist is just anyone who doesn't need the idea of a creator-god of that kind. You are an atheist if you don't need a superior negative[?] proposition: In other words atheism doesn't have to be organized; as a movement atheism doesn't have to be associated with any particular view of the world. It has several views of the world, many in its long history, even in modern times. An atheist is just someone who doesn't need that idea of a creator-god. But one important thing I point out is if you think of atheism in that way, that rather simple negative way, then many of the religions of the world have been atheist religions. For example, there's no creator-god in Buddhism. There isn't an immortal soul in Buddhism. But Buddhism is a very big and old religion. Polytheism doesn't contain a single supreme god. Most polytheist of the kind that flourished in Roman, for example ancient Rome before it was taken over by Christianity, featured many gods. And many of them didn't have any account of the world being created by a god, and certainly not by a single creator, one single god. So the idea of--you take atheism in that way, then there are many atheist religions. And that leads me to one of the major arguments in the book, which is that the boundaries between atheism and religion are much more blurred once you have a better and more complex and more pluralistic understanding of what religion is.

Russ Roberts: But we should make it clear that you are an atheist.

John Gray: I am. In that sense, certainly.


Russ Roberts: So the book's a little bit--there's an irony in the book, which is: It's a savaging in many ways of the illusions that you believe many atheists labor under. At the end we'll talk about how you reconcile your own atheism with that. But I just want to comment on the point you made about atheism versus religion in this way; so the New Atheists. You are absolutely right about Judaism. Of course. Judaism emphasizes action. Not solely--there are obviously beliefs in Judaism--there's emotional things. But Judaism emphasizes a set of obligations a person is supposed to do, rather than--

John Gray: In other words, practice.

Russ Roberts: Practice. And, there's even a dispute in Judaism whether believing in God is a requirement. Some thinkers and Jewish rabbinical sources say it is one of the commandments; others say, 'No, you just have to do the things.'

John Gray: Well, I met one of the last--not one of the last, but one of the few Rabbis in Poland, where of course most Jewish people were killed during the Nazi period, and he said, he quoted something from his teacher; he said, his teacher said, 'Don't worry about belief. Just practice.'

Russ Roberts: And then the second point is the view that somehow religion is falsified by, say, science, or history. And you point out--as by the way I think Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, that religion is not created to teach us history. It's not created to teach us science. It's created to give us meaning.

John Gray: Absolutely.

Russ Roberts: And science is not good at that. Despite the attempts. It's a different thing. It's to help us understand the world. That's fine. That's important. It's, I think glorious. It's a wonderful expression of human creativity and insight. And if you are religious person, you believe that God created the world so that we could understand it. And if you don't, it doesn't matter: you still could understand it, a lot of it, not all of it. But they are two different things. And I think that's a very profound insight.

John Gray: See, the important part--an example I give in the book is that the Biblical Genesis myth, the myth that Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and so on--which never meant as an early theory of how life came about on this planet. And I say that quite dogmatically, that it was never meant like that. Because you can go back an awful long way in the history of Christianity; and before Christianity are Jewish thinkers, who completely explicitly say that that Genesis myth is not to be read literally. Augustine, within the Christian tradition, quite explicitly, and before that--

Russ Roberts: It's an allegory to teach us something.

John Gray: Yes. Or, it's what I call a myth. Which is that I don't use in a bad sense. It's an allegory, as you say. It transmits certain truths in the form of a story, if you like, which are difficult to transmit or convey in other terms. And, the point is that this view of that story in the Bible was affirmed not just recently under the attacks of the New Atheists, but more than 2000 years ago--well over 2000 years ago--by Jewish and then later by Christian thinkers. So, they have always--there has been a tradition of literalism--

Russ Roberts: Sure--

John Gray: in Western religion. I don't deny that. And even of fundamentalism. But, all along there have been thinkers, theologians, with Christianity and within Judaism; and I also think, though it's a subject I'm less familiar with and may also be true of Islam--but, certainly within Christianity and Islam [Judaism?--Econlib Ed.], there's a long, long, long tradition of thought going back almost as far as we can see in which it's explicitly denied that these Biblical stories are theories to be understood literally.


Russ Roberts: Now, you argue that we've replaced the worship of God with the worship of humanity: that we've put the God who will transform human beings and redeem human beings into a different myth. Which is the myth that human beings will, through the application of reason and science, transform humanity. And, of course, much of human history of the last few hundred years is a tragic example of that practice. The Nazis and Communists in the Soviet Union being the most obvious examples. But what about science itself? A lot of people would argue, 'We're doing great. Look how much human suffering and misery have been reduced through the application of scientific understanding, through technology, through better economics, through better politics. We're heading toward progress.' And, you reject that extremely strongly. Why?

John Gray: I do. I reject that view. Because the view that so many people take confuses progress within science and progress in the increase of technological power that occurs as a result of progress within science with ethical and political progress, or I would call it the quality of civilization. They are two quite completely different things. As I say repeatedly. Although it's never, by the way, sufficient to--I think I say repeatedly and clearly in the book, many times over, that there is progress in science, in the sense of accumulating knowledge. We know a lot more about many things than we used to do. We have a lot better understanding of a perspective[?], the world around us, than we had in the past. And there's also progress in technology in the sense that technologies are spin-offs from advancing science--become more efficient and more powerful. So that's the [?] facts. So, I reject the post-modernist view which says there's no--and I've always rejected the post-modernist view, decades ago when I first started writing on these things--according to which science is just a series of pictures of the world which differ but none is truer than the other. There is progress in science. And there's a correspondent progress in technology. But, the human animal doesn't change very much, no matter how much it might want to or like to or imagine that it changes. And, human beings use science, and the fruits of science, the progressing and advancing fruits of science, to serve whatever goals or ends they have. So, of course, they can use progress in medical science to improve human health. Or, for example, to eliminate hereditary diseases. But they also use it for purposes which are either oppressive or purely destructive. For example, the potential of genetic science to improve the human lot is great; but I'm afraid I regard it as a certainty that, if it's not already happening that genetic sciences will be used to, from frivolous purposes like trying to produce children who are cleverer or more beautiful or smarter or who fit in to fashionable ideas of what makes a good child, I think that maybe that's not a terrible vice, but I regret it. Because I don't think the next generation should be genetically modeled on passing notions of what's best. But then you get into darker areas, where genetic science can be used to, or could be used in future, for racist purposes--to edit out certain groups, human groups, for the purpose of genetic weapons. Or even for purposes of genocide. And it's a general feature of human knowledge. I think this is one of the messages, actually, one of the lessons of the Genecists' story we talked about earlier on: It's a general feature of human knowledge and of human technology. And it can always be used for bad as well as good purposes. Now, following a kind of a maxim of one of the philosophers I knew, although and the irony is, spent, in my earlier life, I only spent one long afternoon talking to with him--Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of science, said you should always try and falsify any conjecture or view you put forward. And I don't accept Popper's, I think oversimple philosophy of science; but I think it's a very good tip, if you like. If you have a strong view, you should try--

Russ Roberts: It's a good starting point--

John Gray: you should try and falsify it. So, I've always tried to think of technologies or advances in science as if [?] being purely good. And I've come up with a couple. It's very hard to think of a downside to anesthetic dentistry.

Russ Roberts: Yes, unless you also believe that pain produces a challenge that we are supposed to endure and overcome. But, yeah; I'm with you.

