‘A good human life can be embodied in doubt’ — John Gray speaks to Nick Spencer

25 May 2018

Nick Spencer talks to John Gray about his new book on atheists, and why he’s not interested in debating with the New variety


Immanuel Kant, by Johann Gottlieb Becker (1720-1782)

Immanuel Kant, by Johann Gottlieb Becker (1720-1782)

Nick Spencer: One of the things I particularly liked about the book was that you were quoting Voltaire, Hume, and Kant on unapologetically racist views. What’s fascinating is the way that, for a lot of the atheists you write about, the Enlightenment has become almost like the incarnation; it’s become the new dispensation. Talk a little bit about your debunking of that Enlightenment mythology.

John Gray: I suppose it’s not altogether news that there was a racist element in the thinking of some of the major Enlightenment figures. What I wanted to suggest in this new book on atheism, however, was that the racist element wasn’t an incidental prejudice that they’d have as men of their time, but was actually central in many ways to their Enlightenment world-view.

There is, of course, a common defence, which I’ve heard countless times, where people say “Well, they were men of their time, [which is that] everyone had these prejudices. And I think that that fails for two reasons. One is the simple reason that they claim to be the intellectual leaders of the time; they weren’t the 18th-century or 17th-century version of the taxi driver. They were people who could give authority and intellectual weight to these prejudices, and that’s what they did.

But the second is that their racism was integral to the view they all held — Kant, Voltaire, and Hume, the three great Enlightenment thinkers; no one would doubt that, at least in the 18th century — which was that only one kind of civilisation was consistent with Enlightenment and reason: a developed version of the civilisation that existed in Europe, but purged of its . . . Jewish and Christian elements. That would be the highest civilisation that had ever existed — higher than any that had existed before; but it would also replace all the other civilisations, that’s the key point. Not only that it was the top, as they thought, [but] all the others would disappear or die out. So, they weren’t just less developed or primitive. . . they were destined to disappear, they were destined to die out.

It’s radically Eurocentric, but it’s also explicitly a doctrine of hierarchy with a strong racial component. So, it’s integral to their way of thinking; it’s not something that can just be airbrushed out.

church timesNick Spencer (right) interviews John Gray

I’m conscious that you’re not a particularly confessional writer — you don’t write much about yourself — but I want to know a little bit more about your intellectual formation. You do a lot of debunking; you take orthodoxies and you seek to undermine them. Why?

I don’t identify with any school of philosophy; but the school of philosophy which attracts me the most, I suppose, are the various strands of traditions that are usually grouped together under scepticism.

Joseph Conrad, one of my favourite writers, and one of the figures in my new book that I praise a lot, said “Scepticism is the tonic of the mind.” I think the life of the mind consists of questioning the beliefs that one has acquired, but also the dominant beliefs of the age.

If you look at the history of ideas carefully and dispassionately, what you find is that it’s absolutely replete with absurdities. . . The history of ideas is no more progressive than the rest of human events, fashions, absurdities, or fads.

Now, we have a kind of raging counter-culturalism in the humanities and the social sciences, which is reflexively hostile to anything that fed into the Western tradition, especially Judaism and Christianity. . . I guess it’s my sceptical orientation and my belief that . . . that a good human life can actually be embodied in scepticism or doubt.

Now, of course, one of the things that I like about many traditions in Christianity, as against secular thinking, is that they have learned to live or co-exist with doubt over millennia, starting at least with Augustine; whereas in secular thinking, especially of the militant variety, there’s very little of that. The only person I can think of, maybe, would be someone like Bertrand Russell — in some of his writings, not all.

PUBLIC DOMAINFriedrich NietzscheI once described you, in a review of one of your books, as “a very scriptural thinker whose Bible ends at Genesis 3.” I detect that you have a great deal of sympathy with the Christian doctrine of the Fall and its implications for human fallibility, and reservations about how much we can know.

