Photo: MARCO PANZETTI
Show Hide image

The French farmer smuggling migrants in the Alps

He has found himself at the centre of Europe’s migration crisis – but is he a hero or villain?

At around midday on 1 July, the police officers watching from a tent on the mountain observed the suspect cradle a sick kitten in his arms. “He’s called either Zig or Zag – there are two of them,” said Cédric Herrou, gently applying eye drops to the cat. “I’m not sure which this is.”

Herrou, a 38-year-old farmer, was kneeling beside a wooden shelter on a hillside in south-eastern France. Tents, caravans and rudimentary toilet blocks nestled among the nearby olive trees. At first sight, it could have been a hippyish holiday camp with Herrou – dressed in a purple T-shirt and jeans, with thinning hair, a ponytail and a packet of Natural American Spirit rolling tobacco poking out from his back pocket – as the manager. But the shelter’s pillars were covered in the hand-drawn flags of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan. At a long table, a group of young Sudanese men were reciting French verbs. Then there were the police.

Herrou stood up, let the kitten go and took me to the edge of his hill, which stuck out from one side of a steep valley in the southern Alps a few miles from the border with Italy. A fast-flowing river ran through a rocky gorge below, peaks loomed over us from all sides and the smell of pine trees carried on the breeze. “You see that blue tent there?” he said, pointing to one of the mountain tops. “You can see them watching us.” I could just make out a figure in a dark uniform, whose exposed white forearms were holding something up to his face. “Another tent there, and another tent there,” Herrou said, pointing to mountains on different sides of the farm. “Three posts, they change over four times a day, three or four people in each post – so that’s 40 people a day, paid to put me under surveillance.”

Herrou put both of his hands to his mouth, whistled loudly and waved. The white forearms dropped suddenly, and the figure disappeared into the tent. Herrou was putting on a show. Many journalists, volunteers and well-wishers have made their way up the hill to Herrou’s farm since his arrest last year for helping undocumented migrants cross from Italy into France, either to claim asylum there or continue their journeys to other destinations in Europe.

“If we have to break the law to help people, let’s do it,” he told a crowd of supporters outside his trial in Nice in January. Herrou’s defiance of the authorities has given him a kind of celebrity. But this is also a story about France, about a pattern that has become common in Europe: how the state absents itself from a crisis, leaves volunteers to fill the gap, and then cracks down and imposes divisions when it doesn’t like the results.

***

For 15 years, Cédric Herrou has tended chickens and grown olive trees at his farm in the village of Breil-sur-Roya, in the valley of the River Roya. For most of that time, he paid little attention to the international border that snakes through the valley from the Alps to the Mediterranean Sea, separating a string of French villages from Ventimiglia, the Italian town 15 miles south of Breil, at the mouth of the river.

Crossing that border is part of Herrou’s daily life, he explained to me, as we sat at one end of a long table. “You have to understand,” he said, “it’s not like in my head I go to one country, I go to another. When I buy chickens, I go to Ventimiglia. If I go to the beach, I go to Ventimiglia. Ventimiglia, the Roya valley – it’s chez moi.”

The same is true for many other people who live around Ventimiglia, which sits on the Riviera, the stretch of the Mediterranean coastline that runs through Cannes, Nice and Monaco and into Italy. The town is home to Italians who work in France and French commuters who take advantage of the cheaper Italian rents. French day-trippers visit the Friday farmers’ market. All of them benefit from the Schengen Area, Europe’s “borderless” zone of free movement. Yet the town’s fortunes have become intimately linked with the continent’s refugee crisis.