John Gray: There are people who think that. And I would put in contraception, actually, as well; because although there are people, religious people of various denominations and traditions who--I think it's been overwhelmingly benign, those two things. But, nearly all technologies have been deeply ambiguous in their effects. And I've been through this. I remember a time, back in the 1970s and 1980s--and I don't regret this--I was a very active, very militant anti-Communist; I believed that--I was a Thatcherite party or even [?] for that reason. I believed that Communism could be defeated and that it would not just collapse: that it would be overcome. What I did not believe while I was an anti-Communist is that some new technology would destroy Communism. Many people at the time said that the photocopier would do it because it would enable anti-Communist literature to be more easily disseminated later. People said that the video camera and video recording would do it, and that, that would, when Communist or the atrocities came by Communist or neo-Communist regimes, neo-Communist regimes like that in China were photographed, filmed; and that would cause a collapse in the regime: Well, we had Tian An Men Square. Everybody's seen that actual footage. And it did not cause any such collapse. So, technology isn't liberating. Of course, it could also be used for atrocious purposes, of course, the worst of all being the Holocaust; and that colossal genocide would have been much harder to commit if there hadn't been telegraphs and telephones and filing[?] systems, for example.

Russ Roberts: And Zyklon B--

John Gray: And Zyklon B, and other killing devices. Other devices of industrial killing, let's say, if I can use that horrible term. It would have been harder to do. There have been pogroms throughout history. But that kind of vast, Europe-wide couldn't have been implemented. So, there is progress in science. I think that's just a fact. And there is corresponding progress in technology, in the sense that technologies get more reliable; they get more powerful; they enable human beings to do more things. But all these technologies don't add up to progress in civilization. In ethics and politics. I take the old-fashioned view, versions of which most people in the entire world took until about 1720 or something like that--1750. I take the old-fashioned view that civilizations require different tools, let's say, in their lifetimes: that, civilizations run in cycles. They are born, they grow up, they reach a peak, and then they start dying. And as they--and they are replaced then by periods of barbarism. Periods of barbarism including in modern times periods of modern barbarism. And, when they are at their peak, civilizations can be peaceful; they can have a lot of learning, even before modern science: they can be highly learned, have great libraries, and so on. They can avoid some of the worst human evils--of mass murder and oppression. But then they start to decay. And as they go downhill, various evils get embedded and bound up with them. They become less peaceful. They become less learned. The libraries are destroyed, burnt down, or ignored. And eventually the society disappears or turns into barbarism. Then [?] the cycle is repeated. Now that period now is considered so intolerably depressing that no one wants to think about it. But pretty well everybody in the entire world took that view. Or versions of it. Even in Christianity people believed in what they call 'original sin.' And many of these people led sort of reasonable lives. So, it's a modern weakness to reject the cyclical view of history. Which I think corresponds better with human experience. So, very few people anticipated how bad Nazism would be in the middle of Europe. They said, 'How could Europe,' then the greatest world civilization, 'produce something which was as monstrous as Nazism then became?' And very few people in my view, although it didn't commit the very worst crimes, appreciated how bad Soviet Communism would be. And yet, we see what actually happened: we see the barbarism with a modern face, barbarism with modern technologies, enabling the regimes, and their supporters of course, to commit or support crimes much bigger, much greater, in some cases more terrible than in any of the past. So, that view, which kind of cyclical view of history, you find it in writers like Machiavelli, in ancient Greek and Roman historians; some [?] apart from Machiavelli nearly modern period, then it nearly dies out more or less: that's what nearly all human beings believed until a few hundred years ago. And I think that in many cases--I'm not opposed to modernists, but sometimes I think I'm a pre-modernist--I think the ancient writers, the ancient thinkers, religious or not, were in many ways more truthful, more realistic, and more accurate than later ones. That's what everyone believed; and that's what I believe.


Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to say something nice about your book; and then I'm going to say something--well, it's challenging. Not critical, but challenging it. So, when I said that the book was jarring and very powerful to read, for me, it forced me to realize that my view of human progress was dogmatic. That it had a religious nature. It came, perhaps, from my religious, my actual religious beliefs. Or, my study of economics, the idea that economists through the right policies can transform society. And it came from my view of the 20th century, where I think the human standard of living increased probably something on the order of 25 to 30 times, with a corresponding, not of the same magnitude, but an increase in longevity, in the quality of life through the incentives of free market capitalism. And of course we don't have literally free market capitalism. But through market forces, that there'd been an enormous improvement in human wellbeing over the 20th century. And of course if you'd said to me, 'Well, what about the Nazis?' or, 'What about the Gulag?' I would have said, 'Oh, well, ehh, that's the bad kind. That's the kind of human activity--'. And, of course--we had Chuck Klosterman on this program talking about But What If We're Wrong?, and he asked the question in that book--it's a very provocative and thoughtful book--he says, 'How many of the things that we "know" are true today that turned out not to be true?' Because we realize that many of the things that people thought in the past were true, weren't. So, things are going to come along that are going to reverse what we think are true. One of the things--

John Gray: Well, it's not only that, Russ. It's not only that. I ask a different question: How many evils which we think have been safely consigned to the past--

Russ Roberts: Same--exactly--

John Gray: will in fact come back? And here's two. I think you'll agree with both.

Russ Roberts: I know what you're going to say. Go ahead.

John Gray: Two. Would be Britain, the practice of torture [?] in the Iraq War and later, was is something unexpected by practically everyone, although I have to say--I have to blow my own trumpet a little bit in this--I published a spoof article in the London New Statesman called "A Modest Proposal on Torture," saying that if we were going liberate the world in [?] human rights--this was before the invasion actually happened but when it was clear that it would, the article appeared in February 2003; the invasion started in March, I think--I said: If we are going to liberate the world, [?] the whole world in modern democracy, we should probably include modern techniques, and that would include modernizing torture. So, I predicted that it would be used in that war. Now, at the time people thought that that was the darkest possible pessimism: Misanthropy, nihilism, which is pure mischief on my part. But a few months later, of course, Abu Ghraib burst into the news. And I'm not convinced to this day that torture has been eradicated from this system. I think bringing it back, especially by the world's greatest liberal democracy, had a long term damaging effect. The second, of course, the second example, which I've also written about in more recent times, is the return in Europe and in Britain, and at the highest levels of politics, of anti-Semitism. How many people predicted that?

Russ Roberts: Well, I thought you were going to say slavery, which you talk about in your book, which I think is equally--

John Gray: Well, that's a third--

Russ Roberts: much more disturbing.

John Gray: Well, I think they are all disturbing. But, slavery in the Gulag and, of course, in China, and in Nazi Germany, on an absolutely colossal scale, was a 20th century phenomenon. And in other forms, continues--

Russ Roberts: We still have a human trafficking problem--

John Gray: We have human trafficking--

Russ Roberts: that's not trivial at all--

John Gray: not on the same scale. It's not trivial but--

Russ Roberts: It's still horrible, and it's--

John Gray: It's still horrible, and it's not on the scale of Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union, but it's still a problem. And what I've said all along is these evils come back, but they're called--slightly different form--but they're normally called something else. So, torture was called enhanced interrogation. Slavery is called human trafficking. A system of slavery is called Socialist construction--

Russ Roberts: forced labor--

John Gray: Forced labor. But it's slavery, all right. And this leads me again to one of my observations, which is that bad ideas and bad practices don't slowly disappear in a process of gradual evolution or form [?]--

Russ Roberts: But do we get any credit for being ashamed of them? The fact that many, many Americans were upset about Abu Ghraib and spoke out about it?

John Gray: They get credit, but on the other hand there are quite a few people now, who, in Britain and I think in America as well, are beginning to turn back--as I long expected, [?] strong anti-Communism. And when I supported the defeat of Communism, I was very pleased that it happened in the Soviet Union, [?]. But from 1989 onwards, I attacked the Fukuyama view and the view of many others--from actually October 1989--I attacked the Fukuyama view that this is a victory and it's permanent victory. There are no permanent victories in ethics and politics. None. Literally, none. And what's happening now, which I must say I find bitterly amusing in the most horrible way in Britain I know about it better, is: People are beginning, returning to the illusions of the 1920s and 1930s about Communism. There have been recent claims that--

Russ Roberts: We have them here, too--

John Gray: Yeah--that the Gulag was a very compassionate institution has resurfaced. A British student group has said[?] it was very compassionate.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That was--

John Gray: That was last week.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That was rather--those who do not read history are condemned to keep embracing the worst parts of it. For sure.