I suppose, in this respect, I’m a bit more like Nietzsche. Nietzsche liked the Old Testament. I admire Jesus as a figure, and I have various observations in the book about that — sceptical observations. But I’m attracted to the Genesis myth, and also the story of Job, which, to me, is more profound . . . than many of the things in Socratic philosophy. [Socrates] was represented as a great questioner, [but] he never questioned the underlying belief that truth and goodness are one, or that the world was a logical order. Whereas the questioning in the Job story is, I think, very profound. . . Where is there in ancient Greek philosophy any doubt about the value of knowledge? Nowhere, I would say. Even the sceptics pretty well accept that. . . [They] hardly question the underlying logic of the cosmic order the way the early biblical texts do.

Isaiah Berlin was quite an influence on you, and particularly his stubborn insistence on value pluralism. I wonder whether that’s one of the reasons why you have a certain attraction to the Christian and Jewish scriptures, because it’s a very plural book: alongside the desperation of Job, you have the Psalms, which are completely empty. You couldn’t legitimately describe Christianity as value-pluralist, but there is an awareness of the full range and variety of human experience.

And of religious experience. The one philosophical writer on religion that I admire is William James, [the author of] Varieties of Religious Experience. Not just that there are varieties of religion — and, if he’d been around, he would, I think, have agreed with me, varieties of atheism — but also that human experience, in general, is very wide.

 PUBLIC DOMAINSchopenhauerI was struck by the end of the book, in which you more or less say that there are schools or trends of atheist thought that come very close to apophatic theology, negative theology, which you have sympathy with.

Yes, I do. It can go both ways. Schopenhauer, who I take as one of the thinkers who held to a certain kind of apophatic theology, equivocates as to whether there’s anything, so to speak, there, or whether thought just sort of runs out and leaves you with an impasse. And, at times, he holds to the Buddhist view. . . He says that when we get glimpses of this they’re all good — beauty, selflessness, ethics, and aesthetics are based on it — so it must be good, if that’s true. So that would be like an apophatic deity.

On the other hand, sometimes he says that, in human terms, it’s nothing at all. And, of course, interestingly, Schopenhauer was an important figure for [Joseph] Conrad, and in Conrad’s last great novel, Victory, [which is] all about the limitations of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, a very ironical novel. So, yes, I have some sympathy for that. . .

What it would go with would be a kind of radically pragmatic view of science and human knowledge, which is that science and human knowledge, even in its rigorous scientific form, enables us to navigate our way through the world for as long as it does. But it’s not a Platonistic view of science: it’s a pragmatic view of science. We might actually just be lucky in being part of the universe which is orderly, and it might not be orderly for ever. There are full-fledged philosophies of science — C. S. Peirce, the American pragmatist; William James himself; and others — of an instrumentalist and pragmatist sort. The whole tenor of the book, starting with this definition of atheism, is pragmatic.

There cannot be formal definitions, but readers want some idea of what you’re talking about; so I give loose, pragmatic definitions of what I mean by atheism. In one sense, atheism amounts to not very much: it’s simply the absence of the idea of a creator God of the whole world. I point out that many of the world’s religions, in that sense, are atheist religions, especially Buddhism.

But when you come to define religion early on, your emphasis is not on a theory to explain but as an attempt to acquire and detect meaning. In your view, humans are fundamentally meaning-seeking animals, aren’t they?

Yes, they are; or meaning-making animals. And that’s their strength — but it could also be seen as their weakness, because it makes them vulnerable to upset in a way that other animals are not. Because, first of all, their stories . . . terminate in death, and they’re more aware of the fact of death, though not of its significance. We know no more of its significance than any other animal, but we appear to be more aware of it than other animals.

church timesNick Spencer (left) with John Gray

There are traces of meaning in octopuses, elephants, and higher primates, but they’re faint traces. But that’s why you are far more sympathetic to the idea of religion than the vast majority of atheists writing today, because you see it as fundamentally interwoven into human beings.