In June 2015, as a growing number of migrants from Africa and the Middle East were passing through Italy on their way to elsewhere in Europe, France imposed ID checks on the rail and road routes at its border near Ventimiglia, using a provision in the EU’s Schengen Agreement that allows states to introduce partial, temporary controls in cases of emergency. After the Isis-directed attacks in Paris in November that year, which killed 130 people, France sent many more police officers to patrol the border zone. As a result, Ventimiglia has hosted thousands of people left destitute as they try to find a way to leave Italy. Different groups of migrants use different routes and methods to travel. Most of those who get stuck at Ventimiglia are refugees from Eritrea and Sudan’s Darfur region, travelling without the money to pay smugglers and following the footsteps of others they know who have taken the journey – some after months or years in Italy, others within days of arriving.

Local officials have been reluctant to fund aid efforts or set up accommodation, not wanting to attract more migrants to the town. Instead, the task of feeding, sheltering and treating the medical needs of the migrants has fallen to volunteers: from individual well-wishers and political activists to religious groups and humanitarian NGOs. The Italian state has allowed the Red Cross to set up a temporary camp on the town’s outskirts but demolishes and evicts unofficial camps, issuing court orders banning volunteers from distributing food and rounding up migrants to send them to reception centres in the far south of the country.

At the end of 2015, frustrated by the continuing crisis, Herrou began to drive migrant children he found in Ventimiglia across the border to France, dropping them off at train stations so they could continue their journeys, or sheltering them at his farm and helping them claim asylum locally. “For me,” he said, “it’s unbearable that minors, kids, [and] families with two-year-olds risk their lives to cross the border.”

He wasn’t alone. One local activist I spoke to described half a dozen others who regularly took vulnerable refugees across the border in their cars and suggested that there had been many more who did it as a one-off. In the summer of 2016, Herrou was arrested near Breil while transporting eight Eritrean migrants in his van. Charges of facilitating illegal immigration were dropped on the grounds of “humanitarian immunity”, but the case caught the attention of a New York Times reporter, who wrote a piece about Herrou that autumn.

“People ask how it is that I’ve become a symbol of aid to migrants,” Herrou told me. “But it’s not migrants I help. Most people would not let someone sleep outside on their doorstep. They would say, ‘No, come inside.’ Me, my doorstep, the road, the village square – it’s the same for me.” He claims to have ferried 200 people across in the past year and a half.

***

Several days before meeting Herrou, I visited Ventimiglia. I had been given the name of a bar whose owner was known for assisting migrants. I found it on a side street near the station. Italian locals were sitting in a row at the counter drinking coffee, while young men of African and central Asian origin came in and out, handing their phones to the staff, who plugged them into various chargers at one end of the bar. The owner, a small, stern, middle-aged woman called Delia, told me that hers was the only bar in Ventimiglia that allowed refugees in. “Maybe they’re a little too bronzati [tanned] for the others,” she said sarcastically.

This was the third summer in a row that the number of people sleeping rough in the town had risen. The Red Cross camp had been closed for refurbishment and around 500 people, mainly Sudanese, had been living under a motorway flyover and along the banks of the Roya estuary. The week before my visit, police had demolished the encampments and, when the migrants staged a protest and walked along the river towards the border, tear-gassed the demonstrators.

A young man, seeing my notebook, came up to me and asked if I was a journalist. “Can you tell me why France doesn’t let people claim asylum there?” he said. He was 22 and from Cameroon, and asked me not to print his name. He had come to Italy after taking a boat from Libya, and the Italian government had issued him with temporary ID documents. In theory, these should have allowed him to travel: Schengen rules allow non-EU citizens with residence permits to visit other countries in the zone for up to 90 days. Many migrants in Italy have used this loophole to travel elsewhere and claim asylum, even though the system asks them to make their claims in the country of arrival.

But France had been using its temporary controls to turn back migrants without passports. “I’ve tried to cross six times,” said the young man, explaining that he had been to the Swiss border crossing at Lake Como but couldn’t get through there, either. He had tried to take the train from Ventimiglia to Nice but had been arrested when it crossed into France. “The police checked our papers, held us in a cell overnight, then made us walk back to Italy, like they wanted to punish us,” he told me.

