Giles Fraser: Many things might not get better

09 March 2011

ONE of the assumptions frequently made by neo-conservatives in the run-up to the second Iraq war was that all that the United States had to do was to topple Sadaam Hussein’s dictatorship, and history would take its course. Liberal democracy would inevitably flourish. The same as­sump­tion is being made in this new Arab spring of revolution: that it heralds some inevitable progress towards a better, brighter world.

I was talking about secularism with the philosopher John Gray this week at one of the seminars that St Paul’s is running with The Guardian. His point about contemporary secu­lar­ism is that few people recognise how shaped by Judaeo-Christian theo­logy it is, and, in particular, shaped by eschatology.

You don’t, for instance, get a sense that history is constantly working its way towards some positive conclu­sion in Greek or Roman thought. In pre-Christian cultures, the assump­tion is often that things go in cycles. But, from Marxists to evolutionary scien­tists to modern liberals, the guid­ing idea is one of progress. As that irritating New Labour anthem put it: “Things can only get better.”

The decline of literacy in theology — combined with its continued but subtle influence — means that we are often being run by ideas that pass by unnoticed, and are therefore not subject to critical scrutiny. This gives such ideas tremendous power.

As Professor Gray put it in his book Straw Dogs (Granta, 2002): “In China and Japan, where the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic idea of religion has never been accepted, secularism is prac­tically meaningless. Despite these facts, twenty-first century mod­ern­izers talk in the dated accents of Marx and the Positivists, nineteenth-century Europeans who mistook their parochial hopes for universal historical laws.”

In other words, we ought not to be so confident that what is happening in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is about to usher in some bright future of freedom, peace, and pros­perity. One ought to note, for in­stance, how these revolutions have significantly pushed up the price of oil, and that, as a consequence, bil­lions of roubles have been pouring into Vladimir Putin’s coffers. To put it mildly: that wealth may not be used for the good of all humanity.

The unexamined influence of secular eschatology is dangerous in so far as it leads too many political leaders to assume that their foreign-policy interventions are able to push history along to its next phase of progress. It can easily become an encouragement to go to war.

Thinking about Professor Gray’s argument, I started to see that what was perhaps most dangerous about Tony Blair and George Bush was their positive optimism. “Things can only get better” was the soundtrack to the death of many thousands of Iraqis.

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