Well, it certainly can’t be eliminated. If humans are meaning-seeking animals, then religion can no more be eliminated than sex can be eliminated. . . [The psychologist] Adam Phillips pointed out last night [in a conversation at the London Review of Books] . . . [that] one of the messages of this book is that religion permeates everything in the way that Freud said sex permeates everything. If you repress it in the way that the Victorians did, it comes out in sleazy and weird forms. . . It’s not humanly universal; not every single human being has it. It seems to be pan-cultural, I would say. And, certainly, if you try to eradicate it from society, what you end up with is some sort of state cult, and that’s happened repeatedly.

One of the aspects of the unempirical, even anti-empirical, character of contemporary atheism is when you say “Look what happened in China, or the Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany” and they say “It’s nothing to do with atheism”. [They argue that] Christianity, all the evils that it’s been associated with, it’s all come from Christianity; but, with atheism, none of the evils come from atheism. In one sense, that’s true, but not in a very interesting sense. If you just take atheism in this very minimal, negative formulation, meaning the absence of the idea of a creator God, then, of course, nothing follows from it logically. But, historically, whenever atheism has been organised as a movement, or has acquired power in the State, it has always, I think it could be said, become a repressive cult.

One of the features of the emergence of atheism is that it comes in a thickly Christian culture, and therefore the statement “There is no God” is untenable in public. It has to be “There is no God and therefore there is humanity, or science, or whatever it is.” So, from those fundamentally destructive or parasitic seeds, atheism has always had to be a creative phenomenon in order to justify its position on the table.

I say somewhere in the book: “A world from which the Christian God has been removed is still a Christian world.” So, an atheist world, in the modern sense, is still a monotheistic world. They haven’t stepped out of monotheism. Because, in a sense, the atheisms that can really step out might be more threatening or chilling to you as a Christian than the ones I’m attacking. If you really step out of it, which Nietzsche tried but failed, and Schopenhauer more successfully did and ended up with this kind of mystical atheism, it’ll be further out.

Because one of the things it will accept would be that history has no redemptive meaning: it’s a succession of events. . . Most of the Enlightenment thinkers didn’t think progress was inevitable. What they thought was that what had been gained in human civilisation could not permanently be lost. In other words, they thought of human advance, let’s call it, as securely cumulative. You might advance five steps and go back two, but then you’d go ahead three — “You” being a collective agency, humankind, which, of course, doesn’t exist for monotheists or Buddhists. The collective agency “humankind” is a figure inherited from monotheism, particularly from Christianity.

You’re right, clearly, to see the modern secular projection of progress being derived from a kind of Christian idea of the linearity of history. But you do hint a few times in the book about how, within Christian tradition, there is a sense that history can be redeemed from within history. That’s not really a Christian view. The message of Revelation is that the fundamental final consummation comes from outside of human agency. History can be moved, and time is linear, and so on and so forth, but the idea that redemption occurs within history on account of human agency: that’s not a Christian view, is it?

But there still is the fact that, in Christianity, history contains profoundly redemptive events, such as the appearance of Jesus. And, on the view that I take, which is more like the Buddhist or Hindu or Daoist view, or even the ancient Greek and Roman view, history is a succession of contingent events going nowhere in particular. Particular civilisations and human groups can form purposes, and do, and, as I mentioned earlier, there can be periods of advance within a particular way of life or a tradition. But the idea of a universal history is one I’m very sceptical of, and is one that has been historically quite harmful.

 PUBLIC DOMAINKarl MarxSo, you hold to [Joseph] Heller’s view about history being a trash bag blown open by the wind?

Yes. Or what Seamus Heaney said: “History has all the logic or meaning of an abattoir.”

But it means a lot is contingent. For one thing, you’re freed from the tyranny of historical laws. . . Hegel and then Marx and even Mill thought that there were, somehow, unfolding laws of history. And, nowadays, people wheel that view in to prop up liberalism.

I noticed how in your chapter on political religions, after the millenarian cults — Jacobinism, Marxism — you slip in Evangelical liberalism right at the end, which I thought was a bit unfair. I know the point you’re making about liberal attempts to remake the world order. . .

And all these wars recently.

Still, on quite a lower scale than the political religions of the past, mercifully.