During my stay, I had seen how the police conducted their checks. They boarded at Menton, the first stop in France, walked the length of the carriage and asked the black people on board to show their passports. (A case brought by five French citizens of African origin, who claim that they were racially profiled when temporary border controls were in operation during an earlier movement of refugees in 2013, is being heard by the European Court of Human Rights.) I had also seen a steady stream of rejected migrants making the walk back along the road from France, alone or in small groups.

Earlier that day, an Eritrean woman asked me for drinking water. She had been walking for three hours in the summer sun.

***

At Herrou’s farm, one of the kittens watched a hen as it pecked at a bowl of food, close to where we were sitting. The shelter has a kitchen area and Joseph, a man from Sierra Leone with a bleached Mohican, was preparing lunch. “He’s head chef,” Herrou said. Most people move on from his farm within a few weeks, but a few have stayed on to help run the camp. Herrou said he thought as many as 1,500 people had passed through since 2015.

In the autumn of that year, a few months after France started to police trains leaving Ventimiglia, migrants began to arrive destitute in Breil and the other villages of the Roya. Blocked from taking the main routes into France, they were heading into the mountains, following the old smugglers’ pathways that criss-cross the region. Residents would emerge from their houses to find people wandering the streets tired, disorientated and suffering the effects of their journey: hunger, thirst, scratches and bruises, cold or heat exhaustion. Many have been giving the migrants food and temporary shelter – then, not knowing what else to do, driving them down to Herrou’s farm, where he had made space available.

In response, Herrou said, the French government put the area under lockdown, using the state of emergency declared after the Paris attacks. Checkpoints were set up on every road from Italy and on many roads between the villages. Schengen rules allow a state to return people who have crossed a border without permission to its neighbour if they are found within 20 kilometres (12 miles) of the border and the Roya valley falls within this zone. “People cross the border, they’re in France, but they’re not really in France because they don’t have the opportunity to access their right to claim asylum,” Herrou told me.

This leaves migrants and the residents who help them in a bind. Those refugees who want to claim asylum must do so 40 miles away in Nice, which is outside the zone. If they reach Herrou’s farm, he can contact the prefecture and make an appointment, but if they go by themselves, they’ll be arrested and returned to Italy. Residents are allowed to give them food or shelter, but if they drive them anywhere, they risk being charged with facilitating illegal immigration, a crime with a possible prison sentence.

The result is that while Herrou’s farm is left alone, the surrounding area is heavily policed. “If I take a black person in my car, they stop me,” Herrou said. “If a car drops people off at mine, it’ll be stopped. Sometimes at night, they have one roadblock in front of my farm and one behind it. But they never come on to the farm. It’s crazy. It’s as if we’re a principality like Monaco here.”

Herrou is part of a network of villagers, perhaps 200 in total, who shelter migrants and organise food runs to Ventimiglia. Many have leftist sympathies – although they are not, as Herrou says of himself, necessarily “card-carrying” – and they have continued to do their work even as members have been arrested and put on trial. As one member, a retired hospital worker, told me: “It’s like the campaign for abortion rights. If this many people are breaking the law every day, the law needs to be changed.”

But the Roya valley, an area of modest means where public services and agri­culture are the main employers, reflects France’s political polarisation. The Front National has strong support here: in the presidential election in May, around half the voters in Breil backed Marine Le Pen. Many do not support their neighbours’ activism and people regularly phone the police anonymously to report the presence of migrants, or those transporting them. Perhaps mindful of anti-immigration sentiment, the previous French president, François Hollande, appointed a hardliner as prefect (chief of police) of the surrounding region. While the new president, Emmanuel Macron, has spoken of the need to welcome refugees with “talents” needed by the French economy, his interior minister, Gérard Collomb, has set out a no-tolerance policy at Calais and presided over evictions of migrants sleeping rough in Paris.

Herrou believes that these policies are creating the problem that they purport to solve: people are hiding and living without papers rather than trying to claim asylum. “The far right says, ‘Close the borders and refuse all the requests for asylum’… The border here is closed and I have a hundred people a week arriving. A border does not close. It is managed. Whether one is for or against the migratory flow, the solution is the same. We’re not saying accept everyone. We’re saying start by accepting the law because the law is intelligent.”

