NS Christmas Essay 1 - The myth of secularism

Religion is a natural human impulse, which our society tries to repress just as the Victorians did s

Of all the myths spawned by the Enlightenment, the idea that we live in a secular age is the most absurd. Throughout much of the world, religion is thriving with undiminished vitality. Where believers are in the minority, as they are in Britain today, traditional faiths have been replaced by liberal humanism, which is now established as the unthinking creed of conventional people. Yet liberal humanism is itself very obviously a religion - a shoddy derivative of Christian faith notably more irrational than the original article, and in recent times more harmful. If this is not recognised, it is because religion has been repressed from consciousness in the way that sexuality was repressed in Victorian times. Now as then, the result is not that the need disappears, but rather that it returns in bizarre and perverse forms. Secular societies may imagine they are post-religious, but actually they are ruled by repressed religion.

When thinking about the idea that we live in a post-religious era, it is worth remembering that the secular realm is a Christian invention. The biblical root of the secular state is the passage in the New Testament where Jesus tells his disciples to give to God what is God's and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Refined by Augustine and given a modern formulation with the Reformation, this early Christian commandment is the ultimate origin of the liberal attempt to separate religion from politics. In this, as in many other respects, liberalism is a neo-Christian cult.

Liberalism's religious roots are opaque to liberals today, but a little history makes them clear. In Britain, until the late 19th century, most liberals were believers. It was churchmen who most consistently upheld causes such as the aboli- tion of slavery; the more radical thinkers belonged to fringe Christian denominations such as the Quakers and the Unitarians. Only with John Stuart Mill, when he came under the influence of the French positivist thinker Auguste Comte, did liberalism come to be closely associated with outright rejection of conventional religion.

Positivism is largely forgotten today, and not without good reason. Nevertheless, it was more influential than any other intellectual movement in shaping the humanist creed that has succeeded Christianity as the ready-made world-view of the British majority. The positivists were not liberals - far from it. They aimed to found a new religion - the Religion of Humanity, as they called it - in which the human species would be worshipped as the supreme being, and they looked forward to a time when this new religion would have as much power as the Catholic Church had in mediaeval times. They were eager to emulate the Church's rituals and hierarchies. They sought to replace the Catholic practice of crossing oneself by a secular version, in which positivist believers touched the bumps on their heads at the points where the science of phrenology had shown the impulses of order and benevolence to reside. They also installed a secular pope in Paris. In its early 19th-century heyday, the Positivist Church had Temples of Humanity in many parts of the world, including Britain. It was particularly successful in Latin America, where a number of positivist churches survive to this day.

The Positivist Church was a travesty, but its beliefs chimed with many of Mill's. Though he attacked Comte's anti-liberal tendencies, Mill did everything he could to propagate the Religion of Humanity. If he had some success, the reason was chiefly that the new humanist religion had a great deal in common with the creed it was meant to supplant. Liberal humanism inherits several key Christian beliefs - above all, the belief that humans are categorically different from all other animals. According to humanists, humans are unique in that, using the power over nature given them by science, they can create a world better than any that has existed before. In this view, the earth is simply a mass of resources for human use, and the other animals with which we share it have no value in themselves. Those who hold to this view of things see themselves as tough-minded scientific realists, but in fact they are in the grip of one of the worst legacies of Christianity. The humanist view of the earth as an instrument of human purpose is a secular rendition of the biblical myth of Genesis.

The positivist view of human possibilities had an enormous practical influence. Through its impact on Karl Marx, it inspired policies that resulted in environmental catastrophe in the former Soviet Union. The destruction of peasant farming and its replacement by agricultural collectives, which was fore-shadowed in the writings of Saint-Simon, led directly to the dust bowls and famines of the 1930s. The positivist attempt to master nature was one of the causes of the downfall of the Soviet regime. Mikhail Gorbachev's commitment to a hubristic project of generating energy from dams created by flooding much of Siberia generated a far-reaching coalition of oppositional forces. Along with the aftershock of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, those forces toppled the Soviet leader and the system he aimed to reform.

The role of hollowed-out versions of Christian myth in humanist thought is particularly clear in the case of Marxism. Marx's absurd idea of "the end of history", in which communism triumphs and destructive conflict then vanishes from the world, is transparently a secular mutation of Christian apocalyptic beliefs. The same is true of Francis Fukuyama's equally preposterous belief in universal salvation through "global democratic capitalism". In both cases, what we have is myth masquerading as science.

The trouble with secular myths is that they are frequently more harmful than the real thing. In traditional Christianity, the apocalyptic impulse was restrained by the insight that human beings are ineradicably flawed. In the secular religions that flowed from Christianity, this insight was lost. The result has been a form of tyranny, new in history, that commits vast crimes in the pursuit of heaven on earth.

The role of humanist thought in shaping the past century's worst regimes is easily demonstrable, but it is passed over, or denied, by those who harp on about the crimes of religion. Yet the mass murders of the 20th century were not perpetrated by some latter-day version of the Spanish Inquisition. They were done by atheist regimes in the service of Enlightenment ideals of progress. Stalin and Mao were not believers in original sin. Even Hitler, who despised Enlightenment values of equality and freedom, shared the Enlightenment faith that a new world could be created by human will. Each of these tyrants imagined that the human condition could be transformed through the use of science.