It has less human casualties, that is true; it happens less. But it’s the same impulse. The background idea is: this is what the human species really, secretly, quintessentially wants, even if large numbers of it, or even a majority, reject these views.

But there’s also a fundamental issue. Here’s one of the cruxes which I think liberals can’t face, because it’s part of the self-definition of liberalism — maybe all liberalism, but certainly liberalism now — that it is universalist. But, on my account, since I’m not a theist, liberalism is a particular way of life or family of ways of life inherited from Judaism and Christianity specifically. Not from Islam. . .

It’s not the only form of life. Hume was good on this. He writes that some of the most civilised orders are kind of aged absolutisms which are very tolerant. And, by the way, one of the things that I think we have inherited from Judaism and Christianity which is very important, something which features hardly at all in liberalism of the day, is tolerance. . . Can you think of any of the New Atheists who mention the term tolerance?


It’s done as a kind of window-dressing, really.

They don’t even mention it. I don’t think I’ve seen it once in [Daniel] Dennett. Maybe it’s there somewhere, but it’s not on the list of the virtues. It’s not in Pinker. There is a list of these fundamental things, and nowhere [do you find] toleration. Yet it was very important: it was, in a sense, the founding practice. It came from wars of religion, wars within Christianity. It was the founding practice of liberal society.

You favour a much more agonistic liberalism, one which is an attempt to face up to conflicts and deal with them as best as possible rather than implement any programmatic attempt. . .

. . . And also, rather than thinking that any point will come in the progress of human affairs where they don’t apply. Because that’s what liberals really believe. . . There’s no reason to think that. It’s one of the reasons that people find my view on progress so chilling. It means that conflicts of the kind we face now in the world, some of them very profound, will keep recurring.

I detect two stages in your career. Up until 2000, up until Straw Dogs, most of what you published was political theory. And then, post-Straw Dogs, you’re engaging with much more, if I can use the word, metaphysical issues, including religion. Politically, you’re formed in the 1970s and ’80s. You start on the Left, you favour Thatcher, but then you move away from the New Right.

I was never active on the Left. I grew up in the north-east of England, where there was a long-standing Old Labour domination. I knew even when I grew up there (I left when I was 20) that it was corrupt. It had many of what would now be seen rightly as vices: it was patriarchal; I wouldn’t say it was racist, but it was a fairly closed form of life. But it also had some fundamental decencies, which I think were inherited from the post-war settlement, and even from the Second World War itself, which produced a kind of deep social cohesion, or it revealed a deep social cohesion in Britain which was very valuable. I started on the Left, but I’ve never been a Marxist, never; or a Communist; or a Trotskyist; or any of these things. . .

But then what happened is the ’70s. And what seemed to me to be happening in the ’70s, quite clearly — although in universities the penny didn’t drop until long after it had happened — was the unravelling of that post-war settlement. Maybe I was more sensitive to it, because it was obvious that, up in the north, the old industries were not only declining but were finished, and something else would have to be developed. Then there were the great industrial conflicts of the ’70s.

I got my first position [at Essex University] in 1973, as a lecturer in political philosophy. . . When I arrived there, I was already of the view that the post-war settlement was coming apart, and then this serendipitously happened. I lived on campus, and, in the evenings, used to go to the rather fine library that they had, and would while away the evenings pulling books down from the shelf. One of the books I pulled down was F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. . . And although, being a sceptic, I never embraced the doctrine, which was a sort of mixture of cultural Darwinism, theories of evolution and radical free marketism and so on, it struck me that it was a devastating criticism of central planning and of socialism, and even had applications to some of the things I’d witnessed in the north.

One of the things I’d witnessed was that some of the biggest damage which had been done to social life, to community life, had actually been done by the most progressive local authorities, who knocked all the old houses down. Rather than, as they could have done at less cost and at less damage to community, improving them, they just wiped them out. [They built] orbital estates at the edge of cities, which were different in many ways.

First of all, they were generationally segregated, which the old street communities were not. Second, because people didn’t know each other . . . there was an immediate change from almost no vandalism at all in the old street communities. . . One of the big reasons for that was: if you take all these people and shake them up like marbles, put them in different streets, and nobody knows anybody, what do you get?

So, I thought that this criticism of central planning — although nothing happened in any Western society that was remotely comparable with what had happened in the Soviet Union — applied here, too.

So, I took that up and, by 1974, I was in touch with the right-wing think-tanks who I worked with, on and off, until the late ’80s, when I broke with them and started criticising Thatcherism. I actually never criticised her [Thatcher] very much, but I began to criticise Thatcherism as being an inverted form of Marxism. . . [I was] able to watch this political experiment from relatively close quarters, and that was fascinating. . .

PUBLIC DOMAINFrançois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), by Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746)

What I read from that is that, in your attraction to the Right in the ’70s, you saw in it a way of undermining these programmatic political ideologies of the Left that tried to redesign society. But, a decade or so later, your movement away from the Right was when the Right became programmatic and progressive in its own way.

People see it as an inconsistency. It’s almost monotonously consistent. . . I published one or two things: a thing through a right-wing think tank, Limited Government: A positive agenda. I said that it should be concerned with the arts, with distribution. They were heresies for [the Right]: the smaller the government, the less it did, the better, according to these people. I never accepted that. That was about ’87, ’88.

And then, in October ’89, before the [Berlin] Wall went down, when it was beginning to be clear that Communism was over, at least in the Soviet Union, I published my first attack on [Francis] Fukuyama, in which I said this is not the end of history, it’s just a resumption of traditional classical history, ethnic conflict, resource wars, secret diplomacies, wars of religion — going back to the historical norm.

But, in terms of your question, I became increasingly critical. I said: “We’ve done these things in Britain. Before the Poll Tax, she [Thatcher] achieved what she said she’d achieve. She’d reduced inflation, limited the powers of the trade unions. Russia is completely different. None of this is going to work in a society that’s had totalitarianism for 70 years. This is insanity, this is madness.” By then, it had turned into the kind of universal dogma, and also a project of social engineering of exactly the sort I rejected and went into the Right to avoid.

You object to ideologies. That’s what lies at its heart: any system that believes it can fully explain, let alone remould, human experience or society.

That thinks it can understand history, that thinks that history has a certain kind of direction which is supposed to be good. Why it should be good, I don’t know. There might be a direction, but I don’t think there is.

In the light of that, let’s go to some of the criticisms that people sometimes level at you. . . There’s a criticism that is often levelled at value pluralism, which is that, if you have two cultural systems that are antagonistic, how do you ever get one to talk to another, and, if there is no kind of framing ethical system, to show that one is wrong? And sometimes you do need to do that, when you come across culturally embedded practices that we would describe today as violations of human rights.


FGM, or suttee in the 19th century, or, in some senses, slavery in the ancient world. These are [seen as] culturally deeply embedded, they’re just normal; some human beings are just born as slaves, end of. How do you ever undermine those deeply cultural practices?

My value pluralism is not a doctrine of unrestricted value relativism. . . Post-modern or modern relativism of that kind is associated with the idea that there is no human nature. They say that human beings are cultural constructions. . . I don’t hold that at all. My view of value pluralism is more like a pre-modern view, an ancient view, which is the view that you find in Greek drama: which is that certain goods and certain bads are integral to the human condition, or the human situation, or even the human animal. What would those goods and bads be? I don’t think you can draw a complete list. But humiliation can’t be a good.

You think that they are universal goods and bads, not local ones?

Yes, they are universal.


But doesn’t that nudge you in the direction of some sense of humanity as a coherent entity? If those values are all shared. . .

Yes, but they all conflict. . . A different way of thinking of the plurality of ways of life in the human world is to say that it arises from different settlements among values that are universal.

One of the ways I arrived at this view — the view that there are human and generic goods and bads — was that many years ago in California I used to go to the zoos and observe the animals. And I noticed that in good zoos the animals looked and behaved completely differently from how they did in bad zoos. They had different coats, they walked up and down differently — just obviously thriving.