John Gray: Well, or of repeating it for the rest of us. I mean, if it [?] be for themselves, that's their lookout[?]. I don't care what they do with their lives. But, if they are going to allow or encourage or permit a reintroduction of these horrible systems which have predictably bad effects, that's something we've learned from history. But, it's not just that they're ignorant of history. Here's the medievalism [?] invincible ignorance: they don't want to know about history, because it would destroy their hopes and illusions.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

John Gray: So, you can't give them any evidence that will ever persuade them that what they believe about this is what's [?]. Let me give you the simplest example. I mean, I rarely write on this at any length now, though I occasionally mention it. But the reason I don't write on it at any length is it's always the time. Nearly all Western Progressive thinkers, not just the present generation but previous ones, would tell you, confidently, that large-scale serious repression began in the Soviet Union only under Stalin.

Russ Roberts: I know; yeah.

John Gray: It didn't. It began the moment the Bolsheviks took power under Lenin. And that can be extensively documented; and has been. So, there's no sort of--you know, it was easy to document after the Soviet Union fell because lots of documents which had been locked up before became available--actually it was known all along from émigré reports and others that this was so. But the Western Left, the Western Progressive Left, just didn't want to know. And they don't want to know now. And they will never want to know. So, there will always be--I mean, this is a bit depressing for someone who is, you know, for most people I think it's just a fact you've got to get used to, that the fantasies and illusions of Western Leftism about Communism were due for a revival, as it became more distant, that period, and as capitalism got into a bit of trouble. So, I began to expect that this would happen. And it's happened in a really grotesquely comical, though also tragically inhuman form. Because, after all, not only were millions, did millions of people die in these Gulag systems, but far more people had their lives irreparably broken. They survived, and even got back into society; but their health was shattered; their loved ones had died or disappeared in some sort of way. Even though they lived on for a few more years or decades, their lives had been broken. So, this was a vast human crime which is now being celebrated by the jeunesse dorée--the glittering young radicals of New York and London and Paris.

Russ Roberts: What did you call them? The jeunesse what?

John Gray: The jeunesse dorée. It means just the golden youth.

Russ Roberts: Oh, d'ure--

John Gray: Uh, dorée. So, dorée. That's from gold. They're celebrating; they've started to celebrate it again as a great landmark in human progress. In human progress. So, the cycle--I anticipated that, and I expected it. I'm not surprised by it. I'm still disgusted by it, but I'm not at all surprised that this has happened. And worse will be yet to come. And I say that again not out of pessimism, but this is what always happens. Because the people who defend some version of capitalism--I'm not and actually never was, even though I supported Hayek, I was never a kind of radical free marketeer. But I think the point is to have some intelligent forms of capitalism. And that central planning for reasons that Hayek explained doesn't and never will work, not even when it is by computers, and it also has many costs in human freedom. But if capitalism, Western capitalism in its present form, goes into deeper difficulty than these views will get a lot more wide support, even though they are demonstrably false. And we could even have Western governments, even in Britain. Even in Britain, there's something like a third to a half chance, a 30% to a 50% chance that we'll have a Corbyn Government in the next few years--in other words, a 30-50% chance of absolute catastrophe in my view, despite everything that has been proved about the workings of Communist governments and Communist societies. And of course that illustrates my earlier point: knowledge grows; humans stay the same. Knowledge grows, but humans do not become more reasonable. That's the confusion in Western, not only Communist but Liberal thinking. They think that as knowledge grows, humans become more reasonable and more civilized. They don't. They remain exactly the same. And that includes remaining the same--needing consoling stories, which kind of give meaning to their lives. Now, I'll just say something important about myths. Myths are indispensable in human life, what I call myths and what I think you earlier on call allegories are indispensable in human life. The idea that we can do without them is itself a myth. Only people who aren't aware of the myths they are living by tell you that myths can be abolished. But there can be good myths and bad myths. Better and worse myths. There can be shallow myths, silly myths, and even myths that are positively poisonous and harmful because they depend upon demonizing some section of the human species. And, the myths of the benign character of Communism that it had pure beginnings and somehow went away from them to tyranny and under Lenin and [?] saintly figure who only wanted good for humanity and wasn't at all ruthless, and so on; and then was taken over by the evil Stalin, and so on--they are all very harmful myths. They are shallow and silly myths, and they contain empirical propositions which are false. But even as pure myths or stories they are absolutely silly because they don't correspond with the repeated and deep human experience in which large-scale, radical, human projects of reconstructing society according to an idea you [?] model, normally, I would say, always lead to dreadful results.


Russ Roberts: Well, it was a cheerful thought. That I think correct. I'd just remind listeners of the conversation I had with Milton Friedman--shortly before his death--on EconTalk, where I asked him about: 'Isn't it at least cheering, doesn't it make you feel good that, despite high prices of, say, oil,' whatever it was at the time--I said, 'there's no demand for price controls? Maybe we've had some impact. As economists, we've taught people they don't work very well.' And he said, 'No, I think it's because too many people were alive in the 1970s when we had price controls. They saw how bad they were. When those people die, and [?] part of human memory any more, there will be a clamor for them once again.' So--

John Gray: It's the same phenomenon and I agree with him completely.

Russ Roberts: So--

John Gray: I agree with Milton Friedman on that.

Russ Roberts: So, I agree with that--unfortunately, or I'm sympathetic to it. But I want you to answer a tougher challenge. Which is: the extraordinary transformation of human material wellbeing. Obviously it's only material wellbeing. It's not spiritual wellbeing, ethical wellbeing. But we do have, I think--when you said that you are a man of the 1720s, the reason I think that the view of progress took hold is because there was material progress: the Industrial Revolution, although painful and created a lot of suffering, eventually for the next generations that came after led to a very strong reduction in economic insecurity, at least in material--in starvation. And we live in a world today where hundreds of millions of people have escaped the worst kinds of poverty. They're still somewhat poor. Many of us--I would include you in this group, and I would include myself, live an immensely more pleasant life, both in the workday and in our leisure time. We live longer. The quality of that longer life is often more pleasant. Now, I concede that I still suffer. Even with my high income, I still have emotional challenges. I still have the imperfection of human consciousness that you talk about quite eloquently, that I'm aware of my own--maybe it was Schopenhauer, or Spinoza, I can't remember who you write about. Obviously we struggle to deal with the fact that we are animals, living in a very material world, and yet strive sometimes to be something greater than that. And often fail. So, that's all true. But you do agree that there's been progress on material grounds.

John Gray: There's been a huge increase of what could broadly be called material wealth over the last few hundred years, and I don't deny that either. Because that's part of the spin-off from science and from technology. I mean, this huge increase in consumption and in the level of daily--

Russ Roberts: comfort--

John Gray: comforts of daily existence, and so on.

Russ Roberts: I don't have to wash my clothes. I don't have to haul water from the--

John Gray: Yes. They are nearly all spin-offs from the new technologies, which in turn are spin-offs from the growth of knowledge. So, that's progress.

Russ Roberts: But also--but you have to be fair: They are also spin-offs of the economic and political systems that are put in place--

John Gray: Yes, well that's where I become--

Russ Roberts: in places that don't have those, aren't doing so well--

John Gray: That's where I become more skeptical than you, and I think you should be, too--

Russ Roberts: [?]--

John Gray: You have stronger-than-my belief in the benign consequences of economics and in your strong belief in free markets. I'll just say a couple of things--

Russ Roberts: I just have--John, I'd just like to make a clarification. I really don't have a strong belief in the benign nature of economics. I'm increasingly concerned about the aspects of our economic theories and how they damage us. Go ahead.