History has demolished these ambitions. Even so, they have not been abandoned. In dilute and timorous forms, they continue to animate liberal humanists. Humanists angrily deny harbouring the vast hopes of Marx or Comte, but still insist that the growth of scientific knowledge enables mankind to construct a future better than anything in the past. There is not the slightest scientific warrant for this belief. It is faith, pure and simple. More, it is Christian faith - the myth that, unlike other animals, "we" can shape the future.

The irony of secular cultures is that they are ruled by myths. It is a commonplace that science has displaced religion. What is less often noted is that science has become a vehicle for needs that are indisputably religious. Like religion in the past, though less effectively, science offers meaning and hope. In politics, improvement is fragmentary and reversible. In science, the growth of knowledge is cumulative and now seemingly unstoppable. Science gives a sensation of progress that politics cannot deliver. It is an illusion, but that in no way diminishes its power. We may live in a post-Christian culture, but the idea of providence has not disappeared. People still need to believe that a benign pattern can be glimpsed in the chaos of human events.

The need for religion appears to be hard-wired in the human animal. Certainly the behaviour of secular humanists supports this hypothesis. Atheists are usually just as emotionally engaged as believers. Quite commonly, they are more intellectually rigid. One cannot engage in dialogue with religious thinkers in Britain today without quickly discovering that they are, on the whole, more intelligent, better educated and strikingly more freethinking than unbelievers (as evangelical atheists still incongruously describe themselves). No doubt there are many reasons for this state of affairs, but I suspect it is the repression of the religious impulse that explains the obsessive rigidity of secular thought.

Liberal humanists repress religious experience - in themselves and others - in much the way that sexuality was repressed in the strait-laced societies of the past. When I refer to repression here, I mean it in precisely the Freudian sense. In secular cultures, religion is buried in the unconscious, only to reappear - as sex did among the Victorians - in grotesque and illicit forms. If, as some claim, the Victorians covered piano legs in a vain effort to exorcise sex from their lives, secular humanists behave similarly when they condemn religion as irrational. It seems not to have occurred to them to ask where it comes from. History and anthropology show it to be a species-wide phenomenon. There is no more reason to think that we will cease to be religious animals than there is to think we will some day be asexual.

Whatever their disciples may say today, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill were adamant that religion would die out with the advance of science. That has not come about, and there is not the remotest prospect of it happening in the foreseeable future. Yet the idea that religion can be eradicated from human life remains an anxiously defended article of faith among secular humanists. As secular ideology is dumped throughout the world, they are left disoriented and gawping.

It is this painful cognitive dissonance, I believe, that accounts for the peculiar rancour and intolerance of many secular thinkers. Unable to account for the irrepressible vitality of religion, they can react only with puritanical horror and stigmatise it as irrational. Yet the truth is that if religion is irrational, so is the human animal. As is shown by the behaviour of humanists, this is never more so than when it imagines itself to be ruled by reason.

The result of repressing religious needs has been a rash of secular cults. Among these, liberal humanism - the successor of Comte's trashy Religion of Humanity - has been the most successful. This is partly because it is so closely modelled on Christianity, but also because it has been able to claim the authority of science. In fact, though it contains some fairly well established theories (such as Darwinism), science cannot yield a fixed world-view of the sort offered by religion. It is essentially provisional. Nor can it offer a substitute for religious hopes. In the minds of humanists, scientific progress is linked with progress in ethics and politics; but they can think this way only because they have taken the precaution of forgetting the past. The evidence of history is that scientific knowledge is used to further the goals that people already have - however conflicting and destructive. The idea that society advances in tandem with science is simply a myth.

Here we have the paradox of secularism. Secular societies believe they have left religion behind, when all they have done is substitute one set of myths for another. It is far from clear that this amounts to an improvement. Christian myth has harmful aspects, not least its ingrained anthropocentrism. Even so, in insisting that human nature is incorrigibly flawed it is far more realistic than the secular doctrines that followed it. In effect, liberal humanism has taken Christianity's unhappiest myth - the separation of humans from the rest of the natural world - and stripped it of the transcendental content that gave it meaning. In so doing, it has left secular cultures such as Britain stuck between a humanist view of mankind that actually comes from religion and a more genuinely scientific view in which it is just one animal species, no more capable of taking charge of its destiny than any other.

As we know it in Britain today, the secular world-view is simply the Christian view of the world with God left out. Liberal humanism is the contemporary version of an eccentric 19th-century cult - less colourful than its positivist precursor, no doubt, but just as clearly modelled on Christianity. Religious thinkers understand this and look forward to a post-secular age. Befogged missionaries for a dull Victorian heresy, secular thinkers remain stuck in the past.

Humanism is not an alternative to religious belief, but rather a degenerate and unwitting version of it. Among the many varie-ties of religious life that are thriving among us - Hindu and Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim, along with many new and hybrid traditions - this pale shadow of Christianity is surely an anomaly.

Weighed down with fears and anxieties that the rest of us have never known or have long since left behind, it survives only as a remnant of a time when religion suppressed natural human impulses. We may not be far from a time when atheism will be seen as a relic of repression, like the frills that may once have been draped over piano legs.

John Gray's most recent book is Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals (Granta)

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 16 December 2002 issue of the New Statesman, How Blair put 30,000 more in jail