In bad zoos, where gorillas would be kept in enclosures on concrete . . . they looked sad, they looked depressed. . . In other words, their natures weren’t culturally elastic. It wasn’t the case that if you kept them in these zoos for generations they would adapt to them and become happy in them. They would simply be unhappy for ever. And so humans are, in that respect, not different from other animals. There is an objective component to their well-being.

The difference comes in that human beings are more fertile in the creation of languages, and of ways of life, and, I would say, of religions. They produce many different ways of life, partly from resolving the conflicts between these goods that are, if you like, part of their nature, goods and bads. So, for example, it’s open to a human group or a human settlement to make a variety of different settlements — choices, even, if they meet as some kind of deliberative group, between security and liberty.

Modern liberals always say that the two [security and liberty] go together, but they obviously don’t. We might be able to have a more secure society if we did what the present regime in China is doing, which is to impose pretty well universal surveillance. . . You might have a society that is, in important respects, more secure, but you’ll also have one in which you’re a lot less free. So how do you make these decisions?

The argument against value pluralism that many people make is that it doesn’t give you much guidance about how to resolve these conflicts. But the profound truth in it is this, a true story told to me by Isaiah [Berlin] from the Second World War. There was a government department in the Second World War he knew about that discovered it had a mole in it who was leaking information to the enemy. The government minister turned up one day in the department and said: “I’m going to do something which is very wrong, and very unjust, but I believe right.” He sacked everybody: let’s say, 20 people in front of him. “Which is a terrible thing I’m going to do, because only one of you is guilty of this, but we know that one of you is. But it will take too long, we may never find out who it is, we haven’t got the means, and, in the mean time, brave men and women are being parachuted into occupied Europe and dying under torture. And if we close down the one of you who is leaking it. . . it will advance the war effort.”

So, he fired the whole lot, which was terrible, because none of them would get a government job again; there’d be a security cloud over every single one of them. He ruined the lives of 19 out of 20 people. But he said that it was the right thing to do.

That is, as it were, the tragic element of value pluralism: that sometimes you can do right only by doing wrong. If you’re a utilitarian, you just do the thing which produces the most good. . . The problem about that is, I think, that it impoverishes human experience. In human experience, we do know, we recognise almost pre-reflectively when we’re doing something that promotes maybe more well-being or less damage, but which is unjust. You can always resolve ethical dilemmas by eliminating some of the elements. So, if you just eliminate fairness, but you haven’t actually resolved it.

What I don’t understand is, if you’re an out and out Kantian, they’d say “Well, he should have resigned”. . . That just hands it over to someone else. What does that person do? Do they all resign? We’re in the middle of a life-or-death war and we all resign? It’s absurd.

That’s the aspect of value pluralism that I think is a deep truth. But it’s also one that people don’t like because it’s Sophie’s Choice kind of thing. . .

The difference I’m trying to make is that there can be universal human values, but not a universal human morality, because a morality tells you how to resolve the issue. So, you can say of Nazism: what were the goods that were realised? An [unanswered] question. What were the bads? Lots and lots of bads, to an extreme degree. And you could say that, I think, about slave societies, too. . . I was reading about the Portuguese slave markets in Angola that went on for ages, backed up by terrible wars. So, I think you can make cross-cultural judgments, and I’m strongly opposed to cultural holism of the sort that some of the more radical post-modern philosophers have toyed with . . . which is to imagine cultures as sort of hermetically-sealed, can’t talk to each other.

PUBLIC DOMAINDavid Hume, by Allan Ramsay (1713-84)

So, there are universal human values, but then they are configured and reconfigured in local ways, which then rub up against one another?

Yes. And then you’ll have to find some way of resolving those conflicts. I think that, much of the time, that can be done by the pursuit of modus vivendi. But I’ve never argued that the pursuit of modus vivendi is always possible. It wasn’t possible in 1940. Fight and die, if you have to. . . Again, it was chance that got us. If Churchill had fallen down a flight of stairs a few days before we’d have had Halifax and a shameful peace, and we could still have a Nazi Europe, because I’m not convinced that Nazism had within it the possibilities for reform that even Soviet Communism did, in Gorbachev, which led to its eventual unravelling, although we’ve not got Putin, which is a different story.

Let’s get a bit more contemporary. You wrote about torture; and then Abu Ghraib happened, and you wrote False Dawn, making a critique of neo-liberal ideology. And then, ten years later, we have the crash, and so on. We are living in, I think, more than unusually unsettled times.

I agree. It’s not just our subjective sense: it really is like a period . . . not quite like the ’30s. . . It’s more like the 1910s, actually. . . The ’30s were unusual in that there were these vast international political movements — Communism, and even, to some extent, although people are now thinking of it being purely nationalistic, which it wasn’t, Nazism and fascism; they were in some contexts an exaggeration of nationalism, but in many others they weren’t.

As I’ve pointed out many times in my writings, the Nazi intelligentsia, although they were racists of the worst possible kind, often despised nations, particularly small ones, and ones that were made up of allegedly inferior people. Their new Europe wouldn’t be one in which nations were at the centre; it would be post-national. After the Second World War, Oswald Mosley’s programme was called “Europe, a Nation”. He was a radical Euro-federalist.

That’s a political journey for you, isn’t it. . .

Well, he favoured that during the war and before the war, it’s just that before the war it was going to be Hitler who embodied this. Some nations are of no importance, they’d be enslaved; some would be exterminated, of course, or they’d be moved. . . But one difference from the ’30s is that we don’t have these gigantic movements, except, I suppose you could say that we have important trans-national religious movements.

That’s precisely where I was going to go to by way of coming in to land. I remember reading an article you wrote for the New Statesman a number of years ago, saying that we need to shelve our Marx and our Das Kapital and whatever else, because the era of secular religions, in that massive significant way, was over, the texts that will influence the 21st century are the religious ones.

We don’t need to be reminded of the fact that they have historically and recently influenced history very negatively. And so one of the things that we do at Theos, and the Church Times does in its own way, is to make sure that, if we are moving into an era in which . . . if you like, the solution to bad religion is not no religion, it’s good religion — it’s thoughtful or considered. Is that something you agree with, and what’s your sense of the trajectory there?

The point of my book is to say that there are many kinds of religions, and many kinds of atheism. And the point, as I say right at the start of the book, is not to recommend any particular type of atheism — even the ones I like. I’m open about the ones I like or identify with. I like the last two, and I dismiss the previous five quite strongly; but then what happens is, it’s left to the reader for him or her to decide how to take it. So, someone could say, “This doesn’t make me abandon Christianity or Judaism or Islam or other forms of monotheism. It might make me even more monotheistic or more Christian or more Jewish or more Muslim than I was.” I hope that would be one of the results.

To give you an example, one of the things where I think some modern Christians have gone astray is in trying to meet modern science on its own ground by developing counter-sciences. [That is a] fundamental error. Because it really yields to the 19th-century positivist view that religion is a primitive form of science. So, whenever there’s an advance in science, religion retreats. . .

Certainly, I would be sympathetic to the view that you’re saying, but, of course, it doesn’t mean that I would be a Christian. It could be Buddhism, it could be one of these many different types of religion. And, of course, I have pointed to the blurred borders between apophatic theology and sceptical mysticism as well.

The target of the book is not so much monotheism, although I’m not a monotheist. It is secular monotheism.

Or degenerated, bastardised versions of monotheism.

Yes. I’ve said this many times to them. . . but I’ve found that, more than many of the religious people I’ve met, Evangelical atheists are rigidly dogmatic. They think in an anti-empirical way, and in a way that is not used to doubt, whereas Christianity and Judaism and other religions doubt all along — from day one, almost. And also, there’s another reason, and this would separate me in a sense from universalistic monotheism and Christianity: I don’t care what they believe.

Do you really not, though? Are you slightly protesting too much? You wouldn’t write with the passion that you do in some cases if you genuinely were indifferent to the people holding crap ideas?

