Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, by John Gray ($11.76 pb; hb available for less but with shipping, does not appear to be available in Kindle or other e-book format)

Some time ago we read another book by this author, Black Mass.  I have kept up with the author ever since, collecting several of his volumes.  I do not think the author is religious, certainly not enthusiasitally so, but this volume, released in 2007, has a great deal to say about the connection between Christianity, enlightenment liberalism, and the idea (I think John Gray would say “myth”) of human progress.

In the forward to the book, John Gray writes


Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people. Today liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.

Outside of science, progress is simply a myth. In some readers of Straw Dogs this observation seems to have produced a moral panic. Surely, they ask, no one can question the central article of faith of liberal societies? Without it, will we not despair? Like trembling Victorians terrified of losing their faith, these humanists cling to the moth-eaten brocade of progressive hope. Today religious believers are more free-thinking. Driven to the margins of culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, they have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast, secular believers — held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time — are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.

strawThe prevailing secular world view is a pastiche of current scientific orthodoxy and pious hopes. Darwin has shown that we are animals, but — as humanists never tire of preaching — how we live is ‘up to us’. Unlike any other animal, we are told, we are free to live as we choose. Yet the idea of free will does not come from science. Its origins are in religion — not just any religion, but the Christian faith against which humanists rail so obsessively.

In the ancient world the Epicureans speculated about the possibility that some events were uncaused; but the belief that humans are marked off from all other animals by having free will is a Christian inheritance. Darwin’s theory would not have caused such a scandal had it been formulated in Hindu India, Taoist China or animist Africa. Equally, it is only in post-Christian cultures that philosophers labour so piously to reconcile scientific determinism with a belief in the unique capacity of humans to choose the way they live. The irony of evangelical Darwinism is that it uses science to support a view of humanity that comes from religion.

Against this pagan view, Christians understood history as a story of sin and redemption. Humanism is thte transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence. That is why among the ancient pagans it was unknown.

Belief in progress has another source. In science, the growth of knowledge is cumulative. But human life as a whole is not a cumulative activity; what is gained in one generation may be lost in the next. In science, knowledge is an unmixed good; in ethics and politics it is bad as well as good. Science increases human power — and magnifies the flaws in human nature. It enables us to live longer and have higher living standards than in the past. At the same time it allows us to wreak destruction — on each other and the Earth — on a larger scale than ever before.

The idea of progress rests on the belief that the growth of knowledge and the advance of the species go together — if not now, then in the long run. The biblical myth o fthe Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have alwasy been, prey to every kind of folly. The same truth is found in Greek myth. The punishment of Prometheus, changed to a rock for stealing fire from the gods, was not unjust.

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