John Gray: Well, that's also--I'm glad that's the case. But, even to the extent that--well, let me give my observation the way I thought of it--

Russ Roberts: Go ahead--

John Gray: First of all, I think the last 2- or 300 years is a very short time span. If you look out through the longer perspective of human history, you find many examples of civilizations that grew up and achieved higher levels of material progress than they had in the past. I mean, Rome at its peak was much more highly developed than it was 5- or 600 years before it reached its peak. They had what we call central heating; they had public baths; they had large libraries. These are all primitive by modern conditions, but by comparison with what they'd had a few hundred years before they were at a much higher level. And then, of course, Rome collapsed. And so, in the city of Bath where I live, a great Roman outpost with Roman baths--which, by the way, still work. Unlike many more recent baths that have been built in later times, you can still go down there and bathe in them; they are a tourist attraction. And we are replaced by much lower levels, when Rome collapsed, much lower levels of everyday comfort and technology, and of course consequently in many parts of Europe and other places in the world where the Romans had ruled, by lower levels of human population, too. So, that fell off. And that's maybe how the Aztecs collapsed--[?] some attribute that to the Spanish Conquistadors, but there are many means that American civilizations have collapsed. If you look at the longer run of human history, there have been many periods of technological advance, quite remarkable technological advance. It would be very different living in Rome at its peak, at least if you were a poor Roman citizen and not a slave, than living in what they called barbarism--which preceded it and which still existed in parts of the Roman Empire or edges of the Roman Empire--it would be a very different experience, not a much better experience but a collapse. So, if one isn't sort of blindsided by looking back only 200 or 300 years, and if one doesn't think that what has been achieved on a more global level has to last and endure, then you can see that this could be a major setback. And of course, the work in the 20th century--the setback which followed the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was colossal. They didn't get back--

Russ Roberts: or Weimar--

John Gray: anything. Sorry?

Russ Roberts: The Weimar Republic. And the post- --

John Gray: The Weimar Republic. But, in the case of Russia, they didn't get back to late Czarist levels of production and consumption till about the 1960s or later.


Russ Roberts: So, that may be true. I would push--I mean, I think--it's an open question. I think it's good to think about it. It's good to be agnostic about the potential for future technology to be passed on, and how important that is. I would have thought you'd have pushed harder on the idea that technology is distancing ourselves from each other, from human connection. That we don't have any more happiness: we just have a lot more stuff.

John Gray: No, I don't--I don't sort of push that hard on that. It may well be true. And, of course, when the Internet became, which started as we both know as a Cold War military tool. But when it became, started entering to everyday life, I said things which were considered very pessimistic. I said, one of the things that this might do, up to 10 or 15 years ago, is abolish privacy or make it much more difficult to achieve: Privacy will become a luxury good of the rich--if anyone can have it, which is doubtful. It will encourage living in a virtual world and less caring about the human world. I did not anticipate the virulence and rancor of Twitter debate, for example--if it can be called debate. I did not anticipate that. So it has all these negative sides to it. All these negative--to associate with these evils. But I'm not, as it were, pushing so much on that. I mean, I would grant you in a sense, for the purpose of interesting discussion, that the overall effect of material wellbeing is being very high, even though as you say, the Industrial Revolution was very painful and so on and so forth for large numbers of people. Later on, it increased the standards of living of practically everyone. But, you see, I think there's an inconsistency, or at least tension in your view, because, while allowing that bad human ideas come back in history, which you have done[?], or bad human practices, if you apply this to economics, then you can sort of more or less predict that policies which in economic terms are based on sheer fallacies, sheer errors, will be re-adopted. So, again, I'm not [?]--

Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah. If you're on the Left--

John Gray: for protectionism. Sorry?

Russ Roberts: If you are on the Left--

John Gray: Yeah--

Russ Roberts: it's easy to find policies you think are horrible, that have come back. There are whole books written about them. I'm not going to advertise them. And on the Right, same thing--

John Gray: but on the Right, too--

Russ Roberts: Oh, no; same thing: The Right says, 'Oh'; you just talked about it: central planning, Keynesian. Some people would disagree. They'd say that those are all good ideas--

John Gray: I'm more favorable to Keynes than you are. But protectionism is the best example.

Russ Roberts: No, for sure.

John Gray: Protectionism is one of the ideas that we most comprehensively--that the theoretical foundations of which have been most comprehensively destroyed, and by economists and by others. But it's back at least as a set of proposals, which, whether or not they eventuate in a full-scale trade war and the breakdown of world trade--whether or not that happens--certainly already have some damaging effects. So, that's--and, of course, one other thing that's missing is the way in which, in politics, ideas that have been--I'm not talking about religious ideas but here, ideas that in so to speak secular science such as economics which have long been discredited come back as bad ideas very often do, and make the world worse than it's been. That's actually happening now in the case--it's happening with the world's biggest trade--well, it would not be--with the world's biggest economy. The on which the global trading order has depended since the Second World War. And so the outcome is very uncertain. So, although I'm far from thinking that we are on an inexorable slope to the 1930s, I don't think that yet if we get a second Trump term if things go wrong in the bickering and conflict with China over these issues then we could but we're not quite there yet. But we are at a point of considerable risk. And that illustrates the general point that when bad ideas come back, the cycle of rising prosperity can be disrupted. And of course we can go to much lower levels of prosperity. When you get revolutionary regimes, you know an example: Venezuela. Venezuela went from being one of the richer countries in Latin America, huge oil riches, to being one of the most devastated, destroyed, and desperate countries in the world. Not because of any natural disaster or catastrophe--

Russ Roberts: they have [?]--

John Gray: but because they have a disastrously bad regime. Now, could that not happen in a bigger and more strategically important country? I think it absolutely could. That would just be a repetition of what happened in Russia. Russia was a growing economy, as you would know, from the 1880s, 1890s, onwards till about 1910. Was a fast-growing economy. And that was all--it had many things wrong with it, of course. But it was a fast-, um--and that all stopped. And it stopped for two human generations, roughly speaking. It took a hell of a long time to recover. It really sort of--it's still stopped in a way because--

Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah. They destroyed plenty[?]. They destroyed the cultural norms--

John Gray: Exactly--

Russ Roberts: trusts that are necessary to make a market system work--

John Gray: or [?] perhaps irretrievably destroyed, in that part of the world. So, that can happen. But again, the other thing we missed out is war. And of course, even when the wars are entirely justified and necessary and noble, even, as I think the Second World War was--got more doubts about the First World War--but as the Second World War was, both of those wars actually produced an enormous loss of material wellbeing throughout Europe. And even the world. And so are we[?] assuming with Pinker that there won't be major wars in future? Well, the wars that happen won't be the exactly same as those or even closely similar to the big world wars of the 20th century because we'll have new dimensions of conflict--cyber-conflict, possibly genetic weapons, and other dimensions of conflict that didn't exist then. And possibly also because nuclear weapons may prevent some of the full-scale collisions between major powers that happened in the 20th century, so that the wars will be fought as mostly 20th century--as all 20th century wars--

Russ Roberts: Surrogates--

John Gray: Surrogates. Yeah. So, there might be surrogates in Syria, or surrogates in other parts of the--but they could still be enormously costly in human wellbeing, and even in material human wellbeing. I mean, at the end of--one of the best parts of Keynes, by the way--you mention Keynes's writings--is his account of when he went to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 following the First World War. And he said he expected everybody to be worried about the fact that large parts of Europe were on the brink of starvation. As large parts were, in 1919. And he said they weren't: that they were concerned to score points with each other, and against each other; and to get onerous war reparations against the Germans. Which he thought, perhaps rightly, was a factor leading eventually to what was--to Nazism coming to pass.

Russ Roberts: He also, by the way, of course believed, inexorably in economic material progress. And it's an interesting question--we're not going to talk about it here, but I'm just going to raise it. And again, your book challenges me to reconsider. But, I assume that in the next two or three or four generations that people will be extravagantly, enormously more materially better off than I am. And that may not be true. And it's good to think about whether that's a view that's--

John Gray: And if so, why not? You said: Would it be because it had been a really unprecedentedly catastrophic war--?

Russ Roberts: There are so many possibilities, when you think about it. Which is--

John Gray: Yeah. Which is, bad, bad economic doctrines would take over and destroy. You'd have--

Russ Roberts: pluralism run amok. [?]

John Gray: I mean Keynes himself, as you know, was a neo-Malthusian.

Russ Roberts: Uh, yeah, but he also--I'm drawing on his--

John Gray: But he explicitly says--he explicitly says--that there'll be no continuous--that wealth of, that the growing wealth will be curbed and limited and perhaps even stopped. [?]

Russ Roberts: Maybe he had--

John Gray: if the [?]--

Russ Roberts: I don't know if that's true. He may have said that before at some point. He also--

John Gray: No, not before. Towards the end of his life.

Russ Roberts: An economics lesson for his Grandchildren. I think that's the title. I might have it wrong.

John Gray: But yeah. Whether it's optimism or pessimism I think is less important I think than whether it's true. But anyway, there are various reasons why for generations from now the level of material wellbeing of the human species may not be much higher--may even be significantly lower. And what I'm saying is that if you take the long run, the long run of the last 3000 years, say--

Russ Roberts: That's good. I like that.

John Gray: Yeah. Yeah. If you look at all the civilizations that have grown up and gotten richer, and didn't remain--we tend to think that only Western--

Russ Roberts: That's only because Adam Smith hadn't been born yet. Once Adam Smith was born, once--and of course he didn't create all the ideas, and hardly any of them. But, once the Wealth of Nations became the dominant view of the world for a few hundred years, that did have an impact.

John Gray: Well, here we differ.

Russ Roberts: Why?

John Gray: Well, I don't think that the growth of modern capitalism is dependent on those ideas.


Russ Roberts:

Russ Roberts: Oh, I agree. That's why I joked and said some of them weren't his. But certainly the growth of trade--exchange--mediated by prices, and property rights, had a positive impact on human wellbeing. You can debate that [?]--

John Gray: Well, generally. Well generally. Although, you know, you might or might not agree with it. I think it's actually a fact, though. It's a fact that, for example, with the growth of common protection in Britain--I'm not a person of thinking of the Left, but I think this is just true: It's not just a Marxian, there aren't Marxian facts and non-Marxian facts. Just facts. And it's a fact that before British colonialism in India, the level of production and level of production and consumption in India was incomparably higher than it was 100 years later. So, India was kind of one of the two great centers of the world economy. Although, the world economy of course didn't exist in a global sense at that time. And that shrank. So, actually, although I don't take the view that, at all, that Western prosperity depended on colonialism, some liberals did towards the end of the 20th century, the end of the 19th century--I don't take that view. I do think that parts[?] the West grew to higher levels of production, consumption, parts of the colonial world, British and otherwise, the very worst were parts of the world, like, for example, the Belgian Congo. Where a sixth[?] part of the population perished. So, that's a pretty dramatic drop in human wellbeing.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. [?] There's no--the part--

John Gray: Others went down. [?]--

Russ Roberts: The part we agree on--and we recently talked about this with Paul Bloom, the Yale psychologist, is that I am very much in agreement that the darkness of the human heart is unchanged, and its potential for destruction, the human potential for destruction, is unchanged.

John Gray: But--I agree with that fully. But I'd put it in a slightly different way. More amenable to, maybe, secular rationalists. The credibility of the human animal doesn't change.

Russ Roberts: The which?

John Gray: Sorry--the credulity of the human animal--

Russ Roberts: Yes.

John Gray: doesn't change.

Russ Roberts: Well, there's not much incentive to care about what's true. So--

John Gray: Usually, especially when the truth is difficult or painful or none at all--


Russ Roberts: Yep. So, I want to take us--let me take us to a direction on morality. Because this is related to this point, and I want to let you talk about what you say in your book about it. At one point, you paraphrase or quote Ivan Karamazov from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. And you say--he says--without God everything is permitted.

John Gray: Mm.

Russ Roberts: And the--I think a lot of secular humanists, and the New Atheists, especially, believe that a morality can be fashioned without God. You can also argue--I'm not going to--I'm a religious person but obviously you can argue that religious morality has many flaws. That's not what I'm talking about.

John Gray: Well, all kinds of hidden [?] concepts[?]--

Russ Roberts: Has many flaws. You can argue--

John Gray: What has many flaws?

Russ Roberts: Religious morality.

John Gray: Yes. Yes. Yes.


Russ Roberts: So, obviously, there's much to talk about there. But I think most people--most people who reject religion believe, earnestly, that a morality can be fashioned without a law-giver. Without the divine, a creator. And you are extremely dismissive, despite your atheism, you are extremely dismissive of that. Why?

John Gray: No, I'm not dismissive of the view that there can be morality, or I would say moralities, without a divine law-giver or without God. I'm not dismissive of that. Because, as I said earlier, most religions are actually are without religion. Nothing [?] with that religion. Because most religions are atheist in the sense that we discussed toward the beginning of our conversation. They don't have a created God. They don't have a divine law-giver. This is all monotheism. You see. This is all parochialism, essentially on the part of atheists, that, Western atheism is a continuation of monotheism by other means. But, um, what I focus on in the book, more--and again, it's just a fact--that atheists who say that: Are we going to have morality without religion? They assume the morality of liberalism broadly, liberalism which in many ways is inherited from aspects of Jewish and Christian monotheism. That's what a atheists today assume. But that's because they are extremely provocular[?] and know nothing about the history of atheism more generally. If you went back to 1900, in London or Berlin or Prague or any other big European city, or for that matter New York, you'd find most atheists at that time held to a version of morality in which white people were superior to black people. In other words, they held to versions of a racist morality. Closer[?] to our time, you'll find that some atheists think that, who think that morality is--many atheists, maybe most atheists who think that morality can exist and thrive without religion--think of morality in terms of sympathy and altruism. But the most influential atheist writer of the late and early 21st century, who is in fact Ayn Rand--I mean, she is [?]--sniffed at, sneered at by I think by philosophers, but she is by far the more [?]--books have sold more copies than any of theirs by many, many factors. And also continues to have, her writings continue to have an impact in politics which none of these other atheists did in the 19th century: There was Marx and [?] and so on. But in the 20th, late 20th century, nearly 20th century, Ayn Rand is significant: She thought that the essence of a good morality was Angloism[?], and she detested altruism. The term 'altruism' was invented by--the word 'altruism,' or the French version of it, was invented by the 19th century French positivist Auguste Comte, who invented what he called--I didn't call it this--religion of humanity, and he said explicitly: 'We need a new religion in which we worship humanity, not the supreme being.' Or, as he then went on to say, 'Humanity becomes a supreme being.' And he faults[?] that the morality that went with that was altruism. The word he invented. But, so, what you find, if you just look at the history of atheism in different countries, even over just the last few decades, but certainly over the last hundred or two hundred years, you find that there are many, many different varieties of atheist morality. And atheist politics, as well. There are atheists who, like Rand, who like laissez faire capitalism. There are atheists like Marx who abominate it. There are atheists who believe in human equality like John Stuart Mill. And there are atheists--many, many of them, until the Second World War, who believe in human inequality and who were out and out racists. Including some of the well-known figures in British atheism like Julian Huxley. In the early 1930s he wrote that Negroes--as he called them, he called them, called people of different ethnic backgrounds in Africa and elsewhere--he said they were inferior specimens in terms of possible development of intellect. Then as we get closer to the war, you find them saying, about 1936 or 1937, that race actually isn't a scientific concept. Now, what has happened in the intervening three or four years? Nothing scientific. What had happened is that some of the terrible consequences, even before the War, of these dreadful theories being implemented, were becoming more evident--

Russ Roberts: [?]

John Gray: And my point is this. My point is this: When people say there can be morality without God--[?]--I repeat this over--I found this a completely boring, mawkish, pointless discussion, because it's all based on the idea that the morality they are talking about is the liberal morality--

Russ Roberts: 'The right one'--

John Gray: Sorry?

Russ Roberts: 'The right one. The good one. We'll have the good morality. The kind that I believe.'

John Gray: Right. The morality that they take for granted. Just as thirty years ago, just as a hundred years ago maybe they would have taken racism for granted. Some of them would have Bolshevik; some of them would have been Nietzschians, and probably Nazis. Key point: Historically speaking, most atheists in the history of modern Western atheism have not been liberals. They've been anti-liberals. Most. So, in other words, I don't give them any credit for picking a good morality. Because it's simply the one they grew up with and they never thought about it. They think that morality and their morality are the same things. But being skeptical--as I think we all should be--I can easily imagine, 30 or 40 years hence, I can imagine the worst kinds of racism coming back. And I can imagine the brightest atheists of the time being racist. Just as they were a hundred years ago. So, it's chance. You see, Nietzsche had a rather good observation on Christianity. He said: Christian laws believe what the rest of the world believes at the time in ethics and politics, but with a kind of inflection, a religious inflection. Atheists are exactly the same. They always believe what is the conventional view of their time, with a few sort of, [?] I mean, most atheists, not all atheists, are, believe that. So, nowadays, a form of liberal morality or maybe several forms of it, are predominant. Though, of course, more recently these, this development of liberality has included imposing censorship at universities and attacking people for having, slashing and attacking people for having politically incorrect views. That's a kind of queer, odd, unusual drawl[?] but the perverse transformation of liberal morality. But they simply replicate--so, when, for example, Harris[?] says we can get morality from science, what he means is the morality that most Americans and many Europeans accept at the start of the 21st century or towards the end of the last century. Why it produces that particular morality is a question to provoke you[?] to ask. But if you are not just an everyday person living their life as best they can by their best moral lights[?] and any religion they may have, you would think your [?] I think it's an obligation to be less parochial and to ask, if I was around in a hundred years ago, if I were have been around, what would I have thought then? Am I taking this morality as given? Not just for practical, everyday purposes. It might be legitimate, or more legitimate. But, am I taking it as meaning morality itself? Because clearly liberal morality isn't morality itself. It's a particular kind of version of it. And it, itself, can have many different versions, as we're now discovering. And some of them could be quite importantly different.


Russ Roberts: One topic we didn't get into today, which we don't have time for now: But an underlying theme of the books is that Judeo-Christian values and meta-philosophies have infected--

John Gray: Totally infected[?]--

Russ Roberts: Well, I'm trying to be a little cynical--

John Gray: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Some would say enhanced. But have shaped atheist philosophies in ways that atheists are unaware of--

John Gray: Absolutely--

Russ Roberts: and it's a very--it's a somewhat condescending argument, but it may be true, nevertheless. I think the deeper point you are making right now, which is profound, is that it's very hard to be free of your time--and you think you are. There's a wonderful story in the Talmud where, through a dream, a rabbi encounters a wicked man from the past. I forget who it is. It's not important. But he says--and he finds out--he's actually a pretty decent guy. In the dream. And he says, 'Well, how can you be so wicked in the past? How can you be such an idol-worshipper, such a cruel person?' He said, 'If you had lived when I lived, you would have lifted up your robe to run more quickly towards where the idols were.' Meaning: You think, 'Oh, well, I wouldn't have been--fill-in-the-blank.' But, of course, when you are part of the time, it's rather difficult. So, let's close on this question, which is related to--

John Gray: Well, I just say one thing about that--it's slightly worse than that in regard to the atheists or enlightened thinkers we are talking about. Because, when, in the 18th century and later in the late 19th century, atheist and agnostic and other enlightened thinkers defended atheism, they gave it an intellectual prestige that it didn't have among ordinary people. Amongst ordinary people it was just a set of pre-reflective prejudices and bigotries. But when Voltaire[?] developed it, and when, naturally, given his anti-Semitism, when Hegel[?], the Germany revolutionary thinker claimed that races were based in science, they gave it an intellectual standing it didn't have otherwise. And furthermore, remember, they wouldn't just be able to say, 'Well, I was like your,' like you sort of, in the Talmud, where that were the way things were then. They claimed to be the intellectual leaders of their age. And of humanity.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I--

John Gray: A bit different. They are not just atheist, actually, versions of taxi drivers or of guys in the street, or women, voicing conventional prejudices. These are great minds, sometimes genuinely great minds. And they are giving dignity--they are giving rationality. They are giving authority to prejudices and errors that were strong at the time. And they are claiming to be--they all thought they were--Voltaire[?] certainly did; Hegel[?] certainly did--they are all claiming to be the leaders: Intellectual and moral leaders of humanity. So I think they bear a larger responsibility than that [?] story suggests.

Russ Roberts: Well, fair enough. And I think it's important--and this seems like a trivial thing, perhaps. But I think there are a lot of folks who think atheism is a new idea.

John Gray: Yeah. Yeah. Good point--

Russ Roberts: That a bunch of intellectuals have finally realized because of the advance of science that religion is wrong. And I've mentioned this before: I get listeners who tell me, 'You're smart. Why are you a religious person?' And--

John Gray: Yeah--

Russ Roberts: the idea that in the past, of course, people were religious only because they didn't understand everything. And now that we understand everything, of course religion will wither and die away. But is, as you point out--

John Gray: I think that's a form of credulity. I think religions are useful now. Antidotes to credulity.

Russ Roberts: Well, it's going to emerge and evolve in interesting ways, or thoughts on these things.


Russ Roberts: I want to close with two questions. First question is: You argue that much of human history--not 'much'--all of human history is cyclical. That the progress--

John Gray: Well, there are periods, there are periods, yes; there are periods of drift and chaos, of course.

Russ Roberts: And there is progress and it shifts back downward. What about my life? Do I have the potential for personal transformation? Do I have, if I wish--many, of course, don't wish--but if I wish to "improve myself," to know myself, to grapple with my flawed nature and try to be a better person even though I may be wrong about what is a better person--but if I have an urge to do that, do you think I'm capable of that? That one is capable of that?

John Gray: Well, I'll precede my answer with the following observation, which I'm sure you will agree with. Both you and I are lucky.

Russ Roberts: Oh. Absolutely. Yeah. I wrote a long essay on it. I haven't published it yet. I'm not sure I can handle publishing it. I'm incredibly lucky. Absolutely.

John Gray: Yeah. I mean, we weren't born in the Ukraine in the 1930s.

Russ Roberts: Yep. Sure.

John Gray: We weren't born in the Belgian Congo in the 1890s. There are many other ways we are both lucky--

Russ Roberts: Loving parents--

John Gray: Right. Parents. Education. I'm lucky in having been born after the Second World War because although the Second World War involved, as I say and to my mind a just an even noble war, it involved a lot of human suffering and destruction. In Britain it had many benign effects, including much higher levels of nutrition for people in poorer parts of society. Now this is not a Hayekian point; it's the exact opposite--

Russ Roberts: Yep. For sure.

John Gray: That's why I don't swallow the Hayek theory whole. Rationing during that war--we can't organize the whole economy forever on the basis of a war, wartime basis. That's true. But that time rationing worked; it was blurred at the edges and there were of course black markets, as there always are; but it worked. And so, diseases of deficiency, nutrition diseases like rickets which had been absolutely widespread throughout Britain beforehand pretty well disappeared as a consequence of the war. So, I'm lucky, and you're lucky. So, the very question, 'Can I improve myself? Do I have the personal capacity or the free will or whatever it is to improve myself?' I think presupposes--maybe not the existence of maybe free will if there is such a thing is possible, or reality[?] always; but the idea of personal self-improvement presupposes that you are living in one of those, to my mind, comparatively rare periods of human history when self-improvement is possible. Because, if self-improvement is going to be suddenly interrupted by your being arbitrarily arrested, murdered, starving in some gigantic famine, or consumed in some terrible war, you aren't going to be able to improve yourself very long, are you?

Russ Roberts: I think Solzhenitsyn--and we're talking about Solzhenitsyn on this program lately--or Viktor Frankl--they would say those were the great moments when actual transformation is most possible. That, many in the West who lead blessed material lives are no better than a sheep who gets to look at a cellphone and play video games on there.

John Gray: Yeah; the latter may be true. But, you know, the forepoint[?] about camps may also be false. I mean, if you want a different view of this, or your listeners want a different view, they can read--which had recently been published in a wonderful new edition by New York Review press, they can read the story, Gulag Survivor, Varlam Shalamov. I reviewed his new book in the London New Statesman just a couple of weeks ago. And, his view is--he was offered, by the way, by Solzhenitsyn who knew and admired him, and said, Solzhenitsyn said of Shalamov, 'Shalamov tasted deeper in the cup of despair and degradation we all drank in the Gulag.' He said, 'I bow my head to Shalamov.' And he offered cooperation with Shalamov, but Shalamov rejected it for whatever reasons. And Shalamov's description of life in the camps is wholly without redemption. But neither you nor I really can judge that, I don't think.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough. I'm just being provocative.

John Gray: It could be--no--it could be possible in some conditions. Some kind of possible[?] transformation and impossible in others. That might be the case. It's clearly not even something as simple of the extreme cold of the northern gold-mining camps in which Shalamov spent 15 years--the average lifespan seems to have been in those camps about 3 years. He survived 15 by being a hospital orderly for most of the time; that was the only place where there was sort of reliable food and a certain degree of medicine, and so on. But, anyway, we don't necessarily need to go--where were we in the conversation before we got to?

Russ Roberts: I was asking about personal transformation [?]--

John Gray: And my reply was personal self-improvement is only possible, I think, I may be wrong about this, as I say, if Frankl and others are right--I think it's only possible on a large scale--I'm sure I'm right about this--I mean, very unusual people, heroic people, people of extraordinary qualities can perhaps undergo remarkable positive transformations in terrible conditions. That may well be true. It may be a universal human truth. But large numbers of people can't improve themselves unless they live in those relatively rare parts of history which have enough stability and enough basic decency, [?] kind of minimal, to allow them to live lives in which what they do affects their longer pattern of their life. If the pattern of your life is wholly determined by forces you can't control by--

Russ Roberts: That's the fundamental question.

John Gray: Yeah.


Russ Roberts: I'm asking a psychological question, by the way, not a material question. Not a--

John Gray: Not a metaphysical question?

Russ Roberts: I am--

John Gray: You're not asking about free will?

Russ Roberts: I am.

John Gray: Yeah, you are. I think your question is not psychological. I think it's metaphysical.

Russ Roberts: That's what I meant. Sorry. I meant: Can I become--I want to make it clear I'm not asking, 'Can I improve my lot in life by studying and becoming a better tradesperson?' or whatever. I'm asking the question: Through religion or meditation or force of will, do you think I can become a better husband? A kinder colleague? A better friend?

John Gray: I think all of those means, all of the means that human beings have invented in the course of their history, which might include not only religions and therapies--all kinds of therapies [?]--but also arts--

Russ Roberts: Yep--

John Gray: fiction, novels, music. All kinds of social and other practices can enable people to improve themselves and become more of what they want to be. I think that's just a fact. Because, I think one of the reason human beings have got--maybe not the only reason or even not even is the most important reason--but the reason human beings have the arts, have religions, have music, have therapies, is to do that; and to some extent, it can work. But actually, you see, whereas I differ with many of your [?], I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that people can't turn themselves into the person they want to be. It may be a bad thing if what they are trying to eradicate in themselves is cruelty or some trait that is definitely malignant or malevolent. But actually, the conception of what our understanding of what would be the best kind of person to be is very, very limited. It uses kind of an aspect I think--we're coming towards the end, now--I think it's quite important. People say, 'You're terribly pessimistic. You think we'll never achieve our noble goals,' and so on. Actually, I'm more optimistic than that. I think the goals are nearly always internally flawed somehow. However absolutely ghastly post-Soviet Russia was, it wasn't as bad as the Russia which achieved Communism would have been.

Russ Roberts: Yup. I agree with that.

John Gray: Because a Russia which had achieved Communism would have no religion. Apart from Communism. You would have extirpated religion. There would have been no families, as we've historically understood them. There would be no national or local cultures. There'd be maybe a kind of equality, but it would, to me, be a culture so emptied of what makes life meaningful and valuable that it would be intolerable. Now, actually, I'm an optimist in the sense that I believe that humans, the contradictions of human nature will always destroy, both at the personal level and at the collective level, the visions of a much better world or a perfect world that people have. The deepest truth in all this is that contrary to what--this is a truth in the best forms of Christianity and the best forms of Judaism and the best forms of religions [?] in all of them--is that we humans don't have a clear conception of what it means to be perfect. We think we do. [?] what would a perfect world be like? You can come up with a rather banal description of it. But once you actually dig deeper into it, you'll find that it actually could have [?]--

Russ Roberts: It's not a world that you--you might not want to live in such a world.

John Gray: You might fear such a world. You might dread such a world. You might try and get out of such a world. So, that tells you that there's something lacking in that world that you've not identified. But more. So I'm a [?] believer that humans can improve themselves when they're in unfortunate circumstances, for long enough--many do, and they become kinder or they become more reasonable or they conquer negative character traits in themselves. And that's the purpose of meditation and Buddhism, it's more to the purposes of prayer in theistic religions and it's more to the purposes of therapy that secular people take up. They can do all those things. I'm glad that human beings cannot turn themselves into the type of human beings that they think they want to be, because if they did, they would very often if not always impoverish themselves. And that's because I think that kind of the, one of the big illusions about time is that human beings really understand themselves. I don't think any of us understands what leads us to do and not do certain things. And that, again, is a good thing, very often. It may be a bad thing if you are driven to some, repeatedly, in what Freud called repetition compulsion, to do painful things that harm you and others. Then you have to seek some kind of therapy or some kind of help. But more generally, the fact that we don't live our lives according to a rational life plan--which is what the American philosopher John Rawls talked about: Thank God we don't live--or, what John Stuart Mill, the British utilitarian; he wanted to create our lives: he said we should have experiments of living in which we try different lives and find out the one that works best and adopt that. I think that's a very bad idea, actually, because if we treat our lives as an experiment in which it doesn't seem to work out the way we want, we just scrap it and get rid of it, you could say, 'Well, Judaism hasn't worked for me, or Christianity: I'm giving it up. Instead I'm becoming a drug taker.' 'Or, I'm becoming a follower of Ayn Rand.' I think that's a kind of way of life which will--you turn your life into a series of not-very-interesting short stories rather than being a deep human life. Which can only come from committing yourself rather deeply in daily practice to certain things, which might be religion or it might be learning an art or a craft of some kind, or it might be some human relationships, or even relationships with animals that you've cultivated. But it has to be deep and abiding and continuing. It can't just be experimental. So, although--I mean, one thing I am very critical of is the modern--and I've written about this--is the modern idea of self-realization, because the modern idea of self-realization implies that there is within each of us a sort of [?]--

Russ Roberts: idea of ourselves.