There are aspects of the way that they promote their views that I dislike strongly. They’re bullies. They themselves, most of the ones I’ve read, know little or nothing about the history of religion, or even of Christianity. Nothing.

So that gives them what would normally be a disadvantage. But I think that, to them, it’s an advantage. It’s partly wilful ignorance, because if they went into the history of theology and the history of these religions more closely they would see that they’re incomparably more diverse, almost inexhaustibly more rich and complicated. And they would also see atheism as being more complicated and rich than they think.

But I dislike their bullying; I dislike their authoritarianism. But I don’t think that they can be redeemed. I think they’re mostly incurable in their dogmatism, because, in a sense . . . the sense of their lives depends on being immersed in their nonsense. Their hold on their lives depends on these absurdities.

The absurdities of rationalism are more absurd than the miracles of religion, because the miracles of religion are supposed to violate laws of nature — that’s what miracles are. Whereas, if you’re a rationalist, you don’t believe in that, and yet they hold to these preposterous views about history. . . [Daniel] Dennett said, I think it was about ten years ago: “Fundamentalism will disappear quite quickly, more quickly than anyone will think, because of the mobile phone.”

I’ve heard a similar argument about the internet. It’s not really working out, is it?

Anyone who, even ten years ago, knew anything about fundamentalism or terrorism knew that they used mobile phones all the time. They set off bombs through mobile phones, and the IS later on projects its terror through videos. Anyone who can think like that has no understanding either of fundamentalism or of war or of terrorism. But that’s part of their world-view, and also of their conceit. . .

They are very rancorous in the way they write. I may be rather mocking and combative, and sometimes vitriolic in the way that I write against them. It’s not so much because of what they think, although I think it’s a tissue of absurdities, it’s a kind of warmed-over Comtean positivism, without actually the depth. [Auguste] Comte produced a kind of ridiculous pseudo-religion, but at least he realised that religion was necessary. They don’t even understand that. It’s not so much what they think, absurd as that is; it’s their claim to possess a kind of knowledge which elevates them above the generality of humankind and all religious believers. Over Pascal? Over St Augustine? Over Maimonides? Come on. It’s absurd. So that’s why: it’s their assumption of intellectual and moral superiority.

But, otherwise, I don’t care. I’m not intending these books to persuade the New Atheists of anything, or to dissuade them from anything. They’re written for anyone who has enough of a sliver of doubt or questioning in their minds to wonder whether the prevailing secular world-view might have cracks in it. So, if you’re interested in peeping through some of those cracks, read the book. If you’re not, don’t bother.

You’re into encouraging doubt. . .

Yes. If you’re not interested in that, don’t read the book. Just read your own sacred texts: Dawkins, Dennett, etc. Just read those. That is a sort of fundamental view, which is one of the reasons I don’t debate [with] these people: I don’t care what they think. Also, I don’t believe they’re genuinely rational. A genuinely rational person would take arguments and would yield on some of his or her views.

People have pointed out to me “There must be some developments in human life which are altogether good.” And I started by saying “Yes: anaesthetic dentistry.” I’ve moved on [to include] contraception. A third might even be penicillin. So, there are some technologies that are almost entirely good. You’d have to have a really perverse philosopher to find deep meaning in toothache, that it was part of the human story that we have to have toothache. So, there are some technologies, but not many: certainly not the internet. It’s become a vast surveillance machine, for one thing.

My books are intended not to persuade anyone of anything, or to dissuade them from anything, but to trigger a process of thought which will be different in different readers, and lead to different results. It might lead to Christians’ becoming more Christian, practising Jews’ becoming more Jewish, Muslims, etc.

It’s true that my criticisms of predominant forms of atheism are often so harsh that it’s very unlikely that they’ll go away [affirmed in their atheism]. But they might, who knows, because the most militant forms of modern secular rationalism are the most irrational.

Nick Spencer is research director at Theos and the author of Atheists: The origin of the species published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). The Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray is published by Allen Lane (£17.99).

Listen to the conversation on the Church Times Podcast.

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