PROGRESS: the Prozac of the thinking classes

A spot of culture.  I read an article (so can you! HERE) by this chap, John Gray.  He’s come up with some very thoughtful stuff (the mere label, ‘post-humanist’, makes me prick up my ears) and I thought you might be stimulated by a review of his most recent book.  So here you are …

Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions by John Gray
Guardian Review

Gray is an unwavering post-humanist. When we were little, the Catholic catechism used to assure us that God made the world for man’s use and benefit, and that therefore we are the lords of creation, with all nature, its flora and fauna, entirely at our command. For liberal humanists, this good news is still good news, but comes in a different bulletin. According to Gray, the so-called secular systems by which we in the west are ruled are in fact the products of spilt religion, as was the Enlightenment faith in the possibility of progress, "the belief that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge".

Gray evinces a Swiftian contempt for our latter-day lay priestlings, direct heirs of the 18th-century philosophes who proclaimed a new paganism but were in fact neo-Christians, "missionaries of a new gospel more fantastical than anything in the creed they imagined they had abandoned". All the Enlightenment did was to promote religion by other means, and its belief in progress was only the Christian message "emptied of transcendence and mystery". One of the heresies promulgated by Gray is that many of those who today continue to hold to religious faith are far more profound in their thinking, and certainly better educated, than most of their liberal-humanist opponents.

Gray sees our faith in progress – "the Prozac of the thinking classes" – as the illusion that underlies the most egregiously mistaken political and social policies of the present day. Certainly there is such a thing as progress, but it is a fact only in the realm of science, while "in ethics and politics it is a superstition". Throughout his work Gray hammers relentlessly against the notion, first advanced in the Renaissance and reified in the Enlightenment, that history moves inexorably in a straight line, and that human nature will
necessarily improve as our knowledge accumulates. He grants that in some areas things do get better: we have abolished judicial torture, for example, and modern dentistry is a great boon. The mistake, he contends, the wilful, foolish and tragic mistake, is to imagine that more dental implants and fewer thumbscrews will make us into better beings. "Human knowledge grows, but the human animal stays much the same."

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2 thoughts on “PROGRESS: the Prozac of the thinking classes

  1. I’d like to have a look at his book.
    Interesting point about the belief in progress coming from the Christian message emptied of transcendence and mystery. I’m not sure if I fully agree, but it’s interesting to think about… kinda reminds me of our conversation tonight. When we take the mystery out of faith and try to explain God and fit him into our boxes, he becomes a thing to be “owned” and we parade him as our mascot (“God is with us, God is a republican, democrat, etc.”). And that is quite a dangerous thing, because it’s not really the Christian message anymore, it’s just ideology hiding under the name of Christianity.

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