In late 2016, Herrou stopped smuggling migrants across the border from Ventimiglia because, he said, he would rather help put pressure on France to follow its laws and give migrants the right to claim asylum than be accused of doing anything illegal. “It’s like I’ve said to the police when they’ve arrested me: I’m a farmer. I’m not a lawyer, not a judge. Maybe I’m wrong, and everything I’ve done is illegal and foolish – it’s possible. But either I have the right or I don’t, so either arrest me or let me continue.”

***

In Ventimiglia, the young man from Cameroon played me a song on his phone. “That’s mine. I’m a rapper,” he said. In his home town, he had supplemented his income by selling CDs at a market. He had left, he said, because a neighbour to whom he had lent money had reported him to the police for sexual assault instead of paying back the debt. He was tired of waiting for Italy to process his asylum claim and he wanted to try France instead, where he knew the language and he had a better chance of finding work. “I just want a normal life,” he said. “If I had no problems, I wouldn’t have left my country.”

Was he a refugee? In public debate, crude distinctions are often drawn – between Syrians as “genuine” refugees, for example, and the rest as “economic migrants” – but the reality is more complex. The 1951 Refugee Convention, the founding document of our international system, defines a refugee as a person with a “well-founded” fear of persecution, owing to their race, religion, nationality, social group or political views. (Further treaties define protection for people fleeing war zones.) Being accused of a crime isn’t usually enough to merit asylum.

Then again, it would depend on the details of the case. If the young man came from a particular ethnic group, or if he was mixed up in politics, too, that might have just been enough. The basic principle of refugee protection is that each person’s case is to be treated on its individual merits. To do that, you need a functioning system in which people can reach safety, claim asylum and have their cases heard quickly and fairly.

By the time people reach Ventimiglia, this system has failed. Since 2014, between 150,000 and 170,000 people a year have been arriving by boat in Italy, mostly via Libya. They come from a range of countries mostly in West and East Africa, but also from the Middle East and, more recently, Bangladesh. They are a mix of those escaping war and dictatorship in their home countries, people who have travelled to Libya for work and are then forced to flee civil war and the widespread abuse and exploitation of black men and women in that country, people risking the trip through Libya in order to reach Europe in search
of a job, and those trafficked against their will to perform sex work for European customers. Italy’s asylum system has struggled to accommodate, register and assess these people, and its EU neighbours are no longer willing to help: a scheme agreed in September 2015 to relocate 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece was recently wound up with its target reduced to 33,000.

The result is a growing category of people whose rights and legal status are unclear as they try to move around Europe. Italy calls them transitanti, migrants in transit. They live in limbo, caught in the cracks of Europe’s complex asylum system and border regime. Yet the response of European governments has largely been to act as if these people, who don’t officially exist, shouldn’t exist. When they get stuck at crossing points, or geographical bottlenecks – not just Ventimiglia, but Calais, Greece’s Aegean Islands, the Greek port of Patras, or Belgrade and other places in the Balkans – they are beaten back, or detained, or denied support. Local citizens who help them are discouraged or, in many cases, criminalised.

The human cost of these measures is becoming apparent. Last October, a 17-year-old Eritrean girl was killed by a lorry on the motorway outside Ventimiglia. At her funeral, the local bishop said it was “Europe’s hypocrisy” that had killed her. Since then, looking through local news reports, I have counted at least 13 migrant deaths in and around Ventimiglia: four people killed on the roads; six hit by trains or electrocuted on the tracks; two swept away in the River Roya, including a teenage boy; one suicide.