John Gray: Yes. Now, we can sort of extract--but that's just a kind of delusive image, because if you do succeed in extracting something, again you'd probably find there's something missing in it. Many people who have long been poor and suddenly become rich do not flourish in the new life that they have. Now, you can say that's because they don't know how to live [?], but it's also true of people who come from families and social groups that have long been rich. There's no simple form of a human life which can be imagined or which can possibly exist which is perfection; and that means you can't approach perfection because there's no such thing. You can improve on the way you are; people can improve on the way they are and have been; but they can't approach perfection. It's not that they get a better and better understanding of what a perfect life is. We never have that understanding. And that's why, although I am myself an atheist, I think the idea of a God that can be perfect in ways that we cannot ever understand, is actually a very useful and valuable myth.


Russ Roberts: Well, I want to close--we're way over time, but I want to close by letting you defend the kind of atheist you think one should be. You spend most of the book talking about the bad kinds of atheists--those who are channeling their inner Christian or inner Judeo-Christian or inner Messianic themes of progress or are worshiping of something else. What's the right kind?

John Gray: Oh, well, there are several examples in the book. I think maybe we have time--I can look at one now in brief detail that I discuss in the book, which is a Polish-British writer, Joseph Conrad. Now, he was an atheist, a strong atheist in the sense that I am. But he didn't worship or even revere humanity. He didn't want to replace--he wasn't looking for a surrogate for a religious theistic meaning for life. He accepted that there was no surrogate. He was actually, I think even pleased that religion was [?]. He had very few expectations of human progress. If you read his letters that he wrote with Bertrand Russell, the British atheist philosopher, Russell looking forward to a world governed by international socialism and peace and getting better and better, and so on. Conrad just sort of laughed at those ideas and ridiculed them and mocked them. I never subscribe to any of them. But he lived a very creative and productive and adventurous life, unlike most people who, even most novelists, I think; even most writers of fiction. He didn't spend most of his life in a study. He spent over 20 years as a sailor, as a seaman; in his late teens had a very adventurous time, went all over the world, was nearly killed two or three times in near drownings and maritime accidents. He got involved in an attempted coup when he was young against the Spanish government; he became part of--he became a gun runner for a period. He had a very adventurous life, a dangerous life, a risky life. And an extraordinarily demanding life in the sense that the language in which he wrote his novels and his short stories was not his first language or even his second language. His first language was Polish; his second was French. It was English which was his third language. So, he's one of very few world-class writers who wrote in a language--

Russ Roberts: I can think of two--

John Gray: twice removed from his first.

Russ Roberts: [?] Nabokov at least didn't write in his native language.

John Gray: No, there are others; but he didn't--I mean, Nabokov didn't write in Chinese. [?] don't forget that Nabokov grew up in a time when the Russians in his generation all spoke French, and many spoke English. He had a demanding and arduous life. He was also constantly involved in speculative investments: he tried every weird--you know, Peruvian tin mines or silver mines, and practically everything of the day. Railways, the lot. He was always losing money. He was always hard up, even when he was earning a fortune as a writer. He was a very adventurous character, in short. Now, what was distinctive of his--he didn't lead a privileged life. He got rich eventually, but through his own exertions as a writer. But he didn't live a privileged life in his study, sheltered from the horrors or mischances of everyday life. On the contrary, his life was as or more dangerous and risky than many human lives were at that time. And he also--I missed out--he visited the Belgian Congo, as a sailor, during its worst period; and witnessed it. And he said it changed him forever, because until he'd gone there, he said he had some shreds or vestiges of the European facing progress that was dominant in his time in the pre-[?] World War period. But when he got there, he saw what was happening; not only that: he saw that it was the Belgian King who owned it as private property, who owned the Congo, that part of the Congo at the time, called his rule a mission for civilization progress. So, he saw that amounted to then, it changed him forever. He said that when he went to the Belgian Congo, he was a mere animal, and when he left he was a human being. It's a very nice paradox, because he arrived with all the illusions of civilized human beings; they were destroyed and he became a real human being, when he left without those illusions. But, if you say what I like about his[?] atheism, a particular type of atheism: Conrad's lack of belief in progress is central to his atheism, because it's connected to his life as a seafarer, as a seaman. Which is that he thought that human beings were admirable. He wasn't a misanthrope. He didn't admire most human beings very much, but he wasn't a misanthrope either. He thought human beings were at their most admirable when they confronted situations that had no solution. I mean, if you are in a ship that could go under, everything depends on your skill and courage--that you don't lose your nerve or the knowledge that you've accumulated from other sailors. There's nothing you can do to overcome the power of the sea. The sea is many, many thousands of times, millions of times more powerful than you. How you live or die, how you save yourself from being drowning, or fail to save yourself from drowning or your shipmates, fail to save them or help them, is all up to you. And so, he thought that the type of behavior, the type of life in which human beings showed their true mettle and showed real grace and real courage and real integrity--showed these admirable qualities--was when they were up against these kinds of odds. If you are [?] against a storm, it's no good thinking, 'Well, 200 years from now there will be ships that don't sink in conditions like that.' You and the people you care for are going to drown anyway. Or, there may be something you can do to stop them drowning. There may be some measure, some brave measure that you can try, some human ingenuity that you can put to work whereby you can save them. That's what matters, not how people may or may not be 200 years time when technology has produced ships that don't sink in that kind of condition. So, he's one I dwell on in the book. There are others, too: the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, and several others I talk about in the book who embody the types of atheism, one of the types of atheism. In Conrad's case, atheism without progress that I admire. Now, they are a sort of minority--they would be, now, but if you look at atheism, as you mentioned earlier, Russ, atheism didn't suddenly pop up in the last hundred years with science. You can find versions of atheism in--

Russ Roberts: in Lucretius--

John Gray: In Lucretius, ancient Greek, Greece and Rome. And also, as I've said, you can find it in India and Chinese philosophy as well. You can find it even in Buddhism, as an atheist religion. So, a lot of[?] these different atheisms, different types of atheism, have been around for an awful long time, almost since human beings started thinking, actually. But, in the modern period, in the modern period, Conrad is one I admire and is one, I think, even though one can't write as well as he does--I certainly can't--and hardly any of us could, certainly not in another language, we can learn from how he dealt with his life. He had a kind of combination of extreme boldness with fortitude. He lost--and--fortitude in adversity. He got ill in his later years. He found writing terribly difficult. It was an enormous struggle for him to write what he did: not only a linguistic struggle, but a kind of conceptual struggle. He had periods following his books when he struggled to recover from the exertion of writing them; and despite that, he kind of, he went on. To me, he's a kind of--I'm not saying he was perfect. There were aspects of his personality which no doubt weren't. But, it embodies a kind--what atheism might mean, or did mean in his case, in a lived life. He lived a very productive, creative, in most ways admirable life without having any big hopes of the human species, now or in the future. And I think that's admirable.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been John Gray. His book is the Seven Types of Atheism. I also enjoyed his book The Silence of Animals, which I read in advance of this interview.

John Gray: Thank you.

Russ Roberts: And I'm about to read Straw Dogs, which is earlier still. And he's written a book on Hayek we might want to look at. John, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

John Gray: And thank you, Russ, for a very stimulating and interesting conversation, and one which shows you've read my books very carefully and imaginatively, and you've thought about them a lot. Not only is that rare, but it's also produced a very interesting and, I think at points, deep and thought-stirring conversation.