The arrests of European citizens are starting to stack up. In Italy, activists have been issued with court orders banning them from Ventimiglia for as long as three years; 31 face trial for the illegal occupation of a building in the town. In January, a university researcher in France was tried and acquitted for having transported three Eritrean migrants; in June, four retired residents of the Roya valley were convicted and fined for a similar action. In October 2016, Herrou was arrested for transporting migrants again, shortly after he led villagers to occupy a disused railway yard near Breil that they wanted to turn into a shelter for migrants. The case was taken to trial: in February, Herrou received a suspended fine of €3,000 from the court in Nice. Local officials have been critical of judges’ reluctance to hand out severe punishments; the prosecutor appealed Herrou’s case and, in early August, his penalty was increased to a four-month suspended jail sentence.

***

At the farm, the chef Joseph offered us lunch: pasta with tuna and peppers. Herrou didn’t eat. He stood by the kitchen counter scrolling through messages on the screen of one phone and answering calls on another. He had an easy, jokey manner with the guests on his farm but was serious on the phone, his dark eyes looking sternly through thick, round-framed glasses.

After lunch, the photographer I was working with needed to take a portrait of Herrou, so we went into his house, a small single-storey cottage a little further down the hill. “My brother and sister-in-law helped me build the shelter up there, so I could have a bit of privacy,” he said.

We went into the living room: a rough wooden floor, two sofas, tie-dyed throws and a bookshelf. A miniature bottle of whiskey and a Teach Yourself Arabic book sat on a coffee table. Herrou used to live here with a partner and her children, he said, but they had split up and for the past six years he had lived alone.

I asked him if he was tired. “Yes, but I think I can keep going,” Herrou replied. He still had his chickens and his olive trees, he said, although he was struggling to find the time to manage the business. “I tried to get the others to do it for me while I was away, but they didn’t feed the chickens properly.”

He seemed ambivalent about the media attention. He knew that it was a reason why he kept getting arrested. “For the migrants, it’s positive. Unaccompanied migrants are taken into care, the prefect is criticised, 1,500 people who arrived here have gone. It’s not over.”

But for him, it must be frightening. “Ah ouais, oh, yeah,” he told me. “Can you imagine? I keep getting arrested and put in custody.” The week before I arrived, Herrou had been arrested as he was taking two teenage boys to play football and kept in the cells overnight. The week after I left, he was arrested again, shortly after activists released a film that he had helped make, with a hidden camera, that purported to show French police at Menton denying a young refugee his legal right to claim asylum in France.

And on 25 July, Herrou was in custody once more. After he tried to film the police at the station in Cannes, his farm was raided. In a press release that Herrou sent to me by email, he claimed that 90 people, including minors, had been arrested at the farm and returned to Italy. “I have been asking the government for a year but nobody answers me,” he wrote. “When you have 200 asylum seekers arriving in your garden, what is the solution? Who is responsible? What can we do? What can we not do? Where does solidarity end? Where does the offence begin?”

Herrou’s parents, also farmers who live locally, were worried but they trusted him, he said. Other activists I spoke to expressed concern that Herrou had got himself into something he wasn’t prepared for. “Cédric just does things without telling us, then says, ‘Follow that,’ and a lot of people don’t want to because they think it’s too dangerous,” one told me.

“What I find crazy,” Herrou said, “is that when I talk to people about how the border is closed, they say, ‘Oh, but it’s normal.’ No, it’s not. They’ve forgotten Schengen has only been 20 years, and I have the impression that one gets used to confinement more quickly than to liberty. But this is our duty as citizens in a democracy: we don’t wait for rights to come from the outside. You can go to prison for liberty.”

It was inspiring, but it also sounded like something he’d had to say repeatedly. As Herrou posed for the camera, I noticed a book about rock climbing on the shelf. “You go climbing?” I asked, and Herrou smiled properly for the first and only time during our encounter. “Yeah, I used to go three times a week,” he said. “But I don’t have the time any more.” 

The reporting for this article was funded by a Migration Media Award. Daniel Trilling’s book on refugees in Europe, “Lights in the Distance”, will be published by Picador in early 2018

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
Show Hide image

Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy